If statistics are to be believed, or even half believed, the Russian Orthodox Church has a problem. Almost eight out of ten Russian adults are now baptized Christians – the same number who, by their own admission, don’t pray, fast or celebrate feasts. Russians may identify themselves as Orthodox in surveys, but are little interested in participating in the life of the Church. And yet there is an interesting dynamic that has all but passed unnoticed. Believers might not be keeping the Sabbath by stepping out to church – but they are on the march all the same.
Like the rest of Europe, Russia is witnessing a curious and marked rise in pilgrimage. The rise is most noticeable in mass walking pilgrimages, called krestnye khody, “processions of the cross.” These pilgrimages may last hours, days, even months, and unite hundreds, sometimes thousands of believers in symbolic journeys often perceived as helping to rebuild Russia, or to cleanse the nation of Soviet sins. The reunion of the Russian Orthodox Church with the Church Abroad, for example, was celebrated by a “spiritual-educational program ‘Under the Star of the Mother of God,’” in which processions from eight distant corners of Russia (two of which began in Athos, Greece and Jerusalem) walked to Moscow, inscribing an eight-pointed star across the country. Some participants walked for more than a year.
One of the largest annual pilgrimages in Russia today is the Velikoretskoye procession of the cross. Participants cover some 150 kilometers in a grueling five-day circular walk, with one rest day at the riverbank shrine where they venerate the icon that has led the procession all the way from Kirov. The pilgrimage is promoted as an ancient tradition that commemorates the discovery, on the banks of the Velikaya River, of an icon of St. Nicholas.
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