Stephen Grainger walks one more street to see the final church on his list in Moscow and St Petersburg
Tsar Nicolas II commented that St Petersburg was ‘of Russia but was not Russian’ and he was certainly quite correct. Unlike the martyred Tsar I did not find myself falling in love with Moscow quite as easily as he did. It seemed to me a rather down-at-heel capital and certainly not a very friendly one. The many delights to be seen come from hidden churches down back streets rather than those on the main tourist trail. My travelling companion and I, whilst feeling fulfilled in having a ‘selfie’ taken in Red Square (minus the rather narcissistic selfie stick), were left cold by St Basil’s Cathedral which seemed to have been turned into museum of everything you might expect from an Orthodox church but with no soul. Not even the resident choir popping out every half an hour to serenade the tourists (and sell overpriced CDs) could dispel the feeling of being in somewhere very sterile indeed.
Busy and active churches
What was impressive in Moscow was the great work of rebuilding and refurbishing churches; wherever one went there was another orthodox sanctuary with beautiful new icons and wonderful frescos. It was a salutary lesson that churches were busy and active (each with its own small shop); and above all filled with a range of people, young and old.
At a time when we are told all worship needs to be accessible, here in Russia that trend is being bucked. I am not sure how much people understood of the Divine Liturgy we stumbled upon on our Sunday in Moscow. I understood very little, despite trying to follow it in my bilingual liturgy book, but I was almost immediately transfixed on what was going on in front of me. The beauty and devotion of the liturgy was mesmerizing. In the end I followed the example of my travelling companion and headed off to venerate an icon or two and simply to allow myself to worship and not be such a ‘man of the book’.
Our time in Moscow was broken into two sections (Easyjet only flies to Moscow) and so after three days we journeyed to St Petersburg. Standing in the Leningrad station in Moscow I did have a slight feeling of being an extra in Dr Zhivago. People milled around us with bundles of bags and lots of food. Many it seemed had been travelling for some time across the Motherland. It wasn’t, in the end, at all complicated to board the glamorous and comfortable Sapsan train. We travelled in Economy Plus, not that there was much economy about it, passengers enjoy a meal (I’d go for the cheese with the lightest hint of coleslaw rather than the ham – I was never a fan of tinned ham sandwiches!) and there is plenty of room. Had we been interested (or been bored by the view) we could have listened to a film which for around four hours told us how wonderful the Russian railway service was. Some things in Russia never change, propaganda is everywhere.
Speaking of propaganda, our visit coincided with the Victory Day celebrations; all across Russia but particularly in Moscow and St Petersburg there was a vast military presence. There is something rather disconcerting about leaving your hotel and seeing tanks and missile launches rolling into Moscow. We also managed to witness the rehearsals for the fly past. If anyone was in doubt that Russia means business they only have to look at the videos of those celebrations. In the streets of St Petersburg people gathered to listen to songs being sung about the great victory of 70 years ago and many wore badges and medals as well as military hats. It felt like a carnival but one with a rather sinister militaristic subtext. The day of the parades itself we managed to find ourselves in a spa in order to avoid the crowds and to rest our weary limbs having viewed most of the paintings (we think) in the beautiful Hermitage and in the Russian Museum, where at times we wondered where the art actually was!
The highlights of my time in Russia had to be being able to walk in the footsteps of the Russian Royal Martyrs (my companion was left disappointed that his great hero’s mausoleum was closed – we will have to visit Lenin another time!). The small tomb of the Martyrs in St Petersburg is, despite the tourists, very touching and it is possible to catch a moment to pray there. It is sadly not an official shrine as the Orthodox Church has not declared it such. The pilgrim can however venerate icons of the Martyrs in churches all over St Petersburg and indeed Moscow. In St Petersburg it is possible to do this alongside many hundreds each day as they gather to venerate the image of Our Lady of Kazan (where in England would we find such devotion?).
Of all the sites associated with the Royal Family, my favourite was the Convent of St Mary and St Martha. Here, amidst quiet groves of trees, you can visit some of the relics of Elizabeth the New Martyr, a Grand Duchess who founded an order of nuns to serve the poorest in society. And today, despite the ravages of communism, they continue to do so. Thanks be to God for that.