Stories of Diaspora

Icons were one of the many cultural artifacts caught in the middle of the Bolshevik's zealous attempts to expunge Russia of its traditional culture. Seemingly overnight, icons lost all spiritual or cultural value (officially, at least), and were deemed worthless, potentially dangerous objects that needed to be removed from the Russian landscape. It was during this period that an increasing number of Russian icons flooded the American market. By the late 1920s, many icons were channeled into America and Europe by the Soviet government, who saw an opportunity to make some much-needed foriegn currency. As the stories below illustrate, icons were also brought to the U.S. by Russians fleeing the Soviet regime. These icons have become the bearers of memory, the physical remnants of personal histories and of the Russian diaspora. 

The following provenance information was dutifully recorded by Mrs. Evelyn LaLanne. Some are her personal notes, others are notes she recorded from "Baron Meller," from whom she purchased several icons.

"Baron Meller" was likely Baron Michael Meller-Zakomelsky, the grandson of a famous general in Imperial Russia, who was born in Russia shortly before the Revolution and orphaned at a young age. He was brought to the United States and adopted by a couple at age 4, and was renamed Robert E. "Mischa" Gross. Mischa became an antiquarian interested in all things Russian, especially Russian imperial orders and decorations. He was one of the founding members of the Orders and Medals Society of America (OMSA), an organization that researches and documents decorations, medals, and other military honors. According to Mrs. LaLanne, Baron Meller ran a Russian antique store on Grand Ave. in San Francisco during the 1920s which acquired and sold Russian icons. Icons from his estate were sold at auction in November, 1971 by Parke-Bernet Galleries.


“This was purchased from a couple of elderly Russians who came from Kiev. The man was an important official there. He told me that the icon came to him from his grandfather who took part in the war of 1812 (Napoleon’s invasion of Russia) and was heavily wounded and taken prisoner by the French, at the battle of Smolensk. The city of Smolensk had a miraculous icon of the Madonna held in great esteem. The icon was taken out of the city before it was given up to the French. He eventually escaped both prison and death and to commemorate that he ordered a copy of the Madonna of Smolensk." -"Baron Meller" most likely Baron Michael Meller-Zakomelsky


“The two icons of Christ and the Madonna in the shadow box came from the same people as the Smolensk Mother of God icon. They were their wedding icons. Russians have it that at a wedding the bride and the groom be blessed with the two icons of Christ and the Madonna. These people were married in the 1870s. Both have died since... These people left Russia under gross difficulties and during their escape the icons got damaged. They had them repaired on arriving to San Francisco.”  -"Baron Meller" 


"During the 1920s, I had a store on Grant Avenue in San Francisco (antiques and arts) and a great many people came in to see various things. One day a man came in and said that he had just returned from Russia (Vladivostok) and had a number of Russian articles for sale, amongst them three icons. The man was one of a group of American engineers who were doing some work for the Bolsheviks in Siberia. The time was 1920-21. In those days a great many Americans were doing work in Russia for the government. During the construction of some barracks, he noticed a lot of icons lying on the ground and on inquiring, was told that, as lumber is scarce in that part of Siberia, the icons will be used as flooring in the barracks. After the construction was complete as few icons were left over and he took them. The icons, the one with the face of Christ, is known in Russian as the ‘Marookotvorenny [sic] obraz’ (not hand made issue) is one of those there. I bought three from this man in 1921."  -"Baron Meller" 

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“The two small icons, ‘came to me from a former Russian sailor who got them from a Valamm [sic] monastery on the Lake Ladoge [sic] in northern Russia. The centuries old Valaar monastery was very famous and revered in old Russia. During the early days of the revolution, being situated on an island of a very large lake it served as a refuge to many Russians hiding from the Bolsheviks. The sailor, like many others, was escaping the terror, then reigning in Russia, by way of Finland and took refuge in the monastery. On leaving the monks gave him a number of icons to be taken out and saved from the Bolsheviks. Of that number only three reached me. The monastery was eventually looted and destroyed by the communists.'" -"Baron Meller"

St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker

"Mr. Meller got the icon from Mr. Jerry Lanfield [sic] an old Californian member of the SF Bohemian Club etc. who several years ago (before the Russian Revolution) made a trip to Russia and married a princess Lobanov-Rostovsky. She was a great friend of Prince Andrew of Greece (he is the father of Prince Philip the Queen of England’s consort). The princess brought this icon with her from Russia (the princess is a cousin of Professor Lavonov [sic] of UCLA, 1938 whom Evelyn [LaLanne] took European history from and who is now teaching and living in Michigan.)"- Mrs. Evelyn LaLanne

Mr. Landfield did indeed marry Princess Liubov Lobanov-Rostovskaia in 1906. According to the San Francisco Call, Landfield was a Russian history professor at Berkley who travelled to Russia to study the effects of the Revolution. Professor Landfield met the Princess in St. Petersburg in the summer of 1905, and his courtship was aided by the princess' mother, the Grand Duchess Marie who was a good friend of Lanfield.

This icon would have had special interest to Mrs. LaLanne because the princess's cousin, Andrei A. Lobanov-Rostovsky was one of her professors at UCLA. Professor Lobanov was born in Yokohama, Japan while his father was in the Czar's diplomatic service. He returned to Russia as a child and was educated there and in France. In 1913, he joined the Russian Imperial Guards, and served as a Captain in Poland before joining the French Army. He later served with General Deniken in South Russia, joining White Russian forces against the Bolsheviks. He first came to the United States in 1930, and went on to become a professor of history at the University of Wyoming and UCLA before moving to the University of Michigan.