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The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Letter from a Traveling Art Student (June, 1893)

June, 1893
Dear Respected Konstantin Abramovich,

A funny contradiction.

I have heard that the Muslim religion is meant to restrict the depictions of living creatures. Was it not for this reason that you warned me to keep my drawings of humans and animals private? I remember with great vividness the conversations we had about all of the necessary precautions I should take in this place. After all, it is not the profound, unquestionable holiness of the Orthodox Church that rules here. Despite my expectations, however, I have found the people here to be very agreeable and more than willing to overlook certain religious limitations. Amongst these people seem to be the early architects and painters who, in conflict with the rules about portraying animals which you warned me of, have used a great number of images of creatures in their architectural patterns and ceiling frescos. The Madrasa in which I now sit, the “Nadir Divanbegi Madrasa”, has a strange and beautiful decor which depicts fairy-tale birds. I am told that the decor is a rare example of pre-islamic imagery. The birds flying to the Sun represent “birds of fortune”. (Kirichenko, 95) In another scene, birds attack fallow deer. No one can explain to me the meaning or even origins of these images, although many locals have presented me with theories. These theories, I suspect, are rooted in nothing more than the creative imaginations of those Bukharans which are likely to tell stories to foreigners. This being the case, I will not waste your precious time by detailing the strange myths here. I write this letter merely to bring your attention to a funny inconsistency between the aesthetic and religious culture. I feel this observation could serve as an anecdote for the city itself; a city that is being constantly shaped by thousands of foreign and domestic influences—each louder than the one before. (Kirichenko, 95)

How is the Academy? Have the high level students started their Diploma works yet? Sometimes I grow homesick for the cobblestone streets and late night drunkards. But it is not often that I have the time I hear there is turmoil in Piter—I hope you are safe.

Forever your devoted student and loyal training artist,

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