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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Sinners' March

Juliet Butler joins 1,000 wayward souls on the annual procession of the icon of

St. Nikolai the Miracle Worker. Pain, hunger and exhaustion set in after marathon marches amid torrential rain and scorching heat -- but the believers thank the Lord for their suffering.

When I was invited to take part in a church procession in Russia, I had visions of walking three times around an onion-domed cathedral behind the clergy, the usual activity at Russian churches on Easter. Little did I realize that the annual krestny khod, or procession, to the village of Vyelikoryetskaya is the longest outdoor church service in Russia, a relentless six-day march across 170 kilometers of Russian wilderness.

On a warm day in June, about 1,000 worshippers, old and young, set off from the town of Kirov, formerly known as Vyatka, 960 kilometers northeast of Moscow, singing hymns and swinging bundles with food, blankets and plastic sheets for protection from the elements. But just a few days out, it's a very different story: After walking 20 hours a day through the freezing nights and scorching days of Central Russia, the chanted prayers have dissipated and the suffering has set in. But then, that's what they came for.

Young women from the city hobble along on sticks wincing from the pain of bandaged feet covered with bloody blisters. Some old women -- the babushki -- are so determined not to stop that they trudge doggedly on until they collapse unconscious from exhaustion. A man who is fasting faints from hunger, and a middle-aged woman has a fit. Urgent calls for the doctor are being relayed more frequently down the snaking column of walkers, and teenage girls lie weeping hysterically by the wayside, broken by lack of sleep and their heavy loads. "Just leave her there," says Anatoly, a middle-aged builder, indicating a 14-year-old girl sobbing helplessly on the ground. "She won't thank you for helping her. She knows she has her own cross to bear. The only way to truth is through suffering."

I nod. Parched with thirst, aching all over and hallucinating from sleep deprivation -- I swear the grass is turning blood red -- I now understand what lies at the root of Russian faith and perhaps the Russian soul: sin, suffering and salvation.

The pilgrims are following a long and proud tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church: According to religious lore, the icon of St. Nikolai was found by a peasant returning home from the forest one evening in 1383. He noticed lights twinkling on a tree and on closer inspection he found the light to be an icon surrounded by candles. He rushed home to call some villagers, who brought the icon down, and since that day, those who have approached the icon are said to have been blessed with miraculous cures.

When news of the icon's healing powers spread, the people of a nearby town, Vyatka, asked that the icon be kept in its cathedral to be worshipped by the masses. The villagers agreed -- on the condition that every year, on June 3, it would be brought back to them for a day, to the very tree where it was found in Vyelikoryetskaya.

This tradition has been upheld by the faithful through the centuries, every year but one. According to legend, in 1551, when the people of Vyatka didn't bother to take the icon back to its origin, snow fell June 6. It remained there until June 25, when the chastened townspeople took the icon back to Vyelikoryetskaya and the snow melted. Today's believers are just as God-fearing. "Last year I didn't come and went bankrupt," explains entrepreneur Volodya.

Despite the fact that the rigid creeds of the Russian Orthodox Church have remained virtually unchanged for 1,000 years, there are now 60 million believers in the country and 70 percent of Russians have been baptized into the church. Even though Orthodoxy has been dethroned as a state religion and Russia has opened its borders to countless foreign religions, Orthodoxy still has a mighty hold.

None of the worshippers on the procession are in favor of contemporary efforts by some "neo-reformists" to bring the Orthodox Church into the 21st century. They don't want services in contemporary Russian instead of old Slavonic, or to abolish the iconostas screen behind which the priests lead "secret rites" that are a part of every church service. Back in Moscow, the modern world is impossible to ignore, but out here everyone is united only by the timeless desire to expiate their sins before God.

"I spend my life morally split in two," says Slavophile writer Vladimir Krupin, who is on the walk for the fifth time. "I very much want to die because I am tortured by seeing Russia suffer, but I feel it is terrible to die without having earned forgiveness for my sins."

This outlook on life is fairly typical of our procession. But even Krupin is shaken when a mother whose son picks up a tick while sleeping under a tree refuses to have it removed. Some of the ticks are encephalitic -- and fatal -- and though they are a rarity in this region, we all live in fear of them as we wend our way through the damp forests. But the woman firmly insists that the tick, encephalitic or not, is just punishment for her son's sins.

In fact, the concept of grekh, or sin, is the dominant theme on our walk and an inherent part of the convoluted doctrines of Orthodoxy, many of which have become clouded by the mists of time. One group of babushki, for example, tells me that I am doomed to burn in eternal hell-fire for being an Anglican because the New Testament clearly states that Russian Orthodoxy is the only true church. A young man with a long blond beard is more optimistic about my soul, but still believes that one Russian Orthodox prayer is worth precisely 10 Anglican ones.

The credulity of many Russians extends to a religion that is packed with miracles and the casting out of devils. "If you need anything, just ask St. Nikolai, the miracle worker," says Svyatoslav, an old, bearded man with a handkerchief tied around his head. "Go ahead and try it!"

Most of my companions are here because they have been lured by the promise of miracles past, present and future. Sveta is a gaunt but cheerful Muscovite woman who has cancer and has been told she has only months to live. Two years ago she was fascinated by witchcraft and sees her sickness as God's wrath. "If I'm still alive next year," she says with a smile, "I shall come again and bring my two young children."

Sprightly Yelizaveta, 67, first went on the procession 17 years ago. "I was a cripple and had to literally crawl there. But I was helped and have come every year since then and just look at me now! God be thanked."

Church processions are unlike pilgrimages in that the former are organized, annual events led by priests to the spot where an icon first appeared, while the latter are individual treks to a shrine that can take place at any time. What they have in common is that the participants want to test their faith through hardship and thus earn their reward from God.

They were most popular in the 18th century following the Tatar-Mongol rule of the Middle Ages and the 17th-century schism in the Russian Orthodox Church. Though every church has a procession around its building at Easter and on saint days, there are also dozens of these longer processions that reach the place where an icon miraculously appeared. The longest and most renowned of these is the Vyelikoryetskaya walk. In fact, the St. Nikolai icon was so famous at one point that Ivan the Terrible demanded it be brought to him in the Kremlin.

It was mostly peasants and some merchants who went on processions and pilgrimages -- if the nobility did go, it was certainly not on foot -- though there would have to be some desperate reason, such as the serious illness of a loved one, that would prompt them to leave their families and small-holding for weeks at a time. But once they had torn themselves away from the ties of everyday life, the excursion, which could involve walking thousands of kilometers, was something of an adventure for the average peasant, a chance to see life outside his village. There were also tens of thousands of stranniki, or wanderers, who spent their whole lives going from pilgrimage to pilgrimage and were treated as saints for the constant hardship they endured. But self-flagellation is inseparable from the Russian Orthodox Church, which demands constant prayer and abstinence and has a calendar in which the majority of the year is made up of fasting days when one is also expected to be celibate.

The miracle-working icon became so exalted in pre-Revolutionary Russia that up to 22,000 people from all over the country used to take part in the krestny khod. Under the Soviets, the icon was lost, presumed destroyed, and the tree where it was found was hacked down. But still the processions continued, even though the militia cordoned off the route, set dogs on believers, stoned them, fired guns over their heads and arrested them. Believers managed to complete their journey only by walking in groups of two or three so they could tell the police they were simply strolling. Times have changed since then. Now the militia-men who accompany the procession on the roads have their wives and children taking part.

Since the walk was officially condoned six years ago, the number of worshippers has swelled each year. As the massive procession emerges from a stand of ancient trees at 2 a.m. after only two hours sleep in a wrecked school building, one of the members of a Kirov TV crew shakes his head in awe. "Good God! Why do they all do it? It's medieval."

Certainly the unearthly silence of the pre-dawn gloom, broken only by the tramp of 1,000 pairs of feet and the haunting call of a cuckoo echoing across the swamp, makes it easy to imagine oneself back in the Dark Ages when Russian Orthodoxy held sway over all Russian souls.

The breathtaking views of the rolling country, unspoiled by any sign of civilization, contribute to the illusion of another era. But as the midday heat intensifies, the weary column strings out over a mile, oblivious to the beauty around them. "Thank the Lord," wheezes one babushka, "that he did not forget to test us with this heat! Last year he sent the cold and the rain. Now the heat. Thank the Lord!"

There is a chorus of "Amens." The dirge-like prayers and hymns, never very exhilarating, have now dwindled into whispers. The verse of a prayer from behind me ("I am drowning in the Sea of Life, Save me Nikolai, my saint") merges into the words of a hymn from up front: "Without you I will burn fire, Without you I will go to Hell."

I almost trip over an angelic 3-year-old who has taken her own rest stop to play in a patch of sand. She is absentmindedly lisping, "Gospodi pomilui," or "Lord forgive me," in a sing-song voice. "Psalms and hymns are the only tunes she knows," explains her father.

He is a barefoot priest, Father Vladimir, who has brought Masha for her third krestny khod and pushes her along on a shopping cart. He admits that what he calls "the sects" -- American evangelistic churches-- have a more welcoming faith but he, like the Orthodox clergy as a whole, is philosophical about the salvation of Russian souls: "Time alone will show our people that these faiths are alien and will lead them to Hell. Our job is not to force people to change their minds but to wait for them to return.

"Over the last 70 years people have forgotten how to believe, but 1,000 years of Orthodoxy has left its mark on people. They are coming back to the Russian faith."

The vast majority of believers in Russia are indeed Russian Orthodox, but it is hard to imagine anyone but Russians embracing a church that calls for you to stumble through mosquito-ridden swamps and tick-infested forests, unwashed, exhausted and willing to sleep on whatever bit of ground first comes up and hits you when the priest signals it's time for a rest stop.

At least in the past, the five villages along the route were all inhabited, and the weary worshippers would be met with peasants bearing pies and kvas, a refreshing drink brewed from bread. Three of the villages are now abandoned and the other two are unwelcoming. In fact, the only houses that aren't locked and barred to the devout travelers belong to drunks whose homes look and smell like pigsties steeped in samogen, Russia's legendary home-brew. But who cares? As far as the contemporary worshippers are concerned, the worse the better.

"Our aim in life is to carry a cross in order to gain eternal salvation," says a young man who introduces himself as "Viktor the Sinner" as he joins me in a paddle in a cool stream. He carries a collection box in aid of a new church around his neck. "Russian Orthodoxy has strict doctrines but that suits the Russian character. We all need to be thrust to our knees and told to repent."

Boris, a well-built 20-year-old with a blond crew-cut is finding the walk rather easy after his three years in the Navy. He says that confession is what keeps him going through life, "I had an evil spirit inside me like a heavy stone on my heart but when I went to confession it was lifted." Even Larochka, 11, a chirpy red-head sitting in a vale of buttercups, has grasped the general idea: "It was easier last year," she recalls, shouldering her heavy backpack with a grimace. "I suppose it's because I've sinned more this year."

On the third day, after seven hours walking, we reach the abandoned village of Gorokhovo at 9 a.m. Galina, 49, has been walking in two pairs of socks and no shoes because of her blisters, and she sits down with relief. She is on the procession because her son, who emigrated to Canada, got himself into trouble with the law and has asked her for $25,000 to bail him out. "He told me to sell my flat but that would only fetch $10,000. I need a miracle."

To me, the miracle is that even the most elderly of the walkers (some of them are in their 80s) have not only kept up the pace but now stay on their feet for the hour-long service in the shell of an abandoned church, the only remnant of Vorokhovo, this once thriving village which was bulldozed during the Soviet era and now lies sunken forever beneath waist-high grass.

It is also little short of miraculous that only four of our company have been taken away by ambulance by the time we reach our goal -- the Vyelikoryetskaya village on the Veliyaka River. The vast majority triumphantly stump into the little village like homecoming heroes to be met by the golden-robed clergy and ringing of bells. I feel a lump rising into my throat and tears well in my eyes. The icon has come home.

The following day is a festival, which gives those who intend to make the return journey time to nurse their wounds in holy water. The babushki queue up on a make-shift dock for naked immersion in the icy river or place candles on the tree where the icon was originally found, now only a stump. Others crawl three time through the gnarled roots of the tree in another act of homage.

Thousands more people have been bused into the village, but we walkers pick each other out like long-lost friends. There is a sense of solidarity forged through our shared hardships.

"Everyone's so nice to each other on the walk," smiles a wrinkled babushka as she hands me a lump of black bread. "It's so different from all the unpleasantness back in the world, isn't it?"