Leonid Alexandrovich Ouspensky

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Leonid Alexandrovich Ouspensky was a noted iconographer of the Church of Russia in emigration following the Bolshevik takeover of the government of Russia in 1917.


In 1902, Leonid Alexandrovich Ouspensky was born in the northern part of the Voronezh region of Russia, on his father's small estate in the village of Golaia Snova (now Golosnovka). His father, Alexander, a member of the local gentry, was of modest wealth. His mother was a country woman, and he had two younger sisters, Alexandra and Anna. Leonid Ouspensky studied in the Zadonski Gymnasium (Middle School) in Zadonsk, 70 kilometers away that was the nearest school to the family estate. He returned home to the estate for vacations. From the start of World War I in 1914, he worked with his father each day doing field work as many of the field workers had been mobilized in the Russian army. He enjoyed the work and, even in his old age, he was able to scythe hay very well. As he grew he became a convinced atheist by 1917.

As the disorders developed through 1917, Leonid became the chief instigator behind many disorders and changes in the gymnasium student body. He traveled through the villages preaching atheism and when entering homes he threw out icons. He gathered together a group of five of his fifteen and sixteen years classmates, and convinced them in joining him to leave school and enlist in the Red Army. However, they were refused and sent back to school. A few months later, in 1918, he tried again and was accepted.

As his military career began he suffered a severe attack of typhus. Taken off the train at Ekaterinodar, now Krasnodar, he searched for a place to stay. He finally found a cobbler who took him in, fed him, and gave him a place to sleep. Once recovered, Leonid rejoined the war as a member of the Red Army Zhloba Cavalry Division in the Caucasus. In June 1920, Leonid escaped the destruction of his division when it was trapped by a White Infantry Detachment. After his capture by the White unit, he was saved from a firing squad when a White colonel directed that he be enrolled in the artillery of the White general Kornilov. Under constant surveillance, Leonid learned the value of silence, a trait he mantained for the rest of his life.

Leonid retreated with the White Army to Sevastopol and was evacuated to Gallipoli where he was left suffering and starving with a group of friends. From there he made his way to Bulgaria, where he worked at a salt plant, followed by a vineyard, and later as a quarry-worker. Often starving, he suffered temporary blindness from malnutrition. Leonid next worked in a dangerous job at a coal mine at Pernik in western Bulgaria until 1926. He was injured twice, but he no longer starved.

At that time French recruiters offered work contracts for jobs that the French did not want to do and thus fell to Italians, Poles, and Russians to do. He signed a one-year contract with a firm at Le Creusot in central France. This move brought him to France. Assigned to work at a foundry, he stepped into some molten metal and was severely burned. After several weeks he recovered, but under his contract, after coming out of hospital, Leonid had to pay the company compensation for failing to fulfill his contract. Then, he left for Paris to work at a factory making bicycle parts.

In 1929, an Academy of Arts was opened in Paris, on the initiative of Tatiana Lvovna Sukhotine-Tolstoi, at which many well-known artists taught. Leonid, who had a love for painting but had been limited to copying post cards with flowers, enrolled, fitting time for classes with his bicycle factory piece-work. In the academy, Leonid met two people who were to play an important role in his life — his first wife, also an artist, and George Ivanovich Krug, the future Hieromonk Gregory. While the marriage was short-lived, the friendship with George lasted for the rest of Leonid's life.

The company of artists and students worked together. They spent summer vacations at the summer villa of the artist Konstantin Andreyevich Somov in Normandy. From these summer sessions came creative, talented drawings and portraits that the aspiring painters made of each other.

During this time Leonid and the students began earning money by designing and painting on textile for reproduction on scarves for large clothing stores in Paris. Soon, Leonid painted his first icon. This resulted from a conversation about icons and icon painting in which he opined that it was not a very difficult thing to do. Challenged by a friend that he could not paint an icon successfully, Leonid took up the challenge. But, immediately after he finished the icon he destroyed it, realizing that he had done something inappropriate. From this incident he gradually grew a serious interest in the icon and developed a genuine religious faith leading to his return to the Church.

In time, together with George Krug, he decided to leave secular painting altogether and to devote himself exclusively to icon painting. George Krug already knew something about the technique of icon painting that he had learned when he lived in Estonia. Leonid began by taking icon painting lessons from the Russian iconographer Sergei Fyodorov, but soon he was on his own because he lacked funds to pay for lessons. At that time antique shops in Paris still possessed many good icons that Leonid studied for hours, scrutinizing them in a professional way. Later, he would say that these ancient icons had been his real teachers.

In the late 1930s, he followed George Krug and joined the association of Orthodox theologians, intellectuals, and artists in Paris known as the Brotherhood of St. Photius. There, he became close to the theologian, Vladimir Lossky, and to the brothers Maxim and Evgraf Kovalevsky.

During the German occupation of Paris in 1940, Leonid was mobilized for work in Germany. Refusal was not acceptable. Therefore, he went underground and hide, since the German police were looking for him. Living underground had one benefit. He no longer was able to paint for secular patrons, so he dedicated himself completely to painting icons and wood carving, followed later, to icon restoration.

In 1942, Leonid married Lydia Alexandrevna Miagkov. Then, in August 1944, Paris was liberated. With the organization of a French theological institute, L’Institut Saint Denis in 1944, Leonid was placed in charge of a course in icon painting which he taught for the next 40 years.

In 1945, Leonid and his wife applied for the restitution of their Soviet citizenship which was granted in June 1946. In 1958, they visited Russia for the first time since their exile in the 1920s after which they began visiting Russia quite frequently. Subsequent trips provided him opportunities for continuing research and study of old icons.

Leonid made only limited public appearances, accepting an invitation of the Church of Finland only twice to deliver lectures. In 1969, he gave a number of lectures at the invitation of the Sorbonne in Paris. Also in 1969, he gave five lectures at the Theological Academy in St. Petersburg, then Leningrad. The Russian Orthodox Church also awarded him the Order of Saint Vladimir of the second degree, and later of the first degree.

During the illness that preceded his death he confessed and received Holy Communion several times. The last time was five days before he died when he was still conscious but could no longer confess. Leonid Ouspensky died in the night of December 11, 1987. He is buried in the Russian cemetery at Sainte Genevieve des Bois in the southern suburbs of Paris, France.

Published works

In 1948, to foster the understanding and meaning of icon painting and icons, Leonid published a brochure in French entitled L’Icone, Vision du Monde Spirituel explaining aspects of the icon. Subsequently, at the request of the Greek icon painter, Photios Kontoglou, Leonid supervised a Greek translation of the brochure that went through two printings in Athens. In 1952, the book, The Meaning of Icons, co-authored with Vladimir Lossky, was published in Switzerland in both German and English editions.

Leonid then began a serious theological study of Orthodox Church art for inclusion in the encyclopedic German work, The Symbolism of Religions. In 1954, the Moscow Patriarchate began theological pastoral courses in Paris, which included a course on the theology of icons that was given by Ouspensky. This course led to his monumental Theology of the Icon, of which volume one was published in French by the Russian Exarchate in Paris in 1960. In 1978, an English translation was published in New York. As he continued work on volume two, Leonid made extensive revisions and removed certain parts of the original volume one resulting, in 1980, in a new and complete volume Theologie de l’Icone that was published in French. The Russian version appeared posthumously in 1989, and It was later translated into English and published in the United States in 1992.