Belt up! – the Virgin Mary comes to Moscow

Christ our Saviour, pilgrims queue

Pilgrims at Christ the Saviour - it takes ten hours to get this far

My friend Tamara rang this morning, apologising for running late (she takes my daughter and hers to school). “I’m sure God will punish me for this but BLOODY PILGRIMS!” she wailed. “They’re everywhere: I can’t even get the car out.”

It’s true: a slice of the centre of Moscow has been overrun for the last five days, mainly by elderly women padded out in multiple furry layers and wearing headscarves under their hats. Roads have been closed; traffic diverted; numerous drivers’ tempers lost, as tens of thousands of worshippers queue patiently for several kilometers along the Moskva embankment.

The attraction, surprisingly in a city whose icons are the iPad, the high heel and the Mercedes, is a bit of old belt. Not just any belt, obviously: a chunk of the Virgin Mary’s girdle, made of camel hair (a bit scratchy, surely?) and preserved for centuries since its owner headed heavenwards. In other words a holy relic: now on tour in Russia and drawing crowds of Orthodox believers on a scale that makes U2 concerts look under-populated.

The belt is usually kept in a monastery on Mount Athos, Greece (I imagine it’s the only women’s accessory up there), but has been toted round a series of Russian cities over the past few weeks, ending up in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour – the vast white and gold post-USSR replacement for an Orthodox cathedral razed under Stalin. Pilgrims are flooding in to kiss the relic, which is believed to have special powers to treat infertility and promote health.

Whether or not the belt (strictly, it’s a cincture, faith fact fans) works its magic is one thing: I don’t mean to be unkind, but most of the worshippers are well past the age where they can accurately test its alleged properties. Personally, though, I’m gripped by the mechanics of religious devotion on an industrial scale: particularly when these rub up against the daily routines of a pretty godless megopolis like Moscow.

Walk out of the metro at Kropotkinskaya – my stop for language school – and you’re met by a sea of worshippers, milling about and trying ineffectively to navigate a line of barriers, police and icon-toting beggars and cross the road to get to the cathedral. Those with disabilities, with children or pregnant (or with special holy “business class” tickets – even the Church operates Russian “Facecontrol”, it seems) get directed one way by police with megaphones, while others have to plod several kilometers away to find the end of a huge snaking queue. Here they will stand for ten hours or more, braving sleet and below-freezing temperatures, diverted only by trips to the numerous specially laid-on portaloos and fast food cabins.  For true stoics, the wait continues all night, with warm buses and free tea and porridge available alongside the line.

Police marshaling the process appear to be practising for the forthcoming World Cup (coming to Russia in 2018) – there are even vans equipped with riot gear in case of unholy scuffles, and the queue is held back behind barricades at regular intervals. When a barrier is lifted, a scrum of old ladies surges forward, like the start of a furry octogenarian marathon.

Buses, portaloos and pilgrims along Frunzenskaya Nabrezhnaya

Back at the Christ the Saviour junction, old faith meets New Russia in ill-tempered confusion. Moscow’s insanely gridlocked traffic means a blockage at any point sends repercussions throughout the city, and closing off half the embankment is causing chaos. Opposite the cathedral, the oligarchs are still parking their chauffeur-driven Lexuses and Humvees on the road directly outside the fancy Vanille restaurant, blocking the already-choked junction even further (though at least as rows ensue the queuers have something to watch).

This being Russia, the apparently medieval spectacle may also have contemporary implications. The belt’s multi-city tour has been organised by a foundation chaired by Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russia’s state railways and a friend of prime minister Vladimir Putin. Ahead of State Duma elections on December 4, a bit of Putin-backed tummy tickling for Orthodox believers could firm up their resolve to back United Russia (Putin’s party), helping it keep power, the theory goes.

In practice, it will be the lack of a viable opposition, not the Virgin’s 2000-year-old accessories, that will ensure United Russia stays dominant. Contemplating 12 more years of a Putin presidency, no Russian I have spoken to feels inspired to vote at all either next month or in next year’s presidential elections, but I suspect that won’t stop United Russia returning a sweeping majority.

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7 Responses to Belt up! – the Virgin Mary comes to Moscow

  1. Hi Mum,
    Those pilgrims are annoying!!!! I love your blog!!!

  2. MoscowMom says:

    Hah! I love your writing! Yes… Such a pain… But, really, Russians’ faith (and the power of it) IS staggering… I’m hoping for an easier morning tomorrow!!!! Loving your blog!!

    • Thanks for your lovely words, and keep the faith – tomorrow there may be only 8,000 out there! You’re right – the Church is growing all the time in Russia now, though on this evidence and my visits to churches the membership remains mainly older women. I’d be interested to know the statistics regarding the younger population – I do see younger women, but very rarely younger men. As it always has, the Church offers apparent stability in Russia in changing and alarming times, though for me the relative interest in the belt and the election process makes a depressing and telling contrast

      • douglas landy says:

        What will happen to the church when all the baboushkas are dead? There will be another generation of baboushkas!

  3. clare Mulley says:

    I think we should export the free porridge idea though, so people can occupy more solidly elsewhere, Cx

  4. MalvernMan says:

    We had similar – but not identical – problems in Malvern when the fragment of St Chad’s chemise was brought to the town by a clergyperson (I gather the Orthodox church does not have women priests; good on them) of a somewhat Romish disposition. The queue snaked up past the pound shop to Sainsbury’s, forcing me and my shopping trolley on to the highway in the face of sundry pantechnicons. Malvern, however, is not Moscow.

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