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A supernatural icon for Mother Russia

The Virgin of Kazan is one of the most revered Russian religious icons. Its disappearance at the time of the Russian Revolution was a catastrophe, but its resurgence and its link with Pope John Paul II and Fatima has confirmed the icon’s mythical status of securing the fate of “Mother Russia”.

Philip Coppens


The fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 not only meant a new era for politicians; it also changed the religious landscape of a country known as “Mother Russia” – a once extremely religious country. Communism, after all, had been atheist, whereas the new Russia was again assumed to have freedom of religion. Pope John Paul II had always set his sights on it and tried to improve relations with the Orthodox Church, though a visit to Russia itself was blocked by the Russian Orthodox Church itself, who saw it as the Vatican trying to take advantage of the situation. In November 2003, Russian president Vladimir Putin did meet the pope in Rome. During the meeting, an icon known as the Virgin of Kazan was brought from the Pope’s private chapel into the Vatican Library, where the meeting was held. Putin watched as the Pope blessed the icon and then the Russian leader himself kissed it. Few observers seemed to realise the importance of this event. Putin and the Pope, however, did.

The Virgin of Kazan is one of Russia’s most sacred relics. The icon was discovered on July 8, 1579, in the city of Kazan. Interestingly, it was the Virgin Mary herself who in an apparition revealed the artefact’s location – it was buried – to a little girl, Matrena. The icon apparently shone as bright as the sun and the Virgin instructed the child to tell the monks of a nearby church about what she had just experienced. When they dug at the indicated location, the icon was recovered. A copy of the icon was sent to Czar Ivan the Terrible, who had a cloister built on the site where the icon had been found. Matrena, as well as her mother, then joined the religious community that was installed there.
In 1612, St. Sergei was said to have appeared to Bishop Arseni. The saint – who had died in 1392 – told the bishop that the Lady of Kazan would intervene in battle. Hence, the icon was brought to lead the troops of Prince Pozharski that were trying to free Moscow. True to the prophecy, on November 27, 1612, the Kremlin was liberated.
Ever since, whenever Russia had to go into battle, the Virgin of Kazan or one of its copies was carried in front of the army. Later, the Virgin also rescued Russia from Napoleon’s troops. In September 1812, Marshal Koutesov took the icon from Moscow’s Cathedral and rallied his troops to cut off Napoleon’s supply routes. As such, the icon is often considered to be a “palladium”, an image upon which the safety of a city or a country – Mother Russia – was said to depend.

At the time of the Russian Revolution, the basilica housing the icon was destroyed, apparently to prove that God did not exist. As great sledges and rams knocked down the church, loudspeakers blared: “You see, there is no God! We destroy the church of the so-called protectress of Russia, and nothing happens!” A green plot of grass in front of Lenin’s tomb marked the site where the Basilica of Our Lady of Kazan had once stood as the national Marian Shrine of Russia.
But what happened to the icon at the time of the Russian Revolution? Though some argue that it was sold by the Emperor’s family to sustain itself in exile (a hope that never materialised for them), it is more probable that the icon was sold to help pay for the Bolshevik Revolution. This was the opinion of American art expert Frank Dorland, who studied the icon in the 1960s.
From the little that is known, the icon apparently reached Western Europe in 1935. On April 15, 1953, the English adventurer “Mike” Mitchell-Hedges – known for his infamous crystal skull – was approached by letter from a business friend, Arthur Hillman, who was negotiating the purchase of a collection of great historical and artistic value. It was initially referred to as “The Louis Tussaud’s Collection”, likely because it was where the collection had been on display, in his museum in Blackpool (England). Between April 1953 and September 1953, several letters were exchanged between Mitchell-Hedges and Hillman, until, on September 23, 1953, Mitchell-Hedges finally purchased the icon. It is known that Mitchell-Hedges never came to see the artefact prior to purchasing it and it is therefore unclear whether he fully realised what he was buying.
What happened to the icon between 1917 and 1953 is difficult, if not impossible, to assess. Some suppose that the icon was actually in the possession of Herman Göring, Hitler’s designated successor and commander of the Luftwaffe. This isn’t so bizarre, as in the same lot put up for sale, there was a copy of “Mein Kampf”. It is unknown whether Mitchell-Hedges bought the entire lot or merely the Virgin of Kazan.

Between 1953 and 1965, the precious relic hung in the home of Anna Mitchell-Hedges, Mike’s daughter. Though there was no doubt that the relic was most important, the question was whether it was one of the many copies or the original icon. One of those who tried to answer that question was Cyril G.E. Bunt, the author of a book on Russian art and – for 49 years – on the staff of London Victoria and Albert Museum. “Experts will agree,” he wrote, “that it is the work of a great icon painter of the 16th century […] the pigments and the wood of the panel are perfectly preserved as exhaustive X-ray tests have proved, and have mellowed with age.”
His verdict might seem surprising now, but we need to note that in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, there was still great confusion about which relic went where how. He concluded that the Mitchell-Hedges icon was a copy of the original icon, but that it was nevertheless the artefact that had been carried by Prince Pozharski during his march on Moscow with his Nationalist Army in 1612. Today, that is known to have been the original icon, not a copy.
At the time, however, it were the likes of Grand Duchess Zenia and priests that had actually handled the original icon in Moscow, like Patriarch Leonty of New York, that aided the verification of the artefact as being the original icon. The identification occurred through the rizza, with its configuration of jewels, which is the easiest method to attain a positive identification: the icon in the possession of the Mitchell-Hedges family had a rizza that only the original icon, on display in Moscow in 1917, possessed.

The Mitchell-Hedges Virgin of Kazan was the original… but what to do with it? With Russia off-limits, a new venue for the Virgin of Kazan had to be found and as early as 1963, there seemed to be but one choice: the Portuguese town of Fatima, where in 1917 the Virgin Mary had apparently appeared to three small children. John Shahovskoy, the Archbishop of San Francisco and the Western United States, wrote how “the Roman Catholic faith holds that the blessed Virgin appeared at Fatima and predicted the reconversion to the government of Holy Russia to Christianity. There must be something more than coincidence that this occurred in 1917 AD, the year that our beloved Russia was lost to the Bolsheviks and Communism.”
Meanwhile, in 1964-1965, a special pavilion was erected at World Trade Fair in New York to house the icon so that people could come to admire it. On October 4, 1965, Pope Paul VI came to bless the icon.
And then entered the “Blue Army”, an American organisation that had embraced the communist strife and the role of Fatima. The icon was the perfect billboard to promote their campaign. The Blue Army had its first “official contact” with the icon on September 13, 1965, at the New York World’s Fair. That night, the pavilion was filled with members of the Blue Army, led by the Bishop of Fatima himself. It appears that the entire night was spent in adoration and prayer for the conversion of Russia and world peace. Blue Army groups around the world, in many cities, held similar all night vigils on that same date.
The Blue Army learned about the opportunity to purchase the icon in January 1970. Anna Mitchell-Hedges demanded $125,000 for the relic – a most reasonable price.
Father Karl Pazelt, the director of the Byzantine Centre in San Francisco, begged the leaders of the Blue Army to make sure the necessary funds were raised. Then, it seems, another miracle of Fatima happened, for the Blue Army were able to purchase the artefact, even though officially there was nothing to indicate they would ever be able to obtain the required funds. This is why some accounts claim that Anna Mitchell-Hedges was only paid $25,000.

Once the icon was purchased, it was taken to Fatima. Russia’s most precious relic now hung in the very place where the Virgin had predicted the vice that was communism. It therefore doesn’t take a genius to figure out what the Soviet communist regime did next: it suggested that the icon was not the original one. The Soviet powers were perfectly aware that the icon was courting a date with destiny… and became extremely nervous.
The West, of course, wanted to see the icon returned to Moscow, as its return would be interpreted by the Russian people as an omen that the evil of communism was about to be vanquished by the Virgin. But would the people of Russia rebel against their leaders, inspired by the return of the icon? And would such a revolt be successful? That was definitely not a foregone conclusion. And if the icon failed to bring about a popular revolt, then what? It was therefore agreed that the icon would remain in Fatima until Russia was free from communism… a far safer option.

What happened next, was a surprise, for rather than to Russia, the icon went to the Vatican… to the private quarters of Pope John Paul II. After the papal assassination attempt in 1981, the pope became convinced that his life had been saved by the intervention of the Virgin herself. He believed that the Third Secret of Fatima had predicted his survival and that the Virgin had personally saved him from death. Equally, the Polish-born pope tried to bring religion back to the communist countries.
When he discovered the icon in 1991, during one of his many visits to Fatima, he realised the icon was most important, politically, but maybe also to his own personal cause. He asked to have it transferred to the Vatican, where it was installed in the papal apartment. In 1993, the Blue Army consented to this transfer.
Rome was never meant to be its destination, of course. In 1989, when communism had collapsed, Metropolitan Alexy of Leningrad, the future Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow, visited Seattle and had dinner with Father Frederick Miller, then-executive director of the Blue Army. The meeting could be seen as the first step in a process that might see the return of the icon to Russia.
But in 1993, it was no longer the Blue Army, but the pope who was negotiating with the Russian Orthodox leaders. The pope did not merely want to see the object on display in Moscow, he personally wished to visit Moscow or Kazan, when he would return the icon to the Russian Orthodox Church. It was clear that the Vatican wanted to show to the people of Mother Russia that it was the Catholic Church, not the Orthodox Church, which had preserved their most precious relic. Unsurprisingly, these plans were blocked by the Moscow Patriarchate. They wanted to see the relic’s return, but without the Vatican’s fingerprints all over the event.
Officially, the pope wanted to deliver the relic personally as a sign of rapprochement between the two Churches that had been divided since 1054. This was also the dream of the Blue Army, but it was clear that this would be a very high-profile state visit, which would have to meet with the total approval of Russian president Vladimir Putin. The president, it seemed, did not wish to see a papal visit to Mother Russia either… and definitely not one in which he brought the Virgin of Kazan back.

Little happened for a decade, but after Putin’s visit to the Vatican in 2003, it became obvious that the seriously frail and aging pope would not be invited to Russia any time soon. Pope John Paul II realised that he had to lower the stakes if he wanted to accomplish anything. As such, he consented in a lower key process in which a Vatican missionary would present the icon to the Russian Church.
In late August 2004, the Pope said goodbye to the icon in an incense-filled Liturgy of the Word celebration inside the Vatican. “How many times have I prayed to the Mother of God of Kazan,” he lamented about the icon that had hung over his desk in the papal apartments for the past ten years, “asking her to protect and guide the Russian people and to precipitate the moment in which all the disciples of her Son, recognizing themselves as brothers, will know how to reconstruct in fullness their compromised unity.” He then handed the icon over to two emissaries, Cardinals Walter Kasper and Theodore McCarrick, the latter archbishop of Washington, who took it to Russia.
Interestingly, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, stated that the icon was “a symbol of the new Europe and its formation, of which Russia is a part.” He added that “Our Lady of Kazan is the protector of Europe and its Christian roots. […] After two world wars, and the phenomena of secularisation, Europe needs to be founded again in the faith.”

On August 26, 2004, the Virgin of Kazan went on display on the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. Two days later, it was delivered to Moscow. Vatican Cardinal Walter Kasper handed the icon back to the Russian Orthodox Church in a ceremony at the Kremlin’s Cathedral of the Assumption, as a personal gift from Pope John Paul II.
It would be almost one year later, on the next feast day of the holy icon – July 21, 2005 – that Patriarch Alexius II and Mintimer Shaymiev, the President of Tatarstan, placed it in the Annunciation Cathedral of the Kazan Kremlin. The Virgin of Kazan was back where she belonged – and where she had conquered, it seemed, the forces of communism. Destiny had been fulfilled, through divine will and/or political engineering, with the participation of several popes, an English treasure hunter, maybe Hitler’s inner circle, and maybe even the Virgin Mary herself.

This article appeared in Atlantis Rising, Issue 87 (May - June 2011).