Kazan is a city on the Volga River 600 miles due east of Moscow. It was conquered by Ivan the Terrible in the mid-1500s. It is the capital of Tatarstan, one of the autonomous republics of the Russian Federation. Lenin attended university there. The city is about 50% Muslim and 50% Orthodox with small Jewish and Catholic communities.
In 1579, a young girl named Matrona discovered an image of Mary and the child Jesus amid the ashes and ruins of a burned building. When the icon was held up before a blind man, he received his sight, and word spread rapidly of the great holiness and miraculous power of the "Kazanskaya," the icon of Our Lady of Kazan.
In time, the Czar called for the icon to be brought to Moscow, and a copy was made to be kept in Kazan.
Before a number of pivotal battles in Russian history, the czar asked that the icon be held up before his army in prayer, and the army emerged victorious.
Thus the icon became known as the "protection of Russia," and Our Lady
of Kazan as the "protectress of Russia." Many copies of it were made and
One important copy was taken to the new basilica of Our Lady of Kazan in
St. Petersburg in the early 1800s.
To the Pope's Apartment
In the 20th century, theft, sale and general persecution of religion led to the loss or disappearance of many of Russia's holy icons. The icon of Our Lady of Kazan kept in Kazan was evidently stolen in 1904, its precious covering removed, and the icon itself destroyed. The icons kept in Moscow and St. Petersburg were both lost after the Communist Revolution in 1917-18. The "Kazanskaya Sobor" in Red Square was demolished under Stalin, then rebuilt in the 1990s by Patriarch Alexi II.
According to an historical study carried out during the past 10 years by Dmitry Khafirov of Kazan, one of the very early "Kazanskaya" icons went from Russia to an art dealer in Poland, then to a British nobleman who displayed it on the wall of his castle in England. It was seen there in about 1950 by an Orthodox archbishop, who thought he recognized it as the original itself.
The Russian Orthodox Church abroad decided to acquire this icon and began to raise money for it, but the effort collapsed amid various problems.
The "Blue Army" of Our Lady of Fatima then purchased the icon from the British nobleman's estate and constructed a small chapel for it in Fatima, Portugal, where it stayed throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
In 1991, on Christmas Day, Mikhail Gorbachev signed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. During 1992, under the changed circumstances, it seemed clear that the icon could soon safely return to Russia. In March, 1993, the icon was brought from Portugal to Pope John Paul II in Rome. Since then, for more than 10 years now, it has been in the papal apartments.
I had the opportunity to see the icon myself in February 1991, when Mons. Stanislaw Dziwisz invited me into the papal apartments.
I asked myself what the image represented: a mother and child, I thought... A mother whose eyes were filled with wisdom, love and tenderness, but also with suffering... And the image seemed to take on depth, three dimensions, as it were, and to blaze with a serene, immaterial power.
Toward the Return
There have been intermittent negotiations since 1993 to create the conditions for the return of the icon to Russia.
These negotiations have generally focused on bringing together Alexi II and Pope John Paul II, perhaps in Hungary, or Turin, or Vienna, in order for the gift of the icon to be made personally by the Pope.
But such a meeting has proved difficult to arrange, and has not occurred.
The Orthodox side has tended to argue that current problems in Catholic-Orthodox relations need to be solved before a meeting can be held; the Catholics have argued that a meeting should be held as a first step toward resolving the problems.
Polemics have arisen around the icon in the papal apartments.
New analyses, conducted this winter and spring by 4 experts from the Russian side and 4 from the Vatican side, have not been made public. (Some who have seen the experts' report advise that they concluded that the icon was painted no earlier than 1730, and thus was not the original icon from 1579. Others who should be in a position to know the results of the study maintain that it reveals the icon is one of the earliest Kazanskaya icons.)
However, it is agreed that the icon was used in liturgical ceremonies in Russia; thus, it is by no means inauthentic. It is not a fraud or a hoax, but a true and, considering the richness of its decoration, profoundly revered Russian icon.
Should it have been returned to Russia years ago, without any papal visit to Russia, in a FED EX package, as it were? Should the Patriarch of Moscow receive it from the Pope’s hands, during a papal visit to Russia, joyfully? I do not know the answer to these questions. All I know is that the icon is still in Rome.
I myself thought that the icon might poetically have been returned to the Russian people on January 1, 2002, when a choir of Russian children, sent to Rome with the knowledge and permission of Patriarch Alexi, sang before Pope John Paul II in the Vatican basilica and in the Redemptoris Mater chapel decorated by Father Marco Rupnik.
I have always believed that the icon, “the protection of Russia,” is more about the children than about old men, more about the future than the past.
The Meaning of the Return
What would it mean if and when the icon returns to Russia?
Here I speculate.
The return of the icon would symbolically mean the end of one era and the beginning of another for Russia, and for Christianity.
The old Russia, Orthodox Russia, and the Russia of the 20th century,
Soviet Russia, proposed differing models of human society, of human freedom and human justice. Twelve years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia seems still to be groping toward a way to make sense of what she has experienced and suffered. The return of the Virgin could signify a new vision for Russia, a vision which would nourish spiritual impulses and social justice.
In my own view, this might issue in what devotees of Our Lady of Fatima refer to as the "conversion" of Russia.
What is the power of the Virgin Mary?
Stalin asked, “how many divisions does the Pope have?”
How many divisions does Mary have?
Can she really accomplish something in our world of internet and World Bank and international mafias and weapons of mass destruction?
More than 100 years ago, the American writer Henry Adams, in his book Mont St.-Michel and Chartres, argued that the Virgin had given a spiritual dynamism to medieval Europe which bore that society forward, in the face of manifold difficulties, to a height of noble creativity, expressed in the great cathedrals but also in the numerous peasant holy days and in the great universities of Paris, Oxford, and elsewhere.
In other words, faith in the Virgin, prayer to the Virgin, transformed human culture, human life, deepening it, ennobling it.
This is the question we face today, 12 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and two years after September 11 and the declaration by the USA of a “war on terrorism” which seems to risk setting the Western world against the Islamic world.
Can the icon of Kazan be, as it were, a spiritual catalyst, a source of new vision in a time in which our human vision seems uncertain and clouded?