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Tatarstan: Three-Way Tug Of War Strains 'Kazan Mother of God' Icon

By Don Hill/Rim Guilfanov

In Tatarstan's capital Kazan, Orthodox Christians revere an icon representing Mary and Jesus, although few living today have seen it. Copies exist, but many believe that the centuries-old original has found its way to the Vatican and the personal chapel of Pope John Paul. RFE/RL correspondents Don Hill and Rim Guilfanov report on the mystery and intrigue surrounding the icon, from the legend of its miraculous discovery to questions regarding its present venue.

Prague, 10 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Volga River city of Kazan, capital of Tatarstan, has survived invasions by Mongols and Russians as well as wars, communism, droughts, floods, and famines. Many of its Orthodox citizens believe a single religious artifact has protected the city. It is an icon, with purported miracle-working powers, portraying Mary and the infant Jesus.

Legend and history surround the icon. Kazan historian Dmitry Khafizov, an expert on the religious artifact, says that before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, it was the most famous icon in Russia. He says it is tremendously important to the Tatarstan capital:

"This icon not only is a Christian cultural monument but also a historic one. It has made the name of Kazan known all over the world. It is called 'Kazan's Mother of God.' Not many people even know that Kazan, Tatarstan's capital, exists. But the majority of Christians know about Kazan's Mother of God icon. And it was found in Kazan."

Kazan's Mary and Jesus icon is said to have been created in the 14th century and to have disappeared soon after -- most likely hidden by its custodians from invaders. Later artists are known to have painted a number of copies.

Russian colonization of Tatarstan began in the 16th century after the conquest of Kazan by the forces of Ivan the Terrible. In 1579, a young girl named Matryona Onuchina, after a vision, was said to have led people to the missing icon, which was buried in the ashes of a burned structure near the Kazan fortress.

Believers housed what many thought to be Matryona's icon in a Kazan church until 1904, when it was stolen by vandals. Soon after, police announced they had found fragments of the treasure, indicating that it had been destroyed.

But others believe that Matryona's icon was not the original, and that the actual Kazan Mother of God survived. The authoritative U.S. publication National Catholic Reporter said last year that the Roman Catholic organization Blue Army of Our Lady of Fatima purchased a Mary and Jesus icon in 1970 and presented it to Pope John Paul II in 1993. Experts who examined the icon in the Vatican say that tests show it dates back to before the 15th century and could be the original from Kazan.

Some Russian Orthodox authorities in Moscow dispute that claim. But Kazan historian Khafizov says he believes that the Vatican icon is the genuine Kazan Mother of God. He says the icon was carried from Kazan to Moscow in the 17th century by Prince Dmitry Pozharsky after the Russian victory over Polish invaders -- a victory credited to the miracle-working powers of the icon. Khafizov says the Mary and Jesus icon stolen from the Kazan church was actually a copy:

"As I said, the original icon was kept in Moscow until the 1920s. In Kazan, [it was] a copy of the icon [that] actually was stolen in 1904. After the original icon had been taken to help military units fighting against the Polish incursion, Prince Pozharsky, [the commander], ordered the copy made and it was sent to Kazan."

Khafizov said that Pope John Paul, too, is satisfied that he holds the original.

"If the pope had any doubts about the authenticity of the icon, he would never talk about its fate. I think that the most knowledgeable Christian experts are in the Vatican."

The Mary and Jesus painting has re-emerged in the theological and political spotlight in recent months. Last October Kazan Mayor Kamil Iskhakov met with Pope John Paul at the Vatican to ask for the icon's return. The result was ambiguous. Iskhakov says the pope agreed to return the icon, but the pope said the matter should be discussed first with Alexii II, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.

The pope evidently intended to make a tactful gesture. But in Moscow, Patriarch Alexii -- who has made no secret of his antipathy toward the Roman Catholic Church -- took offense. Alexii publicly denounced the pope's meeting with Tatarstan politicians as a "provocation" and called Kazan's plea for the icon to be returned an "amateur initiative."

The pope has said he would like to deliver the icon personally to the patriarch on a formal papal visit to Russia. Russian Orthodox leaders say the pope is trying to use the icon as a lever to get an invitation from Moscow that he has wanted for a long time.

In Kazan, historian Khafizov proposes an alternate solution to the issue:

"The pope is willing to return the icon to the patriarch, but the patriarch is not ready to accept it. Tatarstan offers an alternative way. The pope could hand the icon to the Orthodox Archbishop of Tatarstan, with Tatar officials' mediation."

That solution does not seem likely to be adopted any time soon. It remains to be seen whether even the purported powers of the Kazan Mother of God are sufficient to smooth over the heated debate the icon has aroused.

(Rim Guilfanov is a broadcaster in RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service.)