The context of the scene begins with a letter from the Patriarch Germogen, who sent a letter secretly from his imprisonment in Moscow to Nizhnii Novgorod. He warned the inhabitants that the Polish King Sigismund’s had the ambition of conquering all of Russia. Russian Orthodoxy was under threat, and the Patriarch was calling to arms all of Russia against the Catholic Polish invaders (Dunning 278). Germogen’s specific choice of Nizhnii Novgorod as the recipient of the letter was entirely intentional. The merchants in the city were increasingly worried about declining trade traffic due to the conflict with the Poles, and Germogen figured that the merchants would thus make strong supporters in a move for national liberation from the poles. He also weighed the fact that Nizhnii Novgorod had a garrison of five hundred soldiers, and vast wealth from their commerce, into his calculation to send the letter there.
The entreaty was successful on all accounts: not only was there a strong popular response, but the wealth behind the response funded much of Russia’s second national militia (Dunning 279). The Butcher of Nizhnii Novgorod, Kuzma Minin, stood up and gave a passionate and patriotic appeal to the townsfolk to liberate Moscow. This is the specific scene depicted by Makovsky, which beautifully, if fancifully, captures all these aspects of the story. The wealth of the city, displayed by the large bags held by those at Minin’s feet, and the gold, silver, and fine cloths piled on the left foreground of the painting, and to the right of Minin. The religious fervor is apparent, with the traditional church of St. John the Baptist featured prominently in the background, which Minin is pointing to on his right. The church is packed with people, and in front are banners and a religious icon of Mary, as well as incense. And to the right of Minin is perhaps a streltsy, a Russian infantry unit with the characteristic bardiche poleaxe. Behind Minin is the kremlin, one of the strongest in Russia even I the 1600s, a sign of the military strength the city could provide.
The entire picture works together beautifully. Military on the right hand of Minin, the church and wealth on his left, and all around are hordes of people, many visibly excited to give their wealth or join the movement. Makovsky picture certainly captures the national perception of the famous appeal. The patriotic fervor is borne out by another piece of historical evidence: the villagers all strongly agreed to grant almost despotic power to Minin in the form of extraordinary tax collection to fund the national liberation campaign (Dunning 292). By 1612, Moscow had been liberated, and Nizhnii Novgorod had proved its patriotism.
Today, a monument of Minin and Pozharskii (the general appointed by Minin) stands in Red Square, commemorating their national contribution of saving Russia from the Poles (evidently Soviet leaders were willing to overlook their direct contribution in putting the Romanov dynasty on the throne fact).