Russia was a latecomer to the comity of European nations. For most of the first millenium the vast territories between the Baltic and the Black Sea were the home of primitive Slavic and Finnic tribes, with little social cohesion and little claim to civilisation. The emergence of a Russian nation in the last century of the millenium was attributable to the drive and energy of that extraordinary strain of nordic people, the Vikings. As will be discussed in Chapter 4, the Vikings played a major role in shaping Western Europe in the tenth and eleventh centuries, under the name of Normans. They played a similar and perhaps even more dominant role in shaping Eastern Europe, in those same centuries, under the name of Varangians.

The story of the creation of Kievian Russia by these restless, talented people is told in the Chronicles of the monk Nestor, member of a monastic community in Kiev during the eleventh century. It is recorded that Rurik of Jutland, with his brothers Sineus and Truvo, were ‘invited’ to Russia from the north, and settled at Novgorod in 862. Apart from the evidence of archaeological remains, little is known of Novgorod at that time, though it is thought that a Finnic settlement existed there earlier. In effect, it is clear that the ‘invitation’ to Rurik and his brothers records a successful invasion by the Varangian Vikings which took place without serious resistance from the earlier occupants of the area.
On the death of his two brothers without heirs, Rurik annexed their territories to his own, and took the title veliki kniaz, or grand prince. Two other Varangians, Askold and Dir, who had accompanied the brothers, quarrelled with Rurik and set out for Constantinople in the far south. On the way they challenged the Khazar occupants of Kiev. Having prevailed, they became masters of Kiev and the upper Dnieper region. Two years later they sailed up the Bosphorus and plundered the capital of the Byzantines. Rurik died in 879, leaving his son Igor (Scandinavian Ingvar) in the hands of one of his subordinate princes, Oleg (Scandinavian Helgi). Oleg occupied Smolensk in 882 and then challenged Askold and Dir, defeating them and occupying the city of Kiev. In 903 he chose a bride for Igor, one Olga (Scandinavian Helga), a native of Pskov. A few years later he 
in turn attacked Constantinople, and only withdrew in 911, after treaties were signed according to which the Byzantines paid heavy tribute to the invaders. In one of these treaties the Byzantines swore by the Gospels, while the heathen Varangians swore by their pagan gods Perun and Volos. Soon after this, Oleg died, and Igor assumed power. From this time on, for many centuries, Rurik’s descendants, the so called Rurikids, were the ruling dynasty of the Russian people.

The territory of Kievian Russia may be likened to a huge ellipse, stretching on a thousand-mile-long axis from the Carpathians in the south west, to Lakes Ladoga and Onega in the far northeast. The cities of Novgorod in the north, and Kiev in the south, may be likened to the foci of this ellipse. Apart from a hundred miles of Baltic coast, it was a land-locked empire, separated from the Black Sea in the south by two or three hundred miles of Petcheneg territory. It straddled the watersheds of the Neman and Dvina rivers which flowed to the north-west, and the Dniester, Dnieper and Volga, which flowed to the south-east. These great rivers were the life blood of the Rus, providing the essential means of communication and trading.

Igor in his turn attacked the Byzantines and exacted tribute from them. He was later killed in a battle with a Slavonic tribe near Tchernigov, and was succeeded by his son Sviatoslav. His wife Olga was regent until Sviatoslav came of age, and towards the end of her life, in the first recorded conversion from paganism in Kievian Russia, she became a Christian. She was baptised by the patriarch of Constantinople

in 955 and the Emperor Constantine Porphirogenitus became her godfather. After Sviatoslav’s death in a battle with the Petchenegs, each of his sons assumed control of one of the great cities of Kievian Russia; Vladimir in Novgorod, Yaropolk in 
Kiev, and Oleg in Tchernigov. Vladimir was final victor in the inevitable ensuing quarrels between the brothers, and became sole ruler, later enlarging his territories through the conquest of Galicia.

After an earlier life of cruelty and debauchery, Vladimir became troubled by religious scruples. According to Nestor, he sent ambassadors to bring him reports of different religions: Jewish, Moslem, and both the Western and Eastern versions of Christianity. He chose the last of these, and thereupon marched south to take the Byzantine city of Chersonesus in the Crimea. From there he sent envoys to the Emperor demanding the hand of his daughter, a request that was granted on condition that he was baptised a Christian. He went to Constantinople in 988, was admitted into the church, and was married to Anne, daughter of the Emperor.

On returning to Kiev, he ordered the destruction of the images of the old pagan gods. The image of Perun, the god of thunder, was beaten with cudgels and cast into the river. Vladimir also ordered that all the inhabitants of the city should the next day proceed to the river to be baptised Christians. So, virtually one thousand years after the birth of Christ, the people of Russia were converted to Christianity by autocratic decree.

Despite this somewhat incongruous introduction, the Rus rapidly became deeply devoted to the orthodox faith. Greeks from Byzantium came to Kiev to help in the building and decoration of churches and monasteries. The favorite saints of the Byzantines, especially Sts. George and Demetrius, became the focus of Russian devotion. Vladimir’s eldest son, Yaroslav, received the baptismal name of Yuri (George), and when he was made prince of Novgorod, one of his first acts was to build in the year 1030 the famous Yurievski monastery which still stands there as one of the earliest great monuments of evin Russia.

Nurievski Monastery
Yuriev Monastery, Novgorod, Russia

Yaroslav succeeded his father Vladimir, and established himself in Kiev. In 1036 he won a great victory against the dreaded Petchenegs who were besieging that city, and as Grand Duke he dedicated the day of victory, November 26, to Saint George, the Bringer of Victory. He ordered this feast day to be commemorated throughout Russia, and for many centuries this day, in addition to April 23, was known as Yuriev’s Dyen, or St. George’s Day.[1]

During and after the reign of Yaroslav the Wise, or the Legislator, as he became known, Novgorod and Kiev vied with one another in their achievements of religious art. Although Kiev was officially the capital city of the state, and gave its name to Kievian Russia, Novgorod in fact preceded Kiev historically in the Varangian conquest, and remained the vital centre of commercial life. It was the first base of the Rurikids, providing both wealth and personnel to maintain the jurisdiction of the official capital city, Kiev. Whereas other cities were ruled by minor members of the dynasty, Novgorod was always ruled by a son of the Grand Prince.

Novgorod Icon of St George
12th century icon of St George, Cathedral of the Assumption, Moscow, Russia

Apart from the monastery churches which still stand, few religious artifacts survive from Kiev’s early Christian history, thanks to the destruction wrought by the Mongols in later centuries. Novgorod however retained its independence during the Mongol occupation, and some impressive early Novgorodian icons have survived. One of the most outstanding is the 12th century icon of St. George now in the Cathedral of the Asssumption in Moscow. This icon was discovered in 1946, hidden under five layers of inferior George’s of later dates. This superb and rare example of 12th century Russian art shows obvious links with Greek Byzantine work. It is in some ways reminiscent of the 6th century painting of St. George in the Sinai icon shown in Plate . There is the same gentle firmness and intensity, and apart from the lance and sword of his protege, Prince Yuri of Novgorod, which he carries in his right and left hands, it is free from the war-like trappings of later developments in the iconography of the Saint.

Chapt 3 St Michael's Monastery Kiev
12th Century bas-relief St Michael’s Monastery Kiev

Greek Byzantium was not however the only source of iconographic influence on Russian religious art. There was another strong line of influence, from Caucasian Georgia and Armenia. In some respects the Caucasus constituted a bridge to Syrian and Anatolian influences, but it also brought elements of iconography directly derived from Georgian religious art. One such element is seen in a stone bas-relief of the 12th century in the Monastery of St. Michael in Kiev.[2] This shows two mounted saints, one of them the youthful St. George, whose lance pierces not the dragon, but the prostrate body of Diocletian, the scene so prevalent in Georgian icons, as discussed already in the preceding chapter.

The political history of Kievian Russia after the death of Yuri Yaroslav, the Legislator, is a story of confusion and conflict, largely arising from the custom of dividing power and territory between the sons of the deceased ruler. In an episode typical of those times, three princes named Yaroslav-Feodor, Yuri and Constantine, sons of Vselvolod, Grand Prince of Vladimir at the end of the 12th century, quarreled over their patrimony. Yaroslav and Yuri sided together against Constantine, but were defeated by him in 1216 at the battle of Lipetske. [3] One of the Russian Chronicles records that while running to safety, Yaroslav cast his helmet and chain mail away. Apparently Yuri did likewise, since the Chronicle also records that “Yuri ran to Vladimir town in only his shirt”.

Yaroslav Helmet 2
Yaroslavl-Feodor’s helmet

Yaroslav-Feodor’s discarded helmet, with some fragments of chain mail, was discovered by chance in the year 1808, when a peasant was ploughing at a spot close to the town Yurev Polski in the district of Vladimir. [4] The wooden core and iron base of the helmet were eroded away, but silver medallions which had ornamented the helmet remained intact. The largest of these showed a chased figure of the Archangel Michael, with the inscription “Great Archangel of God, Mikhail, help your slave Feodor”. The smaller ones carries chased figures of Christ, and Sts. George, Basil and Theodore. Very few such artifacts from the early centuries of Kievian Russia have survived, and the display of the figure of St. George in such a rare example shows that the Saint was already established as a leading protector of the warrior princes of Kievian Russia. This helmet, now preserved in the Kremlin, is one of the very earliest known examples of the image of St. George in Russian metalwork.

Yaroslav helmet 3
Yaroslav-Feodore’s helmet – St George medallion

Despite the political confusion of the 12th and 13th centuries there was nevertheless a progressive consolidation of existing settlements, and progressive opening up tracts of virgin land for new settlements. There were also some short periods of relative political stability, as when Vladimir Monomakh came to the throne of Kiev, and ruled from 1113 to 1125. He was given the name Monomakh from that of his maternal grandfather, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Monomachus, an indication of the close links between Byzantium and Kievian Russia. One of his sons, Grand Duke Yuri Dolgoruki, ‘George of the Long Arm’, founded the principality of Suzdal, and played an important role in developing new settlements in the central and north eastern regions of the country.

Loorits, [5] citing as his source the 19th century writer Kalinski, records that Yuri Dolgoruki was the first organiser of north-east Russia. Described as Jegor the Valiant in the Nikon Chronicle, he is said to have stormed heroically through the Russian land, criss-crossing in the course of twenty years of war from the Dnieper to as far as Novgorod. From the upper to the lower Volga he divided forest and farm, cleared the woods, the hiding place of savages and marauding Swedes, and built his beautiful cities in the plains and near to the woods: Moscow, Jur’jev-Polskij, Jur’jev-Podolskij, Dmitrov and many others. In the war against wild, primitive nature, and against savage Finns and other wild people of the Russian north, Yuri Dolgoruki acknowledged St. George the Valiant as his helper. He pledged that in all the towns and villages founded by him the first church would be dedicated to the Saint.

In similar fashion the Novgorodians, who colonised the north-east of the Finnish lands, called many of their parishes “Georgijevski” after the church of St. George the Valiant. The story of the progress of the Novgorod colonisation in the virgin forest of the north-east lands is told in the Novgorod Chronicle, which relates legends glorifying St. George as the Bringer of Victory. One such legend tells how some mid-12th century settlers from Novgorod were preserved from their Swedish foes through the intervention of St. George, and built a church and chapel in devotion for him, about 20 miles from the modern city of Nikolsk.

It seems that Jegori Chrabri (St. George) heard the prayers of the Novgorod heroes who were beleaguered by their Swedish foes, and appeared to them in two miraculous visions, about which even their foes testified, after they had later become Christians. In one of these the Novgorodians were praying in the chapel of St. George, during an attack from the Swedes, when a warrior on a white horse appeared above the roof, and threatened the besiegers with his lance. In a second attack the same warrior appeared to the Swedes on the slope above, and drove them away. The place where this occurred is still called ‘by Jegor on the half mountain’. In thanksgiving, churches were built for St. George, the bringer of Victory, the Patron and Helper of Novgorod colonists, in many new parishes of the settlers, called Starogeorgijevski, Novogeorgijevski, etc.

St. George appears to have been quite selective in granting his protection, and was especially partial to those who, like ‘George of the Long Arm’, bore his name. Yuri Dolgoruki’s son, Andrew Bogoliubski, heir to the princedom of Suzdal, was ambitious to extend his full authority over the great city of Novgorod where he had earlier established his nephew, Prince Yuri of Novgorod, as a kind of lieutenant. He attacked the city in 1170, and was repulsed with great slaughter: the Novgorodians put to death many of their prisoners, and sold others as slaves. In the words of one of the Novgorod Chronicles, “six Suzdalians could be bought for a grivna”: (a grivna being an old Russian silver coin)

Chapt 3 Pl 2
Liberation of Novgorod from the Suzdal invaders. 15th century icon from Yurievski Monastery, Novgorod

This historic episode in the history of Novgorod was commemorated by one of the most famous Novgorodian icons, which set a pattern for many later iconographic records of historic Russian victories. This superb 15th icon, now in the Novgorod Museum, shows in the top scene the blessing of the defenders by Orthodox priests, who carry a small icon of the Virgin. In the central scene, the opposing armies parley, beneath a hail of arrows directed against the icon of the Virgin,which is held before the defenders of the city. In the bottom scene, the Novgorodians, headed by their Grand Prince Yuri, and supported by haloed figures of saintly protectors, all mounted on prancing steeds, advance against their demoralised Suzdalian foes. The first of the protector saints is St. George himself, mounted on a white horse, thrusting his lance into the face of the leading Suzdalian warrior, while his horse rears 
over another fallen foe. He seems to have displaced the Virgin as protector of the city, since her icon is so longer to be seen.

Apparently our Saint was more concerned with protecting those princes dedicated to him by Christian name, than with protecting any particular principality. With the name Andrew, the heir to the Suzdalian throne could evidently no longer command the protection hitherto granted by St. George to his princely father ‘George of the Long Arm’. But his nephew, with the name Yuri, was granted the same protection as had been granted to his uncle’s father, Yuri Dolgoruki. It is quite probable that the beautiful 12th century icon of St. George from the Yurievski Monastery in Novgorod (referred ti above), was commissioned by Price Yuri of Novgorod to commemorate this historic victory over the Suzdalians.

The arrival of the Mongol Horde in the 13th century marked the end of Kievian Russia. The first skirmish with them took place in 1223. In 1238 they reappeared, and within two years they had ravaged the whole of southern Russia, including the noted sack and destruction of Kiev and its treasures. They established the capital city of the Empire of the Golden Horde at Sarai, on the Volga, from where they controlled virtually the whole of Russia, Only Novgorod escaped subjugation, and even that city acquiesced in a discreet form of tribute payment.

The Russian people were controlled by the Mongols for some two hundred and fifty years. Their leaders were allowed to continue in office, but were totally subservient to the invaders. Traditional stories of enslavement and destruction may be exaggerated, since the Mongols were primarily interested in establishment and development of commerce. Their control effectively terminated the old Kievian Russia however, and Kiev in particular never recovered its former status. But within the framework of their Empire new centres of vassal power which had barely been mentioned before the Mongol invasion, notably Moscow and Tver, developed and flourished. Towards the end of the 14th century princes and grand dukes of these northern regions became involved in the internecine quarrels of the Horde, and started to exploit them for their own advantage, with the aim of ultimately throwing off the Mongol yoke. One of the outstanding figures of this period was Dmitri Donskoi, Grand Duke of Moscow, who defeated a Mongol army under Mamai at the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380: a crucial event which marked the beginning of the end of Mongol occupation.


574px-Coat_of_Arms_of_Moscow copy
Arms of Moscow adopted 1963

Howe[6] records that during this famous battle on the Don, St. George appeared to the Russian armies and infused them with new courage, bringing them to victory. Thereupon, she states, Dmitri Donskoi declared St. George to be Patron Saint of Moscow, and took his equestrian figure for the arms of the city. Duncan, [7] however suggests that the figure of St. George had earlier been the crest of Kiev, and had perhaps been brought to Moscow by Price Yuri Dolgoruki, whose name is linked with Moscow in the earliest record of the city’s name, and who is generally regarded as the founder of the city as a military fortress. In his ‘European Civic Coats of Arms’, Jiri-Louda [8]records that the seal of Moscow bore a

Voat of Arms of Imeritinski
Arms of Imeritinscki Province Georgia

mounted knight in the reign of Dmitri’s son Vassili I, but that that the dragon was not introduced until the reign of Vassili’s grandson, Ivan III. He even suggests that Vassili’s horseman may have been an unknown Russian knight, rather than St. George: an unconvincing suggestion which ignores the evidence of the widespread cult of the Saint in the earlier history of Kievian Russia. Despite these conflicting views about the precise origins of the Moscow arms, it is nevertheless clear that by the mid 15th century the figures of St. George and the Dragon were firmly established as the arms of that city, which had by then become the seat of power in the great Russian Empire that was emerging from the Mongol yoke.

Chapt 3 Pl 3
Vassili III 1550

An interesting contemporary depiction of these arms in a Western European publication is to be seen in a commentary on Russian life published in Vienna in 1550 by Baron Sigismund von Herbenstein, ambassador to the court of Moscow from the Holy Roman Emperor for several years after his arrival in that city in 1517. It shows the figure of Vassili III,son of Ivan III, looking out from a window seat across an expanse of woods and mountains, and is embellished with a conventionally shaped western type shield, carrying the figures of the mounted St. George rearing over the dragon.

Under Ivan III the “gathering of the Russian lands” took place, and even the Republic of Novgorod, which had escaped Mongol domination, was absorbed into the Muscovite realm.
 During the two and a half centuries of the Golden Horde, Novgorod’s independence had enabled both commerce, and religious and artistic life, to flourish throughout its considerable territories. As a result, this ancient city contributed a vast and rich heritage of treasures to enrich the religious life of the new empire. Novgorod icons, especially, dominate the artistic scene. They inevitably include many icons of
 St. George, some of which are today familiar around the world. One of the most famous, reproduced in practically every book on Russian icons, is the 15th century painting of the Saint now in the Tretkiakov Museum in Moscow.

Chapt 3 Pl 3 again
16th century St George with the Sun God and the hand of God, Tretyakov Museum, Moscow

This icon is thought to have been painted originally for the Georgievski monastery in Novgorod. It is a beautiful, rhythmic work of art, of special iconographical interest in that it carries the face of a Sun-God, or Moon-God, in a circular disc in the centre of the painting. In the upper right hand corner we see a quadrant of a much larger disc from which the hand of God confers a benediction of the Saint. There is a striking similarity of iconographical content between this icon, and the 19th century Moldavian icon painted on glass, which was discussed in Chapter 2. Despite the disparity between these icons in terms of age and artistic quality, they evidently derive from the same source in terms of iconographical content. They both exemplify the merging of the cult of St. George with the astral cults of ancient Georgia, which was discussed towards the end of Chapter 2. This merged pattern of worship and of iconography evidently spread via the Crimea to Kiev in the 11th and 12th centuries, and thence to Moldavia in the south east, and to Novgorod in the north eastern plains of Kievian Russia.

A new era in both Russian politics and Russian culture started when Ivan III married Zoe Paleologus, niece of Constantine, the last Emperor of Byzantium. With the fall of Byzantium to the Turkish onslaught in 1453, and the death of the Emperor in battle, Constantine’s brother Thomas Paleologus and his family fled to Rome. Thomas and his wife died unexpectedly in 1462, but had fortunately entrusted care of their children to Pope Paul II. Zoe received an excellent education, and after three years of negotiations the Pope succeeded in arranging a marriage between her and Ivan III, probably hoping thereby to strengthen Roman Catholic influence in Moscow, and thus to get help for a crusade against the Ottoman Turks.

As sister of the heir to the Byzantine throne, Zoe was apparently regarded as a political pawn of some significance, but her subsequent role in the political and cultural life of Moscow as Sophia, Princess of Moscow, showed that she was more a Queen than a pawn on the chessboard of Russian politics and social life. With the help of western architects and artists imported from Italy and other western countries, she played a leading role in a major rebuilding of the Kremlin, including the erection of the magnificent Cathedral of the Assumption.

This cultural development took place alongside Ivan Ill’s progressive widening of Moscow’s control over the rest of the Russian principalities and city-states, a process which came to its climax when, in a dramatic sequence of events, Mongol domination over Russia finally collapsed. Khan Ahmed, then leader of the Golden Horde, had demanded that Ivan should pay the customary tribute to his Mongol overlord. Legend records that Ivan defiantly spat on the khan’s badge of authority. A punitive force was sent by the khan to restore authority, and met the Muscovite army on the banks of the river Ugra . While the armies were preparing for battle, it seems that Ivan panicked and fled. Almost simultaneously Khan Ahmed also panicked, and withdrew his army. The Mongol tyranny of two and a half centuries thus effectively came to an end without a shot being fired.

Encouraged by his successes against both the Mongols and the other Russian principalities, and by the urgings of the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, Ivan decided to fill the vacuum left by the fall of Byzantium, and declared that Moscow was the ‘Third Rome’. With Sophia, sister of the Paleologus Byzantine claimant, by his side, he adopted for his arms the double-headed eagle, insignia of the Byzantine Emperors. From the mid-1490’s this Byzantine double headed eagle was affixed to all state documents.[9] Ivan also adopted the title of Tsar, regarding himself as the temporal and spiritual heir to the Roman Caesars.

With the Princes of Moscow now firmly in control of the rejuvenated Russian Empire, and with the shield of St. George and the Dragon already established as their arms, it was only a matter of time before this shield was placed on the breast of the Byzantine double headed eagle. Thus arose the arms of the Tsarist Russian Empire which were so familiar to all who can recall the map of Europe before the first World War. Exactly when this heraldic conjunction took effect is not clear from the records. Duncan [10] states categorically that no city arms were added to the Imperial arms until the reign of Peter the Great (1689-1725), who was responsible for establishing a rigidly formal system of heraldry in Russia, akin to that of Western Europe. It is certainly probable that the arms of other cities and provinces were not superimposed on the wings of the double headed eagle until the early 18th century, but it is likely that the arms of Moscow were placed on the breast of the eagle a century or so earlier, perhaps even as early as the reign of Ivan IV, who reigned from 1533 to 1584. It was this Ivan, the Terrible, who took the title of ‘Tsar and Autocrat of All the Russias’ as his official designation in the eyes of the world.

There is no record that Ivan the Terrible was especially devoted to St. George or to any other saint, despite his hypocritical prayers for the hundreds of Novgorodian citizens whom he personally slaughtered. There is however one famous icon which relates to an outstanding episode of Ivan’s reign, called ‘Knights Blessed by the Almighty’ in an 18th century inventory, and now generally called ‘The Church Militant’, which casts St. George in a leading role. This icon depicts Ivan’s return to Moscow with his victorious armies, after his historic victory over t h e Mongols at Kazan in 1552, which set the final seal on the supremacy of Imperial Russia over the erstwhile Asian invaders.

Although Mongol control of European Russia had long ceased, the Tatars still held strong bases in adjacent territories. From their strongholds in Kazan and Astrakhan they still mounted ferocious attacks on Russian territory, and it is estimated that in 1551 around one hundred thousand Muscovites were being held as prisoners or slaves in Kazan, some 500 miles east from Moscow. That year Ivan IV personally led an army 150,000 strong against the province, and after several bloody reverses, he succeeded in capturing the city and freeing the captives. This was the high spot of Ivan’s reign. He was greeted on return to Moscow as ‘Conqueror of the Barbarians and Defender of the Christians’ by hundreds of thousands of Moscow citizens lined up along a four mile stretch of the River Iauza. For a few brief years after this success he was to be held in reverence and adoration by his people, until the appalling excesses brought on by his mental and physical deterioration brought fear and horror to his subjects in the latter part of his reign.

Chapt 3 Pl 5
Ivan IV’s triumphant return from the Battle of Kazan, Tretyakov Museum, Moscow

The design of the icon depicting Ivan’s victorious return from Kazan, now in the Tretkyakov Museum in Moscow, recalls that of the famous 15th century Novgorodian icon which depicted the 12th century conflict between Novgorod and Suzdal, as described above. In scope it is much more ambitious, however. It is painted in tempera on a plank of wood nearly 5 feet high and 13 feet long, and is a vast panorama comprising three victorious columns stretching from the burning city of Sodom on the right, symbolising the defeat and sack of Kazan, to the city of Moscow, the Third Rome, on the left; symbolised by the Virgin Hodegetria enthroned on a mountain within a huge multi-coloured double glory, encircled by angels who are flying out with crowns to greet the returning warriors.

The topmost column shows an army of soldiers and saints advancing towards the Holy City, led by Dmitri Donskoi, followed immediately after by St. Demetrius, his patron saint. The central column is led by Ivan the Terrible, who is preceded by the winged Archangel Michael surrounded by a glory, riding a gigantic winged horse, and urging the warriors on. Ivan is followed by foot soldiers watched over by the larger than life crowned figure of Vladimir Monomakh, mounted on a black horse, and carrying a cross. The first Vladimir of Kiev and his two martyred sons Boris and Gleb follow at the head of a group of horsemen.

The bottom column shows Alexander Nevsky in the lead, followed by a seemingly endless line of martyr saints, headed by St. George dressed in a bright red cloak over his martial armour. This is our Saint in the role of the Megalomartyr of the Byzantines and the Eastern Church. Aesthetically this great icon perhaps fails to match the beauty of the Novgorod/Suzdal icon, but it is a fitting monument to the one great achievement of the cruel reign of Ivan the Terrible, and it testifies to the status of St. George in the Hierarchy of the Saints in Christian Russia.

Autocrat succeeded autocrat in the tortured history of the Russian people. In 1598 another great tyrant emerged, Boris Godunov, famed in history and in opera alike. For our story of St. George, Boris occupies a dubious role. It will be recalled that in 1036, not long after the conversion of Kiev, that city was delivered from the attacks of the Petchenegs, and Yaroslav dedicated the day of victory, November 26, to ‘St.George, the Victory-Bringer’. From earliest times St. George had been regarded as the Saint of husbandmen, perhaps because his very name means farmer, farm-worker, or tiller of the soil. As time passed, November 26 became a very important day for Russian peasants, because on that day, and on that day only, their contracts with the landowners came to an end, and they were legally free to move elsewhere if they so wished. So ‘Yuriev’s Dien’ became a symbol of the peasants’ liberty and freedom of movement, however brief and curtailed that freedom might be.

For more than 500 years that tenuous element of freedom persisted, but in the year 1597the day of freedom was changed to a day of bondage. At that time Boris Godunov was acting as Regent for his brother-in-law Tsar Feodor, son of Ivan the Terrible. In an attempt to gain support from lesser nobles, who were always complaining of a shortage of peasant workers, he decreed that any peasant working on privately owned land on St. George’s Day, November 26, would become a serf, the legal property of his master. So legal enslavement was introduced, and persisted for nearly 300 years, until the ‘Tsar Liberator’ Alexander II abolished serfdom, in 1863. The sad and inevitable consequence of Godunov’s iniquitous decree was that ‘Yuriev’s Dien’ lost its connotation of freedom, and became an expression for enslavement.

The bitter feelings of resentment and deprivation thus engendered became crystallised in a proverbial expression of disappointment: “There’s Yuriev’s Dyen for you”.[11] Even the liberation of 1863 could not wholly erase those memories.

Ironically, it was Tsar Feodor, during the regency of Boris Godunov, who revived an ancient Kievian custom, and officially issued silver coins stamped with the image of St. George, as rewards for military valour. These were sown on to the cap or the sleeve of the person receiving the decoration, and were highly esteemed by the fortunate recipient. Nearly two centuries later, in 1769, Catherine the Great formalised this honour by founding the military ‘Order of St. George’ for ‘valour and service’.
 This Russian ‘Order of St. George’ was quite different in nature from the English ‘Order of St. George’ instituted by King Edward III, and now known simply as the ‘Order of the Garter’ (seeChapter10). Membership of the English Order was, and still is, restricted to a mere handful of Knights selected by the Sovereign for meritorious conduct or status. Membership of the Russian Order was much wider from the outset, and was substantially broadened by Alexander I at the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Under Catherine’s ukase, it was granted not only for actual deeds of bravery on the field, but also for acts of moral courage. In addition, a period of 28 years on active service, or participation in 18 naval entitled officers to the award of St. George’s Cross.

Catherine the Great also instituted a Chapter of Knights of the Order of St. George. This included four distinct 
grades and for these recipients a monetary reward was added to the award of the St. George’s Cross. The widow of a knight was entitled to receive a pension for a year after his death. Practically all of the leaders of Catherine’s military campaigns are included in the contemporary lists of Knights of the Order of St. George.

Russian Order of St George 4th class
The Russian military cross of the Order of St George 4th Class

During the Napoleonic campaign against Russia, Alexander I changed the rules of the Order so that non-commissioned officers and rank and file soldiers were also eligible for the award of the St. George’s Cross. The insignia itself is in the form of a silver cross of the ‘maltese cross’ design, bearing the equestrian figure of the Saint with the Dragon, on one side, and the monogram of the Saint on the other. Under Alexander’s reform of the Order, in order to ensure that no brave soldier would go unrewarded, a certain number of Crosses were to be set aside for each regiment which had been in action. It was left for the men of the regiment to decide who should receive them. The Emperor also made it compulsory for the recipients always to wear the Cross on a ribbon or in a buttonhole.

Napoleon’s 1812 occupation of Moscow had left much of the Kremlin in ruins, and many decades were to pass before rebuilding could even be started. Reparation finally began in 1839, and ten years later the Grand Kremlin Palace was completed. Within this sprawling edifice, the mightiest hall was named for the Order of St. George. All recipients of the Order, regiments, individual soldiers and Knights alike were listed on its walls and pillars. Today this great hall connects directly to the Great Hall of the Supreme Soviet, which comprises a pair of relatively small chapels formerly dedicated to Alexander and St. Andrew, but now combined to form one fairly simple desk-filled chamber. With such proximity, the Soviet leaders of today’s Russia can conveniently gather together with State guests in the great St. George’s Hall, to discuss the actions and braveries of a world so different from that commemorated in the serried rows of inscriptions on the walls and pillars around them.

Russian Imperial Eagle
Russian Imperial Eagle with the shield of St George

The Imperial insignia of the double headed eagle with the shield of St. George on its breast came to its ultimate and rather vulgar glory in the 18th and 19th centuries. The badges of subordinate provinces, some of them erstwhile kingdoms, were affixed to the wings of the eagle like so many club-badges affixed to the radiators of early twentieth century motor-cars. One such was the badge affixed for Georgia, the shield of the Georgian kings for at least a millenium, which bore the figure of St. George and the Dragon. So the Imperial insignia of the Romanov’s, who reigned in unbroken succession from 1633 until the Soviet Revolution, eventually acquired two ‘St. George and Dragon’s: one on the breast of the eagle signifying the arms of the Muscovite Princes themselves, and one on the left wing of the eagle signifying the annexation of Georgia to the Muscovite Empire.

This elaborately augmented version of the insignia was widely displayed on royal furniture and official decrees, but for many other purposes the simpler version was used, with the double headed eagle augmented only with the badge of Moscow on its breast. This was the version generally used for Russian seals and city arms and also for postage stamps in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Coat of Arms of Yegoryevsky District, Moscow

Representation of St George and the dragon in city and provincial arms abounded in pre-Soviet Russia. Jiri-Louda[12] mentions and illustrates several which depict the Saint, in addition to his illustration and comments on the arms of Moscow, which were mentioned above. Of particular interest is his description of the arms of Egorovsk (Yegoryevsky), in which a knight’s hand emerges from a cloud to attack a dragon with a spear: as he points out, this must at any rate have made the artist’s work easier. A far more comprehensive listing of Russian Civic arms is however given by Speransov[13], in his ‘Coats-of-Arms of Russian Principalities’, in which some 500 shields are listed and illustrated. A few of these are ancient seals, but most are Civic or Provincial arms of Tsarist days.


Seal of Alexander Nevsky
Seal of Alexander Nevsky

Almost one in ten of the arms or seals which he lists and illustrates relate to the St. George theme in one way or another. Not surprisingly, there is a large batch, eighteen in all, of straightforward ‘George and Dragon’s, concentrated on cities in the area around Moscow, including such well known names as Dmitrov, Bogorodsk and Podolsk, and of course Moscow itself. According to Speransov, the Arms of Moscow derive from a late 14th century seal of the city which shows a left facing equestrian St. George plunging his spear into the prostrate Dragon. Earlier versions of the city arms followed this design, but after the middle of the 19th century versions a right facing format of the same subject was adopted. This change of attitude arose from an overhaul of Russian heraldic practice carried out in 1856 to ensure that it conformed to the conventions of Western heraldry, which led to the equestrian figure of the Saint being reversed in both the arms of Moscow and the Imperial arms.

574px-Coat_of_Arms_of_Moscow copy
Coat of Arms of Moscow

Another large batch of Speransov’s conventional ‘George and Dragon’s arms come from the Caucasus region, some from Georgia, and some from areas which are now in Azerbaijan and Armenia. These arms are of traditional interest over and above their depiction of our Saint. The shield of St. George and the Dragon is in all these cases a central augmentation on a larger shield. In the upper dexter quarter of the main shield is a picture of Mount Ararat, (which is located on the Caucasusian border between Turkey and Armenia), shown with Noah’s Ark perched on its summit.

Voat of Arms of Imeritinski
Coat of Arms of Imeritinsky

The upper sinister quarter shows a wavy blue band depicting one of the torrential rivers which rise in the Caucasus mountains and flow down to the Black Sea. The lower half of the main shield depicts some local attribute of each city. The device is used is several coats of arms, including those of the Imeritinsky Province of Georgia; that of Tiflis, the capital city of Georgia; that of Erivan, now capital city of Armenia; and that of Nakhichevan, a city now in Azerbaijan.


A third large batch of the St. George arms illustrated by Speransov depict some most unexpected features. There is no figure of St. George, and not even the figure of the dragon. Instead, there is a rolling dark cloud in the upper right corner, from which emerges a hand with a wicked looking bow and arrow, discharging its weapon into the centre of the shield. St. George is identified by the small red cross in the upper half of the arms, immediately above the Bow and Arrow. The content of the lower half of the arms varies from city to city. This heraldic design is clearly linked with that of the Egorovsk coat of arms mentioned by Jiri-Louda, where a lance is directed at the dragon by a knight’s hand similarly emerging from a cloud in the top right hand corner of the shield. All dozen examples of this theme in the arms illustrated by Speransov are from cities fairly close to the city of Kazan, famed as the scene of Ivan IV s historic victory which finally destroyed Mongol power in European Russia.

Chapt 3 Pl 8 Coat_of_Arms_of_Orlov_(Kirov_oblast)_(1781)
Coat of Arms of the City of Orlov

The example shown here is the arms of the city of Orlov. It is perhaps significant that the theme of the arms of Kazan itself, illustrated by Jiri-Louda [14] is a crowned basilisk-like dragon, possibly recalling the era of Mongol domination of this area.

The inclusion of the red cross in these arms of the Kazan area is unexpected, and of special iconographic interest. Apart from some of the Crusader icons which will be discussed in Chapter 4, this Western symbol of St. George is seldom used in Eastern iconography of the Saint. The only other clear example of such use that is known to the writer, in Russian iconography, appears in another coat of arms from Speransov’s study. This is the coat of arms for the city of Chudnov, near to Kiev in the Ukraine, which consist of the Tsarist double headed eagle with a red cross on its breast instead of the normal St. George and Dragon augmentation. Presumably the intercourse that had developed between Western and Russian courts by the 17th century had sufficed for the exchange of such elements of heraldic practice.

Chudnov Coat of Arms 1796
Coat of Arms of Chudnov

There is just a handful of other coats of arms with St. George themes, in Speransov’s study, which do not fall into these three main categories. Two of these are of outstanding iconographical interest. One is an ancient Kievian seal of Mstislav, a Ukrainian city close to Smolensk, in the heartland of Kievian Russia. Dated by Speransov as around 1130, it shows the unmistakeable figure of St. George standing above the prostrate figure of a dragon which he is transfixing with his lance. Together with the 12th century stone bas-relief in the monastery of St. Michael in Kiev, this seal must surely take pride of place as one of the very earliest icons of St. George in Russian art.

St George and the Sun God. Coat of Arms of Voskresensk, Moscow

The other unique coat of arms of special significance is that of the city of Voskresensk, very near to Moscow itself. The shield is divided into two halves. In the upper half the familiar figures of the equestrian St. George and the Dragon stand out against a maroon background. The Saint and the Dragon are both clothed in green, and the Saint rides a white horse. The lower half of the shield is a large golden disc of either the Sun or Moon, on a blue background, with a ‘Sun-God’ face in the centre emitting radial beams towards the circumference of the disc. Here we have the two essential iconographical elements of the 15th century Novgorodian icon and of the Moldavian painted glass icon which were discussed earlier in this chapter, which link the cult of St. George with ancient Georgian astral cults.

Finally, three of the coats of arms with St. George themes among those illustrated by Speransov, and one of those illustrated by Jiri-Gouda, depict the familiar simple version of the Imperial Tsarist arms with the double headed eagle augmented with the shield of St. George and the Dragon. Perhaps significantly all three are arms of cities in areas which came under Russian control very late in the history of the Tsarist Empire. One of these, Feodossija, is in the southern Crimea; another, Krasnodar, is on the eastern Black Sea coast just across from south Crimea; the third, Mozdok, is in the plains just on the border between Georgia and Astrakhan. Did these cities retain memories of their earlier Byzantine past, leading them to retain the Byzantine double headed eagle just as the communist Albanians do today; or were the Imperial arms with the augmented double headed eagle perhaps forcibly imposed by the Tsars at the time of 19th century Russian annexation?

Chapt 3 Pl 12
Russian postage stamp 1966. double headed eagle with the shield of St George

The insignia of the double headed eagle augmented with the shield of St. George and the Dragon is also to be found on practically every definitive Russian postage stamp issued between 1858, when the postal service was introduced, and 1917, when the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsarist regime. The same applies to the stamps of Russian occupied Poland and Finland. These stamps are very, very small, only about l cm by 2cm, and the George and Dragon shield on the breast of the eagle is only about one millimetre square. It says much for the engravers and printers that the theme of the shield is clearly identifiable in many cases, and that in that in a few of them it is a quite excellent miniature depiction, as seen above.

Chapt 3 Pl 13 a
St George Patron of wounded soldiers.  Russian charity stamp 1915

Some special Charity postage stamps issued during the first world war to raise funds for war wounded soldiers, carried a rather stereotyped depiction of St. George, After the revolution, the old Tsarist stamps, both definitive and charity issues, were used with overprints until stocks were exhausted, and then the bleak designs of Soviet issues replaced both St. George and the double headed eagle of Tsarist days. St. George lived on in Russian stamps, however, for two or three more years, both in the stamps of the Georgian republic, as discussed in the last chapter, and also in stamps issued for South Russia when that area of the country was controlled by anti-Soviet forces under Denikin.

Chapt 3 Pl 13b
Arms of the interim government of South Russia. Postage stamp of the Denikin Government 1919

These South Russian stamps were issued in 1919, and were valid for some two years until the Bolsheviks defeated Denikin’s armies. Their design is based upon the figures of St. George and the Dragon, set in a decorative frame, but the double headed eagle of the Tsars is absent, no doubt due to the fact that by then the whole Tsarist Romanov family had been slaughtered by the Bolsheviks. The ‘George and Dragon’ shield, in both the low and high denominations of these stamps, is much larger than the shield in the old Tsarist stamps, and as a consequence the detail is much clearer and more precise. 
 The ‘George and Dragon’ figures are nevertheless of essentially the same design as on those Tsarist stamps, indicating an intended continuity with old traditions despite the absence of the double headed eagle of the Russian Tsars. Taken together with the Georgian St. George stamps, these South Russian stamps suggest a continuing widespread devotion to our Saint in non-communist Russia at that time.

Although the Soviet colossus managed to subdue most of the provinces that fought for independence, the three Baltic provinces of Esthonia, Latvia and Lithuania succeeded in breaking free from Russian control, at least for the two decades between the two world wars. One of them, Latvia, issued in 1918 a set of stamps to commemorate their newly won independence. These very large commemorative stamps, similar in design to the 1915 Russian War Charity stamps, carried a design which is described in catalogues of stamps with religious themes as ‘St. George and the Dragon’.

Chapt 3 pl 13 c
S George and the Dragon.  Independent national republic of Georgia 1919

This description may well describe faithfully the intentions of the stamp designer, but this St. George is certainly not the St. George of the Byzantines, or of Russian icon painters: nor is he the armour clad chevalier of Western art. Instead, the design shows a stocky, sturdy figure in peasant dress, with a crude shield in his left hand, holding aloft a short sword in his right hand, ready to strike down on to the dragon beneath him. We have only to substitute a hammer for the short sword, to have a faithful depiction of the dragon killer god known to the Latvians as Kavli. Perhaps he would indeed have held a hammer rather than a sword, if the hated Red Russians had not already adopted the hammer and sickle for their insignia.

In pre-Soviet Russia the official cult of St. George was parallelled by a complex of interwoven themes of traditional folklore about the Saint, which permeated the pattern of life of country folk. In the Baltic states this pattern persisted strongly in the period between the two World Wars, and we have a fascinating record of this subject in a book published in West Germany in 1955, entitled ‘St. George in Estonian Folklore’, by Oscar Loorits.[15] This is woven around a collation of more than one hundred accounts of individual memories and records concerning a wide variety of themes related to the Saint. The most valuable parts of this material deal with traditional Esthonian ceremonies and Feasts on St. George’s Day, and with old fables derived from early links with Georgia via Kiev and Byzantium.

The St. George’s Day events comprised a whole complex of religious and social activities. The special mass of St. George in the local church was naturally the central event, but associated with it was a complex of religious and social events including the Horse Festival, the Cattle Festival, and the so called ‘Wetting of the Milking Utensils’, the Feast of the Womens’ Day. The old fables recorded by Loorits include a lot of primitive fairy tales which hark back to the astral worship of the Georgians, many of them involving stories related to the roles of St. George as Moon-God, and as ‘Lord of the Wolves’. 
In ancient astral mythologies, lunar eclipses of the sun are often vividly described in terms of ‘The Wolf eating up the Sun’, a symbolism which clearly identifies the Wolf with the Moon. From this, it was a simple and logical step for semi-Christian astral worshippers to identify St. George, their Moon-God, with the predator Wolf.

Chapt 3 pl 13 d
Russian postage stamp 1978 16th century icon in the Tretyakov Museum

Whether any of this folklore has survived the half-century since the re-imposition of Soviet control in the Baltic states is open to question. But old beliefs die hard, and the tremendous upsurge of religious life throughout the USSR, in recent years, may well be accompanied by a resurgence also of the cult of St. George. Even as early as 1978 a Russian postage stamp appeared with a reproduction of the superb 15th century Novgorodian icon of St. George earlier described and illustrated. And as an added encouragement to admirers of St. George, a surprising reappearance of the Saint was reported to the writer in 1987 by a friend who was visiting Moscow, and went on a domestic tourist bus mainly used by local citizens, to see the nearby Danilov monastery which had been recently restored to the Russian Orthodox Church. He returned home with photographs of his visit, including shots of the door of the bus, which carried the old arms of Moscow, St. George and the Dragon, once again restored to favour!

That sighting of St. George was however only the precursor of a much more significant revival of the ancient cult of the Saint. In December 1987 President Ronald Reagan of the United States and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union signed the INF Treaty under which both the US Pershing II and the Soviet SS20 missiles were to be eliminated. In June of the next year, 1988, President Reagan went to Moscow for further talks with Mr Gorbachev. His trip also included a visit to the Danilov Monastery and it culminated in a meeting with Mr Gorbachev, held in the great St. George’s Hall in the Kremlin, the ceremonial Hall of the Order of St. George. At the end of this meeting he said:

” I would like to think that our efforts during these past few days have slayed a few dragons and advanced the struggle against the evils that threaten mankind threats to peace and to liberty. And I would like to think that, like St. George, with God’s help, peace and freedom can prevail ”

His words must have revived old memories in the minds of his hosts, for just three years later, in September 1991, a 40 ft bronze statue was delivered by the Soviet freighter Primorek to the United Nations site in New York, a gift from the Soviet Union to commemorate both the INF Treaty of 1987, and the 45th anniversary of the United Nations. This statue, which was formally unveiled and dedicated on October 5th 1991, and which today stands at the corner of 1st Avenue and 46th Street, on the small green park north of the United Nations building, is the most spectacular representation of the scene of St. George and the Dragon that the world has ever seen .

United Nations
St George slays the Dragon, United Nations Building,  New York

The monumental group of carved figures, which towers 39 feet up into the Manhattan sky, is unique also in depicting
 St. George as the slayer of not just one dragon, but of two ferocious beasts of symmetrically dramatic proportions. Being close to the shore, it is un-dwarfed by New York’s towering skyscrapers, and when viewed from the west its clear-cut silhouette is sharply etched against the open sky above the East River. The lance which pierces one of the broken dragons is not in fact a weapon of terrestrial war, for its shaft is surmounted by the cross of the martyr Saint. The two dragons represent the Pershing and SS20 missiles which have been demolished by the power of this cross, and genuine fragments of these missiles, encased in the hides of the mythical monsters, lie spilled out on the shallow plinth of the group. The monstrous heads stretch upwards at either end of the rearing horse, the foremost of them being crushed by its right forefoot.

The plaque at the front of the sculpture, which is the work of Zurab Tsereteli, Artist Laureate of the Soviet Union, declares with appropriate simplicity — ‘Good Defeats Evil’. It is also appropriate that the sculptor is an ethnic Georgian, born and bred in Tbilisi, the capital city of the Republic of Georgia. The inspiration of his work, which contrasts with the so-called ‘mainstream of socialist realism’, lies in the cultural traditions of his native Georgia, and this example recalls the intense devotion and dedication of that country to St. George the martyr, patron of Christian Georgia for several centuries before he was adopted by the Dukes of Moscow and the Tsars of Russia.

This dramatic return to the Christian roots of the Russian and the Georgian people, and the even more dramatic acceptance and adoption of the figure of the Saint by the people of the United Nations, is surely one of the most striking acts of symbolic declaration of faith that the world has seen. It is also an act which testifies to the unique status of St. George the Martyr in the history of mankind.





















[1] Howe S E                  St George the Patron of all Brave Russians, Asiatic Review, pp                                        137-148. Vol. 8 New Series 1916

[2] Howe S E                  op cit n 1

[3] Duncan D D             Great Treasures of the Kremlin New York 1979

[4] Duncan D D             op cit n 3

[5] Loorits O                  Der Heilige Georg in der Russischen Volksuberlieferung                                                             Estlands, Berlin 1955

[6] Howe S E                  op cit n 1

[7] Duncan D D              op cit n 3

[8] Jiri-Louda                 European Civic Coats of Arts, London 1966

[9] Speransov N N        Coats of Arms of Russian Principalities, Moscow 1974

[10] Duncan D D            op cit n 3

[11] Howe S E                op cit n 1

[12] Jira-Louda              op cit n 8

[13] Speransov N N       Coats of Arms of Russian Principalities, Moscow 1974

[14] Jiri-Louda               op cit n 3

[15] Oscar Loorits          St George in Estonian Folklore