The Slav Epic

Those who are familiar with Czech artist Alphonse Mucha know of the vivid works he created during his time abroad, but few know of what he considered his greatest work of all, the Slav Epic (or Slovanska Epopej).

Through the course of sixteen years, Mucha had created twenty large paintings displaying various moments in history of the Slavic people. Unfortunately this great collection of works had hardly been brought to the attention of the rest of the world as a number of unfortunate circumstances prevented Mucha from seeing his life’s greatest work receive the praise it deserved.

The Slav Epic had an ill-fated history. The series began in 1910 when Mucha had returned from Paris so that he may embark on the creation of what he saw would be his defining work. Before he began his work, Mucha had traveled across Russia, the Balkans, Poland, and the Orthodox  monasteries on Mount Athos, consulting historians along the way to ensure accurate depictions of events in his works. Two years later, he received funding from Charles Richard Crane, a wealthy businessman who had held an interest in Eastern Europe and Slavic nationalism in particular. Over the course of seven years, Mucha had completed eleven works, which he presented in Prague, receiving much interest public from the public. Unfortunately, critics were quick to label the work as an expression of an outdated, nationalistic style. His full work had later been displayed in America and Czechoslovakia, although it received similar reactions.

In 1935, the Slav Epic had it’s final exhibition before the death of Mucha, after he had gifted the works to the city of Prague. Because the city was not able to provide a permanent place to display the works, the paintings were rolled up and placed in storage, although some say this was done in order to prevent confiscation from invading German forces. Four years later, Mucha was captured by German troops during the beginning of World War II and interrogated. Shortly after being released, the artist succumbed to a lung infection and died, disappointed that his greatest work had seen such an unfortunate fate. Up until 1950, the government refused to put the works on display again, in fact it would only be until 1967 when the full set of paintings would be displayed again after being brought to the city of Moravsky Krumlov by a group of patriots.

Currently the works are on display in the village of Moravsky Krumlov. The Slav Epic itself is deeply symbolic. With the Slav Epic, Mucha had sought to promote Slav unity and nationalism, expressing this through religion and hardships and at the same time, he saw it as a celebration of the Slavs and their shared history and culture. But what some say is the underlying theme of this work is Mucha’s views on how a group of people must develop, displaying this through the idea of Slavic Unity. Perhaps this is better explained in the artist’s own words:

“I am convinced that the development of every nation may proceed with success only if it grows organically and continuously from the nation’s own roots and that for the preservation of this continuity, knowledge of it’s historical past is indispensable.”

Indeed this may be something some governments should take heed to today. Nevertheless, this work remains a great achievement (and a tribute to an even greater culture), which is sadly, devoid of much praise. But today, I hope to bring the readership of this site all twenty of these tremendous works so that a different audience will be able to see these works and possibly appreciate them more than the previous had. Currently, the Czech government hopes to accomplish the same by moving the works to the city of Prague so that it may be seen by a wider range of people, notably tourists.




Slavic Mythology: Svarog | Сварог

The second Slavic god to be featured in this series of posts is Svarog, another great figure who was revered to the Slavs as the great god of blacksmithing, law and fire, similar to that of Hephaestus of the Greek pantheon.

The origin of Svarog’s name can be traced to the language of Indo-European people, that is to say Sanskrit. Although an exact link has yet to established, some theories suggest the name comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Svarga’ meaning the sky or heaven. Another theory suggests Svarog’s name came from the Indo-Aryan word ‘svar’ meaning the sun, although this theory is discounted by some as the Slavs had possessed a different word for the sun at the time.

As of this writing, the details of Svarog are few. although the Hypatian Codex (a chronicle which itself is a compilation of several documents from the Ipatiev monastery, regarded as one of the most important written accounts of Kievan Rus) makes a rare mention of him, specifically in a translated myth. The myth, which originally takes place in Egypt and mentions Greek dieties, had it’s setting and characters changed during translation in order to have more appeal to those reading it. Translated into English, parts of that myth read:

“(Then) began his reign Feosta (Hephaestus), whom the Egyptians called Svarog … during his rule, from the heavens fell the smith’s prongs and weapons were forged for the first time; before that, (people) fought with clubs and stones. Feosta also commanded the women that they should have only a single husband… and that is why Egyptians called him Svarog… After him ruled his son, his name was the Sun, and they called him Dažbog… Sun tzar, son of Svarog, this is Dazhbog.”

Since this is not an actual Slavic myth per se, historians are uncertain as to how much of the myth is indeed applicable to Slavic pagan beliefs, specifically the sons of Svarog. As mentioned above, Svarog had fathered Dazhbog as well as several other gods, these being Perun, Svarozivic, Stribog, Semargl, and Radogost. It is generally believed that Dazhbog and Svarozivic are the same god, as the book of Kolyada mentions Dazhbog’s birth during the striking of the Alatyr-stone, but Svarozivic, who has been attributed to nearly the same aspects as Dazhbog was not mentioned. This belief is furthered by the idea that ‘Svarozivic’, which was used to describe the sons of Svarog in the Book of Kolyada, may have just been a word meaning ‘of Svarog’.

The birth of Svarog’s sons is described in the Book of Kolyada’s myth of the creation of the mortal world, one of several myths involving Svarog. The myth states that a great rock, the Alatyr-stone, was brought from the depths of the ocean by a great duck. The rock possessed great magical powers and for this the duck had wanted to hide the stone in it’s beak. Upon finding the duck, Svarog uttered a phrase which caused the stone to grow in size and eventually become too large for the bird to carry.

Soon the stone had become a great mountain and later a center of knowledge of the tales of the gods (vedas) and a mediator between god and man. But upon seeing this, Svarog had decided that no man must know of the stone. With this, he struck the stone with his hammer, but he was only successful in creating sparks. With these sparks, the ratichi (celestial warriors, that is to say gods) were born, this included Semargl, the great god of fire. Because of this, the mighty winds rose, thus creating Stribog, the god of the wind.

After this, the duck who had previously carried the stone conceived a great black snake. The snake, sent to end the stone, crept up to it and struck it to the ground. the stone fell from the heavens and eventually came to be in the land of the mortals (The exact spot was said to be Mount Elbrus in the Caucasus mountains).

The impact of the drop had sent black sparks across the world, with this the dark forces of the world were born. Now Semargl had begun to fight with the snake and it’s troops, but he was outmatched and soon the sun had been blotted out by the snake and the world had been overrun by it’s minions. Defeated, Semargl ascended to the heavenly smithy, followed closely by the great snake. Seeing this, Svarog grabbed the snake’s tongue and tamed it so that it may plow the fields of the earth, whilst sending it’s minions to the underworld.

following this great victory, a half-horse by the name of Kitovras (Known to the Greeks as Chiron) constructed a temple around the stone with the most sacred area in the temple, an altar, being the place where Svarog spoke with man. The myth mentions it was here where Svarog taught man how to make food with milk and cheese curds, which is why the Slavs considered such a meal was a gift from the gods. Since then, this stone has been sometimes attributed to Svarog and in this way he is seen as the creator of the mortal world.

Meanwhile, Svarog had also created the blue Svarga, a land in the heavens where it was said the acnestors of the Slavs would live after death (which is contradictory considering the fact another myth states the souls of the dead would go to the land of Nav, an underworld of sorts. It is a possibility that these two concepts were influenced by separate mythologies, that is to say the Norse and Greek ones, respectively. It is not unlikely, as this conflict of mythologies had been seen before in other parts of Slavic mythology). It was believed the stars of the night sky were the eyes of the grandfathers, who look down from the Blue Svarga upon the Slavic people’s earthly affairs.

Svarog, unlike Veles, does not create the material world with words or magic, but rather his hands. He cared about the Slavs, giving them fire for the cold and to cook food as well as the Sun-Ra (sun) which later became the word for joy (Radost). He also came to the earth to plow the fields and gave the Slavs several gifts. The first, an axe of which to defend their native lands from enemies and the second being a bowl to prepare sacred drinks and the third being tongs of which to create forged weaponry. Finally, his last and possibly most important contribution was the creation of the two circles of time, one of the ground and one of space.

The Book of Kolyada makes one final large mention of Svarog, this being the tale of Svarog and Dy. As Svarog ate a feast, several badly-beaten warriors entered the hall and claimed that had been attacked by the Volot-giants of Dy, god of the sky and thunder under the command of his son, Churila. Angered by this, Svarog gathered the heavenly army and marched towards the kingdom of Dy in the Ural mountains. Upon arrival, Svarog’s army defeated the soldiers of Dy and sealed his royal subjects below the mountains. After this, Svarog and his sons decided to hold a victory feast within the palace of Dy.

Begging for forgiveness, Churila had offered expensive gold and jewels to Svarog, convincing him to take Churila into service. Like the rest of Dy’s children, Churila was very handsome, this caught the eye of Lada, who began to remark on his looks. To this Svarog replied “As Dy dims his eyes, so the night dims reason..get thee away from the table, Churila!”. After this, Churila began to serve Tarusa, wife to the god of prayer, Barmas.

Depiction-wise, it is hard to find a true and definite idea of what the Slavs imagined him to be. One source says Svarog was seen as a flying fire-breathing dragon, this idea was later set aside as pagan beliefs developed. Most commonly, Svarog was thought to be part of the trinity of creator gods, Triglav, among Dazhbog and Perun. Although besides this, the way in which Svarog was honored by the Slavs is not known, nor are any other details on his appearance or personality.

As Christianity began to take hold in Eastern Europe, the idea of Svarog was replaced by Saint Damian, Saint Cosmas and Michael the Archangel. Although paganism was being replaced by Christianity, many were reluctant to give up their old traditions which is why so many attributes of the pagan gods were given to Biblical characters or saints.

When assessed, it would seem that the concept of Svarog, and indeed his attribution of being a lawmaker and blacksmith came out of the Slavic people’s entrance into an iron age, which brought about advances in weaponry and agriculture. The various tribes scattered along the land had seen Svarog as the bringer of these advancements, which would explain why he was first mentioned when Slavic tribes developed agriculture around 800-600 BC.

Read more on Svarog at the links below:

Featured Artist: Mikhail Vasilyevich Nesterov | Михаил Васильевич Нестеров

Today’s featured artist is Mikhail Nesterov, another prominent Russian artist who is considered to be one of the most foremost figures of the Russian symbolism genre.

Like many other famous Russian artists, Nesterov was born in the 19th century, on the 31st of May in the city of Ufa. In 1874, his parents sent him to Moscow to study at a technical college. There his skills as an artist caught the eye of K. Trutovsky, an artist of some renown at the time. Nesterov, at the recommendation of Trutovsky, was sent to the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and later in 1881, the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg.

From 1890 on to about 1910, Nesterov lived in Kiev and St. Petersburg where his talents led him to paint frescoes on local churches including the Cathedral of St. Vladimir. Prior to his work as a church painter, Nesterov had yet to find a suitable style of art that interested him. But his work as a painter convinced him to begin using Christian themes in his art. This interest in religious themes would eventually define Nesterov’s style as an artist.

But religion alone did not inspire him, the death of his wife Olga, whom he had married a year earlier in 1885, had given Nesterov a reason to add emotion into his works. From then on the artist spent the remainder of his life in Moscow, occasionally taking trips to Italy or France or with the Peredvizhniki, a renowned society of artists that he was a member of.

The October Revolution had brought great setbacks to his work. Being a devout Christian, Nesterov did not support the October Revolution. Because of the newly-established communist government, which was largely atheistic, Nesterov was not able to continue painting works containing Christian themes in fear of the consequences that would follow. During this time until his death on October 18, 1942, Nesterov made few works, with most of them being portraits of various individuals.

But among such artists as Repin, Vasnetsov and Vereschagin, one cannot deny that Nesterov’s art, where his visualization of folklore and poetry through traditional Russian/Christian imagery has a special place among the Russian art world, undoubtably making him one of the best examples the Russian symbolist idea had to offer.


See more of the artist’s work at these links:

Paintings by Vasiliy Timm

Vasiliy Timm is a Russian painter and illustrator of German descent who, like many others, made several paintings of Imperial Russia. A graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts, Timm was the publisher of the Russian Art Sheet, an illustration-oriented publication published three times a week from 1851 to 1862. The publication usually contained reproductions of paintings, portraits of popular figures, and information on current events.

The artist had also made several ilustrations for books and lithographs of different figures and locations, one of those locations being Tbilisi, Georgia. But what was most interesting of all, were his paintings of early 19th century Russia, most notably of the Decembrist uprising in St. Petersburg, serving as one of the most recognizable images of the event.

In this post I wish to present these few, stunning works of art. The several paintings you see below are mostly depictions of royal ceremonies, but created in great detail, enough that one might actually get the feeling of being there. The works contain several interesting details, such as the Russian royalty’s two famous African servants dressed in Turkish attire, among other things.


The paintings were found from the following links.

The Adventures of Three Englishmen and Three Russians in South Africa

In 1870, famous French writer Jules Verne published The Adventures of Three Englishmen and Three Russians in South Africa, the ninth book in his Extraordinary Voyages series of books. The book centers around the experiences of a team of English and peculiarly Russian scientists on a joint venture to measure an arc of the meridian in South Africa but are later split apart following the outbreak of the Crimean War. Here is an excerpt from the book’s third chapter:

These introductions over, William Emery put himself at the disposal of the new arrivals, for in his position of astronomer at the Cape, he was inferior in rank to Colonel Everest, a delegate of the English Government, and, with Matthew Strux, joint president of the commission. He knew, as well, that he was a distinguished man of science, famous for his reductions of the nebulae and his calculations of the occupations of the stars. He was a cold, methodical man, of about fifty years of age, every hour of his life being portioned out with mathematical accuracy. Nothing unforeseen ever happened to him, and his punctuality in every thing was like that of the stars in passing the meridian, and it might be said that all his doings were regulated by the chronometer. William Emery knew all this, and had therefore never doubted that the commission would arrive on the appointed day.

During this time he was waiting for the Colonel to tell him the object of this mission to South Africa; but as he was still silent on the point, Emery thought it better not to ask any questions, as very likely the hour fixed in the Colonel’s mind for the subject had not yet come.

Emery also knew by repute the wealthy Sir John Murray, who (almost a rival to Sir James Ross and Lord Elgin) was, although without office, an honour to England by his scientific labours. His pecuniary sacrifices to science were likewise considerable, for he had devoted £20,000 to the establishment of a giant reflector, a match for the telescope at Parson Town, by whose means the elements of a number of double stars had just been determined. He was a man of about forty years of age, with an aristocratic bearing, but whose character it was impossible to discover through his imperturbable exterior.

As to the three Russians, Strux, Palander, and Zorn, their names were also well known to William Emery, although he was not personally acquainted with them. Nicholas Palander and Michael Zorn paid a certain amount of deference to Matthew Strux, as was due to his position, if it had not been to his merit.

The only remark that Emery made was that they were in equal numbers, three English and three Russians; and the crew of the “Queen and Czar” (for that was the name of the steamboat) consisted of ten men, five English and five Russians.

“Mr. Emery,” said Colonel Everest, when the introductions were over, “we are now as well acquainted as if we had travelled together from London to Cape Voltas. Besides, your labours have already earned you a just renown, and on that account I hold you in high esteem. It was at my request that the English Government appointed you to assist in our operations in South Africa.”

William Emery bowed in acknowledgment, and thought that he was now going to hear the object of the scientific commission to the southern hemisphere; but still Colonel Everest did not explain it.

During the original release of this book, several illustrations accompanied the book, drawn by Jules-Descartes Ferat. After some searching I was successful in finding these illustrations and would like to share it with the readership of this blog. For those who are interested in reading the book itself, the full version is available on Wikisource.


The full book as well as the original site of the illustrations can be found below:

Tattoos of the Russian Mafia

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the life of the vory v zakone (or thieves in law, members of Russian organized crime) has become a subject of great interest. From life in prison to the stories of individuals, this almost secretive organization has been receiving attention from westerners to the Russian  people themselves, as evidenced in movies such as Western Promises and Bumer. But perhaps no detail is no more interesting than the tattoos the vory wear. Since the original prisoners in the gulag began Russian organized crime, it’s members have become known for the plethora of tattoos that cover their body. These tattoos tell one of the wearer’s life, his views, his desires, and his rank in the mafia hierarchy.

The Russian criminal underworld has several common tattoos which all display some aspect of the wearer’s life as a criminal. Most commonly, a church similar to that of St. Basil’s Cathedral may be found on the chest or back of a vor, the number of steeples on the church either signify the amount of times he has been incarcerated or the number years he has spent in jail. Stars on the top chest or knees represent rank and honor in a criminal and means he follows the thief’s code, usually these would be gained by reaching a certain position in mafia. Also, barbed wire across the forehead means that the wearer has been given a life sentence without possibility of parole.

One of the most famous people who brought the meanings of these tattoos to light was Danzig Baldayev who has been reproducing tattoos from prisoners during his life as a guard in Kresty Jail and his later job as a detective with the Leningrad police force. Compiling about 3,600 designs from different parts of the country, he has recently made many of these public in a three-volume publication with explanations of their meanings. Below you may see several of the tattoos drawn by Baldayev, many of them offer a view into the lives and minds of the members of the mafia, perhaps in a way one not see from the member himself. This collection of  skulls, swastikas, demons, political figures, cats and everything in between makes up the rebellious, untamed, and strange culture shared by the members the Russian mafia.


More information and images of tattoos found at the links below:

Sketch of a Welder

The piece of artwork you see above is actually another drawing by Mikhail Maiofis, this is one of man’s few non-illustrative works so I thought it would be interesting to share. Drawn sometime in the 60’s, here, Maiofis sketched a typical Soviet welder (bearing a striking resemblance to Russian singer Vyacheslav Bobkov) but in an art style quite different from what was previously shown. It might also be interesting to note that Maiofis produced several more drawings of this type, but they are at the moment in the possession of private collectors and will most likely not be seen by the public for some time.