Pilgrimage to Russia: Part II–Moscow & Environs

[EDITOR’S NOTE: My recollections are based on notes and will be sketchy and hurried at times. I don’t want to bore you so I beg your understanding.]

The sun rises in Russia early in the summertime. I caught glimpses of daybreak around 4:00 am. I wished I’d taken the sleep mask with me as I am very sensitive to sunlight. Once I see daylight, I find it very hard to get back to sleep. Denny on the other and sleeps like a rock.

So I fire up the laptop, check my gmails, my bank account and comments. The hotel is real nice. It’s called The Golden Ring and although the rooms tend to be smaller than your average American up-scale hotel, they’re just as nice. I shower, get Denny up, he showers and then we head to the Suzdal on the second floor for breakfast.

What a spread! It has everything and then some. Although I have had salmon for breakfast, I’ve never had herring. Enjoyable. Bacon, sausage, omelettes cooked to order –the whole nine yards.

I see a harp standing silently in the corner. About 7:30, an attractive young woman comes in and starts playing on the harp. Nice. That’s one way to wake up!

We meet some of the other guests and tell our stories but we kept our eyes on the clock. The bus would be waiting for us at 8:00. Luckily, being a pharmacist, I’m used to scarfing down a meal; not a pretty sight I grant you but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do. Downing our coffee, tea and different juices, we head for the lobby.

Fr Ilya leads us to the bus and we board. Once we are situated, Fr Ilya gave us each a walkie-talkie like headset which allowed us to hear him lecture whenever we would be in a church. He then lead us in prayer. A very nice touch if you ask me and one we repeated every morning.

First stop: Donskoy Monastery. Donskoy for those of us who didn’t know was once on the outskirts of Moscow and it was named in honor of the Battle of the Don, where Grand Duke Dmitri of Moscow defeated the Tatars. It’s historic in many other ways as well. In its cemetery is sprawling, helter-skelter you could say and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is buried there. In the Cathedral church, the tomb and relic of St Tikhon is there as well.

First, we visited the cell where he was imprisoned by the Bolsheviks. Those people had no shame. Besides giving him only an hour’s exercise in the daylight, they used women to guard him, hoping to invite a scandal. His vestments and cowl, mitre and scepter are on tasteful display as well as photographs on the wall, describing his historic career. (Interesting note: during the election for patriarch, the names of the three candidates were placed in a chalice and after a service, an elderly, blind monk known for his piety drew out one name –Tikhon’s.)

Another interesting tidbit: Napoleon Bonarparte stayed at that monastery when he was close to Moscow. I can’t remember if it was before or after his retreat.

As for the Cathedral itself, it was built in the so-called Russian/Baroque style by the Empress Anna (if memory serves). This was a time when Russia went whole-hog for Western styles in both architecture and iconography. Not my cup of tea mind you but genuflecting before St Tikhon’s reliquary was powerful. Frs Ilya, Jerome and Ambrose led us in a molieben, which was a nice touch and one that would be repeated time and again at different holy sights.

Well, this was powerful. The Cathedrals there are powerful, massive and medieval. Definitely to my tastes. Words fail me. I guess all I can say is that I’m glad that Lenin and his successors didn’t destroy them. One’s head is jerked up in almost violent motion upon entering one, not merely because of their massive height but because of the stunning, Novgorod-school frescoes that adorn every inch of their interiors. The massive bell tower built by Ivan IV the Terrible is worth the price of admission alone.

One thing I noticed (besides all the tourists) was that the narthexes of almost every church you visit in Russia is basically a store where you can buy icons, postcards, books, you name it. They only take cash however. Anyway, try to not get caught behind a horde of Chinese tourists buying things because you may lose your group. Denny and I did and if it wasn’t for the speakers Fr Ilya had given us, we wouldn’t have found our way back to the group. Still, it was touch and go. We were wandering aimlessly about trying to locate everybody and we got too close to one particular government building (I’m assuming) and a guard looked very sternly at us and made us backtrack. He meant business. Eventually we found our way back.

Fr Ilya and group were standing by the Tsar Bell, a massive bell (everything in Russia is massive). Nearby was a gigantic cannon, the Tsar Cannon. Words continue to fail me. Save your pennies folks, you gotta go and experience it all for yourself.

I didn’t realize it but Red Square was not the Kremlin per se but right next to it. To get there we had to pass a statue of St George slaying the dragon (He’s the patron saint of Moscow), another statue of Field Marshall Georgii Zhukov and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Zhukov’s statue was particularly interesting in that he was astride a horse and under the horse’s right hoof was a Nazi standard lying on the ground.

At the gate to Red Square was chapel which was a nice touch if you ask me. The pavement of Red Square was cobblestone and to the right was Lenin’s grotesque tomb. Trying my best to ignore it, we walked straight to St Basil’s.

This was a treat for sure. You can say a lot of things about Ivan the Terrible, but you couldn’t say that he didn’t know how to build things. It’s simply stunning. First we sang a molieben at the tomb of St Basil, the Fool-for-Christ, genuflected at his tomb and then wandered into the other chapels.

For those that don’t know, St Basil’s is really a conglomeration of seven different churches all hugging one another. In one of the chapels, we heard a four-man choir sing Slavonic chants. Their name was “Doros” and my God! were they fantastic. The tenor was outstanding and the three others sang the Ison. This is what heaven must sound like. Needless to say, we gobbled up their CDs. I’m listening to one right now.

I’m leaving out so much. Please forgive me. Let me put it this way, had we had just one day to spend in Russia, I would have gone home a happy man.

More to follow.


  1. Gregory Manning says

    Hey, George.
    The Doros group made a big hit when a tourist used his phone or video camera to record one of their live, informal performances in St. Basil’s maybe 5 years ago and posted it on YouTube. Interest took off and everybody wanted to know who the soloist was. Various stories spread for some time until someone who know about them posted the answer. And you’re right; the tenor is extraordinary!

  2. Helen Collier says

    Hi George,
    I think it is so cool you and the church got a chance to go to Russia, see all the wonderful churches, meet the people and eat the food, soak up all that wonderful culture!
    Back here in the USA, we were barraged by anti-Trump media. Everything he says is regurgitated by the media in such a negative manner. I would like to ask everyone to watch Julian Assange on You tube in his latest interview related to Hillary Clinton’s emails. ‘Going underground’ is the video. I had a hard time understanding Julian’s accent at times, but the main points can be heard. What I don’t understand is how can someone vote for a person (Hillary Clinton) that is so dishonest, greedy and seems to have sold her soul to the devil. I lived in Arkansas when her husband was governor and she was at the law firm. She was not a good person then and she has not changed. Look up Dick Morrison’s evaluation of her behavior. He is a friend of Bill, but even he was shocked at some of the stuff she did. Look up Larry Nichols of Arkansas and hear what he has to say.

  3. Fascinating, George. St. Dmitri of the Don was blessed to fight the Mongols by St. Sergei of Radonezh. Earlier, in the 9th century, Eastern Slavic tribes could not keep the peace among themselves so some of them contacted a Norseman name Rjurik to come down and set up shop. The rest is Russian history. And a bloody history it is. Russians are no strangers to conflict. The Mongols, the Swedes, the Teutonic Knights, the Poles, the Lithuanians, Napoleon, Hitler and now NATO/EU. You are there. History has not quite concluded yet.

    So, I’m looking forward to any more reminiscences you care to share.

    God bless,

  4. Dear friends, if you may be interested:
    Pilgrimage and cultural tour of Georgia, October 16-29, 2016.
    Our tour will include four regions of that small Caucasian Republic, covering most of the “must see” sites on the Map of Georgia. As always, our emphasis will be on the religious sites of the country that adopted Christianity back in the early 4th century. Many of its religious sites date back to the first millennia and we will get a chance to visit and to pray at the sites that were places of pilgrimage and worship for well over Millennia. However, we will not miss on opportunities to visit many cultural sites, museums, concerts, interaction with local clergy and performers. We are arranging for a choir and folk performers, as singers and dancers of Georgia (that has its unique and very distinct flavor) are very well known. Meals (all of which are included) will consist of dishes from arguably the best cuisine in the world! Since this tour will be presented on an all-inclusive base, drinks with meals will be provided as well. We highly recommend trying the variety of local wines that have a very long history, as Georgia is known as the place where wine was first produced some 8000 years ago.
    Accommodations will be at good tourist class hotels, all with private amenities. Most of the hotels were built within last 5-7 years, as in the last decade Georgia saw a rapid social and economic development. Transportation will be provided by a private comfortable motor-coach.
    If you have a chance to join us, please contact me for a detail. We do not anticipate having a large group, so space is limited – your earliest respond will be greatly appreciated. The first ten registered participants will get $50 off price and a bottle of Georgian wine as a present.
    Please share our invitation with your family and friends.
    Thank you very much!
    Fr. Ilya Gotlinsky
    Foe more details or to sign up, please contact me at: 607-797-1058 or ortours@gmail.com

    • George Michalopulos says

      Friends, Readers, Countrymen, I heartily recommend this journey (and any future journey conducted by Fr Ilya). You will not be disappointed!

      • I would like to second George’s recommendation with my whole heart. Fr. Ilya is simply the best pilgrimage leader I have met in my life (and I’ve met quite a few!)

        • George Michalopulos says

          He’s the best! you certainly get your money’s worth (and then some)!

          Seriously, we ate so well and so diversely that many of us said that we were looking forward to the Dormition fast.

  5. Archangel Michael Cathedral in the Kremlin was interesting. From what I recollect, the icon mural underneath the large central cupola large circular image was of the Archangel Michael. The “nimb” halo had “infinity” symbol. Then there were all the crypts inside that church of old “knizyi” princes and the like. I was saying to myself
    “OK” this is not like a regular church. It was like an above ground graveyard inside a cathedral. Not too many tourists were going there. So I wandered the isles knowing there was a lot history there.