Posted in Religion

The Umileniye ikon

The Umileniye (Tenderness) ikon is extremely unusual in Eastern Orthodoxy, in that it shows Mary alone. Almost all Orthodox Marian ikons depict Mary with Baby Jesus, in contrast to most Catholic images of Mary.

This ikon was very precious to St. Serafim of Sarov, one of the most beloved of all Russian saints. He was very fond of praying before this ikon. The oil from the lamp he kept burning in front of it was used to anoint the sick and bless visitors who came to make confession.

It was the last thing he saw in that lifetime, as he died while in prayer by it. He called this ikon “Joy of All Joys.”

In 1903, the year Serafim was canonized, Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Aleksandra went to the Sarov monastery to desperately pray for a son. Since so many miracles had been attributed to him, they felt he surely would answer their prayers.

They finally got their boy, but not in the way they’d expected. Their prayers were answered differently, more challengingly.

The Umileniye is believed to show Mary at the moment of the Annunciation, when she was told she’d have a child and humbly accepted this mission, with the reply, “Let it be to me according to your word.”

The Slavonic words around her halo say, “Rejoice, O Virgin Bride,” which is the refrain of the much-beloved Akathist Hymn.

Though some people think the ikon may have been inspired by Catholic art, it’s very common for the holy doors of an ikonostasis to depict Mary at the moment of Annunciation.

Today, the ikon is housed in the home of Patriarch Kirill of Moskva. A copy was left with the Trinity Cathedral of the Serafim-Diveyevskiy Monastery, a nunnery in the Nizhniy Novgorod district of Diveyevo.

On feast days, the original ikon is often brought out for public veneration.

Near the end of his life, St. Serafim gave the nuns of Diveyo 1,000 rubles to create an appropriate place for this precious ikon. After his death, the abbot of Sarov gave the ikon over to them. Presently, the sisters honored it with a silver riza.

A riza, which means “robe” in Russian, is a covering which protects ikons from damage by candle wax, incense smoke, and oil.

In 1903, after Serafim’s canonization, Tsar Nicholas II donated precious stones to make the ikon even more beautiful.

The Diveyevskiy Monastery has written this prayer to offer before the Umileniye:

My character Inga Savvina is very drawn to the Umileniye (and Theotokos [Mary] of Tolga) when she stays by her best friend and penpal Yuriy Yeltsin-Tsvetkov’s family’s summer home on Vancouver Island in the summer of 1947. She’s seen many ikons in her paternal relatives’ homes, but this is new to her.

Klarisa, the older of Yuriy’s two little sisters, tells Inga Mary is everyone’s mother, and that she’s very special to people without mothers. She suggests when Inga misses her real mother (who’s serving twenty years in Siberia), she can talk to Mary.

Though Inga has been raised an atheist, and resisted all religion during her five years in America, her unexplainable pull towards these ikons continues. She sees Mary as a loving, universal mother figure who’ll always support and listen to her, and eventually begins praying to her.

Yuriy performs an emergency baptism of Inga just before she falls unconscious from polio in August, and after she recovers enough to leave the hospital and marry Yuriy, she agrees to be chrismated by a priest.

Inga’s Orthodox conversion isn’t motivated by genuine spiritual awakening or religious belief, but she makes a genuine effort to grow into real belief. Along with her baptismal cross, she always wears a necklace with a miniature of the Umileniye, and continues building her relationship with Mary.

Posted in Religion, Russian culture, Russian history, Russophilia

The Semicircular Hall, the Sorbonne, and St. Serafim of Sarov



The Semicircular Hall is one of the best-known gala halls and rooms of the Aleksandr Palace. Over the years, it’s remained just as Giacomo Quarenghi designed it, with the exception of replacing the Russian stoves on either side of the entrance with marble fireplaces. The walls are of white marble, and the apse’s central doors look out onto a terrace overlooking the palace’s gardens. The hall itself opens through broad, columned arches into the Billiard and Portrait Halls.


Copyright Vitold Muratov

The Semicircular Hall was used for balls, gala dinners, receptions, and other special events. Because the Aleksandr Palace was meant as a summer palace, the doors to the gardens and the palace’s front doors were open when the hall was used, revealing quite a beautiful vista. This immense, airy hall could seat up to 400 or 500 people during one of its famously large gala dinners or social events.

During the final years of the dynasty, the Semicircular Hall was also used to show films and slideshows, usually on Saturday nights. This hall was sadly the last place the Imperial Family saw before their exile to Tobolsk. On Aleksey’s 13th birthday, 30 July/12 August 1917, they stayed up all night and day waiting in the hall with their luggage, until finally the train was cleared and the order was given to move out early the next morning.

The Sorbonne, as seen from Rue Saint-Jacques, Copyright (WT-shared) Riggwelter

Le Collège de Sorbonne is the historical home of the University of Paris, which today houses several higher educational institutes. It was founded in 1257 as a theological college, and soon rose to become France’s most distinguished theological institute. In 1792, during the French Revolution, it was closed, but then reopened by Napoléon in 1808. It never regained its former prestige, though it continued operating till 1882. A new building was constructed from 1884–89.

Door to the Sorbonne, Copyright François Trazzi

In my alternative history, Aleksey attends the Sorbonne from 1922–26, on the suggestion of Grand Duke Mikhail, his uncle and Regent. He’s the first Tsar to receive a university education instead of immediately coming to the throne as soon as he’s of age. Without a well-rounded education and real-world experience outside of palace gates, his desire to be a good, reforming Tsar won’t automatically translate into successful actions. During his time in Paris, he lives in the Belleville neighbourhood of the Twentieth Arrondissement, a very working-class area with many immigrants.

Saint Serafim of Sarov (né Prokhor Isidorovich Moshnin), 19 July/1 August 1754 or 1759–2/14 January 1833

St. Serafim of Sarov is one of the most belovèd Russian saints and mystics. He was born in Kursk, and at age 19 joined a monastery in Sarov. In 1786, he took his final vows and received the name Serafim. Shortly after becoming a monastic priest, he adopted a hermitic lifestyle. He was attacked by bandits while chopping wood one day, beaten with his own axe, and left for dead. Miraculously, he survived, but was left with a hunchback.

Ikon depicting St. Serafim’s life

He became a confessor in 1815, and many miracles and prophecies were attributed to him. Hundreds of pilgrims came to him every single day. Though he was very tough on himself, given his ascetic lifestyle, he greeted everyone joyously, treated them very kindly and gently, and called them “My joy.” He died while praying before the beautiful Umileniye ikon, believed to show Mary at the moment of Annunciation. This is one of those rare Orthodox Marian ikons depicting Mary alone.

In 1903, the year he was canonised, Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Aleksandra travelled to the Sarov monastery. Since so many miracles had been attributed to him over the years, they felt he might finally answer their desperate prayers for a son.


The Umileniye (Tenderness) Ikon, of which St. Serafim was very fond, and before which Nicholas and Aleksandra might’ve prayed in 1903. A replica of this ikon was also in the Imperial Family’s private chapel in their belovèd Fyodorovskaya Cathedral.

Obviously, their prayers were finally answered, but not in the way they’d expected. Their prayer was just answered differently, more challengingly. They still got a beautiful little boy who constantly bounced back from the jaws of Death and grew into a sensitive, compassionate young man who promised to be a great Tsar.

Posted in Religion, Russian culture, Russian history, Russophilia

The Fyodorovskaya Ikon of the Mother of God



The Fyodorovskaya Ikon of the Mother of God is the patron ikon of the House of Romanov and one of Russia’s most beloved ikons. The feast days are 27 March and 29 August. Like the overwhelming majority of Orthodox Marian ikons, it depicts Mary and Baby Jesus, instead of Mary alone, as is the case with most Catholic Marian ikons. It’s very unusual to find an Orthodox ikon depicting only Mary.

Since it so resembles the famous, widely-venerated Theotokos of Vladimir ikon, many people believe the Fyodorovskaya is merely a copy of that older ikon. (Theotokos, which is Greek for “God-bearer,” is the title frequently given to Mary in Eastern Orthodoxy.) In the wake of the Mongol sack of Gorodets, the Volga town where it was kept, it disappeared and was given up for lost.

As the story goes, on 16 August 1239, Prince Vasiliy of Kostroma got lost while hunting in the woods, and found an ikon among the firs. When he tried to touch it, it rose up into the air. Prince Vasiliy believed it a miracle, and went to get all the townspeople, who followed him back to the forest and fell on their faces in worship. The ikon was taken to Assumption Cathedral, where a fire soon broke out. Once again, the ikon miraculously survived. When the people of Gorodets discovered their ikon had been found, they demanded it back. Kostroma and Gorodets fought over it for a long time, till finally the people of Kostroma painted a copy and sent it to Gorodets.


In 1613, 16-year-old Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov received a copy of the ikon from his mother Kseniya, who’d been forced into a nunnery by the villainous Boris Fyodorovich Godunov. Kseniya was very frightened when her son was offered the position of Tsar, since things hadn’t gone very well for the last few people on the throne. However, she ultimately blessed Mikhail, and gave him that ikon to protect him and his descendants. The new Tsar Mikhail took the ikon back with him to Moskvá, and thus it became his family’s special protecting ikon. This ikon is the reason so many foreign brides took the patronymic Fyodorovna when converting to Russian Orthodoxy.

Over the years, several other cities requested copies for veneration, some of them quite ornate and fancy. It should be stressed that the Orthodox don’t pray to ikons, but rather venerate them, asking these saints to intercede with God on their behalf.


During the Romanovs’ tercentenary in 1913, Nicholas II commissioned a copy of the Gorodets original. However, at this point, it was impossible to work from the original, since it had become so badly blackened over the centuries. This was interpreted as a very bad omen for his dynasty.

Since the image has become so corrupted, the ikon hasn’t been donated to a museum like other ikons. Today, it has a home in Epiphany Cathedral in Kostroma, after surviving so many calamities over the centuries.


Posted in Third Russian novel, Writing

What’s Up Wednesday

Snowman Button (final)


What’s Up Wednesday is a weekly hop/meme with four simple headings. Anyone can write a post and add the link to Jaime’s blog or Erin’s blog.

What I’m Reading

Without giving away my A to Z theme for my secondary blog, Onomastics Outside the Box, let’s just say I’ve been spending a lot of quality time with one of my all-time favouritest books lately. Most of the names to be featured on my names blog in April come from that book. Hint: It’s a very old book, and seven days will be wildcards due to those letters not typically being found in the book’s language of origin.

What I’m Writing

Since my last WUW post, I updated my working table of contents yet again, so there are now 117 planned chapters plus the Epilogue. To my great surprise, in Chapter 112, 23-year-old Inga and six of the children in Yuriy’s family are stricken with polio during their summer holiday on Vancouver Island, in one of Canada’s worst years for polio. Inga and all three of spitfire Naina’s children spend some time in an iron lung at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, though the other three get off with non-paralytic polio. Before the ambulance arrives, Yuriy is so terrified Inga is about to die, he grabs the holy water from the ikonostasis and performs an emergency baptism.

Immediately prior to their wedding, on 13 September 1947, Inga is chrismated. (Laypeople can perform emergency baptisms, but a priest has to perform the chrismation if the person survives.) Her gradual attraction to Orthodoxy was also completely unplanned, but it just felt right, particularly since she comes to faith through a relationship with Mary. Her mother was taken to Siberia when she was twelve, and she yearns for a loving maternal figure. In particular, she’s moved by these ikons:


St. Serafim’s Tenderness Ikon, the Umileniye, before which Nicholas II and Tsaritsa Aleksandra might’ve prayed when they visited St. Serafim’s monastery in Sarov in 1903, desperately praying for a son


Theotokos of Tolga

Inga’s dark teal silk wedding dress is based on this beautiful gown, though she also tries on a red gown based on this, a malachite gown based on this, an ombre gown based on this, and a Prussian blue gown based on this. (If I ever marry against the odds, I’ll probably wear black, or at least a dark colour like purple, deep blue, or dark teal.) Underneath her gown are her new calipers. Her engagement ring looks like this peridot and sapphire ring, and her wedding ring looks something like this. To avoid crutches, she leans on Yuriy for support, and on her godmother Naina during the chrismation. However, she needs a wheelchair partway through the ceremony, and Yuriy kneels beside her. Her bridesmaids have secretly brought the wheelchair to the church and decorated it with flowers, ribbons, and streamers, since they suspected she might need it.

My goal for this week is to be up to Chapter 114, in which Dmitriy and Katya’s son is born. He’s going to look like Anastasiya, his paternal grandmother, with curly blonde hair and blue eyes, and named Rodimir (Rodik), which fittingly means “family peace.”

What Works for Me

Planning your story out exactly and never deviating takes away organic, natural development and unexpected surprises. I admit it was kind of mean for me to give sweet, innocent Inga polio after she’s already suffered so many other traumas (losing her mother and uncle, being forced to leave her grandparents during the small window of opportunity to escape the USSR during the war), but it just made for a more compelling storyline.

The night before this happened, Yuriy proposed on their fifth anniversary of having met, and she said she needed a lot of time to think about it. But after the sweet way he takes care of her that first morning, and when she’s in hospital, she realises there’s nothing to think about at all. New romantic relationship or not, they’ve been friends for five years, and it doesn’t matter she has to leave New York and resettle in Toronto.

What Else I’ve Been Up To



I made falafel patties and hummus from the Fantastic Foods mixes I got in the bulk section of The Honest Weight Food Co-Op a few weeks ago. I also got their bulk chili and burger mixes, all kosher, vegan, and on sale. My falafel is always baked in the oven and brushed with olive oil, never deep-fried in hot oil.

I’m also getting into doing my nails again, the only makeup I’ve worn regularly in years. For some reason, I suddenly have a burning desire to paint my nails bright orange.