The Orthodox art of the predominantly Eastern Christian regions of Eastern Europe has much to offer, yet it has been relegated to the margins of inquiry. Outside of local communities and circles of academic specialists, relatively little is known about the countries, peoples, cultures, and histories of Eastern Europe. This is especially true of the Middle Ages and the early modern periods, whose studies have been divided between the Western traditions and those of the Byzantine Empire, including the centuries after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, with few moments of contact and interchange explored in scholarship or in the classroom. The history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe and the rich Orthodox artistic production of these lands have been excluded from the geographical, thematic, cultural, and temporal purviews of art history. In essence, Orthodox art poses problems to the artificial periodizations and geographical boundaries of art history, but its study has the potential to enhance the picture and bring into the conversation voices that have long been silent (or silenced).
Inconsistencies and disagreements in the geographical definitions of Eastern Europe have contributed to the marginalization of the Orthodox cultural spheres within it. What constitutes Eastern Europe, or Southeastern Europe, or Central Europe, or East-Central Europe at any given moment has shifted over time. The regions of the Balkan Peninsula, the Carpathian Mountains, and further north into Russia have been included in specific periods in select conversations; on other occasions, they have been excluded and ignored altogether. For much of the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, Eastern European territories—like the principalities of Wallachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania around the Carpathian Mountains (which later formed the country of modern Romania), the powers of Kievan Rus’, Muscovy, Serbia, and Bulgaria—experienced shifting political borders that complicate the picture. Today, these lands are located in many different countries, each with its own language and customs. The history is complex but enriching as well and could offer much to our understanding of the interconnectedness of the medieval world and the different traditions that contributed to the development of local customs and visual vocabularies.
In Russia, there is a widely spread superstition that August brings national-scale catastrophes. The mass protests in Belarus against Alyaksandr Lukashenka are seen as such a catastrophe for the regime of Vladimir Putin. Even though Mr. Lukashenka struggled to preserve some independence for his country from Russia, Belarus under his rule represented the model of a Neo-Soviet colony that Russia has tried to impose on its neighbors since Putin’s presidency began. Belarus under Mr. Lukashenka preserved many symbols and most of the ethos of the Soviet era.
The key feature of the Soviet ethos is paternalism, which means that the regime offers its subjects basic social welfare in exchange for complete obedience. The Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity in 2014 (also known as the Maidan), for example, was a revolt against this sort of paternalism. What is going on now in Belarus looks more like a revolution that started within the paternalistic framework. There are good signs, however, that eventually the Belarusian revolution will turn against paternalism as such.
The main subject of the Montenegrin law is ownership of religious property. Although every single article of the law has legal deficiencies, the most significant problems are presented in Articles 62 and 63. These two articles state that three categories of property and land owned by religious communities—1) those built with public revenue, 2) those owned by “Montenegro” prior to 1918, and 3) those built with joint investment of citizens—no longer belong to the religious communities themselves but are now considered to be “cultural heritage” of Montenegro and are, therefore, to be owned by the state.
The publication of this essay coincides with the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Saturday, April 26, 1986.
In March 2020, we were asked to work from home because of the pandemic of coronavirus. We could not even imagine how quickly the situation would escalate to a global lockdown. Looking at the warm and beautiful weather my husband said, “It’s hard to believe that being outside can be dangerous—the world around looks exactly the same, like nothing has changed.”
His words stung me with a flashback: Sonja, one of my informants in Belarus, said the same about the Chernobyl disaster. She told me that it was so hard for her to comprehend that all this familiar beauty can possess danger. The world for her had turned upside down as what used to bring life became a source of mortal danger: water, food, soil, and even human bodies. Radiation, just like a virus today, was described to me as an awakened primal power, an invisible, ancient evil that suddenly started targeting humans for their irresponsibility, greed, and arrogance.
Despite atheistic Soviet policies, some resorted to another ancient power in their hope for protection and healing: Orthodox Christianity. In their anxiety many turned to the churches and relics. People were warned with the language of science not to touch objects, including religious items, as they could emit radiation, but that did not stop the believers. Neither did it stop people nowadays from queuing in churches to kiss relics and taking part in the Eucharist despite the risk of spreading and contracting coronavirus.