Apocryphal icons


In connection with the absurd phenomenon of the cult of Stalin resurging in Russia, the representations of Stalin made in the form of icons, Vladimir Menkov drew our attention to some further shocking images made in the last twenty years, which represent in the form of traditional icons some persons unrecognized as saints by the Orthodox Church.

The painters of such images most usually want to meet the needs of a local community by creating an icon of a locally revered figure, thereby anticipating and urging his or her ecclesiastical recognition. Often schismatic tendencies are involved, whose revered figures cannot expect any ecclesiastical approval: in such cases the figure’s iconography is often enriched with motifs which are unknown in traditional icon painting. In other cases it is political aspirations making up themselves as religious movements, that open a sharp confrontation with saints unacceptable for the official church. And sometimes the painters intend to emphasize the respectability of leading personalities in the political sphere with the most majestic formula ever created in traditional Russian art, the icon, even if the person was in fact openly anti-Christian. A common feature of all these is that one or more communities consider them genuine icons, and the devotion to them will be part of the community’s religious practices without any ecclesiastical sanction, though often tolerated by the local clergy.

A part of the following apocryphal icons were collected by Denis Kashtanov in his blog, with added comments by Maxim Gardus. That the problem is in fact part of Russian everyday life, is shown by the fact that when Dmitry Stesin published Kashtanov’s post – without reference – in the Komsomolskaya Pravda, he considered it necessary to present it in the form of an interview, where his interlocutor, a monk of the Trinity Monastery from Khoroshevo, immediately makes clear to the readers the reasons why the respective image cannot be revered as an icon.


Martyr Evgeny Rodion. The 19-year-old Russian soldier fell in 1996 into Chechen captivity, where he allegedly refused to take off the cross worn around his neck and to convert to Islam, and so he was killed. For a lack of authentic witnesses, the Orthodox Church refused his canonization. However, some nationalist movements, such as the Alliance of the Orthodox Flag Carriers, spread his cult as a patron saint of the Russian army, and his icon is publicly revered in the Astrakan cathedral.



The Beslan martyrs. On 1 September 2004, Chechen Islamist terrorists invaded an elementary school of the North Ossetian town of Beslan, taking hostage more than a thousand people, mostly children, of whom more than 380 died during the three-day fire fighting with Russian security forces. The Petersburg icon painter Mikhail Osipenko represented them as Christian martyrs using the formula of the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem. The icon was publicly revered in the church of the Dormition Monastery of Beslan on the fortieth day after the death of the hostages. Above the martyrs, there is the icon of the Mother of God of the Don, on whose feast the massacre happened, and the folk exegesis links every other moment of the tragedy to various further feasts to Mary, thereby raising to transcendent heights these victims not canonized by the church.


Metropolitan Joseph of Petrograd crushes the false patriarch Sergius. Sergius, Bishop of Nizhni Novgorod, who in 1925, after the imprisonment of Patriarch Tikhon and his vicar, became Patriarchal Vicar in 1927 (and later, in 1943, after the agreement with Stalin, Patriarch). With the intention of improving the situation of the Russian church, he called on believers to recognize the Soviet leadership and for their loyalty to the Soviet state. This caused a schism in the church. The leader of those who refused Sergius’ declaration, Metropolitan Joseph of Petrograd, was executed by the NKVD. His followers, the Josephites (yosiphlyans) revere him as a martyr. Most certainly they made this image, represented with the vivacity of Russian folk luboks, rather than with the mandatory timelessness of an icon, showing how Joseph crushes the heretical Sergius, whose Soviet general’s pants emerge from under his priestly robes.


Martyr Andrei Yushchinsky. The naked body of the 13-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky, a student of the preparatory class of the seminar of Kiev, was found on 20 March 1911. He was killed with fifty knife wounds. Leaflets immediately cried out that it was a Jewish ritual murder and called for pogroms. The court suspected Mendel Beilis with the murder. The trial continued for years, and though Beilis was eventually acquitted for lack of evidence, nevertheless the final judgement of the court upheld it as a blood libel against an unknown offender. “Martyr Andryusha of Kiev” is still revered, with anti-Semitic undertones, in the Ukrainian Orthodox folk religion.

The 8 March 1917 edition of the Double-Headed Eagle calling for remembrance on the 8th anniversary of Andrei Yushchinsky’s death. “Christians, take care of your children! On 17 March begins the Jewish passover!”



Tsar Ivan the Terrible. Ivan the Terrible reminds one not primarily of sanctity, but rather of the scenes depicted by Repin. Nevertheless, his canonization has been urged by many since the mid-nineties, as of the creator of the new Russia. According to the popular teaching of the charismatic and controversial Metropolitan Ivan of St. Petersburg, who died in 1995, Ivan laid the foundations of the bulwark of Russian orthodoxy, which should have been completed by Nicholas II. For this purpose God sent Rasputin in support, but the Jews, the freemasons, and Western Christianity undermined this. In any case, the Orthodox church refuses his canonization, and refer to ancient Orthodox hymns, which compare Ivan the Terrible to the Pharaoh and Herod. This autumn, I myself have seen academic publications in the Crimea, which devote serious studies to his church-building activity and sanctity of his life.


Martyr Grigory Rasputin. The cult of Rasputin, the dissolute favorite of the Tsar’s family, has been popular in various sects, and more than thirty of his icons are known. This one was painted by a certain Brother Roman living in Germany, and is revered by the so-called Church of St. John the Theologian, who consider Rasputin to have fallen victim to a Jewish ritual murder. By the terms of the regulation of the Patriarch of Moscow, the public reverence of Rasputin’s icons in any church entails automatic excommunication.

Martyr Grigory Rasputin with Martyr Alexei (the heir to the imperial throne, actually canonized in 2000), who was allegedly cured by Rasputin of haemophilia, thereby winning the favor of the Empress)



Starets Nikolai of Pskov Lake (Nikolai Pskovoezersky/Guryanov). One of the most popular figures of contemporary Russian folk religion. He spent his last years in the Zalit island of Pskov Lake, which has become a national place of pilgrimage. This image summarizes the problems of the apocryphal icons by way of a schoolbook diagram. Starets Nikolai himself is an acknowledged figure of orthoxy. At the same time he was allegedly a supporter of the canonization of Ivan the Terrible and Rasputin. This is why the proponents of the latter represent him with Rasputin’s icon in his hand, in the form of an icon, while he himself is not yet canonized, so no icon should be painted about him.


Martyr Tsar Nicholas II. This icon is the cuckoo’s egg, since the last Tsar and his family were actually canonized in 2000 as straptoterpets, that is, like ones who bore with Christian patience the sufferings inflicted upon them. Their ecclesiastically approved icons spread in many variants (see for example here or here). This icon has particularly beautiful archaizing kleims, biographical frame scenes, for example where Nicholas marches into WWI on a white horse, in the pose of St. George, and under the flag of the Image of the Savior Not Made by the Hands of Man; or where the Red Army soldiers execute with sword the imperial family.


Martyr Tsar Nicholas II. However, this image is already very different from the eclesiastically approved icons. Nicholas’ severed head lies on a tray, similarly to that of St. John the Baptist, and his son Alexei and Rasputin stand on either side. This is most certainly a sectarian icon, partly inspired by the popular urban legend, that the head of Tsar Nicholas was cut off by the Red Army soldiers, and thrown into fire in the presence of all the Bolshevik leaders. Rasputin’s presence also indicates that the execution of the royal family is considered in some church circles to have been a ritual murder.


Martyr Tsar Nicholas II. This icon clearly represents the teaching of the heresy of tsarebozhiya, in which the Tsar is a co-redeemer together with Jesus, as his martyrdom redeemed the Russian people from the sins committed against the imperial dignity. This-worldly and transcendent mental constructions are here intertwined in an exemplary way into one inextricable confusion. As in the Orthodox Church it is forbidden to represent any saint with the attributes of Christ, the sectarian icon painter turns to Catholic iconography for inspiration.


Starets and martyr Vladimir Lenin. The cult of Lenin as a holy starets is characteristic of the bezpopovcy, the Old Believers who deny the orthodox clergy, who since the 17th centuy were persecuted by Tsarist power. The victory of the Soviet revolution finally ended the reign of the Tsar – and the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This icon was photographed in a church in the Komi Autonomous Republic in the mid-1990s.


Ataulf of Munich, Martyr of Berlin. The icon is created by the Catacomb Church of the True Orthodox Christians, whose mere name is equivalent to a diagnosis. However, it should be remembered that in 1941 many people in the Soviet Union understood and experienced the German invasion as a liberation from the godless Bolsheviks, and still remember it like that.

“There is no word, no feeling to properly express our gratitude to our liberators and their Leader, Adolf Hitler, who restored the freedom of religion, returned to the believers the churches of God taken away from them, and gave them back their human dignity.”
Церковное обозрение (Church Review) 4-6, 1942

The Estonian Lutheran archbishop Andreas Põder also explained the decision of his church, when in 2012 they included Adolf Hitler in the ranks of the martyrs.

A Russian priest and a German officer at the beginning of the Blitzkrieg



Matrona of Moscow blesses Stalin. In the previous post we have already seen some images representing Stalin in the form of icons, and it is also known that they are produced by extremist circles in some way linked to the orthodoxy. However, the above image, created by icon painter I. I. Pivnik, was actually revered as a true icon in some churches: in 2008 at the Church of St. Olga of Strelna, near St. Petersburg, and in 2010 in the Church of St. Nicholas of Moscow. In the image, the seer Matrona Dmitrievna of Moscow, actually canonized by the Orthodox Church in 1999, predicts to Stalin – who came to her for advice in secret – that the Germans will not occupy Moscow, and she blesses him as the leader of Russia ordered by God. The apocryphal story, which has been officially rejected by the Orthodox Church, is part of a thriving mythology, according to which Stalin led the Soviet Union to victory in the Great Patriotic War with the help of the Russian Church and wonder-working high priests and saints. The episodes of this mythology, which lack any historical source, mainly come from the popular starets Vasily Svets, and were collected in Sergei Fomin’s Россия перед вторым пришествием (Russia before the Second Coming, 1993) from where they have been widely spread.


Russia’s new martyrs and confessors. And finally an apocryphal All Saints icon, exposed on 19 October (1 November) 1981 in the Boston Epiphany Church of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. Although some of the depicted persons – for example the imperial family in the center – were canonized after 1990 by the Orthodox Church, nevertheless, at the time of the icon’s preparation, they were not yet officially considered as saints, so that no icon could have been made about them. Notice the single scenes of the kleim, the biographical framework, described in detail (here with images) by the church’s web site.