Following the cross: a journey with Russian pilgrims

Stella Rock
22 October 2008


Pilgrims at the St Seraphim Spring in Diveevo (phot.Sandra Reddin)


‘Faith means you don't notice the cold, the hunger, the fact your feet are sore,' an Orthodox journalist from Samara tells me, as we prepare to walk 20 kilometres through Siberian forest at dawn. We are amongst 30,000 pilgrims marking the anniversary of the Romanov murders. Pilgrims walk - almost run in the early stages - for around five unbroken hours, after standing through a long night liturgy in Ekaterinburg's Church ‘On the Blood'. Belief in God makes light work of what would be a major physical feat in ordinary circumstances. The old in slippers, the disabled on crutches and in wheelchairs, the young carrying children and heavy icons - all seem oblivious to blisters, mosquitoes and fatigue in their haste to reach the mineshaft into which, ninety years ago this July, the bodies of Nicholas II and his family were cast.

Patriarch Aleksii II has recently commented on the extraordinary resurgence of the krestnyi khod, the ‘cross procession', where believers follow crosses and icons for hours, days, even months in some cases, to worship at Russia's shrines. Around 5,000 new devotees each year join the July 17 krestnyi khod in Ekaterinburg, and in the Kirov region each June thousands of pilgrims cover 150 kilometres over six days, in a procession which is promoted as a tradition surviving from the fifteenth century. Russia, it seems, is not just experiencing a resurgence of pilgrimage, but a resurgence of ‘extreme pilgrimage' - to coin a phrase from the recent BBC series in which an Anglican vicar sets off in search of ‘enlightenment...won by hardship, privation and pain.' [i]

Pain and privation are not the point of these long processions however, even though they may be side-effects, and these acts are perceived as having value for the wider community as well as the individual pilgrim. ‘With golden, glittering threads of krestnye khody we are sewing, refurbishing the spiritual clothes of our Motherland', [Золотыми, сияющими нитками Крестных ходов мы шьем, подновляем духовное одеяние нашей Родины] wrote one procession participant in 2005, and many advocates of the krestnyi khod perceive it as a means to unify and cleanse post-Soviet Russia. A nineteenth century priest described such processions as ‘immortal chronicles', better at preserving memory of important events than ‘memorials of marble or metal'.[ii] Many of today's pilgrimages have similar resonance. Ekaterinburg pilgrims trace the route followed by the Romanovs as they entered the town alive, and on the day of their execution follow the symbolic route taken by their dead bodies.

Whilst these grand public gestures capture the imagination, I witness plenty of minor feats of endurance on my journey from Ekaterinburg to the major convent of Diveevo, via the historic monastery of St Sergius in the Moscow region. On an ordinary July Saturday in the Trinity-St Sergius Lavra, pilgrims queue for two and a half hours to venerate the relics of St Sergius. ‘I come every year for his feast day,' one middle-aged Moscow woman tells me, ‘and whenever I have a problem, in body or in soul'. A woman near us in the queue has come from Voronezh for the first time. ‘He blessed our struggle with the Tatars', she tells me, ‘that's why he's the most venerated Russian saint.' She may be right - at one stage St Sergius was front runner in the controversial ‘Greatest Russian' competition, although he has now (1 October 2008) been vastly outstripped by St Alexander Nevsky, who led a similarly mythologised battle against Western European forces.


The Voronezh pilgrim worries aloud that the CERN particle accelerator will usher in the apocalypse. ‘Don't worry about such things,' my Moscow pilgrim reassures her, ‘just revere his relics and you'll come out feeling great.'

On their advice, I visit a holy spring just beyond the monastery walls. A group of women of all ages persuade me to join them as they queue outside the little wooden bathing hut. They have travelled by coach from Chernigov in Ukraine, and have already visited the monastery of Optina Pustyn - famous for firing the imaginations of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and other nineteenth century literary luminaries. Faced with rickety wooden steps into freezing black water, I mentally gird my loins. Mentally, because once inside the tiny hut I'm ordered to strip completely. One woman questions whether I (as a non-Orthodox Christian) am allowed to bathe, but the majority rules, and they sing me down the steps with instructions to cross myself and duck down three times, ensuring the waters close completely over my head. As I emerge, shaking with shock, they burst into applause. Ludmila, sun-browned and sparkling with good humour, kisses me soundly and hangs a relic of St Nicholas around my neck. I am - as they've predicted - almost converted, but I think by their warmth rather than the water.

As we dry off the Chernigov party cheerfully tell me that they've no accommodation secured for that night, but the monks are letting them sleep in church, ‘under the icons'. Their next stop is to be Murom, and then Diveevo, where their Cossack compatriots are to stand guard on the 1 August feast. We part company, promising to look for each other amongst the ten thousand pilgrims that will gather in Diveevo convent to celebrate the translation of St Seraphim's relics.

The day before Seraphim's feast I join pilgrims in the village of Ardatov, Nizhnii Novgorod region. Their annual cross procession covers 30 kilometres on the way to the Diveevo shrine, and starts with a prayer service at the almost civilised hour of 5am. Unlike the Ekaterinburg procession, which is growing by around 5,000 pilgrims a year, this is a small, mostly local, affair which hasn't grown much in recent years. The only change, a local man tells me, is that nowadays children from the nearby Orthodox summer camp join in. We follow crosses and icons of St Seraphim at a far more leisurely pace than the Ekaterinburg pilgrimage, and break several times on the way.

Resting under a tree in early afternoon, I fall into conversation with two friends from Vladivostok. They are travelling independently to Diveevo via various shrines in St Petersburg, Moscow and Ekaterinburg regions, and from Diveevo they plan to visit Kiev before returning to the Russian Far East. I ask them why they have undertaken such an epic journey. Tamara, an elegant woman perhaps in her fifties, thinks for a moment. ‘The soul needs it, asks for it.' One of her fellow travellers, a local woman, suggests that it is God who prompts us to go on pilgrimage. ‘I can't say that it's God', Tamara responds. ‘I can only say it's my soul.'

The group share their picnic with me, and are keen to tell me that - contrary to my assumptions - they were always able to worship in Soviet times. ‘Of course you can travel more freely now', one muses, ‘and all this is great, but really we've lost more than we gained with the end of the Soviet Union.' There is less kindness now, she feels, less community feeling.

When we reach Diveevo, the bonding nature of Orthodox pilgrimage is everywhere in evidence. ‘We met on the train,' I overhear one pilgrim explaining, as she books an excursion to Seraphim's spring for herself and two friends. ‘We didn't know each other at all, but we were all in the same carriage from Moscow. There, see how Father Seraphim brings us together?' The convent set up a pilgrimage service in 2002 to help the hundreds of thousands drawn to Diveevo by St Seraphim, whose relics were returned to the convent in 1991 after their discovery in a Petersburg museum of atheism. In addition to organising accommodation and excursions, in busy summer months the convent feeds over 3,000 pilgrims a day. On important feast days visitor numbers can reach 10,000. They are not short on prestigious visitors either: I spot filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov being escorted into church, and a week later the first lady Svetlana Medvedeva arrives to venerate Seraphim's relics. ‘We still don't see very many foreign pilgrims,' the nun in the pilgrim centre tells me, ‘although this year we do have seventy priests' children from Canada, the USA, Germany and Australia visiting.'

I join an excursion to Seraphim's spring, where most pilgrims are bathing in the open air rather than in wooden huts. On the advice of a friendly postgraduate student from Moscow, I purchase a cotton nightdress from a nearby stall. ‘Don't wash or iron it after you've bathed,' the stallholder tells me, ‘and it will have curative properties'. Wearing a spring-baptised shirt or nightdress when sick will reduce fever and help with any illness, she explains. Later I'm told that I shouldn't shower or wash my hair for at least twenty-four hours, to preserve the beneficial effects of bathing.

Whilst the number of church and commercial organisations catering for the needs of pilgrims is rising sharply, most of the people I talk to are travelling independently with friends and family. Pilgrim practices seem to be learned by word of mouth and observation as much as via instruction by a group leader, elder or priest, although most shrines publish booklets and web pages with guidelines on appropriate behaviour. In Diveevo grounds I watch pilgrims praying and leaving little slips of paper on the wooden cross that marks a recent grave, and ask two women busy writing on slips whose grave it is. ‘We don't know anything either,' one whispers apologetically, ‘we're just doing what everyone else does. Evidently you have to write down your wishes and leave them here.'

Inside the convent cathedral, the photographer I'm travelling with tells me she's seen a nun placing a ‘large black hat' over someone's head. We decide to investigate, but when I enquire about this hat, the elderly nun looks bemused. After a moment's thought she produces a large metal cauldron. ‘Do you mean this? It's the pot [чигунок] St Seraphim dried his sukhariki [small pieces of bread] in. Kneel down.'

We kneel obediently and one after another have the cauldron lowered over our heads until it almost rests on our shoulders. As the sister removes it, I ask whether it's especially to cure head pain. ‘No, why? It's for anything.' Pilgrims flock forward, and she disappears back into her kiosk, shutting the cauldron away. ‘No, no, these are foreign guests.'

Diveevo is full of strange wonders. That evening I walk along the canal (kanavka) of the Mother of God, where Mary herself is said to walk at least once every twenty-four hours. Pilgrims pray their way around these symbolic fortifications, saying the Orthodox equivalent of the Hail Mary 150 times before collecting a little of the excavated earth from a special box at the end of the walkway. They take this home with them, along with spring water and the sukhariki that the convent dispenses to visitors as Seraphim himself did. Some take home little souvenir stones with Seraphim painted on them, and while I am debating whether to spend my last few rubles on just such a rock, I fall into conversation with a pilgrim from Moscow. ‘I'm 62,' she says, ‘but I still really want to live. I went to a holy lake once - couldn't bathe there, just too cold. But as I was walking along the shore I kicked a stone. I noticed it and picked it up - so round and smooth. So I took it home with me, and when I feel ill I hold it in my palm and it cures me of any pain. Everything is from God, isn't it?'

1 www.bbc.co.uk/religion/programmes/misc/extremepilgrim.shtml

2 Cited by Vera Shevzov in Russian Orthodoxy on the Eve of the Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2004), p.147.

[3] http://top50.nameofrussia.ru/rating.html

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