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SOVIET UNION: The Icon Klondike

3 minute read

Among the hottest items on Moscow’s black market these days, along with long-playing records of Jesus Christ Superstar and bell-bottom blue jeans are, of all things, icons. “Words about God in paint,” as they have been called, these centuries-old religious images painted on wooden panels are celebrated as one of the most sublime achievements of Russian culture. Even though the Soviet government still severely discourages popular support of the Orthodox faith, icons have lately regained some of their old luster and status in the U.S.S.R., and have inspired what Moscow’s Literaturnaya Gazeta calls an “Icon Klondike.”

Middle-class Muscovites have been buying the traditional paintings, both for their timeless beauty and as a practical hedge against inflation. The images have become so popular that last week Russians were buying up a first edition of a samovar-table book on the subject (with 50 color plates) at $11 a copy. Literaturnaya Gazeta complained that some citizens purchased icons simply to “create an illusion of eccentricity of thinking or way of life”—in other words, to express their individuality. The images remain a sufficiently powerful symbol of religion and the old regime that many collectors feel compelled to keep them in the back rooms of their apartments.

The chief foreign customers for the art works are diplomats. It is an open secret in Moscow that some use their immunity from search to carry icons illegally out of the country. Representatives from the Third World countries of Africa and Asia often buy rubles in Zurich at 20% of the official exchange rate, and smuggle the money back to Moscow to buy icons at bargain prices. They then sell the images for hard currency in Western Europe, and go back to Zurich to buy more rubles.

Icon prices are still surprisingly low, at least by Western standards. An ordinary 19th century icon in good condition can be purchased for about $165 in local currency (compared with $300 or so in New York for icons bought through Novexport, the state trading agency). The wholesale price is even lower. Police recently picked up a dealer who had bought seven icons from a church caretaker for one liter of vodka, and had acquired six others for a foreign-made gas lighter. When he was arrested, he had a stock of 400 icons and had bought two autos from the profits. Selling the icons also calls for ingenuity; one black marketeer recruited a plumber as a door-to-door salesman, since his job took him into Moscow’s best apartment blocks.

So far, there is no shortage of icons for sale. Many churches, closed during antireligious drives, were simply abandoned to the mercies of weather and thieves. Some icon dealers—one of them is known as “Sasha the Psycho” because his hands shake nervously when he calls on his customers late at night—simply pillage empty or unguarded churches. Others tour the countryside in search of icons, claiming to be museum officials or priests. Many Muscovites seem to feel that the icon racketeers unwittingly perform a service for Russia. Since the state has been negligent in preserving a heritage, the argument goes, it has been left to thieves to rescue the images from abandoned churches and attics, where they would otherwise remain decaying and unseen.

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