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Setting the Soviet Past in Stone: The Iconography of the ‘Russian New Martyrs of the Twentieth Century’

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This presentation examines the emergent cult surrounding the new twentieth-century martyrs of the Russian Orthodox Church in the context of the ongoing quest for an official ‘master narrative’ of Russia’s Soviet past.

The Russian Orthodox Church opened the twenty-first century with the mass canonisation of over one thousand victims of Soviet state terror. The canonisation process has been linked to comprehensive research programmes aimed at recovering the names and stories of the new martyrs, and this research has in turn been used as the foundations for what is being described by church memory activists as a new ‘infrastructure of memory’. This research is being used in the design of new churches, the painting of icons, the writing of saints’ lives, and the shaping of a host of newly invented traditions and practices surrounding the new martyrs, such as pilgrimages to the sites where the martyrs died, and to sacred springs re-named in the martyrs’ honour. This campaign amounts to a strong bid to transform Russia’s memorial landscape; to re-define and re-contextualise the dead; to create and canonize a new narrative of the Soviet past, based on the central tropes of martyrdom and blood sacrifice; and ultimately to help shape a new Russian identity. The paper explores some recent examples of the symbolic language that is being created to represent the new martyrs.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Humanities and Social Sciences Group series.

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