Andrew Graham-Dixon at the Hermitage in front of David and Jonathan by Rembrandt
If Andrew Graham-Dixon's arts career ever goes belly-up, there is surely a microphone with his name on it at Radio 4, so warm and confident and trustworthy is his voice. Judging, however, by his new three-part programme on BBC Four, The Art of Russia, there is no chance of this happening soon.
It was - as so often seems the case in Russia - the idea of one man. In the late 10th century AD, Vladimir of Kiev decided that there had to be a way of unifying the tribes scattered across thousands of miles. As is also so often the case in Russia, Vladimir imported his solution: Byzantine Christianity.
Russian Orthodoxy brought the flourishing of two great art forms, one it made its own (icons) and one it borrowed (books). Graham-Dixon makes a thoroughly compelling case for the transcendent passion embodied in and evoked by icons (paintings on wood) and the iconostasis (a wall of icons) by observing a service in progress in the Holy Trinity Monastery, where whole walls of the master Andrei Rublev's icons loom, golden, beatific presences. I have tended (through my own ignorance and atheism) to devalue icons, but Graham-Dixon so spiritually conveys what they mean to contemporary and modern Christians that you are moved.
The books are another import: Byzantine scholars developed a written language for the unlettered peoples based on Greek characters, with mystical crosses and circles added. Russian illuminated manuscripts do not match up to the splendours of their Renaissance counterparts, but the letters themselves, Graham-Dixon says, are an art form.
After the Mongols pillaged and burned, the Christians hid out in forests and built churches with onion domes, and only emerged when Ivan let his own brand of violence do its work. At this point, the programme becomes rather too much like a lecture on the history of Russia: art did not develop under Ivan, and although the folk tradition of luboks (popular satirical or fairy-tale prints) continued, Graham-Dixon cannot avoid this change of tone. Thus, it is rather contrived when he says that an old lady (who survived the era of Stalin) with whom he's spent the afternoon has turned her house into a work of art, given that it is no more or less decorated than yours or mine. The idea that portraits of Lenin and Stalin were icons themselves is interesting, but it does not warrant this tenuous connection.
Finally, when Peter the Great came to the throne, his European travels led him to found that most European of cities, St Petersburg, with its hideously over-gilded Baroque Cathedral of St Peter and Paul. Peter also brought with him a fine Rembrandt, sparking a new era in Russian painting, for realistic space, psychology and colours had never before played a part.
What is most interesting is the role of Europe in Russia and the insecurity-disguised-as-pugnacity this engenders in some Russians. Graham-Dixon interviews a rich collector of icons and inadvertently gets involved in an argument when he suggests that one piece of painting is rather Persian. The collector loses his temper and starts yelling about how "we have everything our own" in Russia - he denies any foreign influence at all.
This is fascinating because it both reflects a resurgent Russian nationalism (stoked by previous humiliations and current power) and a complete ignorance of the truth: as Graham-Dixon astutely shows - but does not make too much of - Europe has been everywhere in Russia. From the religion to the script to Rembrandt to (ironically) the arch-nationalist Ivan's adoption of the title "Tsar" (derived from "Caesar"), you cannot tell the story of the art of Russia without the influence of Europe. No doubt the next two programmes will bear this out too.
The Art of Russia continues on BBC Four on Wednesdays at 9pm. Watch it on BBC iPlayer.