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Russia in Global Perspective

Our Lady of Kazan


The city of Kazan was first incorporated into Russian territory with the conquest of the Kazan Khanate by Ivan the Terrible in 1552.[i] During the bloody siege, the Kazan Kremlin, and with it several mosques, were completely destroyed, while in Moscow, the Church of the Intercession was built to celebrate Ivan’s victory over the Tartars.[ii] Less than thirty years later, a massive fire spread through Kazan and destroyed much of the neighborhood surrounding the old Kremlin. It is in this area of destruction that the Icon of Our Lady of Kazan, or "Kazanskaya" in Russian, was found by a small child on July 8, 1579.[iii],[iv] Mary, the mother of Jesus in Christian tradition, appeared to the nine-year-old Marfa three times with instructions to dig before the icon was finally found beneath the burnt rubble of a soldier’s house.

[i] Graney, Kate. “Making Russia Multicultural: Kazan at Its Millennium and Beyond.” Problems of Post-Communism. 54.6 (2007): 17–27. Print.

[ii] Romaniello, Matthew P. “Mission Delayed: The Russian Orthodox Church after the Conquest of Kazan’.” Church History. 76.3 (2007): 511–540. Print.

[iii] Atchison, Bob. “Ikon History- Our Lady of Kazan.” Ikons- Windows into Heaven- A Collection of Sacred Images. Web Page. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

[iv] Kazan Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church. “Convent of Kazan Icon of the Mother of God.” Kazan Diocese. Web Page. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.


The icon of Our Lady of Kazan.[i]

[i] Otto, Brandon. Θησαυρος Της Εκκλησιας (Treasures of the Church): Iconic Icons: Our Lady of Kazan. N. p., 2012. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.

In Russia religious icons, like Our Lady of Kazan, are created for the purpose of veneration, and can never lose their status as sacred objects, even if they are damaged or partially destroyed.[i] Icons consist of a wooden panel overlaid with gold leaf, upon which the image is painted. As these objects are believed to contain divine power, they were frequently carried into battle, as Our Lady of Kazan was in 1612.[ii] The icon was credited for the Russians’ victory during Moscow’s liberation from the Polish in November of that year, and the Cathedral of Kazan was built in Moscow to house the icon. The Feast Day of Our Lady of Kazan is November 4, the same date as Unity Day, a Russian national holiday celebrating the 1612 liberation of Moscow.

[i] Espinola, Vera Beaver-Bricken. “Russian Icons: Spiritual and Material Aspects.” Text Article. N. p., 1992. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

[ii] Gade, Varun. “The Return of Our Lady of Kazan to Russia.” Summer 2005. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.


Kazan Cathedral of Moscow, rebuilt in 1990.[i]

[i] Wikimedia Commons. Moscow Kazan Cathedral. N. p., 2008. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.

After the decision was made to house the icon in Moscow, multiple copies of Our Lady of Kazan were made, and it is now unclear where the original icon is housed, if it still exists at all.[i] By the end of the nineteenth century, there were nine copies of Our Lady of Kazan in various parts of Russia, one having being given to Kazan in 1679 following the construction of the Cathedral of the Annunciation[ii]. Our Lady of Kazan was once more credited with a military victory in 1702, when Peter the Great took the icon to battle as he fought against Charles XII in the Great Northern War of 1700-1721.[iii] In 1801, a cathedral dedicated to the icon was constructed in St. Petersburg.[iv] Mikhail Kutusov, a Russian field marshal, credited Our Lady of Kazan with Russia’s victory over the French in 1812, and he was buried in the cathedral in 1813. It is unclear what happened to the original Our Lady of Kazan during this period, and Moscow and St. Petersburg fought over the authenticity of their icons for the next century.[v] As Our Lady of Kazan grew increasingly popular, copies of the icon came to be encrusted with gold and jewels, and in 1904, the icon housed in St. Petersburg was stolen. Police were able to located and arrest the thieves, who claimed that the frame had been sold, but the icon was never recovered. Peasants blamed the proceedings of Revolution of 1905 and the Japanese defeat of Moscow in the Russo-Japanese War on the loss of Our Lady of Kazan.[vi]

During the Russian Revolution, the icon housed in the Kazan Cathedral of Moscow went missing. There are numerous theories of what happened to the icons between 1904 and 1970, when one of the icons was acquired by Msgr. Harold Colgan, a Roman Catholic priest who found the Blue Army of Fatima, an organization dedicated to the worship of Mary.[vii] They intended to hold on to Our Lady of Kazan until the Soviet Union fell and the icon could be handed over safely to the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1993, the Blue Army gifted the icon to Pope John Paul II.[viii] For ten years, the icon was hung in the private apartments of the pope, while the Vatican negotiated with the Russian Orthodox Church to try to send the icon back to Russia with Pope John Paul II as the presenter.  

As the most widely travelled pope in the history of the Catholic Church, it would make sense that Pope John Paul II would seek to visit Russia.[ix] However, as a former resident the Soviet Bloc country of Poland, John Paul II was especially interested in promoting understanding between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, and made the largest strides in diplomacy between the two faiths of any pope to date.[x] Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, and Vladimir Putin all extended invitations to John Paul II, but he refused these invitations to visit Russia upon his usual condition of not being extended an invitation by the state’s religious leader, in this case the Russian Orthodox patriarch. The Russian Orthodox Church feared that a papal visit would turn Orthodox Russians into Roman Catholics, and John Paul II was never able to visit Russia before his death in 2005. Though John Paul II never made the trip to Moscow, the icon of Our Lady of Kazan did. In 2004, the German Cardinal Walter Kasper, then president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, flew to Russia and formally returned Our Lady of Kazan to Patriarch Alexy II in a three-hour ceremony at the Cathedral of the Dormition, where the tsars had been crowned since Ivan the Terrible.[xi] This specific icon, which the Russian Orthodox Church claims to be a copy, was moved to the Kazan Kremlin, where Our Lady of Kazan was originally found, and remains there today.

[i] Caridi, Catherine Clare. “Ideology or Isolationism? Russian Identity and Its Influence on Orthodox-Catholic Relations Part Iii: Pope John Paul Ii and a Prospective Visit to Russia.” Religion in Eastern Europe. 27.3 (2007): 1–14. Print.

[ii] Atchison, “Ikon History- Our Lady of Kazan”.

[iii] Caridi, “Ideology or Isolationsim?”, 5.

[iv] “Kazan Cathedral.” N. p., n.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2014.

[v] Kazan Diocese, “Convent of Kazan Icon of the Mother of God”.

[vi] De Jonge, Alexander. The Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin. 1st ed. New York: Coward, McCann, and Geoghegan, 1992. Print.

[vii] Atchison, “Ikon History- Our Lady of Kazan”.

[viii] Gade, “The Return of Our Lady of Kazan to Russia”.

[ix] Caridi, “Ideology or Isolationsim?”, 9.

[x] The Economist. “The Pilgrim Looks East.” The Economist. 26 Aug. 2004. The Economist. Web. 30 Mar. 2014.

[xi] Gade, “The Return of Our Lady of Kazan to Russia”.


The icon is returned to Kazan.[i]

[i] Bird, David. Our Lady of Kazan. N. p. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.

The story of Our Lady of Kazan exemplifies not only the historical struggles of the Russian people, but also the important cultural ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government. Found during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the first tsar of Russia, Our Lady of Kazan was used by Russian armies to pray for victory from the Polish-Muscovite War of the 17th century, to the Great Northern War of the 18th century, to the French invasion of Russia in 1812. Moving from the former Khanate of Kazan, to Moscow, and to St. Petersburg, Our Lady of Kazan was transferred from place to place as political power shifted within Russia. During the turbulent years preceding the Revolution of 1905, one of the copies of Our Lady of Kazan was stolen, and during the Revolution of 1917, yet another copy went missing. Our Lady of Kazan came into the global spotlight in the early 2000s when the Catholic Church sought to return a copy of the icon to Moscow as part of a papal visit. Despite an official invitation from President Vladimir Putin, the visit never materialized, as the Russian Orthodox Church feared mass conversions to Catholicism and sought to please its conservative, nationalist elements. The link between religion and nationalist military power is especially apparent in the narrative of Our Lady of Kazan. While within Russia, Our Lady of Kazan can be seen as a strictly domestic source of divine power, outside of Russia, Our Lady of Kazan represents the turmoil of Russian history and the increasingly nationalistic shift in Russian politics.