Orthodox America

  Pilgrimage to Russia

by Lubov Millar

In August of last year I went to Russia at the invitation of the Church. There they want to publish my book, Holy Martyr of Russia, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna, but currently there is a lack of good quality paper in Russia and no currency with which to import it.

A car was placed at my disposal, and I was asked where I should like to visit.  I was especially anxious to get to Tsarekoe Selo, to look around the place where the Royal Family lived, and to take some pictures for the book I'm working on about theTsar and his family.

It is about a forty minute drive from St. Petersburg to Tsarskoe Selo. When we arrived, we took a stroll through the park where the Tsar and his family used to walk.  In the park are some trees planted by the Tsar's children.  It used to be that wild deer roamed the park, but of course there aren't any there now.  We came to the pond, which now looks more like a swamp.  In days gone by everything here was beautifully maintained. Here the sick Tsarevich Alexis used to play.  We made our way to the church of the Feodorovskaya Icon. This renowned edifice is in a deplorable state.  On the outside there is on one side a mosaic icon of the Most Holy Mother of God, and on the other side an icon of the Saviour. Here, too, the work of the godless communists was in evidence; they had tried to chip out the pieces of mosaic.  The icon of the Saviour suffered the greatest damage; little remains of the face.

In spite of the fact that it was the feast of the Feodorovskaya Icon of the Mother of God, the church was closed.  But once more, as happened so often during my trip, there was a miracle.  It turned out that the supervisor of the restoration work was nearby, and he opened the church for us. Virtually nothing was left of the interior.  The Soviets had used it as a warehouse for Len-Films, where discarded filmstrips were incinerated. From such high temperatures nothing survived.  Only the contours of the stone vaults remained.  The supervisor, Vladimir Petrovich,  told us in detail just where the Royal Family stood, where the altar was located.  A steep staircase took us down to the lower church, dedicated to St. Seraphim of Sarov.  It was built at the wishes of Empress Alexandra, who conceived the idea after the glorification of the holy God-pleaser in 1902.  A special elevator was installed for her; the Empress was often unwell and she found the steep staircase very difficult to manage.  Currently services are held only here in the lower church.  Everything around is black and charred... Vladimir Petrovich removed the cloth covering the Feodorovskaya Icon of the Mother of God on the analogion.  He told us about the miracle that had occurred with this icon just months earlier.  A boy was walking with his father through the park.  The boy was baptized, the father was not. Suddenly the boy shouted, "Look, Papa, an icon is sticking out of the ground!"  The father saw nothing. "Where, what icon?"  Other people came and dislodged an icon from the ground.  After this incident the father was converted; he was baptized, and now works tirelessly on the restoration of the church. The icon was a copy of the Feodorovskaya Icon.  It is not large, about 9 by 12 inches, and is warped and covered with rust. Evidently it had been buried in the ground for many years, God only knows just how long.  With great reverence we all venerated it.  Next to it hangs a beautiful icon of St. Seraphim, but whether it is the same icon before which the Royal Family prayed we don't know.

It must be said that many work here as unpaid volunteers. One man, for example, spent his vacation here sorting a large pile of bricks. Adjacent to the church is the so-called "Feodorovsky village".  (Soviet guidebooks never mention it.)  This is a stunning building, or rather a complex of buildings, constructed under the personal direction of Tsar Nicholas II.  Encircled by a wall, it was never fully completed.  Today, it is almost in ruins.  Only by the remains can one judge what an amazing place it must have been.  It was built in the old Russian style. The Tsar loved Russia's heritage, and he wanted to move here from the Alexandrov Palace.  Looking at this once magnificent work of architecture, one can only wonder at the barbarity of those who saw fit to destroy it.

Tsarskoe Selo's functioning church is the Church of the Sign, where Empress Alexandra liked to pray.  It is not a large church, but it is quite beautiful.  The icon "Of the Sign" which was originally there is now in St. Petersburg, in the St. Alexander Nevsky church of the Theological Academy. The church "Of the Sign" has a large icon of St Seraphim of Sarov, inscribed by Tsar Nicholas II and Tsaritsa Alexandra.  It is dated 1904. Someone had preserved the icon, which was later returned to the church. Not far away is the St. Sophia cathedral, built to mark the 300-year anniversary of the House of Romanovs.  It is a copy of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.  Here, just as in the Feodorovskaya church, the communists saw fit to burn trash.  What could be more satanic!  Instead of using the church as a museum or as office space, they burn trash there. It just shows their hatred for God, for Orthodoxy.

Here, again, we found a wonderful, dedicated priest, Fr. Gennady Zverev. He's only about thirty-five years old, very active.  He has persuaded not only the parishioners but also army soldiers to help in the restoration. The main altar is still covered with plywood and the ceilings are covered with soot.  But what a splendid church!  There are many beautiful icons. For the time being services are held only at the left altar. The right altar is already re-plastered and most of the holes in the walls have been patched. The marble columns have yet to be thoroughly cleaned of soot and grime.

In some make-shift barracks behind the church, Fr. Gennady has already organized a Sunday-school for children and a school for nurses.  He has also taken under his wing some juvenile delinquents.  He brings them here, instructs them in the Law of God, confesses and communes them, and baptizes those who are not yet baptized.

On learning of Fr. Gennady's activity, a number of establishments have offered to help him out. One company, for example, cast some bells for the church, charging only the cost of the materials.  Another provided a lot of fencing.  A tight community has grown up around Fr. Gennady.

On our return to St. Petersburg, we stopped at St. Vladimir's Church, where there is a wonderworking Kazan icon of the Mother of God, brought there from the Kazan cathedral which the communists turned into a museum of atheism.

The next day we were invited to the hospital of St. Xenia, a charitable institution run by the Church. There were some forty seriously-ill women whom other hospitals could no longer provide for.  Priests come and anoint the women; on Sundays and Feastdays two priests serve: one hears confessions, the other serves the Divine Liturgy.  A choir comes from the Academy to sing.  We were told that there had been a miracle: an elderly woman, who had great devotion to Blessed Xenia, was healed of a cancerous tumor.

From the hospital we drove to the Kazan cathedral, where the relics of St. Seraphim and St. Ioasaph of Belgorod were discovered.  (One of the museum workers ignored orders to burn the relics and hid them in the attic, covering them over with cinders.)  There is no iconostasis; it was made of silver which the Bolsheviks melted down. They say the silver "floated" to America.

We did not stay to the end of the Liturgy but rushed to the St. John of Rila Convent, where the relics of St. John of Kronstadt are located.  We arrived just as they were singing "We praise Thee..."  After the service we went downstairs where a moleben was served at the Saint's tomb.  There we met the young abbess, Seraphima.  Nuns are joining the convent from the Baltics, from Piukhtitsa Convent [in Estonia] where Russians no longer feel welcome.

There is some question as to whether the relics of St. John of Kronstadt are really there.  Some think they were destroyed by the Bolsheviks, others think that some monks transferred them to a place not far from the tomb. There is a popular notion that the relics will be revealed when times in Russia become extremely difficult, in order to strengthen the people. It had been two years since my first visit.  In that time many improvements had been made.  The second, large church, very beautiful, had been restored.  The singing of the nun's choir is magnificent. We were taken upstairs and shown the recently vacated communal apartments, located in the convent's main building.  It was unbelievable: filth, broken windows, peeling wallpaper, holes in the walls...  In some places it was obvious that people had ripped out building materials-to sell them for a drink, no doubt.  Then the nuns showed us similar apartments which had already been renovated: they were spotlessly clean, cozy, rugs on the floors, new beds with spreads, curtains at the windows.  Eventually pilgrims will be housed here.

To reach Diveyevo is not difficult.  There's a night train [from Moscow] to Nizhni Novgorod, and from there one takes a bus to Diveyevo.  We travelled in a comfortable coupé for two.  A young subdeacon met us and took us to the diocesan offices, where we were given breakfast.  Metropolitan Nicholas told us that there used to be some forty churches in the diocese; now there are two hundred. The authorities, said the metropolitan, are returning churches, "by the bundle."  But there simply aren't enough clergy.  The diocese needs sixty more priests.  Likewise, there's not enough money to restore the churches; they are returned in an appalling state.

As we were talking, the Abbess of the Diveyevo Convent arrived, Mother Sergia.  (She had business somewhere.)  On learning that we were on our way to the convent, she blessed us and said to the subdeacon, Alexey: "Tell the sisters to feed them, to open the relics of St. Seraphim, to give them a prosphoron and food for their return journey."  We were moved by her consideration.

On the way to the convent we stopped in Arzamas to look at the church built to commemorate the victory over Napoleon.  It's an enormous edifice with six altars. Construction took twenty years.  We were surprised to see there a number of wooden statues, very unusual in an Orthodox church.  There also we saw an old wooden crucifix. The priest there told us it was wonderworking, that there have been cases of healings, especially of children.

From Arzamas it is not far to Diveyevo....The guest house was recently returned to the convent.  Just opposite stood a statue of Lenin.  The day the guesthouse was returned, someone chopped off Lenin's head.  The abbess was so frightened that she wrapped the headless figure in some material. Diveyevo's large church is visible from afar. We went in.  There, to the left of the iconostasis, stands the reliquary with St. Seraphim's relics. It was opened for us and we were able to kiss not the glass but the very head of the Saint.  From it I sensed a very definite fragrance.

A priest had just arrived from Donets, and he gladly agreed to serve a moleben for us. And what a moleben it was!  The priest served it together with an akathist to the Saint.  A group of faithful gathered; we all sang. It seemed that the holy God-pleaser himself was there beside us. We were graciously invited to the trapeza, where we were well fed. Afterwards a young nun showed us around the convent and gave us a brief history of Diveyevo.  She herself witnessed how, when the crosses were raised onto the cupolas, a rainbow appeared around the sun. It was a bright, sunny day, not a cloud in the sky.  It was obviously a sign from heaven.

The nun showed us the graves of the convent's foundress, Abbess Alexandra; of Manturov, who gave all his possessions to the poor and served Batiushka Seraphim; the grave of his sister, the young Elena who, obedient to St. Seraphim, agreed to die in place of her brother.  We also saw the graves of the blessed fools-for-Christ of Diveyevo, Pelagia and Parasceva. Then we walked along the canal of the Mother of God.  The nuns walk it daily, reading 150 times the prayer, "O Theotokos and Virgin rejoice..."

Not far away stood a small structure built over Mother Alexandra's spring where people immerse themselves.  Despite the cool air, I also went in and afterwards felt a pleasant warmth spill over my body.

At the convent we were fed yet again and given some food for the road, as the abbess had directed.  We returned by train.  It was very comfortable, but I was sorrowful at having to leave Diveyevo, and to leave such wonderful people as subdeacon Alexey and our chauffer, Sergei.  As we parted, the latter said to us, "Come again, but next time be sure to spend the night at the convent.  I'll take you to the place where St. Seraphim fed the bear..."

(Translated from the Russian and abridged.)