Belt up part II – how the Virgin Mary won Russia’s elections

It’s a week since the scrap of cloth billed as the Virgin Mary’s belt arrived in Moscow following a tour of Russia, and the response in the city has been so extraordinary I thought it was worth a follow-up post. The queues to see the relic reached several kilometres long, and the wait stretched to 26 hours from the end of the line to the cathedral (a distance of four metro stops).

Interest has been so great that the belt’s stay has been extended a day till Monday, and organisers have had to dispense with the conventional Orthodox ritual of kissing the relic (or at least its box). To speed things up, the reliquary is now set on an arch, under which worshippers must walk at a rate of 80 per minute – something of a let-down, possibly, after shuffling along for a whole day and night in below-zero temperatures.

Aside from the continuing frustration over the road closures and traffic jams, the phenomenon has prompted a lot of soul-searching here over why so many Russians are prepared to turn out in the cold for a bit of camel hair, especially when it looks as if few will do the same at the voting booths in Duma elections in a couple of weeks.

For the Orthodox Church, already enjoying a resurgence and snowballing membership since the USSR fell apart, the public display of faith is an apparent triumph: devotion doesn’t come much plainer than this. Not everyone agrees, though: even among the faithful, the extremity of the response (at least half a million people have turned out in Moscow alone, and another two million elsewhere in Russia) smacks a touch too much of superstition, of a kind of mass hysteria. In the same way that Britain divided over the hyper-emotional response to Diana’s death, one part of Moscow’s population cannot understand the other.

“They are fanatics,” said my daughter’s young violin teacher dismissively. Another 20-something Russian female friend also has no time for the worshippers, pointing  to news stories here revealing that at least one other supposed section of Mary’s belt has been sitting in a Moscow monastery for years, apparently untroubled by visitors.

But Volodiya, our building’s caretaker (in his 50s), was surprised when I suggested it was “strange” that so many elderly people were prepared to brave hours in the sleet. “Why strange?” he asked. “The Russian nation is very emotional.” I still do a double-take at this self-image: a Russian teacher once told me Russians like watching Brazilian soaps because they feel they have a similar emotional national character and I nearly choked on my coffee (take a look at the set faces in a Moscow metro carriage and you’ll see what I mean). Yet of course it’s true, only the emotion isn’t the overtly passionate Latin sort, being about suffering and endurance combined with powerful love of homeland.

Superstition is in there too – Russians revel in beliefs about good and bad luck and rarely say goodbye to anyone without wishing them good fortune. Irena, my Russian teacher, is among those regarding the queue for the belt as a depressing sign of primitive superstition (or just old ladies wanting a bit of excitement), but also offered a more sympathetic interpretation. In hard times, when pensioners in particular live on meagre incomes and must often endure poor healthcare and other services, they find their comfort where they can. The crowds pinning their hopes on a scrap of cloth reflects the hopelessness of the political situation in Russia, the harshness of life for many, and the lack of popular faith in politicians to change things, Irena believes.

So what of the politicians? In Britain, where I worked as a political journalist, Tony Blair’s advisor Alastair Campbell famously said his boss “didn’t do God”. Not so here: far from running from religious fervour, Putin and his United Russia party have been more than happy to leap on the belt bandwagon and claim its alleged powers to cure infertility are aligned with the government’s drive to boost the birthrate and increase Russia’s flagging population.

Russia is the world’s fourth fastest depopulating country: according to the UN, its population will simply die out in 800 years if trends stay as they are. Watch this space for news of a belt baby boom in nine months’ time…

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