Article May 25, 2023

Mobilizing medieval art for history wars between Russia and Ukraine

By Ekaterina Heath


Life in Moscow has changed dramatically since the beginning of the "special military operation" in Ukraine, with history lessons to be found everywhere. The omnipresence of history in the ordinary life of its citizens did not exist prior to this tragic event. Newsagents sell a range of new illustrated history journals; subway trains and gardens narrate the history of Russian regions and interactive history exhibitions have opened everywhere. The patriotic re-write of the past is a key tool for the Russian government in justifying its current agenda. In his speeches, Vladimir Putin primarily uses the history of World War II and Peter the Great; however, the government is using many other historical events to support its actions.[1] A recently opened exhibition The Grand Duchy. The Treasures of Vladimir-Suzdal lands at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow stands out as a prime example. This new development uses art history to re-write the emergence of Russian statehood. It has an unprecedented scale, ambition, and aesthetic appeal in doing so.[2]  It serves as a response to the Ukrainian historians' claim that the legacy of Kyivan Rus belongs to Ukraine, and not to Russia.

For more than two centuries, Russian historians have traced the beginnings of the Russian state and nation to Kyivan Rus, which allowed them to connect Russia with the legacy of Byzantium.  Russian historians customarily discuss the Ancient Rus' as a common history of all East Slavic peoples: Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians.[3] Rus’ was a medieval state, which included territories of modern-day Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. It was ruled by the Rurikid dynasty, which originated in the ninth century Novgorod and then moved its capital to Kyiv.[4]

 In contrast to their Russian counterparts, Ukrainian historians have always emphasized the fact that it was Ukraine and not Russia that was the true inheritor of the Kyivan Rus’ since these developments took place on Ukrainian territory.[5] These views have recently become mainstream in Ukraine, with a petition calling for the renaming of Russia to Moscovy gathering thousands of supporters.[6] Such political declarations are received very anxiously in Russia because they prompt the Russian government to consider the uncomfortable question that if Kyivan Rus is a part of Ukrainian history, what is the start date for Russian national history?[7]

The Russian government’s response is to potentially identify Vladimir-Suzdal as the beginning of Russian national history. They could have chosen Medieval Novgorod as a starting point, thereby creating a longer history than Ukraine and yet they haven’t. Located in the northwestern part of Russia, it had been the original seat of the Rurikid dynasty. However, its association with democracy and freedom would have clashed with the current government's philosophy.[8] This is why the government-affiliated historians focused on promoting the legacy of Vladimir-Suzdal lands and have used this blockbuster exhibition to press home the point.[9] Vladimir Suzdal Rus’ was a medieval principality which in Russian historiography has been traditionally credited as a successor state to the declining Kyivan Rus’. Perceived as a cradle of the Great Russian language and nationality, it gradually evolved to become the Grand Duchy of Moscow.

The Treasures of Vladimir-Suzdal lands exhibition is unprecedented in scale and in extent of collaboration with the regional Vladimir-Suzdal museum sites. It has more than six hundred objects, the overwhelming majority of which had never been allowed to be loaned. The Tretyakov gallery's then director Elvira Tregulova (recently replaced for being too liberal) stated that "this is a unique event where a museum has given us everything, normally impossible to receive even separately."[10] The political nature of the display is further demonstrated by the fact that its primary sponsor was the Ministry for Culture and the exhibition itself was put together in less than six months.[11] The exhibition was organised so hastily that no research work was undertaken. The organizers were not interested in producing new scholarship, rather, this project was about rehashing the old ideas. On top of that, no catalogue or educational literature were printed. This is partially due to the short deadlines and sanctions, making the publication of art books prohibitively expensive and long. This undermines the lasting effect of the exhibition’s messages. Without published materials, visitors will quickly forget its main ideas. This is ironic as the exhibition is key in the government’s propaganda campaign.

What is so important about this exhibition? The clue to its meaning lies in the Vice-Minister for Culture Alla Manilova's words: "We need to carefully guard our national-cultural identity, the basis of which was built during the times of Vladimir-Suzdal principality."[12] Her words highlight that the Russian government is exploring the option of moving away from the contentious Kyivan Rus’ origin narrative towards tracing the shaping of the Russian national identity from this Medieval Central Russian principality. Within this new framework, the history of Kyivan Rus’ ceases to be important because Kyivan Rus’ was a federation of competing principalities. According to this new concept, Russian statehood began with Vladimir Suzdal land, from where Moscow Rus’ would gradually arise and the growth of Russian lands would begin.

The exhibition is explicitly promoted by its designers as a "trip to the source of Russian statehood."[13] This is achieved through communications throughout the displays that refer to the figure of Prince Andrey Bogolyubsky, the most significant being a display of splendid fabrics found in his tomb. Russian historiography credits him with the transfer of political power from Kyiv to Vladimir.  In 1169 he organised a raid on Kyiv that ransacked and burned the city. Once completed, he appointed a minor prince Gleb Iurievich to rule Kyiv in his stead.[14] For the first time in many centuries, the dominant ruler did not reign from Kyiv. This step signified Kyiv's decline in status and importance. Historian George Vernadsky stated that "it was characteristic of Andrei that he did not go to Kyiv after the seizure of the city by his troops but had the Kyivan throne occupied by minor princes whom he treated as his vassals."[15] This is a reminder about the events which transpired a thousand years prior and clearly serves as a veiled threat to the current Ukrainian government.

The Vladimir-Suzdal lands seeks to sweep a visitor off their feet with its visual splendor. Right from the beginning, a visitor is met by a tremendous golden door and two equally enormous Tsar- lanterns (160 kg each), shaped to look like churches (Fig.1).

One of the gilded 160kg lanterns

They symbolize the two main themes of the display: the divine light of the Russian Orthodox religion and the region's trade and cultural connections with the neighboring states. This design supports President Putin's argument about the Orthodox religion binding together Slavic tribes of Ukrainians, Russians and Belarussians.[16]

This exhibition is an attempt to make both historic and contemporary Kyiv irrelevant and to replace it with another historic site that has currency in the present. The stunning White room (Fig.2) at the center of the exhibition space, shows stone carvings that were used to decorate the churches in the region.

The white room

The room's scale and connection to the overarching theme makes it the pinnacle of the display. The room's message is about Andrey Bogolyubsky's investment of funds and energy to build up Vladimir to turn it into the new Kyiv. He commissioned the construction of half a dozen churches, including the Church of the Dormition as well as the Golden Gates to make the statement that his principality was intent on copying and improving upon the ancient capital of Rus’. On top of that, he established the cult of the Virgin as a key aspect of Vladimir Suzdal Rus. The exhibition room with Andrey Rublev’s copy of the Virgin of Vladimir refers to this symbolic event. In 1155 Bogolyubsky stole an icon of the Vishgorod Virgin from one of the suburbs of Kyiv and brought it first to his residence in Bogolyubovo and then to the Church of Dormition in Vladimir. Subsequently, the icon was renamed to the Virgin of Vladimir, becoming one of the most revered miracle-making icons of the Russian Orthodox faith. Bogolyubsky followed this with an attempt to establish a metropolitanate separate from the authority of religious leaders in Kyiv.[17]

Designers did an impressive job making this new interpretation of the past glamorous and attractive to a modern audience. Visitors are seduced by visually appealing displays which aestheticise the artworks. Exhibits are placed sparingly in minimalist brightly colored interiors. Curators paid a lot of attention to lighting to ensure that artworks cast stunning shadows, which enhance the meaning and visual appeal of artworks. This removes the objects from their medieval context, suggesting they are timeless and bringing their histories into the current political conversation. Nikolay Makarov, one of the trustees from the Russian Historical Society observed this effect by stating that this project allows us to see the beginnings of Russian history in a fresh light.[18] Aesthetic treatment of objects removes any desire to question the main message of the exhibition, normalising the idea that Orthodox religion and autocratic governance is at the core of Russian history.

The organizers aimed to produce a powerful cumulative effect, without any thought to the value and importance of individual artworks. They created a non-hierarchical display of objects, which gave visitors very limited guidance about the significance of each painting or artefact. This approach produced some regrettable decisions. For example, masterpieces like the Virgin of Vladimir, attributed to Andrey Rublev, were collated among icons of lesser artistic and historical value (Fig.3).

The icon room

The same applied to the White room, in which plaster casts were displayed without any distinction next to the original medieval works. This approach devalues these masterpieces and undermines the value in quality art works. This lack of understanding of historical authenticity and aesthetic value is consistent throughout the exhibition and typical of a state led event.

Also typical for state run culture, Vladimir-Suzdal lands has a strong focus on children. Its topic makes it a must-see exhibit for many schoolchildren studying Ancient Rus’. One of the rooms is dedicated to woodcarvings of mythical creatures, holding Bibles in their paws (Fig.4).

The room with mythical creatures

These four pillars were created in the eighteenth century to decorate the tomb of Solomonia Saburova, the wife of tsar Vasily III. They look funny and are sure to make any child laugh. The educational events that are carried out throughout the exhibition include many activities for children. This is a typical feature of authoritarian regimes like Russia, which invest time and effort into instilling youth with patriotic historical narratives under the guise of entertainment.[19] This room will create positive memories about the visit to the exhibition, making children accept its more problematic messages uncritically.

The last room of the exhibition promotes historic domestic tourism for the new inward-looking Russia. Travel outside of Russia has become much more difficult due to sanctions, travel restrictions, mobilizations, and financial issues. The Russian government is seeking to placate the resulting discontent by presenting this as an opportunity to learn more about the country. A visitor is invited to enter a dark room with a large screen, showing videos of architectural monuments from Vladimir and Suzdal. Ironically, while the treasures from Vladimir and Suzdal are being shown in Moscow, the museums in which they are normally housed are reduced to the bare minimum of artworks. For three and a half months, tourists coming to these museums will see almost nothing. This extractive attitude of the Moscow region to the resources from other parts of Russia is a typical feature of the current government policy.

This exhibition has been ambitiously coined by its organizers to be a "key to understanding Russia itself."[20] It argues that Vladimir-Suzdal Rus’ was the main principality, which succeeded Kyivan Rus’ in the twelfth century, reminding Russians about how they created the beginning of the decline of Ukrainian statehood. The exhibition coincides with the removal of two museum directors, from the Tretyakov gallery and the Pushkin Museum of Art.[21] The expectation is that this will become a trailblazer, which will be followed up by more poorly researched but aesthetically pleasing and politically charged art exhibitions, each arguing against Ukraine's interpretation of history. The Vice-Minister for Culture has said as much when she stated that this exhibit represents Russia's "cultural code," which will "prevent the attempts to break Russia apart and break down the society."[22] Vladimir-Suzdal lands once again shows how art can be used out of its original context to serve modern purposes of political messaging and that this form of exhibition, while being inaccurate and full of absurdities, can impact a local community in a powerful way.


Dr Ekaterina Heath is an art historian who recently visited Russia for family reasons.


[1] Mark Edele, "Fighting Russia's History Wars. Vladimir Putin and the Codification of World War II." History & Memory 29 (2)(2017): 90-124, doi:10.2979/histmemo.29.2.05;  Andrew Roth, "Putin compares himself to Peter the Great in a quest to take back Russian lands," The Guardian, Fri 10 Jun 2022, ; Christoph Mick, "How Moscow has long used the historic Kyivan Rus state to justify expansionism," The Conversation, 9 March 2022,

[2] Until recently the leading art museums in Moscow managed to tread a fine line between censure and creative freedom. These were the last public spaces for open discussion, which did not fully conform to the government agenda.

[3] George Vernadsky, Kievan Russia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973); Miller А., Ukrainskij vopros v Rossijskoj imperii (Kyiv: Laurus Publ., 2013).  Serhii Plokhy, Lost Kingdom: The Quest for Empire and the Making of the Russian Nation (London: Hachette, 2017).

[4] Ferdinand Feldbrugge, "Chapter 13 The Prince in Medieval Russia,"A History of Russian Law (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill | Nijhoff, 2017), 332,  doi:

[5] This discussion was started in mid nineteenth century in the journal Russkaya beseda as a debate between M.P. Pogodin and M.A. Maksimovich. Tolochko, A. Kyivskaya Rus i Malorossiya v XIX veke (Kyiv: Laurus, 2012), 207–235. The idea of the 'long Ukrainian history' was proposed by Mikhailo Hrushevsky (1866-1934). Serhii Plokhy, Unmaking Imperial Russia: Mykhailo Hrushevsky and the Writing of Ukrainian History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017); Petro Tolochko, Kyivskaya Rus (Kyiv: Abris, 1998).

[6] "President Zelenskyy considers petition calling for Russia to be renamed 'Moscovia,'" Euronews, 11.03.2023,

[7] Serhii Plokhy, "Introduction," Ukraine and Russia: Representations of the Past (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 3.

[8] Janet Martin, "Novgorod," Medieval Russia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995),101.

[9] By this I primarily mean the Russian Historical Society, the civic-cultural organization, which claims to have roots in the nineteenth century. It is funded and controlled by the Russian government. The current head of its Board Ruslan Gagkuev stated that "The history of Vladimir-Suzdal Russia is one of the main priorities for the Russian Historical Society."

Another example of this approach - A.A. Kuznetsov, “Istoki Rossiyskogo universuma v istorii Vladimiro-Suzdalskogo knyazhestva domongolskogo vremeny,”  Russkiy universum v usloviyakh globalizatsii (Arzamas-Sarov: Interkontakt, 2016),117-125.

[10] Darya Shatalova, “Velikoye knyazhestvo. Sokrovisha Vladimiro-Suzdalskoi zemli:”mashina vremeni v Tretyakovke, 28 January 2023,  TASS,

[11] "This ambitious project was proposed by Ekaterina Pronicheva, who became the head of the museum only half a year ago."Sofya Bagdasarova, “Zolotoi vek Drevnei Rusi pokazyvayut na vystavke v Tretyakovke,” 30 January 2023,

[12] Maria Platanyuk, “Sokrovisha iz Vladimirskoi oblasti vistavleny v Tretyakovskoi galereye,” 25.01.2023,

[13] Maria Platanyuk, “Sokrovisha iz Vladimirskoi oblasti vistavleny v Tretyakovskoi galereye,” 25.01.2023,

[14] Janet Martin, "Kievan Rus: the final century," Medieval Russia. 980-1584 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 113.

[15] George Vernadsky, Kievan Russia. A History of Russia, vol.2 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), 221.

[16] Vladimir Putin, "Ob istoricheskom edinstve russkikh i ukraintsev", 12 July 2021,

[17] Nazarenko A.V., “Nesostoyavshayasya mitropoliya (ob odnom iz tserkovno -politicheskikh proektov Andreya Bogolyubskogo,””Khvalam dostoinyi…”: Andrei  Bogolyubskiy v russkoi istorii i culture. Mezhdunarodnaya nauchnaya konferentsiya (Vladimir, 2013), 13-36,


[19] Thomas Sherlock, Historical Narratives in the Soviet Union and Post-Soviet Russia (New York: Palgrave, 2007).

[20] Igor Shegolev, Plenipotentiary Representative of the President of President in Central Federal Region

[21] “Ne vpisalas’ v kurs,” Meduza, 11 February 2023, ; Anna Rynda, "Oshusheniye pustoty i bezprosvetnosty,”BBC, 10 February 2023, .

[22] “Sokrovisha iz Vladimirskoi oblasti vistavleny v Tretyakovskoi galereye,”

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