If you have been reading this site for some time, you will know that historically, icons — particularly Marian icons — have frequently been used in Russia for nationalistic and propagandistic purposes. That practice continues.
There is a recent icon type that is seen more and more for sale in print form, again associated with nationalistic purposes. It is not at present found among the “officially approved” icons of Russian Orthodoxy — in fact many Russian Orthodox consider it “uncanonical” (неканоничной/nekanonichnoy). Copies of it (generally in the form of prints) are nonetheless being circulated and used as a venerated icons here and there, which is indicative of the factions within modern Russian Orthodox belief and well as Russian politics.
Here is a variant of the type, painted in 2015:
At the base is another inscription:
СТОЙ ЗА ХРИСТА ДО МУЧЕНИЧЕСКАГО КРЕСТА
STOY ZA KHRISTA DO MUCHENICHESKAGO KRESTA
“Stand with Christ before the martyr’s cross.”
The implication here is for military martyrdom in opposing Russia’s “enemies.”
At upper right and left, the painter of this example has added saints associated by various groups with Eastern Orthodox militarism and Tsarist nationalism. They are:
Dimitriy Donskoy, Prince Oleg of Ryazan, Sergiy of Radonezh, Alexiy Metropolitan of Moscow, Aleksander Nevskiy, Tsar Nicholas II, Great-martyr George, and the Tsarevitch Alexiy (son of Nicholas II); at right are John of Kronstadt, Seraphim Vyritskiy, Siluan of Athos, Equal-to-the-Apostles Nina, Makariy, Tsar Ivan “the Terrible”(Иоанн Грозный/Ioann Groznuiy), Seraphim of Sarov, and the Tsarevich Dmitriy Uglichskiy. At the top is the “Old Testament Trinity.”
Here is the more usual rendering of the type, this time with the “Stand with Christ” inscription on the left side:
It is sometimes called Взбранной Воеводе Победительная/Vzbrannoy Voevode Pobeditel’naya — “The Conquering, Victorious Voevod/Warlord/Commander.” Those words come from a Slavic rendition of the Greek kontakion from the Akathist, written to celebrate the failure of the 626 siege of Constantinople by the Avars, Sassanid Persians, and cooperating Slavs.
The origin story of this icon is like something out of a tabloid newspaper. It is said that in 2003, a visitor to the Bogoliubskiy Monastery — built on the site where the historically-famous Grand Prince Andrey Bogoliubskiy was murdered — took a photograph of an icon there. The icon was an example of the “Czestochowa” type — the icon that is so popular in Poland. The Russians call it the Ченстоховская/Chenstokhovskaya.
The story goes that when the photo was taken, it showed the icon “miraculously” transformed; the photo had the face of the Chenstokhovskaya icon — with its customary two scars on the face — but the clothing of Mary had completely changed. She was wearing an ancient-style military helmet, clothed in what was interpreted as chain mail, and holding an eight-pointed Russian cross.
There is also an additional story relating that in 2004, at the Vvedenskiy Monastery in Kurgan (in the Urals region), there was an appearance of Mary, in which she exited the image of the Chenstokhovskaya icon and appeared wearing chain mail, holding a cross in her hand. Proclaiming “Stand with Christ before the martyr’s cross,” she ordered that an icon of her be painted. On painting the new icon, the Skhima-hegumen (схиигумен/skhiigumen) Seraphim — after prayer — added the word Russkaya/”Russian” to the icon, which is why it is sometimes known by that name.
It is further said that some Russian pilgrims to the Vvedenskiy Verkhnetechensky Monastery had a divine revelation telling them that with this icon, русский Царь одержит победу над врагом и это будет окончательная Русская Победа над христоненавистниками — “The Russian Tsar will be victorious over his enemies, and this will be the final Russian victory over the Christ-haters.” This of course is the old “us against them” kind of dangerous nationalistic propaganda that has caused so much sorrow and suffering in history. Russian ultra-nationalism tends to make no distinction between Russia and Russian Orthodoxy — the belief is that, as the old song goes, “you can’t have one without the other.” And of course the old “Third Rome” notion encourages Russian to see Russian Orthodoxy as a Christian bulwark standing against the supposed evils of the rest of the world. Fortunately not all Russians think this way, but as with right-wing fanaticism in the U.S., all too many do.
So some Russians believe all this and some definitely do not. Those who do tend to favor a rigidly-strong Russian autocracy, including a ruling Tsar (or Tsar-like ruler) as well as a rather fanatical Russian Orthodoxy with a strong antipathy toward non-Orthodox countries and people — including those who oppose the restoration of the Tsarist empire as it was under Nicholas II. They place Russian Orthodox militaristic ultra-nationalism on one side, and the rest of the world in “evil” opposition to it. Not surprisingly, this icon pops up among radical groups opposed to Ukrainian independence.
There are of course other new “nationalistic” Russian icon types, and there will likely be more painted. These new icons are not a part of the usual study of old icons, but those who wish to keep up on current developments in Eastern Orthodox iconography will want to be aware of them — if only to avoid mistaking them for old icon types.