Christ, humanity and war

Artillery Row

— Кто это, пап’? Who’s this, Dad?

— Христос. Christ.

— A что он там делает? But what is he doing there?

— Молится, наверное. Praying, probably.

The thing about Vasily Perov’s painting of Christ in Gethsemane is that you don’t know whether he is praying, or whether this is despair simply: a man in a long robe, in the dark, stretched on the ground with his face down, fingers flung out and curling in the dirt, under the trees, the distant city lights behind him. He could have been anyone. He was anyone. He was in sorrow, and there was no-one there. The faint light over his head could almost have been a halo. It is a crown of thorns.

He is one of several Jesuses on the walls of Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery who all suffer.


It is 2012 and my student is scared of doing National Service. I know he must be terrified because he is sixteen and he has admitted to being scared in front of several adults, including his English teacher and the men I usually suspect he wants approval from. Those just starting National Service, the students tell me, are viciously bullied by those who are halfway through. The male students in this class refuse to accept the word house husband on the coursebook’s vocabulary list.

Sleeping Children by Vasily Grigorevich Perov (1834-1882). (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

It is 2022, so my student is twenty-six. I keep thinking about other boys I taught, running calculations. The student with a Slenderman obsession is now military age. The student who said “Britanskaya Imperia — ugly i big” is military age. The student who gave me a small ceramic horse is military age. The student who knew that Thomas is a Really Useful Engine is not military age, but the student who had a tantrum if he didn’t get the dog out of the mystery farm animal bag is not far off. I realise that I am prioritising the boys again despite myself, as if the girls, so often so much steadier, and held to a higher standard even by me, were not also now old enough for grown-up hurt.

The stones in Ivan Kramskoy’s painting of Christ in the wilderness do not look like bread at all. This desert is more like a chilly sea rolling at dawn, the edge of the land lost in the edge of the sky. Kramskoy’s Christ has nothing to do but sit on a rock. He is clasping his hands and his feet are cold. He keeps the rules: it must have been so hard to sit it out, to stay patient, to keep the rules. He is hungry.


In 2013 a man jumps out of a window of the block of flats I live in. No-one seems to know who he is, but for a moment some sort of local community is united and visible, horrified, fending off children, waving down the ambulance. We stake all our hopes on the ambulance and the ambulance fails.

Christ, beaten down and beaten back, has authority

The man who jumped out of the window on my staircase will not appear in articles about the unexpected defenestration of Russian oligarchs, or journalists, or coronavirus doctors. There was no way of finding out who he was, who his family was, or who cared about him. After he died, everyone slunk away, and the bored paramedics said something about alcohol, and the bloke wheeling a stretcher looked like he wanted a cigarette break sooner rather than later. A policeman called at my flat and I tried to explain that I hadn’t seen anything worth reporting. Surname? he said. Sixsmith, I said. Surname? he said, puzzled. Sixsmith, I said. Goodbye, he said, giving up, and closed the door.

Someone put wood chippings down over the blood on the pavement, under the tree. The man lying in the sand under the tree in the darkness in Perov’s painting is both Christ and my window-man.


Nikolai Ge, though. In his painting of Christ and Pilate, Christ is both suffering and furious. Standing in the shadow against the wall in the stone corridors of power, he is shabby, dishevelled, chaotically bearded, sharp-eyed, feral, level-headed, defiant. Pilate stands in the light coming through the doorway, taking up space. What is truth? says his spread hand, stretched arm, and Christ stares down the question with contempt. One corner of the prisoner’s robe trails on the tiles. Pilate’s toga is cast around him in light folds. Pilate is powerful. Everything about him is smooth: clean-shaven chin, pudding-bowl haircut, the back of his neck catching the light, his careless arm. He stands square-shouldered. It is not really a question he is asking. The man in the shadows could take him out in a moment with a legion of angels at his command. The man in the shadows is just a man.

Who knows? When Nikolai Ge painted the resurrection he painted soldiers chuckling, a cross, a woman with streaming hair running in terror towards the sunrise. He is not here. He is risen. He is risen indeed. He is not here.

The artists I am tracking around the Tretyakov gallery are the Peredvizhniki — the Wanderers, or the Itinerants. These 19th century artists wanted to paint the real landscapes and the real people of Russia, beauty and pain and tenacity. Pere — is a prefix that means something like through. The Peredvizhniki moved through, with their travelling art exhibitions. Now they are on the walls of the Tretyakov Gallery. The word perezhivat means to live through, to worry, to suffer, to endure, as if life will necessarily be about suffering, and you can’t go over it, and you can’t go under it. (What a beautiful day! We’re not scared.)

Christ, beaten down and beaten back, has authority. Pilate is a man who thinks he has authority, square-shouldered and smooth.


Suddenly, out of nowhere, there is a military helicopter looming over Gazetnyy Pereulok. There are tanks on Tverskaya Ulitsa. A young soldier, dusting down his tank. Before rehearsing your Victory Day parade, it is important to check that your tank is well dusted. The centre of Moscow is filled with children wearing small-scale military side caps. The tanks emerge from Red Square and the crowd cheers.

They say when a man shows you who he is, you should believe him the first time. My students tell me that on Victory Day, the weather will be good. To ensure clear skies for the flypast, they say, the government sends up a plane to disperse chemicals that seed the clouds before they reach the capital. “In Moscow sun, all rest of country dead under the water.” Moscow’s roads will require resurfacing, though. You’re not really supposed to drive heavy artillery down an ordinary road.

The artist’s soul was on the side of the underdog

In my adult Beginners class, one student can tell that I hate Victory Day. I have never seen her so serious. “In Russia, we suffered. And we remember,” she says. I have not taught her the word “suffer” and she has only recently learnt to use the past simple. I cannot say anything to her. My student has not personally called in the tanks, or played God with the rain. She is not the one who thinks she has authority. She is just living through, like everyone else.

My student who wrote “Hello Kitty” and “Vladimir Putin” on a worksheet about superlative adjectives under the heading “the nicest person in the world” is now of military age.


My favourite of Vasily Perov’s paintings is not a painting of Christ, except insofar as every disenfranchised, angry, dishevelled man is Christ, even if he has just knocked down an archbishop with a gold cross. Nikita Pustosvyat the empty-holy and another Old Believer, disputing the confession of faith with Patriarch Joachim, are so furious and so faithful you can see it in every line of their bodies and in the way their beards stick out. Shabby, defiant, they have caused uproar. The Patriarch looks just mildly appalled, as if this is unseemly. Rays of light through the windows touch odd faces in the crowd, the angry priest’s shoulder.

It is only because Perov died first that the painting is not finished. Still, it seems the artist’s soul was on the side of the underdog: the Old Believers’ hands are real and detailed, expressive in every finger, veined and muscular, as if you could reach out and touch their sweat and hair. The Patriarch, the representative of the powers that be, has the white and angular hands of a lightly pencilled ghost.

I stay in the Perov room until closing time. The entrance foyer of the Tretyakov Gallery is airy, elegant, statuesque. Outside, if you turn left, you can find an arched bridge with a backbone of metal trees. The line of trees runs over the bridge and along the opposite bank, and each one is thick with heart-shaped padlocks, all with their initials and names and sayings. Over the bridge there are real trees surrounding a monument to another great painter, Ilya Repin. A bird flying over the trees crosses the river again and finds the Kremlin towers.

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