My Recent Pilgrimage to Russia: Some Thoughts

A blessed feast of the Dormition to one and all!

Now let’s get to business: first of all, there is no way I’m going to do justice to what I experienced, either in written or oral form. Hopefully, you will be able to get a sense of what we experienced while in Russia. I’ll try to flesh it out in further commentary as well as a future vlog. (I plan on commenting further about the Killing Fields and the geopolitical situation.)

Secondly, I apologize for the length of this video. It’s not what I wanted but believe me, it could have been a whole lot longer. That alone should give you a sense of the profundity of what I experienced.

Third, it’s still hard for me to wrap my head around this pilgrimage. If anything, I feel disconnected upon my return. It’s almost as if I feel I left a great part of myself in Russia. Maybe that gives you all some inkling of my experience. I dunno, maybe not. I know that I was profoundly impacted by the other pilgrims who participated on this trip. An eclectic bunch, each and every one were a joy to know.

Anyway, before watching the video, I want to take the time to thank Fr Ilya Gotlinski of Orthodox Tours for setting up this package. I cannot emphasize enough what an excellent planner he is and how everything from soup to nuts is taken care of. He’s a true professional. For those who don’t know, Orthodox Tours plans about four different travel packages per year, all Orthodox themed: Georgia, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, etc. They are all extremely affordable and I personally hope to partake of any future trips with OT. (Lord willing, I hope to go to Russia yet again! Link below)



The link for Orthodox Tours is

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  1. Gail Sheppard says

    Ok, let’s get this out of the way before I say anything more. It was me, OK? I was the casualty. In my defense, I wasn’t the only one, but I was perhaps the loudest one. I admit it. God bless Father Ilya Gotlinsky. He has the patience of a saint and I’m quite sure he has never met the likes of me. Moscow was having a heat wave and so was I. My ankles were twice their normal size from the humidity and the trains, planes, and automobiles it took to get me there. I propped up my legs to relieve the swelling and was horrified to find my legs were blue! I called George who agreed I was indeed losing circulation. He called the concierge, who called a doctor, who made emergency house calls, or in my case, “hotel” calls. I was feverishly rubbing my legs with my hands, trying to bring back the color when I noticed my palms were also turning blue! I was trying to imagine what it would be like to lose both my legs AND my hands when the doctor arrived. He looked at my extremities with grave concern. At this point, a little voice in my head said, “Naw, this isn’t happening” so I rubbed my fingers together to see if it would come off. It did. Apparently, I was not turning blue. The dye inside my long wrap around skirt had mingled with the sweat on my legs and, well. . . THAT happened. And this was after my “eye thing” that George talked about where the concierge had to find an ophthalmologist for me. I am no worse for the wear but suffice it to say, I put a lot of people out. Especially, George.

    I don’t know what I expected from Russia, but if I had had an inkling, I would have probably been surprised. Even George was surprised that so much had changed from when he was there 2 years ago. It boggles the mind that while we can’t manage to put Humpty-Dumpty together again with respect to St. Nicholas, these people are rebuilding enormous cathedrals in 1, 3, and 5-year time frames, with undetonated bombs still in their domes. They don’t do it half-assed, either. If they’re working on a fresco in a Church, you wouldn’t know it was missing because of the sheaths (George talks about this) they put down over the reconstruction that makes it look like whatever you would be seeing if it were finished. The artwork on the sheaths is so remarkable that I was often fooled I was looking at the real thing. I can see why the Russian people pay less attention to the “men behind the curtain.” You walk into these cathedrals and there is nothing on your mind except awe. Church politics doesn’t even register. (This is a tip for all you folks that wish we would just sit down and shut up. Build us some cathedrals like this and hold services and you won’t hear a peep.) You could teach the entire Gospel just from these frescos. They’re loaded with meaning. In one, Samuel was anointing David and the oil washed over his head, down his outstretched palm which happened to be pointing toward two empty, life-size thrones representing the Tsar and Tsarina. You see all kinds of influences in these cathedrals, too. Some of them are Latin and others are Western. No one seems to mind. It’s all beautiful.

    In Yesenevo, where George mentioned they had replicas of what you’d find in Jerusalem, one of the Russian women got down on her knees and gestured for me to do the same. Perhaps out of heaven itself, a copious amount of oil appeared before me and she demonstrated how I was to use my hands to anointed the entire tomb. That’s something I would never get to do anywhere else!

    I loved visiting Saint Xenia and venerating the icon of the Blessed Matrona of Moscow, who promised she would help all those who come to her. And visit her I did, along with hundreds of other people standing in a long line that circled the building. It was there that I met my new friend, Anna. I asked her if it was difficult for the Russian people to accept Communist rule. Her response: “They tried to take our soul, but God prevailed.” Indeed.

    Not all young women share Anna’s sentiments. Our tough, young tour guide at the Museum of Political History of Russia showed us a picture of the man who had blown Saint Elizabeth’s husband, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, to bits as he was sitting in his carriage. Saint Elizabeth gathered up his body parts. The tour guide was quick to remind us, “Saint Elizabeth forgave him,” the implication being so should we because she wanted to shift our attention to the next exhibit of the same man, only in this case, being heralded as a hero in the uprising. The museum had a whole display dedicated to him which included his outstretched body under glass. They had one small section devoted exclusively to the Tsar and his family where they had a video playing various scenes from their lives. Imagine my surprise to see the three children of Fatima flash on the screen! I asked why but no one knew.

    One of my oldest friends shared something with me before I left for this trip. She said she was 100% Russian. I knew she was Jewish but that she was Russian was new to me. Her family escaped Russia during the time they were pulling people off the street who were believed to be subversive. The degree to which one was subversive was less important than meeting their quotas. My friend’s great-grandfather was one of the not so lucky and they decided to put him to work before they killed him. He was charged with counting the bodies and cataloging their names. His meticulous records are etched in granite at the Killing Fields. One day he just walked away from his post and escaped. The faces of some of the less fortunate are immortalized for all to see in pictures. In their expressions, you see shock and resignation but something more . . . bewilderment. It’s how I imagine I would look if I knew I was marching toward my death for no good reason. These were just normal people with normal lives. How is this possible? No wonder so many of the trees surrounding these mass graves grafted together in a kind of unnatural embrace. It was abhorrent even to nature.

    After so much intensity during the day, I enjoyed walking down Arbat Street in Moscow in the evenings. It has sort of a street fair atmosphere and features some incredible restaurants. On one occasion we heard yelling and discovered it was an actor standing on a pillar in the middle of the street! There were many musicians who favored Western music; one young woman did an outstanding job with Zombies (Cranberries). We saw an older peasant woman playing a “mean” balalaika, too. I don’t take many pictures but I took one of her.

    In St. Petersburg we visited Mathilda-Marie Feliksovna Kschessinskaya digs. Amazingly, she was only 5′ tall. As I stood in the White Hall of the Kschessinska Mansion surrounded by her artifacts, I kept wondering, “What IS it about this woman that garnered so much attention?” I would like to bottle it up and sell it because whatever it was, it was not readily apparent in her pictures.

    At Christ the Savior in Moscow, we were allowed to go up to the bell towers. We saw Moscow in all her splendor from that vantage point. George promised me 2 years ago if I went on this trip I wouldn’t be sorry (I’ve never traveled overseas.) He is 100% right about the Russian women, though. The 20 to 30 crowd were incredibly chic. After seeing the state run GUM store, I know why. Who knew the equivalent of Rodeo Drive would be adjacent to the Kremlin? I have never seen such opulent shopping in all my life and they make it so pleasant, too! The marble floors are lined with kiosks reminiscent of the Music Man, where they serve homemade ice cream, candy, and Coca-Cola in old-fashioned glasses. My favorite shop, however, was adjacent to St. Basil’s Cathedral. A beautiful young woman met me at the door with a small basket. She spoke perfect English and maneuvered me to their complimentary vodka bar. (So much more expedient to take a shot than to hold a champagne glass while shopping as we do here in America.) I had my shot and was on my way with my own personal shopper in no time flat. Needless to say, I met my quota for shopping that day!

    Russia is, indeed, immaculate. It’s almost surreal motoring down one of the canals in a small boat on the back side of St. Petersberg. The buildings are close together and look like slices of wedding cake in pastel colors of pink, blue and yellow. No two of them are alike. You can almost hear a kid saying, “Yeah, that’s my palace over there. It’s the white one between the green and the yellow one!” Maybe that why they use so many colors: to tell them apart! This is in stark contrast to the airport which looks like something out of Mad Max. It is SO utilitarian. Many of the abandoned buildings coming into the City are the same way. How the Communists got the “wedding cake” people into these ugly, old warehouse structures is beyond me. The second that tragedy was over, the Russian people went right back to what my young friend, Anna, calls their collective “soul,” building pretty things again. They wasted no time, either.

    So that’s my take on all of this. Like George, I will go back. I had a few “ah ha” moments. I realized that what we call “Church” in our country doesn’t begin to describe “Church” in theirs. It also struck me that were it not for carrying the Church around with them in their hearts, they could never rebuild the way they are. Not sure we’d be up to the task. If these people are willing to help rebuild Syria, we should be eternally grateful because they can reconstruct things down to the minutia. When they get done, our Western eyes won’t know the difference between what was and what is. I imagine in the past 2000+ years rebuilding is more the norm, than the exception, and we should welcome it. If the Russians had just one gift, this would be it. Frankly, they have many.

    I highly recommend you take one of these Orthodox Tours when you have a mind to. I would definitely take George with you, as no one loves Russia more than George. Russia loves George, too. He is definitely in his element and even though it is on the other side of the planet, we managed to have lunch dates with people HE knew. George really DOES get around. We Orthodox are a pretty close-knit family, though, so I guess it’s not surprising that even I ran into people on the tour that I recognized from the blog and FB. I had a great time, too. Thanks for all your prayers. You were definitely in mine.

  2. I highly recommend Fr. Ilya and Orthodox Tours. I went on a tour with one of his groups to the Holy Land and Jordan. Worth every penny. And he is a good man which makes it even more worth while!

  3. My adult ballet teacher was Kschessinskaya’s student in Paris.

  4. Tim R. Mortiss says

    We were there, Moscow, Novgorod, and Leningrad (St. Pete) in 1987, the latter days of the Soviet regime. I went to services at Alexander Nevsky church in St. Pete, and at a small church is a vast park in Moscow.
    We’re going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Tiberius and Cyprus in October led by our priest, who was ordained in Jerusalem at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and spent his first 2 years as a priest in Cyprus.
    I am very interested to here your statement about the cleanliness of the country. This was not true under the Soviet regime. Our Finnaire guide told us when we left Helsinki by train to Moscow, that we would definitely know when we crossed the border. This was at Viborg. The railroad station was totally filthy, and many places we saw were likewise. Glad to hear this has changed.

    • George Michalopulos says

      I can’t say as I never went to the old ussr however today, Russian cities were very clean. Even when taking the train from St Petersburg to Moscow and passing through the countryside, I was impressed by the charm of the two cities that our train stopped at.

  5. Is anyone else struggling to get the video to play?

    It’s been loading for about 10 minutes — on a direct cable connection to Internet.