Critic Andrew Graham-Dixon tells the story of Russian art. He explores the origins of the Russian icon and visits a monastery founded by Ivan the Terrible.
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In 1861 the famous novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote,
"If there is a country in the world
"which to other countries is more unknown or unexplored,
"that country is undoubtedly Russia."
"For Europeans," he said, "Russia is one of the riddles of the Sphinx."
"Perpetual motion, or the elixir of life, will be sooner discovered
"than the truth about Russia."
Dostoevsky really believed it was impossible for anyone from the West
to fathom the mysteries of the Russian soul, but I think that there is a way to at least begin
to understand Russia, its rich history and its extraordinary people,
and that's through the story of its art.
That story will take me across the vast Russian landscape,
to encounter the rich but often neglected art of its past...
..from the power and mystery of the Russian icon,
to the baroque splendours of St Petersburg...
..and on to the political protest paintings of the 19th century,
and the abstract art of revolution itself.
And I'll chart the dizzying story of modern Russia
from the tyrannical heyday of communism,
to the artistic experiments of today.
On the edge of Moscow's Red Square lies the State Historical Museum.
Its ethnographic galleries are rarely visited but they're a treasure trove
of Russia's pre-history filled with the relics of its most ancient past.
I think of the great rooms of the State Historical Museum as
a kind of Aladdin's cave of all the civilisations that once occupied the vast territories
that are now what we think of as Russia
and it begins with this boat, this wonderful boat,
created approximately 9,000 years ago by an unknown tribe
who floated down the River Don in southern Russia in that vessel.
We know almost nothing else about them.
Here we are in the second room and suddenly,
we're somewhere quite different,
we're in the Urals, towards Kazakhstan,
and this is 3000 BC, about the same time as the peoples of ancient Egypt.
This is what's happening in the Urals.
They're making these extraordinary idols almost like African totems.
This is a museum of the many Russias that once lay beneath the soil of this disparate land.
These clay fertility goddesses with their jutting hips were dug up from the Caucasus.
And this iron elk was found on the shores of the Black Sea, created by a people with roots in Greece.
The sheer span of time and space in here is mind-boggling.
Here is a series of death masks dug up at the absolute eastern limit
of what would become the Russian Empire,
and they date from about the 1st century BC, 100 years before the birth of Christ.
It's extraordinary to think of those faces once alive, staring out, looking at me.
And when you reflect on the immensity of Russia's territory and the diversity of its peoples,
I think you become aware of just what an immense challenge it must have been
for the first people who decided to turn all of this into one nation.
I'm travelling to the place where the first attempt was made to mould many peoples into one Russia.
That place is Kiev, now the capital of modern-day Ukraine.
There's an old proverb which says Moscow is the heart of Russia,
and St Petersburg the head, but its mother is Kiev,
and that's all because of one ruler and his vision.
In the 10th century, the city was at the centre of a vast pagan empire
known as Kievan Rus, ruled by an ambitious prince called Vladimir.
He wanted to unite his people under the banner of a single religion,
and in the year 988 he made a momentous decision.
He ordered the destruction of all the Slavic pagan idols and converted his country to Christianity.
Prince Vladimir sent his emissaries far and wide in search of the one true faith capable of binding
his disparate peoples together but they beheld no glory in the churches of western Christianity,
and, as for the Muslim world, they found its ceremonies foul-smelling and frenzied.
However, when they got to Constantinople, when they beheld the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia with
its towering dome and its glittering mosaics, they said, "We knew not if we were in heaven or on earth."
God truly dwells with those people.
So it was, that Vladimir decided to recreate the glories of Byzantium here on the soil of Kievan Rus.
The result was this cathedral, Santa Sophia.
It was built and decorated by an army of master craftsmen
sent from Constantinople to realise Vladimir's great plan.
So how does this new and unfamiliar deity,
this Jesus Christ, announce himself to the peoples of 11th-century Kiev?
Well, he arrives in an astonishing blaze of mosaic glory.
There he is, Christ Pantocrator,
at the very summit of the central dome of the cathedral.
He is surrounded by a circle, all the colours of the rainbow,
and he gazes down at us with this tremendously solemn awe-inspiring expression on his face,
holding the book and making the gesture of blessing, and he's got his angelic entourage
with him, these four extraordinarily impassive, severe,
solemn, brightly-patterned Byzantine archangels.
You can see why the emissaries of Vladimir, when they went to Hagia Sophia,
felt they were in heaven, and that's exactly the effect that the Byzantine craftsmen
and master mosaicists who created this extraordinary image,
that's exactly what they were setting out to create.
When you imagine what it must have felt like for an 11th-century person from here
to see that golden glow, that radiance,
it must have seemed like a kind of miracle, as if
the light of the sun had somehow been brought indoors and placed up there.
The focal image of the whole church is actually not Christ Pantocrator in the dome,
which is only fully visible to the priests at the altar.
The central image for the people at large is this great mosaic
of the Madonna Orans - the Madonna praying.
Now, she is the symbol of the church because the church contains God.
She herself had been a living church, so to speak.
In her flesh was Jesus Christ, in her belly,
and that idea is contained here or expressed here architecturally.
She's been placed in this apse that itself feels like an enclosure, almost like a womb.
She's Mary, mother of God, but she's also very much Mary the Merciful
and there's a telling detail in the form of this gold-embroidered handkerchief
that's tucked into her belt which, according to local tradition,
is there to wipe away the tears of all those who might come to her seeking consolation.
If ever there was an image that embodied the role of Kiev
as the mother of old Christian Russia, I think this is it.
Prince Vladimir hadn't just adopted a religion.
He'd imported an entire Christian culture, the culture of Byzantium
forged over centuries in Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul.
The impact on the people was immense.
They'd leapt from a world of pagan idols of stone or wood to these glittering visions of heaven.
It must have been like travelling 1,000 years in one day.
But there was one Byzantine art form above all others
that Russians would take to their hearts,
perhaps because it had a simplicity that spoke directly to them.
To Russian Christians it would become the most powerful symbol of their faith and their nation.
The painting on wood of a saint
or a prophet or Jesus Christ himself.
Now this famous image, Our Lady of Vladimir,
is really the founding icon of the whole Russian painting tradition,
the holy of holies, the holiest religious painting in all of Russia.
Art history's stylistic analysis tells us that the picture was painted
in about 1130 by one of the great masters of Byzantine art
working in Constantinople and it was brought to Russia as a great prize, a great treasure.
But as far as the early rulers of Russia were concerned, and as far as the tradition of the painting has
always been presented to the Russian people, it wasn't painted by a Byzantine artist in the Middle Ages.
It was painted by Saint Luke himself!
It was, if you like, almost a photograph
taken in the Virgin Mary's kitchen of her with her son,
and it projected this new race of Christian people,
this race of converts.
So to speak, it projected them straight into the centre of the Christian mystery.
This is Christ the vulnerable baby in the arms of his mother.
Look at the tenderness with which he clasps her neck.
Look at the sadness in her eyes, those beautiful almond-shaped eyes
that look out at you with the foreknowledge of his death.
And in this type of image they place great stress
on his vulnerable body.
The underneath of his foot is presented to us, I think,
in an attempt to make us imagine
the terrible torment of having a nail pierced through that foot.
It's full of pathos and humanity, this type of image,
and I wonder if that isn't partly why it struck
such a deep chord in the Russian imagination,
because they had their own Slavic traditions
of worshipping a fertility figure, a mother,
and this is very much an image of the mother of God, and God.
It's welcoming, it's got a warmth about it.
Icons aren't realistic in the western sense.
They're spaceless, shadowless.
Yet they'd always been venerated in the eastern tradition
precisely because they were held to represent
the actual likeness of the saints in heaven.
And nowhere have they been venerated, even loved, as deeply as in Russia.
So far from the roots of the Christian faith,
it's as if the people needed something sacred they could touch.
As well as the art of the icon, there was the art of the book.
This is the Ostromir gospel.
It was created in 1056,
less than 70 years after the conversion of old Russia.
It's the most ancient surviving Russian book.
The illuminations range from impish grotesques worthy of the European Gothic tradition,
to this beautiful vision of St Mark wrapped in patterns of gold.
But it's the text of early Russian books like this one,
written in such supple calligraphy, that was so significant.
At a stroke, this script removed one of the biggest obstacles
to completing the conversion of the Kievan empire.
You can't teach the Bible unless you can transcribe the Bible into your own language,
and that was a problem in Kievan Rus
because they had no written language that we know of.
So they appealed to the scholars of Byzantium for help and the result
was this wonderful script known as Cyrillic.
Now the invention of Cyrillic marks the very beginnings
of the Russian literary tradition, but I think that Cyrillic itself
deserves to be seen as a work of art, a work of design and it's charged with significance
because the scholars responsible for it used Greek as their basic template,
but to that they added a series of letter shapes based on symbolic forms, the circle, the triangle
and the cross, all of these forms loaded with Christian significance.
With the help of bibles and books like this, by the beginning of the 13th century
a rich Christian culture had taken root.
But almost as soon as it was established, it was under threat.
In 1237, a great army of marauding nomads
advanced into Kievan Rus from the plains of the east.
They looted and destroyed churches, burning precious bibles and icons.
The Mongols were a warrior race driven by power and acquisition.
Art wasn't a currency they understood,
so unless they could melt it down for gold, they destroyed it.
When the Mongol hordes drove across the Eurasian steppe, they forced
a wrenching displacement of the old orthodox culture of Christian Kiev.
The city and the surrounding region was looted and pillaged.
All routes south were blocked by Mongol fortresses.
As a result, Russian culture was suddenly cut off, not only from declining Byzantium
but also from the civilisation of the West,
from France where the first universities were being founded,
from Italy where the first glimmers of the Renaissance were being seen.
Old Russia would know nothing of that.
It was its destiny to develop in isolation
as its people were forced north into Muscovy, the wooded lands.
The Mongols' main priority was simply to isolate the Russians
so they could form no alliances and build no power base.
They became a subject people, obliged to pay taxes to their nomadic masters.
For more than 200 years, Russian Christian culture existed in a strange forest cocoon.
To the rest of the world, it was as if they'd ceased to exist.
During this period, the writers of medieval Europe and Byzantium simply stopped mentioning them.
These years have been called the silent centuries.
Central to everything was the forest.
Their lives were dominated by its rhythms, its cycles,
long freezing dark winters followed by the joyful rebirth of spring.
This was a Christian world, but one from which the old pagan gods of the eastern Slavs had not yet departed.
There was mother nature, the goddess of fertility, of the warm damp earth
and counterposed to her was the god Perun, the god of lightning, thunder and above all fire,
fire that was the source at once of life, light, warmth and refuge but also death and devastation.
Now I don't think you can ever understand the unique forms
that would be taken by Russian Christianity, its art and its architecture
unless you grasp that its roots lay in this soil.
Having reduced the people of Rus to subjugation, the Mongols left them alone
as long as they paid their taxes, eventually allowing them freedom of worship.
Denied real power over their own destiny, the Russians turned increasingly towards God
and focused all their energies on the spiritual world.
In the 14th and 15th century, countless settlements sprang up
in lonely forest tracts and along northern lakes and rivers.
This is Malye Karely in the depths of the Russian north,
more than 1,000 kilometres from Moscow.
Here they have preserved one of the most evocative of those early settlements.
The quintessential expression of Christian civilisation in Russia is this.
It's the wooden church, wonderfully homely form of religious architecture
built, like any other house in the forest, from logs, but they build it tall
so it can be seen from miles away above the treeline because, after all, this is the house of God.
One of the most characteristic features of the little wooden church are its onion domes.
They have been shaped by the forest too.
To me they look like architectural fir cones.
What immediately strikes me about this space is
its small scale and its intimacy, and if you imagine this room filled with a congregation,
you'd feel very much as if you were part of a family of worshippers.
That's carried through into the art and architecture, I think, that idea of the church in Russia
as a kind of home, a perfect version of the hospitable home, because
this is what's known as an iconostasis,
and it's an utterly and uniquely Russian invention.
Only in Russia do you find it, this great screen of images raised up in tiers above you.
In the eastern Byzantine church, the icons, the images are dispersed
throughout the space, but not in Russia.
They bring them all together to form this kind of golden wall of imagery.
As you look at it, with the candles shimmering off it, it gives off this warm glow,
and I think it's very much like the hearth at the centre of a house.
The humble church did indeed become a welcoming forest home.
Here, the beleaguered people of Rus could count on the hospitality of God to provide
light, warmth and sustenance.
And in place of the old forest ritual whereby the visitor was given bread and salt,
here the visitor receives the flesh and blood of God himself in the form of the communion...
..the whole rite sanctified by the protective gaze of the icons.
Icon painting schools flourished in the forests of Old Muscovy,
and today they're still making icons in the old way.
That's because the ideal of the icon painter has always been not to innovate
but to remain true to the sacred prototypes of each saint and prophet,
passed down by holy tradition.
For every icon there has always been an established pattern,
almost like a stencil, that had to be traced.
But despite the inherent conservatism of the Eastern icon tradition,
the truth is that, by the middle of the 15th century, it had taken a unique form here in Russia.
If you want to experience the essential Russian-ness of the Russian icon
there's only one place to go -
that's the Holy Trinity Monastery in Sergiev Posad.
I'm here on the holiest day of the year,
the Feast of St Sergius himself.
For centuries, this has been the place of pilgrimage for Russia's Orthodox Christians.
They come not only to remember St Sergius
but to worship before the icons painted by Russia's most celebrated religious artist,
Andrei Rublev, who was himself a monk here in the 15th century.
I met Father Dolmat, a deacon in the modern order of St Sergius.
According to Father Dolmat, it's also important that the person
experiencing Rublev's icons should do so in a heightened spiritual atmosphere, during an actual mass.
This is the great iconostasis by Rublev and his workshop.
The colours are very subtle, not as strident as Byzantine icons,
and above all, there's this rich old gold standing for the vault of heaven.
The paintings have faded, smoked by time and incense.
But there's a wonderful simplicity about the story-telling in these scenes from the life of Christ.
But as the mass unfolds, it's as if the art is transformed
by the intensity of the ritual.
The people and the icons seem to be communicating with each other.
Heaven bending to earth, earth reaching to heaven.
It's an extremely moving, powerful experience.
It's very hard to put into words.
But what I'm struck by more than anything else
is this extraordinary sense of intimacy.
When I think of the great spaces of western Christian art,
I think of Giotto, I think of Michelangelo...
Giotto creates this sense of sacred theatre,
Michelangelo is like a great epic poem,
but they're essentially painted books telling you a story.
It's not like this, it's not like that at all here.
It's Christianity as a refuge from the cold, Christianity for a people
whose roots lie in the forest.
It's totally visceral, it's utterly emotional and
when you're there in that space, you feel as if people are almost
literally warming themselves at the fire of the Christian faith.
Less than 30 years after Andrei Rublev completed his paintings,
Byzantine Constantinople fell to the Muslims.
The Russians suddenly felt their nation
was the one true home of Christianity.
But icons don't only appeal to the faithful.
In recent years, they've become emblems of Russian-ness
for the country's new rich.
I'm off to visit publisher Victor Bondarenko.
Owner of the world's largest private collection of Russian icons.
I'm curious to know why a secular man, a non-believer,
would want to possess so many sacred objects.
-Thank you for having us. It's such a pleasure.
It's my pleasure also, come on in.
I hadn't imagined your house like this at all.
I don't know why but I wasn't quite expecting all this contemporary art in an icon collector's house.
Now you can see in England how simple Russian people live in Russian villages.
Oh, yes, all right, this is a simple Russian village hut.
I feel this is my roots, I feel it.
Sometimes I can sit on the sofa
and look at this wall, sometimes I can sit in that armchair
and look at this wall
and I feel this vibration through hundreds of years
feeling of my grand-grandparents praying to these sacred images
which formed the civilisation.
This is extraordinary.
I am glad you like it.
I like it myself.
This is like your very own iconostasis.
What aspect of Christianity
do you think that the icon painting emphasises?
Does it emphasise the human aspect
or the other worldly, the divine, the mystical?
I guess it emphasises human aspect.
When you are looking at the mother of God,
don't you see in her sad eyes
that she feels that her child will be killed,
people will kill him and she already
feels this and...
you can see the grief in her eyes, grief on her face.
-Almost gesturing to us.
-Yes, in every gesture you can feel this.
Talking about whether the icon in Russia is slightly different,
I wonder if, you know the way that
this rock formation is painted and the way the sky is painted, this reminds me a little bit of
certain things in Persian painting, Asiatic, but you don't find that
in, in eastern Byzantium.
I know you British, you always push us below and below to Asia but.
I'd much rather...is that, you don't like that idea of?
No I like the idea, I like, I love the idea.
I love the idea. We are not Asia and we are not Western Europe.
We are just Russia.
Why do we have to be like that or just like you or just like here?
We are just Russians.
We have our own civilisation, our own alphabet, our own language.
Let's say Americans don't have their own language, even.
We have everything our own.
I don't understand how does it happen that we become adversaries.
It's also enigma by the way.
The next film you should do.
Here's to international friendship and thank you so much for showing me your collection.
-You're most welcome any time.
-It's been great.
-Thank you for coming.
-Thank you, Victor.
But the Russians haven't always loved their icons.
This picture shows soldiers in the 1920s carrying armfuls of images
out of a church that they've just looted.
Under the communists, who feared and despised Christianity,
churches were shut down and icons were removed.
But the communists respected the power of the icon, nonetheless,
and cleverly appropriated it for their own ends.
Under Lenin, public spaces had,
like every Russian home,
a so-called red corner
but instead of an icon,
there was, of course, a portrait of the party leader.
Stalin, too, would seek to recreate his own image
in the caste of an icon.
But the communists were by no means the first to steal the icon's magic
and make it their own.
Russia's most despotic cruel and whimsical ruler came to power.
His name was Ivan the Terrible
and he's one of the towering figures of Russian history,
immortalised in the films of Sergei Eisenstein.
In the celluloid re-telling of Ivan's life,
he's shown suppressing the scheming feudal lords of Muscovy,
uniting Russia and shattering the Mongol yoke.
He did indeed achieve all of that.
He wasn't quite the black-and-white hero
Eisenstein made him out to be in this film.
Ivan was brought up in the Orthodox faith but he was hardly a model Christian.
As a child, his hobby was torturing small animals.
He once killed more than 30 puppies in a single afternoon
by hurling them from a tower of the Kremlin,
and that was just the start of his psychopathic rampage through life.
By the age of 13 he was a serial rapist and murderer,
and he could do whatever he liked with impunity
because his authority was absolute.
Ivan had a paradoxical relationship with the Orthodox faith.
Devilish misdeeds would be followed by agonised repentance.
And this strange, twisted relationship
would be dramatically reflected
in the religious art that he commissioned.
In the State Tretyakov Museum
hangs a work of art painted for Ivan's palace,
a huge narrative icon called Church Militant
which would change the rules of icon-painting forever.
For me, this huge extraordinary panoramic icon
of the Church Militant
is the ultimate example of Ivan the Terrible's political bravado,
his devil may care willingness
to use the imagery of the church in the service of his own ends.
Now what it represents is a truly extraordinary watershed moment in
the history of Russian icon painting
because Ivan had to convene a special church council
to make this possible.
What it shows us, for the first time,
is a ruler, a Russian ruler actually crossing the line,
entering the world of the heavenly and the holy,
having himself painted into the icon because there he is,
leading the massed forces of Christendom
towards the new Jerusalem, the city of God.
OK he's, he's just behind Archangel Michael
but look who he's put himself in front of -
St George, St Dimitrios, St Vladimir with his two sons.
He's in front of all of those figures from the Christian past
and he's also in front of Constantine the Great,
the founder of Constantinople.
This burning city stands for Gomorrah
but I think, in Ivan's own iconography,
it stands, too, for the city of Kazan
which he had seized from the Mongols and torched.
And I think what this picture crystallises very clearly
is the strong sense in Russia at this point in history,
the middle of the 16th century, that having for so long
been somehow at the margins of the Christian world,
they are now at its very centre.
Byzantium has fallen,
the baton has been passed and Ivan has taken it over.
And look, as a clinching symbol of that,
look how the artist has painted the heavenly city of Jerusalem.
He's painted it as an idealised vision of Moscow.
But Ivan's sense that Russia was the new Byzantium
led him to an increasingly distorted view of the world and his own importance.
He became ever bolder in twisting art and the church to his own ends.
To see the most disturbing evidence of this,
you have to travel to a place called Aleksandrov Sloboda.
Ivan built a monastery there where he spent much of his later years
consolidating his power and staving off the plots to unseat him.
As Ivan grew older, his fits of psychotic rage
became ever more frequent and his paranoia deepened.
He surrounded himself with his own elite guard,
the much-feared Oprichniki.
They were his private army, his secret police and his death squads.
These days Aleksandrov Sloboda is down at heel
and definitely off the beaten track
but it was once the nerve centre of Ivan's empire.
These monastery precincts were stalked by Ivan's secret police
whose emblems were the head of a dog, symbolising their status as the Tsar's watch dogs,
and a broom, standing for their determination
to sweep away his enemies.
Murders and executions were a daily occurrence and Ivan directed much of
the depravity from his own private chapel,
the Trinity Cathedral,
decorated with a great fresco sequence.
On the west wall of the church
we've got this vast depiction of the last things.
Christ seated at a circle of gold surrounded by the heavenly host
and as so often whether in the Orthodox church or the Western church,
as so often with depictions of the Last Judgment,
the artist really pulled out all the stops when it comes to his depiction of the torments of hell.
Up here we've got the resurrection of the dead
and he's paid particular emphasis to those lines
in Revelation about the sea giving up all those who had drowned or been eaten by monsters.
There we can see some people being regurgitated.
There, up on the left,
you've got the blessed going off to heaven to meet St Peter.
But down here below, is hell.
There's Judas with his money bags sitting in the lap of the devil.
Here, underneath a set of inscriptions detailing
the seven deadly sins in old Russian -
avarice, adultery, lust...
We've got the torments of the damned.
Here the gnashing of teeth, weeping and wailing. Here...
Freezing to death. Here, being eaten by worms and consumed by flames.
Being thrust into eternal darkness and boiled in pine resin.
Now if you want to get a full sense of just how perverted
Ivan the Terrible's relationship to God became,
you have to realise how he used this space.
He didn't use this space as a place of solemn contemplation,
somewhere for him to meditate on the might of God.
He actually used it as the administrative centre for his evil empire.
He signed execution orders in here and worse than that,
he's known, the archive tell us,
that he used this area of the picture
as a kind of instruction manual for torture.
He himself copied these tortures.
He enacted these very tortures on those who had displeased him.
I don't think it was enough for Ivan the Terrible
to be God's representative on earth.
He wanted to BE God.
Ivan the Terrible was the first ruler to call himself Tsar
and in doing so, he'd invented perhaps the most terrifying
of Russia's institutions,
the absolute rule of a single individual.
From the Tsars to the communists and into the present,
the figure of a single all-powerful leader with the fate of millions
at his mercy has been the one constant.
And today you can still meet people
who've had to endure the autocracy that Ivan invented.
And their responses to such absolute power have through the centuries
played a vital role in shaping Russian art and culture.
This is Baba Vera, she's lived most of her life as a subsistence farmer
in modern Muscovy.
Thank you for having me, very nice to meet you.
-What a beautiful house you have.
-Da. Da. Da.
Vera's parents lived under the rule of Russia's last Tsar, Nicholas II,
and she and her husband, Anatoly,
experienced the extreme hardships of the Stalinist era.
But against the hardship,
it's as if Vera has turned her home into a work of art.
Icons offer consolation but just as important is Vera's love of colour
and her mischievous sense of fun.
'And with that, she exploded into song.'
Back in old Russia,
there was an art form that spoke for the Veras of this world.
Images like this were called luboks,
prints of popular stories and folk tales.
And they provide a glimpse into the vast mass of unrecorded lives in Russian history.
They're full of mischief and wicked humour.
This could almost be Baba Vera belting out her song.
There's a carnival-esque relish
in the world turned upside down.
Here the mice are burying the cat.
It's laughter in the dark with a few vodkas to help the party along.
People might have dreamed of change
but old Russia was, for centuries, static,
Russia had remained essentially isolated
from the outside world ever since the fall of Kiev.
But one man would change everything,
a tsar who came to power nearly a century after Ivan the Terrible.
Peter the Great.
It's a measure of Russia's insularity
that Peter was the first tsar in history to travel abroad.
I'm going to the city he created in his name.
It, too, is the product of a journey.
In 1697, Peter had embarked on a tour of Northern Europe
immersing himself in art, culture and science.
He wanted finally to undo the consequences of the Mongol invasion
and reconnect Russia to the West.
There was time for some extracurricular exploits along the way.
It's a little known fact that Russia's greatest tsar
spent part of his reign on an extended bender
in Deptford, South London.
The diarist John Evelyn lent him his house so that Peter could inspect the shipyards at nearby Greenwich,
but soon Evelyn's housekeeper
was complaining that the place was full of right nasty people.
Apparently Peter and his new friend, the astronomer Edmund Halley,
who discovered Halley's Comet,
were spending the evenings getting drunk,
pushing each other round the garden in wheelbarrows
and throwing up in the flower beds.
When the Tsar and his entourage finally left,
Evelyn found that all the doors had been broken down,
the locks had been smashed and his pictures were full of bullet holes.
But despite all the high jinks, Peter really was a man on a mission,
the result of which would be the complete transformation of Russia.
Peter was dazzled by his travels in Europe,
by the new technology and ideas he experienced there,
and he came to think of his own nation as backward and primitive.
He had himself painted again and again
by the great court painters of Northern Europe
but, ultimately, it was Russia itself that was to be fitted out
in a new suit of European clothes,
He started by laying the foundations for a new capital city.
A gateway to Europe.
He could hardly have chosen a less promising place -
barren marshlands by the banks of the River Neva,
facing the Gulf of Finland on the fringes of the Baltic Sea.
Tens of thousands of workers would die erecting a whole city on these barren mudflats.
650km north-west of Moscow,
St Petersburg represented not just a huge geographical reorientation
of Russia but an immense political and cultural shift.
This great fortress represents
the very beginning of Peter's great project
and at its centre is the spire of St Peter and Paul's Cathedral,
like a great exclamation mark,
a needle piercing the sky saying this is the city that Peter built.
The Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul was the first building
constructed to reflect Peter's grand European vision.
It was designed by an architect from the West called Trezzini
and it marks a sharp break with Russian tradition.
You have to come round the side of the building
to see that perched on its central cupola
there's a tiny little onion dome.
Now to me it looks rather like a boiled sweet,
an embarrassed concession to the old Russian ways,
because in all but name
this is an Italian baroque cathedral transplanted to Russian soil.
Look at the sexy curve of its facade,
those Borromini hips jutting out.
But I think if you really want to understand just how sharp a break
it marks with the old conventions of orthodoxy, you have to go inside.
This is such a far cry from the old homely humble churches of Muscovy.
Here I feel almost as if I'm in a secular palace.
There's something almost sickly about the surfeit of decoration in here.
Look at those great trompe l'oeil classical columns.
They're almost like sticks of barley sugar.
I think you have to come to the far end of the church
to really appreciate the magnitude of the transformation that's taken place here.
Yes, there is still an iconostasis,
that great Russian innovation, but it's been transformed
into a huge piece of gilded baroque stage scenery.
And yes, there are still icons, but a lot fewer of them and painted in a Western style.
And there's something almost cursory about them.
They feel to me almost like postage stamps that have been stuck into the pages of an album.
It wasn't only the Russian church that was being transformed.
Peter ordered Russian men to shave off their beards
and wear European clothes.
He also changed the Russian calendar to synchronise with the West.
But the most dramatic shift in Russian ways of thinking,
seeing and being was announced by a single painting.
A work of art that today hangs in the State Hermitage.
This is Rembrandt's Jonathan and David,
a very intimate telling of the biblical story
from the First Book of Samuel.
It's a moment of parting.
Prince Jonathan, son of King Saul, is telling David
that he must flee the kingdom or his father will kill him.
It's a religious painting
but unlike any work of art created by an icon painter.
You've got chiaroscuro, light and shade.
You've got a space you can enter. You've got this...
deeply complicated sense of human psychology and suffering.
None of those things are present in the shadowless world of the icon.
This picture represents everything that Western artists had been doing for half a millennium
and everything that Russian artists were simply unaware of
in their world of small wooden churches, their forest refuges.
And when this picture came to Russia, it marked a seismic shift.
That moment of cultural exchange
meant that nothing would ever quite be the same again.
Russian artists would respond to this type of realism,
this type of space
with their own fantastic immediate deep tradition of realism.
Russian collectors would suddenly respond to European art.
Russian taste would be transformed
and the reason why this picture is so significant is it's one of Peter the Great's very first acquisitions.
He actually bought this picture and it's the first Rembrandt ever to come to Russia.
Peter had opened the floodgates.
And here in the grand galleries of the Hermitage,
you're surrounded by his legacy.
A deluge of provocative Western art.
Art infused with eroticism and sensuality.
A far cry, indeed, from the world of the icon.
Russia really would never be the same again.
Peter opened Russia up to the West and to modernity
but it would be a mixed blessing
and even today there are Russians who say
"yes, he created a window onto Europe,
"but what a shame he didn't double-glaze it."
Peter set his nation on a new course but it would be a stormy journey.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Series in which art critic Andrew Graham-Dixon presents the incredible story of Russian art - its mystery and magnificence - until now untold on British television.
He explores the origins of the Russian icon from its roots in Byzantium and the first great Russian icon, Our Lady of Vladimir, to the masterpieces of the country's most famous icon painter Andrei Rublev.
At the same time as being epic and awe-inspiring, and producing brilliant art, medieval Russia could be a terrifying place. Criss-crossing the epic landscape, Andrew visits the monastery founded by Ivan the Terrible, where Ivan's favourite forms of torture found inspiration in religious art.
One man would shine a light into Russia's 'dark' ages - Peter the Great who, surprisingly, took as his inspiration Deptford in South London.