Many of the artifacts in our collection have come to the museum in unexpected ways. The story of a recent acquisition, an icon of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, is no exception.

The icon was found by a long-time supporter of our museum at a recent online estate sale in Maryland. It depicts St. Nicholas in bishop’s garb, holding a Book of Gospels in one hand, and blessing with the other.

Icon of St. Nicholas of Myra, Moscow, 1896-1908. The silver gilt oklad is marked “ИЗ,” likely for the silversmith Ivan Zakharov.

However, it wasn’t the icon’s striking oklad (metal cover) that attracted our attention. Rather, it was the faint inscription on the back, pointing to the icon’s special provenance.

The inscription reads: “A blessing to the Supreme Leader and Ruler of Russia General Pyotr Nikolaevich Wrangel from the parishioners of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Melitopol. June 5, 1920.”

Further research confirmed that Baron Pyotr Wrangel, the was commander-in-chief of the anti-Bolshevik White Army in Southern Russia, was indeed in the area of Melitopol (present-day southeastern Ukraine) at the indicated time.

Wrangel in Skopje

General Pyotr Wrangel arrives in Skopje, ca. 1922. Illarion Sergeevich Lanskoi Family Papers, Russian History Museum.

In June of 1920, during the Russian Civil War, General Wrangel’s forces occupied the city of Melitopol. Wrangel entered the city on June 4th. A. A. Valentinov, an eyewitness of this event, wrote:

The Commander-in-Chief entered the liberated Melitopol for the first time. He arrived towards evening and drove in a car from the station to the church. There were many people on the streets. Many were shouting ‘hurrah,’ although most of the population is still incredulous of its liberation and, being wary of the Reds’ return, is afraid to speak out candidly. 1

Inscription on icon

The back of the icon is covered with silk and bears a dedication to General Wrangel dated 1920.

It was likely on this very occasion that the icon of St. Nicholas was presented to Wrangel. The church mentioned by Valentinov is probably Melitopol’s St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, whose parishioners gifted the icon to the general. The church was founded in 1861, and a new building was constructed in 1899. Unfortunately, the cathedral was destroyed in the 1930s.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Melitopol, late 19th – early 20th c. Source: Wikipedia

The time and place of the icon’s presentation is of significance. On July 3, the White forces defeated the cavalry of Red Army commander Dmitry Zhloba in a decisive battle to the northeast of the city. This was the White Army’s greatest military success of 1920. The Whites captured thousands of prisoners and military equipment, and the Red Army forces were forced to retreat.

How the icon ended up in a Maryland estate sale remains a mystery. Thanks to the vigilance of our museum’s friend, the icon was identified and its provenance verified by museum staff.

The poor condition of the artifact necessitated restoration by a skilled professional. The icon was cleaned and repaired by Nikolai Bachmakov of BNNS, Inc. in New York.

Icon Restoration: Before and After

The icon was in poor condition, with elements of the oklad having come loose. It has since been cleaned and repaired.

The Russian History Museum is deeply grateful to our donor for finding this unique artifact, purchasing it for our museum, and funding its repair.

1. Михайлов Б. Д. В бурях революции // Мелитополь: природа, археология, история. — Запорожье : Дикое Поле, 2002.