Out of Russia: Return to old icons as the Blessed Margaret fails to deliver

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MOSCOW - As a piece of office furniture, Lenin always stuck out. He would scowl over the shoulder of every official, his head at least twice the size of the person's you were talking to. Even when the portraits were taken down, as most of them have been by now, he still had a conspicuous, albeit more ghostly, presence: a miscoloured patch where his head used to hang.

Far more discreet, but I suspect, no less demanding, is his replacement as the indispensable icon of Russia's political class. The instincts that turned Lenin into an object of veneration have not vanished. They simply shifted back to their source. The new icon is precisely that - an icon. Now Jesus or the Virgin peer down from the wall instead.

Objects of religious devotion never disappeared from many homes, particularly in the countryside. When Yuri Gagarin, the greatest hero of Soviet scientific rationalism, orbited the earth in 1961 his peasant mother still had small paintings of Christ and the Virgin in their living room. (As soon as her son returned in one piece, the Communist Party had them removed).

Suddenly, though, icons are not just for superstitious old women. Russian politicians of every stripe are rushing to declare their devotion, adorning their office with pictures of the Virgin, a favourite saint or, in the case of the campaign manager for Russia's Choice, Margaret Thatcher.

I first noticed the phenomenon while waiting for an interview three weeks ago with Vladimir Zhirinovsky, before the elections, and had time to look around. His office is like a messy teenager's bedroom, walls plastered with posters, photographs of himself and a world map. A teddy bear sat next to a television set, along with a model fighter plane.

Surveying the chaos from a painted wooden block in the corner is St Nikolai, the Russified St Nicholas of Santa Claus fame. Like Mr Zhirinovsky, St Nikolai, in his Russian version at least, was something of a populist, a man for ordinary people to turn to in their prayers in times of trouble. Despite being a foreigner - he was a 4th-century bishop in what is now Turkey - St Nikolai also did his bit for the Russian empire. Legend has it that an icon with his portait appeared on a tree as Russian troops marched by on their way to the battle of Kulikova with Mongol Tartars. They won. Mr Zhirinovsky is not a deeply religious man himself. But he understands that people like to believe in miracles.

Compare this with the approach of Russia's Choice, the main reformist bloc led by Yegor Gaidar. No easy miracles on offer here. Mr Gaidar complains that too many voters listened to 'sweet lies instead of boring unpleasant truth'. Consider the party's choice of icons. Its main campaign strategist, Arkady Murashev, kept two on his mantelpiece in a superb tsarist-era mansion in the middle of Moscow. One was a picture of Jesus Christ, complete with thorns and a grimace. The second was a photograph of Lady Thatcher. The two creeds go hand-in-hand, explained Mr Murashev: 'Christian values are the only foundation for a free society and free-market economy.' Did he believe in God himself? 'It seems to me I'm probably a believer.' Not much fire in the belly at Russia's Choice. No wonder so many opted for a different choice.

Voters like miracles. A recent survey found that 40 per cent of Russians believe in them, compared with 30 per cent who believe in Hell or Heaven. Twenty eight per cent said they consider themselves 'close to God'. According to the author of the study, Andrew Greeley, a University of Chicago sociologist and Catholic priest, Russia is now in the throes of the world's biggest ever religious revival, more sweeping in its possible consequences than the Islamic revival of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. A third of all Russians now consider themselves church-goers, compared with only 10 per cent raised in the Orthodox Church.

This spurt of religious fervour has not been lost on politicians. President Boris Yeltsin, like tsars before him, seizes every opportunity to be seen with the Patriarch and goes to church at Christmas, celebrated in Russia in January. Perhaps he read another survey that shows 63 per cent of his subjects trust the Church but only 36 per cent the President. But God, and the Russian Church, can be fickle. Father Gleb Yakunin, a radical democrat and fervid fan of Mr Yeltsin in the old Soviet parliament, was defrocked as soon as he declared himself a candidate for the new State Duma. To make matters worse, he lost. Badly.

And even the most sacred of icons - not merely the ornamental trinkets used by interior decorators to fill gaps left by Lenin - sometimes prove impotent. On the morning of Sunday 3 October, Patriarch Alexei II wielded the most powerful weapon in his spiritual armoury to avert bloodshed between Mr Yeltsin and foes holed up in the Russian White House. He ordered Russia's holiest protector and one of its most cherished works of art, the 12th-century Madonna of Vladimir, brought by minibus to bless futile peace talks. Soon afterwards, the first shots were fired. There were other casualties too. It was later announced that the priceless Our Lady of Vladimir had been damaged en route. At least with Lenin, it never really mattered much if he got bashed around.