Ekaterinburg 2018: A Pilgrim’s Notes

Having flown in from Moscow, as we leave Ekaterinburg airport for the city, we see billboards with the words: ‘The Urals greet His Holiness Patriarch Kyrill’, with a picture of the Patriarch. Many other billboards show the Imperial Family with quotations from their writings (‘It is not evil that will triumph, but love’) and invitations to discover more about them from a website.

We are in Eurasia, 12 miles from the (invented) line that divides Europe from Asia. Little wonder that the signs at the airport were all in Russian, Chinese and English. The Imperial Family, whose emblem of unity was the double-headed eagle, looking east and west, were martyred here 100 years ago on the confines of Europe and Asia.

We visit the Church on the Blood, built on the ruins of the place of the martyrdom of the Family, the Ipatiev House, demolished by Yeltsin in 1977, as it was becoming an ever more popular site of pilgrimage. It is very beautiful. A side-altar had been built to replicate the very small basement in which the Imperial Family were finished off. There are people crying, others singing an akathist. I see my friend, Fr Maxim, who serves there.

Nearby is the Tsar’s Museum, with its excellent exhibition on the Imperial Martyrs, and also the room where the Holy Synod held its meeting on 13 July. In the corners of the room stand the 15 flags of the countries represented by the participants, including the Ukraine, Japan and China.

We head for Ganina Yama (‘Gabriels pit’), the abandoned mineshaft, where they attempted to dispose of the bodies of the seven royal martyrs and their four servants. Here they have enclosed the pit, planting hundreds of lilies over it, and built seven churches. Here too people kneel in tears and others sing.

We visit other convents: in Ekaterinburg the old Novotikhvinsky, which is being restored and has 100 nuns, and, a few miles away, the new Central Urals Convent, with 170 nuns, but 450 residents in all, as it cares for single mothers and their children, orphans, and has a cancer ward for the terminally ill. There are many, mainly female, visitors. There also seem to be a number of cossacks here. The spiritual father is the controversial but clearly dynamic Fr Sergiy (Romanov). There are four churches, with a huge bell-tower to contain forty tons of bells, under construction.

It is here that on Monday 16 July I concelebrate with ten priests with the former Metropolitan of Ekaterinburg, Vikenty, now of Tashkent and Uzbekistan. One of the priests, a pilgrim originally from Novosibirsk, looks Chinese. He is in fact a Yakut, Russian is his second language. We meet, one from the East, one from the West, brought together by the Imperial Martyrs.

However, the highlight of our pilgrimage is the liturgy of 17 July, beginning at midnight, shortly after which, exactly 100 years before, the Imperial Martyrs were slaughtered by their mainly Non-Russian executioners and disposed of. The Patriarch presides, with some 15 bishops and 100 priests. Tens of thousands take communion at 2.00 am. Then at 2.30 am, we head for Ganina Yama, fourteen miles away. The pace is very, very brisk, almost at a run. 100,000 faithful, many carrying church banners, Tsar’s flags, strong men carrying huge icons, many pilgrims have paper icons hanging around their necks, cossacks, policemen, old, young, cripples on crutches, babies and small children in pushchairs, 50-100 abreast, stretching back miles, at our head the Patriarch, who covers the distance like us. We sing the Jesus Prayer for miles on end, then, as we draw nearer, the hundreds of priests, monks and nuns and the tens of thousands of laypeople, pray singing: ‘Holy Royal Martyrs, pray to God for us!’ They are called on by name, together with St Seraphim of Sarov (‘the Tsar who glorifies me, I will glorify’), St John of Kronstadt and his successor the Martyr Gregory (Rasputin). Holy Rus is on the move in an irresistible tide, the clergy carried by the piety of the people, the people carried by the piety of the clergy. The intellectuals and liberals have no answer to this piety. Love will indeed triumph over evil.