By Sophia Kishkovsky | The New York Times | November 23, 2011.
MOSCOW — From morning all through the night, tens of thousands of Russians have been lining up since Saturday in the cold with just one aim: to kiss a glass-covered reliquary that they believe holds the Virgin Mary’s belt.
They shuffle along, waiting for up to 12 hours without complaint in a line that stretches for miles. Within a few days, the organizers say, the wait could reach 24 hours. At any given time there are about 25,000 people, according to news media estimates, and as of Wednesday morning, 285,000 true believers had earned their moment before the belt, said the St. Andrew the First-Called Foundation, which organized the tour.
As befits his status as the arbiter of most things Russian, Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin was the first to greet the holy relic when it arrived on Oct. 20 in St. Petersburg from a Greek Orthodox monastery on Mount Athos in Greece for a month long tour of Russia.
Of all the industrial nations, perhaps only Russia outdistances the United States in the religiosity of its people, two million of whom venerated the belt before its final stop in Moscow.
They wait here, within view of the Kremlin, snaking past the hulking Ministry of Defense building and billboards in support of United Russia, the pro-Putin governing party.
“We came so that we will live well, be happy and healthy, for the sake of our children,” said Anna Kozlova, 68, a pensioner who joined the end of the line late Tuesday night with her daughter Oksana Kulikova, a nurse, wrapped, like her mother, in fur against the cold.
She said she planned to head straight to work after venerating the relic at the towering Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which has been open around the clock.
“If a person believes, they come here,” Ms. Kulikova said. This, she stressed, is a matter of free will — in contrast to the long lines of the Soviet era for forced visits to Lenin’s mausoleum on Red Square.
Moscow’s city government closed streets around the cathedral — causing those Muscovites not so inclined to venerate relics to rant about the even-worse-than-usual traffic jams. Mobile canteens were set up to feed the pilgrims, and heated city buses lined the embankment to offer respite from the cold. A free bus service is shuttling provincial visitors to train stations.
Moscow’s mayor, Sergei S. Sobyanin, came to inspect the scene. The benefactor of the St. Andrew the First-Called Foundation is Vladimir Yakunin, president of the Russian Railroads, who is close to Mr. Putin. At a news conference in October, Mr. Yakunin said the belt — usually kept at the Vatopedi Monastery on the Mount Athos peninsula in northern Greece, where women are not permitted — was known for promoting fertility.
“The belt of the Most Holy Virgin Mary possesses miraculous power,“ he said. “It helps women and helps in childbirth. In our demographic situation, this is in and of itself important.”
It also seems to attract people who, having forsaken Russia’s deteriorating health system, are looking for something else. In recent years, Russians have thronged to relics of numerous saints, hoping to be cured of ills like cancer, debt and drunken husbands.
“People come who apparently no longer have faith in medical care and await a miracle,” said the Rev. Mikhail Ryazantsev, the cathedral’s sacristan, who said the overwhelming majority were women.
The blogs and Facebook pages of Russian Orthodox intellectuals have overflowed with debates about whether hysteria over the belt was a disturbing sign that many Russians’ faith is based on superstition.
Many noted that Christ the Savior Cathedral and the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra near Moscow, one of the most important monasteries in the Orthodox Church, have relics of the Virgin Mary that are just as precious.
At a bustling coffee shop near the cathedral that this week became an impromptu pit stop for the faithful, an excited young woman rushed in to tell waiting friends that she had venerated the Virgin Mary’s belt. Then she told them about her visit to a fortune teller.
For other people, excitement over the relics underscores that Russians are dissatisfied and searching for something.
“Faith helps us live,” Dmitry Gurov, 27, who works in a bank and would seem to live the good life, said as he joined the line on Tuesday night. Yet not many miles from Moscow people may live without gas or running water.
“Life is hard in our country,” he said. “We don’t know what will happen next.”