Art and Faith

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Dmitri Belyukin. White Russia in Exile. 1991-94

00 Dmitri Belyukin. White Russia in Exile. 1991-94

White Russia in Exile

Dmitri Belyukin



The time is 1920… or is it 1921? The last remnants of the White armies and their families are fleeing Russia ahead of the advancing Bolsheviks. Most Whites in the western regions crossed overland into the Baltic states and Finland, and many of these exiles go on to Berlin, Paris, Prague, Sofia, and Belgrade. Yet others crossed from Siberia over the Amur and Ussuri Rivers into China. However, in the south most fled by sea (also, some of those fleeing from Siberia did so by ship). Is this a ship sailing from Vladivostok… or is it Sevastopol or Novorossisk? Perhaps, such a detail doesn’t matter. One can’t even tell if it’s a naval or mercantile craft. True, one sees the double-headed eagle crest, but there aren’t any indications of either cargo booms or gun positions. Indeed, one can’t even tell if the people are on the bow or stern of the ship. I believe that it was the artist’s intention to keep certain details vague, so that his painting could be a metaphor for all White Russian émigrés whatever their destination. Are they sailing to Shanghai…or is it Bizerte (where the French interned the White fleet)… or is it Istanbul… or could it be Tientsin? That, too, is immaterial. What’s important is the fact that this is their last experience as Russians in a Russian milieu. They’re going into a future that has none of the verities of the past. True, some of the wealthier ones have Paris apartments that they can live in. The rest… God alone knows. There’s one thing for certain. They’ll endeavour to keep the flame of their patriotism and faith burning in a strange land amongst strangers. They won’t allow the idea of “Russia” to die or be smothered by assimilation. For us Russian-Americans, these are our honoured forebears who passed the torch on to us. We won’t allow it to be extinguished.

Look at the all the variegated figures in the picture. My Nicky believes that the most forlorn figure is the old monk in the left foreground. He’s lost everything. He’s lost his monastery, perhaps, he’s lost his monastic brethren as well (they may have died in the Civil War). He’s of an age that makes it difficult to start afresh. His eyes focus on the distance, trying to make sense of all that has occurred to himself, his homeland, and his religious commitment. If you look in the centre of the painting, you’ll see a tall officer wearing a red hat (which signified that he was one of the Kornilovtsy, the troops under Kornilov). Nicky said, “He isn’t going to drive a taxicab. He’s going to work his connections and finagle something for himself”. The woman standing to his right wearing the shawl is probably his wife. She’s going to do well, thank you very much, for she has as few scruples as her husband does. The woman sitting in front of the red-hatted officer is another story. She appears to be of good family, and her appearance suggests that she’s a war widow, alone in the world. She fears what’s ahead for her. How shall she survive? Note the priest standing by the mast. He is in his epitrakhil, which means that he’s ready to hear confessions at any time. Nicky said that he was the luckiest one of the lot. “He’s a priest; there’ll always be something for him to do. He’ll be busy with his parish. He’ll do OK”. Look at the tall figure in the right foreground in the grey greatcoat. He appears to be focused inward, meditating on his future and his priorities. My thought is that he’s composing himself prior to going to confession. He’s a man forced to look at himself plainly and without equivocation, and he isn’t flinching. There’s so much in this painting that it’s impossible to do it justice in this format. Yet, I believe that this shall give many of you the background necessary to fully appreciate the tragedy, grandeur, and depth of this work. Belyukin has since been elected to the Russian Academy of Fine Arts, and a deserved honour it is, indeed.


Vasili Nesterenko. Drinking Tea. 1997

Drinking Tea

Vasili Nesterenko



Proshu k stolu! Please, to the table!

The samovar is bubbling merrily away, the pickled fruits and vegetables are in their jars, and the bublichki (those are the bagel-like things in the background) are handy. Do sit and chat, dear. You fancy my shawl… thank you; it is one of our traditional Russian patterns. Would you care for some jam? No problem… it’s just over here on the shelf…


Pavel Fedotov. An Aristocrat Having Breakfast. 1850

Filed under: 19th century,fine art,humour,Russian,Uncategorized — 01varvara @ 00.00

An Aristocrat Having Breakfast (Pavel Fedotov, 1850)

“There is a caller at the door, sir”.

“Damn! … Who is it, Vasili Kuzmich?”

“It is Aleksandr Mikhailovich, sir”.

(Sigh) “HIM again!” (Sotto vocce)

“I beg your pardon, sir?” (in the manner of Jeeves to Bertie Wooster (Vasili Kuzmich heard it well enough, of course!))

“Tell the batty bugger to get stuffed and sod off!”

“He is a State Councillor to His Highness, sir”. (Evenly, with a Jeevsian shrug)

“DAMN! There goes the morning… Do let him in, Vasili Kuzmich…” (Waving his hand in resignation)

(Moments later…)

(Clearing his throat significantly) “Sir, Aleksandr Mikhailovich is here to call”.

(With the broadest insincere “sincere smile” on his face) “Sasha! How wonderful to see you! Do sit down and share breakfast with me…”

Sound familiar? It certainly does! People have never changed, nor are they about to any time soon. This is why all intellectual notions of “improving humanity” are pure moonshine. Human beings are not soulless ciphers to be pushed about a chessboard by the “social engineers” (Locke was all wet with his notion of thetabula rasa). Rather, sinful-ginful humanity falls into its accustomed ways after a brief intoxicated flirtation with novelty. That is, the exterior may indeed change, but, behaviour returns to its tried and trusted channels.

That is why all the current talk of “reforming” this or “improving” that must be taken with a block of salt. Any system that does not take into account the basic nature of humanity is doomed to failure. All too many proposals regarding church governance are taken from the corporate world, with no consideration for human sinfulness. Do remember the fall of Enron (eerily similar to a current mess in the church). I propose that we follow the Duke of Wellington’s sage advice. “Boney makes his campaigns like a well-made clock. When it works, he sweeps all before him. When something goes wrong, it all falls to pieces and he is vexed. I make my campaigns out of old ropes. When the rope breaks, I merely knot it back together and carry on”.

The Iron Duke is perfectly spot-on, of course. Virtually none of the well-crafted plans of action out there take into account pratfalls and insincere actors. Rather, let’s keep it simple and uncomplicated. Do not let unaccountable sorts lay hands on the money, keep things decentralised (authority in the dioceses, not the central administration), and be wary of all who bring forth crackbrained schemes of “reform”. Oh, yes… sobors are not ostentatious conferences held in fancy hotels.

There one has it. One can base one’s actions on the known proclivities of mankind, or one can believe in notional improvement. I prefer the former… what about you?

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