In a Certain Land, In a Time That Never Was: Two Slavic Tarot Decks
Reviews of the Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg and The Golden Tarot of the Tsar by Barry Brenesal

If you would like to purchase the Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg book/deck set, click here.

If you would like to purchase the Golden Tarot of the Tsar, click here.

I’m sure you won’t mind a toast, will you?  Sitting down to dinner with new acquaintances usually deserves one, in my experience.  So here’s to diversity, and to wisdom that speaks through many tales in many cultures.  By my way of thinking, some of those tales are told very effectively through the tarot (other tarot purposes to one side), and ethnic tarot decks that accomplish this have been showing up with increasing frequency in the last decade.  They range in character from relatively transparent and humdrum efforts at presenting the Waite-Smith tarot symbolism in new sets of images, to inspired attempts at harmonizing the truths taught by a specific culture within the framework of the Major and Minor Arcana.  

In this regard, it’s refreshing to finally see some interesting decks emerge on the world market from Slavic designers.  The potential there for a distinctly different tarot is considerable, since the geographical region as a whole has had an historical, political, religious and social background over the last thousand years that sets it apart from other European nations to the west.  It has its own myths, its own goals.  Unique ways of viewing all the main rites humanity holds in common, from birth to death, and beyond. 

Regrettably, no tarot deck has shown up yet that provides an in-depth look at Eastern Europe through the eyes of its legends—much less the kind of spiritual journey that a few Western designers, in touch with their own traditions, have portrayed.  But several of these decks furnish solid value of another kind.  The new Golden Tarot of the Tsar, by Atanas Atanassov, is one example.  And while it isn’t new, a comparison with Yuri Shakov’s Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg seems appropriate.  Each deck concerns itself with a major aspect of the Slavic visual arts: folk stylization, in Shakov’s case, and icon painting, in the case of Atanassov. 

Note, that’s icon painting, and not icons painted for any ruling elite.  Golden Tarot of the Tsar is a misnomer, a deck without home in the dwellings of the tsars.  The Russian tsars, like their medieval French and English kingly counterparts, were chosen by their God to guide the secular nation according to His Will.  They were the defenders of the faithful, the scourge of heresy, and religiously orthodox of the orthodox—literally and well as figuratively in the case of the Russian tsars, who were devoted sons of the Russian Orthodox Church.  On no account would a tsar have possessed a tarot deck, much less one commissioned personally for his use.  One might as well expect Pope John Paul II to run a Kabalistic hotline in his spare time, or Billy Graham to set up shop as a Reiki consultant. 

The title is made still more tenuous when you realize that the deck’s designer, Atanassov, is a Bulgarian, rather than a Russian.  Russian control over Bulgaria didn’t really begin until Soviet tanks invaded in 1944.  In fact, between 1393 and 1878, Bulgaria was a conquered part of the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey).  But before you ask, Golden Tarot of the Sultans wouldn’t be appropriate, either.  Bulgaria steadfastly retained its Southern Slavic culture during those long centuries under sometimes oppressive Ottoman rule.                    

Bulgarians and icon painting are a natural fit, though.  What are icons?  The word derives from the Greek eikon, or image.  In Eastern Orthodox religious art, an icon is frequently painted on wood.  It usually presents the portrait of a member of the Christian holy family or a saint, looking out in static pose at the viewer.  Sometimes these figures are associated with an important symbol.  The images are not personally characterized, and frequently (but not always) appear unemotional.  (An exception lies in the many images of Mary and the newborn Christ, where Mary is often portrayed wearing a look of preternatural sorrow.)  In this, icons have been compared to mandalas as focal points for meditation and worship, lifting viewers outside themselves—the opposite of the modern Christian tradition, which attempts to personalize its God for each believer. 

Icons came to Bulgaria along with Greek Orthodox missionaries, and the eventual forced conversion of the nation under Khan Boris I (852-889) and his successor, Simeon (893-927).  Intended as a vehicle for focusing worship, we can speculate that the diversity of iconized saints and religious figures may have led to a quasi-folk pantheism that made Christianity easier for its early Balkan adherents to accept.  (Even during the heyday of the Italian Renaissance, the collective citizenry of urban centers like Florence and Milan treated locally honored saints as though they were distinct Gods, to be individually propitiated, and on occasion punished, when they failed to deliver appropriate weather, victory in battle, etc.)  When these images were combined with the cult of relics—a supposed lock of hair from a martyr, a vial of blood from an early bishop stored at a local church—they formed a visceral grounding for religious worship that greatly increased the popularity of Christianity among the largely rural population.   

The relic cult and ancillary pantheism have long since faded from Balkan Orthodoxy, but that emphasis on the icon in Bulgarian religious life remains a potent force to this day.  When I visited the Rila Monastery outside Sofia, Bulgaria, nine years ago, it was to observe a huge internal space whose walls and ceilings were literally covered across every available inch with icons and icon-influenced art.  Most visitors (and there was a constant influx) were Bulgarians, because Bulgaria remains a very religious nation; and it is difficult to find an Orthodox worshipper’s home that doesn’t possess at least one painted wooden icon on a dining room or bedroom wall, usually duplicating a religious image copied from an original that is several centuries old.  The main marketplace in Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second largest city, plays host on weekends to more than a dozen vendors who paint and sell these icons to the general public. 

You can sense this background steeped in an iconographic culture in the images of Atanassov’s deck.  The Major Arcana and face cards of the Minor Arcana are posed against swirling, richly gilt backgrounds, bordered in maroon, with card titles on the left side. The represented figures are all two-dimensional; their faces calm, usually revealing no expression.  Reds and blues predominate; clothing is simple, typically robes and a cloak; physical location is sketchy at best—perhaps a few nondescript towers, or distant mountains sketched behind the main figure.  Individuality is of no importance in this sacred art form.  Instead, the artist seeks to do the best possible job within rigid (by modern Western standards) stylistic constraints, remaining true to traditions that in some cases stretch back more than a thousand years.  There is a famous icon of Saint Demetrius of Thessalonika, painted at the end of the 17th century, which contains nearly all these traits, and bears a startling resemblance to the figures in the Golden Tarot of the Tsars, as though the artist were one and the same.  It is not an accidental result, but conscious emulation, producing art whose unvaried imagery resonates with a power that, like heartfelt ritual, increases over time.   

It isn’t necessary to be part of the Judeo-Christian tradition to be impressed by the design and realization of these cards that have been transmogrified into Christian images under the Byzantine influence.  The tarot we typically think of as the Magician is called the Resurrection of Lazarus, here: a haloed Christ, backed by a few pilgrim faces, gesturing at a partially mummified figure leaning against a vault, next to a coffin.  The pose of Christ, the folds of his robe, Lazarus’ head bent still in asleep, a few towers casually outlined in the back against gilt, all contribute to make this a memorably dramatic scene without the bathetic element that latter-day Italian Renaissance painters frequently added for effect. 

Or take the High Priestess, here called Saint Paraskeva: an impressive, middle-aged, female figure in blue robes and red hooded cloak, standing on a nondescript platform.  One arm cradles a bejeweled book in its crook.  Her expression is alert, but at peace, and completely centered within.  There is a feeling of something concealed in the way she clutches an Orthodox cross while holding her cloak closed.  Certainly the effect is nothing like that of the twin pillars and initiatrix from the Waite-Smith deck, yet something of the latter’s meaning remains. 

Similar links with Waite-Smith are clearly intended for other images in the Major Arcana.  Saint Sophia pours water from one jug into another on the Temperance card.  The Star becomes the Nativity.  Strength is now Saint George and the Dragon.  (And a small dragon by comparison it is, too, rather like a scaly whippet with miniature bat wings.)  Where no comparative Christian attributions are possible, some have been manufactured, with scant success.  The Moon has become The Ascension, while The Tower has turned amusingly into Saint Simeon the Stylite—a physical identification of image, certainly, since Simeon lived atop a high pillar (read: tower) in the 5th century A.D. for thirty-seven years, preaching his religion to multitudes who gathered, but that’s all.  Simeon’s pillar was struck by popularity, rather than lightning bolts, and Simeon never fell. 

Curiously, the face cards of the Minor Arcana are the only cards in the Golden Tarot of the Tsar that lack religious associations.  The images follow traditional divisions of king, queen, mounted knight and page.  With the absence of backgrounds, facial expressions and varying body type, Atanassov is forced to rely on changes in age (a white beard vs. a brown one) and very slight differences in clothing to provide some variety.  The results are again visually appealing, but not very successful as differentiated images.  The queens in particular are simply further reproductions of the Saint Paraskeva figure, with differently colored robes and elemental weapons in hand. 

The rest of the Minor Arcana mix a variety of sacred images directly derived from the Greek Byzantine tradition, and frequently copied from small portions of larger themes.  Disappointingly, these images are presented in miniature, cropped into an area whose diameter is approximately 1 ¾”, on approximately 4 ¾” x 2 ½” cards.  The geometric shape of the image window is determined by the suit: circular for swords, diamond for wands, hexagon for pentacles, square for cups.  Various suit-oriented designs again overlay the gilt backgrounds: gold angels and cups, aqua-and-gold swords, gold medallions and pink angels, and large aqua-and-black wands (religious staffs of office). 

One of the criteria I use to evaluate the effectiveness of a tarot deck is whether its images actually suggest in any way the titles and contents of the cards themselves, according to the designer’s stated intentions.  That’s definitely not the case with most of Atanassov’s Minor Arcana.  For example, the Three of Cups is described as “The Wedding of David and Bathsheba,” with the given divinatory meaning of “imminent marriage,” or “couple in trouble.”  (The latter isn’t intended for a reversed position; none are given in the fourteen-page foldout that accompanies the deck.)  Yet all the card displays is a queen and king talking to what appears to be a page, who is handing the king a cup.  Similarly, the Seven of Wands is referred to as “Saint Demetrius and the Antichrist,” with a meaning of “Long battle against a strong a ruthless enemy.”  All we see, however, is a pair of in no-wise remarkable knights approaching one another on horseback.  There are effective exceptions, but they are just that, exceptions.  Using the Golden Tarot of the Tsar for divinatory purposes would require memorizing all its meanings, since they aren’t apparent in the images themselves. 

Superficially, the Golden Tarot of the Tsar and the Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg appear to offer striking similarities.  Both strictly adhere to artistic styles that minimize originality.  Both base their imagery on indigenous cultural traditions: sacred Byzantine icons in one case, Russian and Ukrainian folklore in the other.  Both decks are inordinately beautiful, though the image display area is reduced by being set within only a small portion of any given card.  The Major Arcana in each of the two decks is suitable for meditational and pathworking purposes.  Yet there are striking differences that make The St. Petersburg tarot less original, and more successful as a divinatory tool. 

The author of the deck, Yuri Shakov, was a Palekh master.  This village in old Russia (about 250 miles northeast of Moscow) became famous in the 18th century for the remarkable colors achieved on its icons through painted gold leaf and egg yolk tempura.  In the early Soviet period, seven artists formed a partnership collective in Palekh to revive these techniques and others with largely folk-influenced subject matter, for the manufacture of paper-maché boxes.  The results began to win international awards at once, and the Palekh Art School was formed in 1935.  It produced master craftsmen versed in a style with which the area has been associated ever since, despite an expansion into other materials (notably ceramics): music boxes, miniatures, and display plates.  At its height, Palekh had roughly two hundred masters and apprentices working on a variety of commissions.  The loss of state sponsorship and old markets that followed upon the collapse of the Soviet Union initially hurt Palekh severely, but the collective has bounced back with new initiatives aimed at broader audiences and wealthy, foreign investors.  Modern Palekh works range in price from simpler but attractive items priced at under $100 to complex, elaborate one-of-a-kind pieces that sell for more than $2500. 

The Palekh style, which all its artisans display, is a matter of technique and style.  A small portion of the technique has been briefly mentioned.  As for the style, backgrounds are almost always composed of black, shiny lacquer.  A border, usually an abstract motif in gold leaf, surrounds the main subject, which is almost always folk-based.  Human subjects are generic, without special features that would set them off as individuals; however, they do display a full range of emotion on their expressive faces.  Draftsmanship is excellent, and many images include areas of opulently refined detail.  Perspectives are flat, or flat along several planes at different distances.  Colors are rich and glowing, like internally lit jewels set against black velvet. 

All of these factors are present in Shakov’s Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg—even a stylization of the black lacquer base material, here rendered as a simple black background with a flat gold-banded border.  Each image is restricted to an oval area, roughly 3” by 2” (the card size is slightly more than 4 ¾” x 3”), while the portion of the card between the oval and the gold border features an elaborate, thinly drawn gold-against black floral tracery.  (Note that the Russian Tarot cards all offer images that are larger than the Golden Tarot’s Minor Arcana, but smaller than the latter’s Major Arcana.)  Card titles are placed along the bottom of each tarot, while the Major Arcana are numbered along the top.  Minor Arcana add a pair of appropriate elemental images in the tracery: cups, pentacles, and sections of swords or wands. 

Few tarot decks can claim the artistic distinction of the Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg.  Consider the Emperor card, where the geometric hemming of the tsar’s robe gives way first to a conch shell design, and then an elaborate vine motif.  Or the platform for his throne, with its combination of incised, beribboned heraldic St. George shield and vinery on the side giving way to a diamond design on top.  This kind of detail isn’t common in the cards, but its precision and placement whenever it occurs speaks well to Shakov’s years of apprentice training and professional experience.    

Or take a look at the Ten of Swords.  This tarot is an excellent example of both skill in overall composition (the dead soldiering nobleman lying as though placed by honoring hands within the sweep of its sumptuous cape; one sword by its left hand, pointing downwards beneath the body, the other nine embedded within it, fanned out from above) and coloration (the green boots, the blue hose, the skirt with its green and black geometric hemming; the blue-bordered, salmon-colored cape, with blue lozenges).  The border of storm clouds, shading to black from a vibrant aqua, seem to rise within and define the area of the nine swords. 

The content of this card should provide a hint as to the deck’s primary failing, if failing it is; for despite the occasional website selling the Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg as an infusion of Russian history and fable into the tarot, its minor arcana images are Waite-Smith playing dress-up.  Thus ran Shakov’s commission; and he supplied accordingly, enlivening matters occasionally with his remarkable pictorial imagination.  (Surely no other Page of Cups ever stared in wonder at such a brilliantly bejeweled cup, a gold vessel diademed in sapphires and a single ruby; nor has such a cup ever yielded a haloed fish.)  Which is a cultural shame, because the Palekh masters were adept at depicting the folktales of their native land.  A fine tarot deck and explanatory book could have been made out of those same folktales and legends of an older, pre-Christian religion which remained active in the countryside long after it vanished beneath Christianity’s floodtide, elsewhere.   

The Major Arcana is only slightly better in this respect, for a few of its cards hint at the stories told by minstrels since the times of Kievan-Rus.  Thus, the Hanged Man poses just as Waite demanded, but the apple tree he  dangles from also supports the mythic firebird or phoenix, the Tsar Pzita, King of the Birds, who rises eternally from his own ashes.  Most interestingly, Shakov chose to depict one historical figure in his deck, whose face is a standout in the way it violates Palekh's self-imposed generic features.  The card in question is the Devil, and the face it's given is that of Josef Stalin, the feared dictator who engineered the death of more of his own citizens than Hitler killed Jews.  Shakov engages in some wonderfully satirical imagery on this single card, which stands out from the rest--such as the cheap, clichéd tattoos (which the 24-page booklet claims exhibits Stalin's "criminal nature") and the pair of eyes for his chest nipples (surely symbolic of Stalin's state police, the KGB, and feared network of heavily rewarded informants). 

The designer and artist of the Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg lived under the later, most horrific years of Stalin’s regime, as well as those of Krushchev and Brezhnev.  Yuri Shakov was born in 1937, and eventually became among the most distinguished of his generation’s Palekh masters.  However, his disagreements with the Soviet government led to his forced emigration to the US during Brezhnev’s tenure.  Supposedly, the only possession they allowed him to leave with was a single picture of his dead wife—a melodramatic story for which I have confirmation from only a single, secondary source, but not an unheard-of event from a spiteful Soviet government when its professional artists and craftspeople emigrated or were held in official disgrace.  Shakov settled in the United States, where this tarot deck eventually became his last commission before his death in 1989. 

As an art deck, the Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg is one of the finest available, for all the reasons already described.  The sheer beauty of the cards, their coloration, drawing, masterly composition and ingenious detail, may also contribute ironically to make it less suitable as a meditational tool for some users, who prefer a concentration of effect upon a single, unifying image (such as Atanassov’s Major Arcana generally offer).  For divination, though, Shakov’s deck makes a seamless transition from the standard Waite-Smith tarot.  It is among my personal favorites when I’m reading for others, along with the Alchemical and Thoth tarots.

As I intimated at the start of this article, there’s still room out there for a tarot that reflects the lessons learned by, and expressed within, the various cultures of Eastern Europe.  Neither the Golden Tarot of the Tsar nor the Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg furnish anything approaching this.  But both decks in their own respective ways should please the tarot lover, and thrill the connoisseur of fine artistic tarot decks.  

If you would like to purchase the Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg book/deck set, click here.

If you would like to purchase the Golden Tarot of the Tsar, click here.

Barry Brenesal has been a student of the tarot for three decades.

Images of the Russian Tarot of St. Petersburg © US Games
Images of the Golden Tarot of the Tsar © 2002 Lo Scarabeo
Review © 2002 Barry Brenesal
Page © 2002 Diane Wilkes