Pilgrimage to Russia: Part VII-Finale

Once we departed Diyeyevo and Nizhni-Novgorod (again) we embarked on the final leg of our journey: St Petersburg, Valaam and Kronstadt.

What a whirlwind it all was. We spent half a day in St Petersburg because we had to travel by ship to Valaam later that evening.

The highlight that day was going to the Peter-Paul Fortress and seeing the Romanov tsars buried there in magnificent, gleaming white sepulchres. Standing next to Peter the Great’s tomb and then Catherine II (also the Great) was sobering. Peter for all his faults, was a magnificent builder, not only of St Petersburg but of a stupendous navy and an empire.

In a chapel to the north of the Narthex was the tomb of the last Romanov tsar and his family. It was roped off because the Russian Orthodox Church hasn’t officially authenticated the remains of Nicholas II, Alexandra and their four children (although the Russian state has as well as the remaining Romanov family). We were led to believe that the final authentication would take place in due time; regardless, the Royal Family are considered saints and their icons are pretty much everywhere.

Next stop was the Church of the Resurrection (also known as the Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood). It’s a magnificent edifice, combining the best of traditional Russian style with some baroque elements and it was built on the site where Tsar Alexander II –the Tsar-liberator–was assassinated by terrorists.

To say it was ornate would be an understatement. The interior though was something else. The mosaics were a splendid mixture of traditional Byzantinesque iconography mixed with a subtle, Western-style realism. To my mind, it worked. The icon-screen looked to be made of a glorious, reddish-hued wood but upon closer inspection it was rhodenite, a type of mineral not unlike granite but with marble elements. Truth be told, I’d never heard of rhodenite before but the effect is astounding.

Next stop: Valaam.

The voyage took us to the length of the Neva River and north to Valaam, which is an archipelago of islands located in the north of Lake Lagoda. (Lagoda is the largest freshwater lake in Europe.)

We got on our ship about 7:00pm and Denny and I were exhilarated. We were literally beaming with excitement. When we got topside, Fr Ambrose (my priest) looked at us with a mixture of shock and bemusement. “George! You look happy!” I didn’t realize it but being Greek, I said, “the sea is in our blood!” I was so excited I didn’t even want to go inside. Although the Neva is a river, it’s so wide in places that you can’t see either bank.

We ate supper, commiserated in a leisurely fashion (something we couldn’t do on a train). I pulled out some cigars and shared them with others on our voyage. There was a disco on board which played techno-rave music so my son went to scope out the situation. Unlike me, the dancing gene skipped a generation or two and landed four-square on my elder son. About midnight, Taras and I decided to go check up on the situation, had a few drinks and then about two in the morning, we decided it was time for bed.

About 7:00 in the morning, we arrived in Valaam and disembarked from our ship. Valaam is a charming series of islands and our base was the largest one, where most of the monasteries and sketes are located. After visiting some of the larger churches, we were treated to a concert by a men’s chorus which we thoroughly enjoyed. Afterwards, we departed on a smaller vessel to go the “the Holy Island.”

On this island, was a skete founded by St Aleksandr of Svir sometime in the thirteenth century (if memory serves), a simple monastic who experienced a vision of the Holy Trinity. In single file, we went into his cave and Fr Jerome (one of the pilgrims) anointed us with oil as we exited. It was surreal. I’d say we spent about two hours and then we departed back to the main island where lunch awaited us in the refectory. (One of the industries of Valaam is fishing and several years ago, someone seeded one of the lakes with American rainbow trout. That’s what we had for lunch.)

On our way back to the ship, we stopped at a skete which was stunning in its black-and-white medieval simplicity. Because it was endowed by President Putin and it is a place for his personal pilgrimage, we were not allowed to take photos of it. His summer retreat is there as well as the Patriarch’s summer palace. One more stop at an outdoor shrine where glasses of kvas awaited us and we were to board our ship back to St Petersburg. [Editor’s note: for more on Valaam, please refer back to “Intermezzo: Valaam for a more detailed account.]

On our final two days, we were to take in the St Petersburg experience –to the extent that you could do so in two days. It was a whirlwind of splendor: the Winter Palace, Tsarskoe Selo, the Hermitage and the Peterhof. Unbelievable. You could spend a day in each one of them. St Isaac’s Cathedral was an architectural marvel. The shrine of St Xenia of St Petersburg, the cemetery where the masters of Russian literature and music are buried, and then Kronstadt. It all staggers the mind.

To be honest, I’d like to end our journey here since I can’t do justice to what we saw and experienced. Please forgive me. All I can say is that I have every intention of going back next year if God wills.

If anybody else would be interested, please let me know. (Itinerary to follow.) You won’t regret it. It will literally change your life.


  1. Bishop Tikhon (Fitzgerald) says

    Do tell us how YOUR life changed, George! Don’t just tease us! (“It will literally change your life.”)
    And your travelogue differs not at all from that of a Presbyterian or Muslim American’s report!
    Didn’t they allow you to photograph His Most Holiness’s Summer Palace either? Hmmm!

    • George Michalopulos says

      Your Grace, an excellent question. If you’ll excuse my ineloquence I’ll gladly answer:

      1. Russians aren’t perfect, but I saw genuine piety there in the churches –and not just on Sundays.

      2. The churches that have been built, re-built, refurbished and are in the process of being built is astounding. I have no idea how this has been (is being) accomplished. As I’ve said before, having spear-headed more than one building project, I know it’s a herculean effort. What I saw appeared effortless.

      3. I felt a sense of great reality among the Russian people. They’re not given to the frivolous pursuits that we here in America are ga-ga over. I literally saw none of the buffoonery, sluttishness or depravity in the popular culture there that is all the rage here in the States. They are realists: I think they are aware of the knife’s edge that separates life from death; a realization that we have lost here in America. If I had to guess, I’d say that death is always in the back of their minds.

      • Bishop Tikhon (Fitzgerald) says

        George! I’m still waiting to hear how your LIFE changed, not how much Russians impressed you! You said, “I’ll gladly answer.” Still waiting!

        • George Michalopulos says

          Well, I’m trying to be more pious. To see things in the longer view. The miracle of the Russian restoration after 70 years of brutal Bolshevist theomachy to my mind is that the Lord reigns.

    • Gail Sheppard says

      Vladka, I’m quite certain you have been to Russia. Didn’t it change you? Were you not moved by the the icons, the monasteries, the parishes and reliving Russian history through a people whose experience is so different from ours. I think that would change me.

      • Bishop Tikhon (Fitzgerald) says

        No, Gail. You are quite mistaken! Though I am a Russophile where Orthodoxy is concerned, I’ve never had the slightest urge to visit Russia, except for the environs of Solovki and the territory around the White RiverCanal–where so much martyr blood soaked the ground, You can visit the tourists’ favorites, thank you, and hope that your life will be changed, like George’s was, into increased enthusiasm for Russia, but that’s not my idea. I like the idea of, I think, Voltaire, and seek transformation in “tending my own garden!”

        • Why does anyone still coddle this Tikhon fool whom I will not address with the dignity of a bishop? A real bishop would give glory to God that George was inspired and uplifted by his pilgrimage to the holy places in Russia. I have never met George but feel blessed just by reading his accounts of his travels. George I hope you share more with us. Tikhon if you just want to ridicule the genuine emotion felt by a pious Orthodox Christian felt while visiting holy places, then I would say to you get behind me Satan. And stop calling yourself a bishop. You may have been one once but you are not now and you shame the Church that once raised you to that dignity. Now you are just a dithering old fool who cannot get over your butt hurt that Donald Trump is our next President, Glory to God! As both my kids are Navy veterans I thank you for your service to our nation and I thank you for your service as a bishop when you were in your right mind. As you are clearly no longer in your right mind abandon your old title of bishop or preferably just go away.

          • Michael,

            You are going to hear a lot of irrational crap coming from a certain little clique, those who embrace the Crit ideology. Fritz is one of them.

            Class crits, race crits, femme crits and perv crits fancy themselves the new targets in Trumpland. There is some merit to what they are saying.

            Rightists are not tolerant of reverse discrimination or special rights. Class crits will be the easiest to co-opt. Trump has no objection to a generous welfare state. He will not punish earners, but he will put MNC’s on a leash when it comes to trade policy. That will satisfy many class crits.

            Race baiters, feminists and gay rights activists are simply out of luck. You will hear perpetual charges of racism, sexism and homophobia coming from the anti-Trump crowd. His base is blue collar whites. Do you think he is going to sell them out for these vermin?

            Note, Rightists have nothing against blacks, latinos, women or homosexuals. We are only opposed to those who would base rights and preferences on being a member of these “protected classes”. Color blind, gender blind and don’t ask/don’t tell are fine and dandy. But affirmative action, GI Jane and Unisex Inc. are just sh*t out of luck.

          • Bishop Tikhon (Fitzgerald) says

            George said it CHANGED HIS LIFE. When I asked how, he said he was uplifted. I can’t tell that this uplifting changed his life. Doesn’t Divine Liturgy in his home parish “change his life?” Is he more “uplifted by churches, icons, and boatrides in the Russian Federation than by partaking of the Holy Mysteries in Texas or Oklahoma?

            Oh, I confess I felt a little flattered reading that”Michael” called me “this Tikhon fool!” I must be doing SOMETHING right, thank God!

          • M. Stankovich says


            You seem to have asserted the lofty combination of moral, Scriptural, and patriotic verve not often seen in these parts, somehow setting yourself above those of us who “coddle” Vladyka Tikhon, the anointed Servant of Jesus Christ, our Savior, in a Priesthood “forever, according to the order [κατὰ τὴν τάξιν] of Melchizedek.” (Heb. 5:6) And what does κατὰ τὴν τάξιν mean, Michael? It means like all bishops before him, and like all bishops after him, anointed and set apart in the τάξιν of the One High Priest. What I’m doing here, Michael, is attempting to rescue you from the enormity of your statement regarding Vladyka Tikhon, “whom I will not address with the dignity of a bishop.” Read that again, Michael: “rescue you from the enormity of your statement.”

            The last thing I wish to say to you is something I learned from nearly 10-years of working in prison. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. Everyone, and I support you in expressing your opinion, even though I may disagree. However, if you have the cojones to come into a forum such as this and refer to an 83-year old man, a Bishop of the Orthodox Church as “this Tikhon fool,” suggest that he is unfit or unworthy, and even stoop to referring to your children’s honourable service in your insult, you damn well better have the guts to identify yourself. You are an anonymous punk of a coward using the cover of the internet to somehow imagine you are “righteously indigent.” In the real world, there are consequences for everything we do or say, and you obviously enjoy the filth of the shadow of anonymity and wouldn’t have the guts to take responsibility for these words face-to-face. As we approach the Feast of the Archangel Michael, and All the Bodiless Powers of Heaven, you need to rethink your words.

            • Mr. Stankovich are the Catholic bishops who transferred pedaphile priests from parish to parish still the anointed ones? I don’t accuse Tikhon of this but my point is when he acts like a fool in public and embarrasses the Church that raised him to the dignity of bishop by ridiculing a believer’s genuine religious fervor felt on a pilgrimage to Orthodox holy places, he should learn to just keep his blabbering mouth shut or use his secular name so as not to scandalize the faithful.

              As to why I don’t publish my full name, there are some wackos who troll these sites and given the nature of my profession I don’t care to allow them to engage with me outside of this forum. It is enough for you to know I am a 50 year old cradle Greek Orthodox Christian and the son of an immigrant. Knowing my name or where I earn my living will add nothing to what you need to know about me. My law firm would be aghast if I published my private opinions here identifying myself as a partner in the firm. If Tikhon wants to publish his wacky private opinions he should use his secular name and not drag in the Church.

              • M. Stankovich says


                If you truly are an attorney, you studied logic with poodles. Likewise, I appreciate you stamping your own forehead, “coward,” for confirming the fact that you fear more the opinion of men, rather than God who would set a man at the rank, as St. Chrysostom writes, “higher than the angels and archangels.” All that’s left is for you to begin referring to Vladyka Tikhon as “Fritz,” joining Scott’s cheerleading team for everyone bored (with a complimentary subscription to Teen Vogue) and pray your partners don’t find out. Don’t you ever say I never tried to help.

              • Bishop Tikhon (Fitzgerald) says

                Thanks, Michael! Now we know!
                “My law firm would be aghast if I published my private opinions here identifying myself as a partner in the firm.”

          • Michael Bauman says

            At the very least “Michael” a last initial to distinguish tour self from all the other Michaels here (unless it’s B).

        • Bishop Tikhon, Give George a break! We all use different methods to “recharge” our faith sometimes. If your “battery” is always full that’s great. One of my methods are life experiences,(traveling helps) that I try to relate to the Gospels, and that of the lives of our Saints, and of course repenting, and confessing my sins, to my spiritual father.

          Perhaps George, found some strength in the tenacity within the Russian Orthodox , who have endured 70 odd years of Communism, and are now blossoming. Not to mention the beauty of the new and restored churches.

          If you don’t mind me asking, Your Grace, how does Voltaire inspire you, in regards to tending your own garden, since you never seem to mind your own business, at least not on this blog. I’m always open to new ways to inspire in one’s faith.

          • Bishop Tikhon (Fitzgerald) says

            Why, thank you, “Dino!” I am inspired by tending my own garden, which these days is reduced to praying in Church here in L.A.I must admit that if I were younger and stronger and felt a need for battery-charging, I’d go to San Fracisco and be uplifted at the Holy Virgin Cathedral there. I’ve sung in choirs all my life: in the Lutheran Church growing up; at St Olaf College, at St Seaphim in Dallas when Bill Zebrun was director, at SVS, and at St Nicholas in DC when Nikolai Vasilievich Borodulia was the director there. But I consider the choir on Geary Street directed by the MASTER Vladimir Krassovsky to exceed them all! That is the present-day limit of my garden. I don’t mean to disparage George if he, like many, is still “searching, searching” and restless. It takes time. Yes, participating in this forum with “the public” is outside my garden, indeed, but NOT to participate would be a failure in the episcopal stewardship that remains to me. As Ever-memorable Archpriest Sergei Bulgakov remarked in his diary, “Sometimes I’m fed up with the episcopate which consists mainly of trying to look like a holy icon while dispensing Orthodox “Lore!”

            • Bishop Tikhon, Yes the Holy Virgin Cathedral is truly uplifting. I have been there three times, once for a wedding, and two times receiving a blessing, from Father Peter, for my wife, and I. Geary Street also has some of the best Chinese restaurants in the world.

              Personally I’m glad you participate in this forum, even though I disagree with you all the time politically, and half time with other subject matters. You bring a wit that I finding amusing, and every now and then some Orthodox lore is good. Bring it! I can only pray that, if and when I’m in my mid-eighties, I can go outside my garden, and participate in the way of the light, and yet still piss off a few in the process. In the spirit of your literary friend Voltaire, I disapprove what you say, but will defend to the death, your right to say it.

              • I have always considered the retired bishop’s participation here to be something of a useful, often humorous reminder that Orthodoxy is not to be confused with Conservatism or Classical Liberalism. Although the angle from which he approaches some subjects sometimes betrays a commitment to an ideological orthodoxy that equals that of those on the opposite side of the political spectrum whom he (often rightly) chides, I for one hope he continues to call us out for our selective blindness. Only in those moments when his comments on certain subjects sink to the rhetorical level of Harry Reid do I find them unworthy of consideration.

                • Brian if you really want him to lose his mind, try poor grammar. I do quite well in that department, as he always lets me know.

                  • Bishop Tikhon (Fitzgerald) says

                    Why “Dino!” Not knowing the difference between Hippocrates and hypocrites is not a failure in our language’s grammar!

                    • Bishop Tikhon, First one was a typo, second and third was me punking you! Knew you’d take the bait. Truth be told my grammar and writing skills suffer greatly. I do know the difference. BUT! I know you will always be there for me when I trip up here in my poor gramma.Your Grace, please pray that some day my son will take the Hippocratic oath.

                  • Dino,

                    I wouldn’t dream of using poor grammar – not on purpose anyway. Spellcheck sometimes foils me, though, since it can’t distinguish between certain words with similar spellings yet vastly different meanings, and I have always been a poor speller. I will never forget my third grade spelling bee…

                    “Broom. B-R-O-M. Broom.”

                    “I’m sorry Brian; that is incorrect. You may take your seat.”

                    Oh. the humiliation!

                    But grammar? Only when absolutely necessary for clarity of communication. (And yes, I am aware that these are incomplete sentences.) The discipline instilled into me by my excellent eighth grade and Freshman-year English teachers won’t allow for it. I can’t even bring myself to split an infinitive though it might read better the other way. I am forever grateful to Mr. Barron and Mrs. Chang. They have no idea what a lasting impact they had on this student.

                    • Brian,

                      Funny no matter how many years pass, we never forget certain teachers names, and what they did for us.

      • Tim R. Mortiss says

        We had an interesting trip to Russia in late Soviet times, in November 1987, and spent two weeks there; Moscow, to Novgorod (the Great), to [then] Leningrad.

        There was some real beauty there. At the time, the Kremlin churches were secularized, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior of course had not been rebuilt. I found a small active church in the corner of a large park not far from the Kosmos hotel (I wish I could remember its name) and attended a beautiful vespers service. They were not used to seeing an American tourist at services!

        Coming into Novgorod on a moonlit snowy evening was unforgettable; the Cathedral in the Kremlin there covered in snow. It’s a good time of year to go to Russia.

        In St. Petersburg/L’grad the Kazan Cathedral was still the museum of religion and atheism. St. Isaac’s is overwhelming– the lapis and malachite you see in photos breathtaking.

        A noon liturgy at the church at Alexander Nevsky convent was packed with worshippers, mostly office workers in coat and tie. At that date, attending Orthodox services had become a way to say “no” to the regime.

        It was a good experience.

        • M. Stankovich says

          Truly, Mr. Mortiss, you are an inspiration! God brought you on the journey of a literal lifetime, impressing your heart and soul with what appears, at face – the trip you describe, a chance encounter with Vladyka Basil (Rodzianko) – to be so little. Yet, they ring with the words of St. Paul: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump,” (Gal. 5:9) and at this point in your life, He brought you His Church. “It was a good experience.” Indeed! You are always in my prayers.

  2. Magnificent, George!

    I’m sure it was truly moving for you, spiritually.

  3. Gail Sheppard says

    I don’t think of icons and monasteries as “tourists favorites,” Your Grace, but it appears we agree on the meaningfulness of reliving Russian history, as it warranted a visit to Solovki on your part. Being on the “blood soaked ground” of martyrs sounds like it was a pretty powerful experience for you, as was, I imagine, George’s experience when he visited the Romanov tsar and his family’s tomb, a skete founded by St Aleksandr of Svir and the shrine of St Xenia, among the other things he mentioned. – One’s garden can be transformed by travel, if the experience is powerful enough, as was the case with Voltaire’s protagonist after returning from Europe and Asia Minor.

  4. http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/98844.htm

    Patriarch Kirill spoke about the situation regarding the Crete council yesterday. Interesting observations. He was frank in that he states that Russia avoided the council in order to prevent schism due to unilateral actions on the part of Constantinople.

    This might be seen as a continuation of the public controversy which included the recent admonition of Patriarch Bartholomew to the Archbishop of Athens.

    Fun and games.

    • Peter A. Papoutsis says

      Yeah I just read how the EP is putting pressure on the Archbishop of Greece for the Church od Greece not to change the documents. He specifically singled out twork hierarchs that want substantial changes that if they are not brought under heel the EP will break off communion with these two hierarchs.

      The Globalist still want their NWO and their ecumenism and religious synchronization. Oh well the fight for the truth continues.