Tatiana Vartanova

About the Artist


"These things, whether they're saints or Jesuses or Marys, they're supposed to relate to the faith of the icon artist", says Robert Kymasz, a folk culture expert with the Canadian Museum of Civilization. He commissioned Tatiana to write about her life for the book "The Icon in Canada" published in 1996 by the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

This is her story.

Book on Icons in Canada

What interested Tatiana Vartanova most about Alexander Moskalionov was that both of his brothers were priests. This was very exotic to a young woman raised in a one-bedroom flat on the outskirts of Moscow, a room with no bathtub, where several families shared a coal stove in a communal kitchen.

She was raised without a religion, and it was only in her teens, through art books and chance meetings with people such as Alexander, (or Sasha as he was called) that she would be exposed to something that stirred her deeply. Sometimes it came when she visited the home of Sasha's parents. The books, the furniture - but especially the icons, those vivid inlaid paintings of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary or the saints - held a mystical attraction.

In the spring of 1970, she and Sasha were classmates at art school. One day he asked her to accompany him to a small village to paint murals in a church. The suggestion left 20-year-old Tatiana breathless. "Yes, of course," she said. "However, I don't know how to do that. Why did you choose me?"

Sasha replied, "I chose you because you like to work and you will keep quiet."

Tatiana knew this was dangerous. The Communist authorities would not tolerate such blatant religious expression. If they were caught, they would likely lose their rights to study. They headed to the tiny village and billeted in separate rooms in the home of neighbours of Sasha's brother, the parish priest. They worked by the light of day, but this was truly a clandestine enterprise. They would sneak in a side entrance that faced a cemetery. Tatiana would transfer Sasha's drawings onto the walls. The ceiling was a dark green - it reminded her of a bomb shelter - so she worked at turning it into a clear blue sky.

Later that summer the police came. Sasha and Tatiana had caught the attention of a villager in is 50's or 60's. He had broad shoulders and a wide face, and wore a dark cap pulled down to hide his eyes. Tatiana called im the "old deaf and dumb communist", but he wasn't. One August day, the police surrounded their house and took Sasha and Tatiana in for questioning.

Tatiana sat in the corridor while the investigators spoke to Sasha behind a closed door. They hadn't had a chance to speak, to corroborate their story. She had no idea what Sasha was telling the investigators. That's when Tatiana spotted the door of the storage closet next to the Commander's office. She crept inside and sat down. She could hear everything Sasha was saying. This was his story: He and Tatiana were acting students (they were in fact studying theatre arts and had student identification to back this up) and were on holiday, studying the mannerisms of the villagers for upcoming roles.

When they called in Tatiana, she gave them the same story. The investigators handed her a statement. "Is everything correct?" she was asked. "No. Not entirely," Tatiana replied. She fixed the officer's punctuation before adding her signature. He blushed and apologized. Tatiana and Sasha were sent on their way. As they walked home, Tatiana couldn't help but think how lucky she was to find that closet. She thought to herself, "there must be a God."

Sasha and Tatiana's victory over the secret police was short-lived. During the week that followed, they were hauled in for one interview after another, peppered with questions about their religious beliefs and affiliations. They stuck to their story. They were simple theatre students on a country vacation.

This time it was the KGB's turn to invent a tall tale. They accused Sasha and Tatiana of chasing the children of the village and forcing them to wear crosses around their necks. It was an absurd proposition because Sasha and Tatiana spent all their daylight hours working on the church. At night, Tatiana would curl up with books from the collection of Sasha's brother, the priest.

The KGB ordered them to leave the village. The next morning, in full view of the villagers, Sasha and Tatiana boarded a bus with their luggage and conspicuously left town. At the nearby city of Pskov, they stored their belongings in a locker and took a taxi back to the village. They had three weeks of work left.

Their car zoomed past villagers herding cows by the side of the road. Tatiana spotted the old deaf and dumb communist. "Sasha, on the floor!" she yelled. The car sped past, and the perplexed taxi driver left them in an empty field. They made their way back to Sash'a brother's house under cover of darkness. The priest gave them blankets, and they went back to the church. They covered the windows, turned on the lights, and went back to work.

No longer dependent on daylight, they worked almost around the clock, sneaking back to the house for a few hours' sleep. Sasha's brother would sneak to the church during the day with bread and milk. One day, as their work neared its end, Tatiana peered through a crack in the blankets. She could see the old communist trying to peek into the windows of the church. He wasn't having much luck.

A few days later, Tatiana and Sasha were finished. Sasha's brother joined them and they tore down the heavy wood scaffolding. That night, they left the village for good. She had eluded the KGB. But love and bad timing would bring Tatiana face to face with them again.

Tatiana met her husband toward the end of her art school studies in 1971. Two years later their first daughter Xeniya, was born. A year later they moved to Cairo, where Ilya got a job as an interpreter with the State Committee for Economic Relations. In Cairo, they plotted to defect to the United States, and came close to succeeding had it not been for Ilya's love for his parents and attachment to his country - a fact the KGB used to exert pressure.

While llya worked during the day, Tatiana cased Cairo for the best approach to the American Embassy. She had to be discreet because, as Soviets abroad, their movements were monitored. It was hard to tell who the spies were. The once caught a close friend of llya's - the best man at their wedding - snooping through their personal papers.

For the time being, Tatiana's interest in Christianity had been pushed to the backburner. After graduating from art school, she had gone to work for a state advertising agency in Moscow. She earned her living creating icons of a different sort - labels for Azerbaijan cognac, fruit and berry wines, perfume and candy, pleasures of the flesh to be enjoyed who could afford them. She designed and hand-painted the logos, borrowing motifs from Russian folk art.

She developed the label for a popular Russian brandy, Streletskaya Gorkaya Nastoika, dubbed "the fellow with the axe," after its logo depicting an archer with a pole-axe.

In Cairo, Tatiana designed and modelled women's dresses, her own creations. "I earned quite a bit of money doing that", she says.

By 1976, the time had come to make a run for freedom.

 commercial art - label

They packed what they could and hopped a taxi for the American Embassy, expecting to be stopped either by KBG spies or the Cairo police. At the time, Egypt had close ties with the U.S.S.R. The Americans took them in immediately, and hid them in the embassy until their passage out of the country could be arranged. Given the political climate, even the Americans admitted to them this might be difficult.

"Everything was going smoothly; however, my heart was very heavy," Tatiana later wrote. "Those were cruel times, and once you had fled to the West you could never again expect to have any further contact with those close to you. Not a telephone call, nor a letter. Nothing. It is not enough that you radically change your whole life; you immediately have to bury all your relatives and friends."

Once more in darkness and one step ahead of the KGB, Tatiana, Ilya and three-year-old Xeniya, drugged with a sleeping pill so she wouldn't wake up and blurt out the wrong thing at the wrong time, were whisked to the airport by U.S. diplomats and boarded a flight for Athens, and eventually New York.

They were sequestered at the Tolstoy Farm, a haven for Russian ex-pats in the New York City area. Still, Tatiana was uneasy. A few days later, Ilya returned from a walk, deeply shaken. Two Soviet men had approached him on the street and said, "If you want your parents to remain alive you will return home." Ilya's parents had been through enough. In l915, they had fled violent unrest in Turkey and came to Russia. In 1947, they became the victims of a Stalinist purge when their Assyrian settlement was rounded up and trucked off to Siberia.

Ilya couldn't stand the thought of his parents facing more suffering. They decided to go back to Russia. The Americans would not accept this sudden change of heart. Officials demanded a meeting with the couple. They accompanied them to the foot of the airplane bound for Moscow, and urged them to reconsider. Ilya insisted they wanted to go back - but he never divulged why. Tatiana wanted to scream out, "I want to stay here." But she remained silent. "Of course, I was afraid," she says. "I loved my husband. I wanted to be with him."

 book covers

Back in Moscow, they were interrogated by the KGB for what felt like weeks. They were separated from their daughter. The KGB wanted to know every detail of their escape. One day, Tatiana's fear turned to anger. "Why don't you let me run away a second time" she told her interrogator, "then I can take note of everything down to the final detail?"

Ilya and Tatiana were freed, reunited with their daughter, and told to start over in Moscow, to live like good citizens.

That wasn't easy. The KGB paid them regular, unannounced visits. Friends and family distanced themselves from the couple. Their escapade had been printed in a newspaper.

They sought out political dissidents, but even they considered Tatiana and Ilya too hot to handle. Tatiana got her old job back designing liquor logos - as the wife of a crazy would-be defector, she was slightly less tainted than Ilya. But three years later, she quit, fed up with the menial tasks she was being assigned and the occasional withholding of her salary for no good reason.

Eventually, a dissident made an overture of friendship. He invited Tatiana and llya to a meeting with two high-ranking Russian Orthodox priests, one of whom had married them six years earlier. The couple started going to church regularly. The priest would invite them for dinner at his house after the services. The exposure to religion again stirred Tatiana. Within a year, her faith and her art intersected again. In the spring of 1977, one of the priests arranged for her to work on the icons of the holiest shrine of the Russian Orthodox religion, the Moscow Patriarchal Epiphany Cathedral, the East Bloc's version of the Vatican.

Tatiana was only 15 when she tried to make her first icon, but didn't know the first thing about icon painting. She had seen photographs in an art book. She took an old wooden board, some nails and wire, and laid down a foundation. She covered it with plaster. "It was only in my imagination", she says.

A decade later, while working at the Patriarchal Cathedral, she learned the secrets of the icon. A parishioner taught her how to paint with molten metal and apply gold to icons. A priest continued her instruction, making her paint and repaint the dozens of layers that make up an icon, until her technique was honed.

She supported herself working as a fire inspector at a department store, and later as a security guard, responsible for a pack of German shepherds.

In 1979, their second daughter, Masha, was born. But the same year marked the end of her marriage. She and Ilya were divorced, and she got custody of her two daughters.

Eventually, she no longer needed to take odd jobs to support her family. The Patriarchal Cathedral offered her paid, full-time work as an icon restorer. In 14 years, she painted and restored hundreds of icons, including a massive three-by-six metre depiction of the Ascension of Christ.

During this time her major project was overseeing an ambitious restoration of the Patriarchal Cathedral for the 1,000th anniversary of Christianity in Russia in 1988.

She worked on the church's main iconostasis - a large wall containing icons that is the distinguishing feature at the front of any Orthodox church - restoring its 90 icons.

It was an ambitious effort, one, she says, that enriched her life.

The Patriarch

In 1990, Tatiana emigrated to Canada, and settled in Ottawa. She has painted or restored several dozen icons and worked on restorations of church interiors. She has sold several works to a museum in Geneva, Switzerland. The National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Conservation Institute were among the organizations that vouched for Tatiana when she sought Canadian citizenship. It was granted to her on the basis that she would be a cultural asset to Canada.

Since she settled in Ottawa, Tatiana has been working on the icons for the new St. Xenia of Petersburg Russian Orthodox Church in the west end of Ottawa. Approximately 50 icons are planned for the church, which was built from a design by Tatiana.


NOTICE: All images contained in this website are the property of the artist, and are not to be copied or used in any way.

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{short description of image} Email: TatianaVartanova@ncf.ca

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