This is one of my most prized possessions: a view of Vladimir, one of Russia’s oldest cities, by Valery Kokurin. It says a lot about Russian character and outlook on life.
There are FOUR IMPORTANT THINGS it says about Russians:
1. Turbulent skies: a symbol of troubled history that’s also the present
An outside observer may say Russian history has been turbulent, violent, and generally not user-friendly, but Russians find certain pride in the fact they’ve survived cataclysms other nations couldn’t possibly handle at all. It is impolite to remind a Russian that Russians were often bringing those calamities upon themselves.
The beauty of the skies is meant to remind the observer that the whirlwind of dramatic events in Russian history can be an inspiration: what other country could produce so many depressed literature geniuses?
2. Wait until it is too late, and then save the day/country/world.
There is a man, walking with a roll of wire (possibly, stolen) along the rail tracks at the bottom of the painting.
He is painted NOT to give scale to objects in the picture – the size of objects has only symbolic meaning here. He is there to make a point about Russian men disregarding danger until their guardian angels hand in their resignation notices.
When the sky becomes as menacing as it is shown in the painting, most nations would decide to leave town or, at least, stay indoors. Russians are proud of their resolve and patience: they will be carrying on with their normal life, enjoying the whistling of the steam cooker, up until the moment it blows into their faces. This is also one of the side-effects of fatalism, for which Russians are famous across the Globe: Russians would believe it may not actually blow up until the moment it does, and for a few seconds after.
We are not leaving this man – for there’s another message in him as well.
3. Faith is big
The churches are made much bigger in comparison to homes to symbolise Russians’ dedication to Christian faith. Moscow might be the Third Rome, with its megalomaniac ideas of being the Chosen torch-bearer for the whole world but Vladimir represents the common, ordinary Russia that simply believes in God. The belief is so strong and sincere that reading the Bible is not necessarily a part of it. There are people who believe Christ was the son of a Russian emigree to Israel, making Russians the God-Chosen Nation.
Someone fond of impressionist techniques may notice the turbulent skies do not reflect on the yellowish wall of the churches. Yes, Faith in Russia is the pillar, the unsullied beacon, the torch that may not show the right way, but it dispels the darkness of despair and prevents the skies from falling all over the place. No trouble can cast a shade on it.
“The blue skies punctured by belfries
Can hear brazen bell’s rejoicing.
Or is it getting cross?”
(Vladimir Vysotsky, a Russian poet)
4. Life is going on
The motley crew collection of small houses represents people cuddling up together. Each of them may seem insignificant, but together they make up a strong and multicoloured force. Their different colours symbolise their different lives. In the real life, the colours of buildings are not as cheerful, and not as different.
And the man, yes, the only human character in the painting, is a collective symbol of Russians carrying their cross (and stolen wire, but who’s without sin?) – despite the ominous skies, despite the early snow, despite life that’s rushing past (see the green train speeding in the opposite direction).
And, finally, it is simply a very good painting.