Our St Elizabeth’s Community near Bodiam undertook a very important and long awaited pilgrimage to the holy places of Moscow connected with our heavenly patrons: the Holy Martyr Grand Princess Elizabeth and the Nun Barbara, together with all the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. This happened just before the end of the year which had been celebrated in Moscow marking the 150th birthday of Grand Princess Elizabeth Feodorovna and the 110th anniversary of the assassination of the Grand Price Sergey Alexandrovich. The spiritual leader of the group was Archpriest Stephen Platt. We were sixteen and our number included four non-Orthodox friends and supporters, who returned home with many deep impressions of Orthodox Moscow. The whole pilgrimage, with its intricate and very full timetable was organised throughout by Maria Harwood. Almost nothing went wrong – a miracle in itself.
During our pilgrimage we stayed at the Saint Maron Orthodox Hostel which offered us very generous accommodation and food. This is located just south of the Kremlin and has its own beautiful and ancient church, serving Liturgy and other services daily. This was a great blessing, as was the fact that the whole district is full of historic churches a few minutes walk away. As we discovered later, one of the New Martyrs venerated by this community is priest Sergey (Mahaev) who served at St Marion’s before his martyrdom and who earlier had been appointed by Saint Elizabeth as a priest of her Iveron Icon Sisterhood - an early charitable venture of hers.
From 1891 until 1904 Saint Elizabeth's husband, Grand Prince Sergey Alexandrovich was Governor-General of Moscow, so we started our journey by visiting their residences, the official palace on Tverskaya, now the Mayor of Moscow's headquarters, and the beautiful and secluded Neskuchny Garden House, now swallowed up by the city but in those days just outside it. We then approached the highest point of Moscow on the steep bank of river, the Vorobiouvy mountains, which gave us opportunity to observe the whole panorama of the city with its golden cupolas of many churches and monasteries, some of which we were to visit. Nearby we saw the impressive buildings of Moscow University, of which Sergey Alexandrovich had been a great benefactor.
Our next stop was the celebrated Sretensky Monastery because here are enshrined the relics of one of the best-known of the New Martyrs, Archbishop Hilarion (Troitsky) who perished in 1929. Most such martyrs are in unknown graves so that it was a great blessing to be able to venerate the body of one of them, in a Moscow monastery. We were shown the church and its other treasures, including an exact copy of the Holy Shroud of Turin, as well as the classrooms of the new seminary. A huge new church is now being completed, in honour of all the New Martyrs. This is the project of the abbot, Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), who is also famous in Russia for his popular book, now translated into English with the title “Everyday Saints”. Many of our party had read this unusual and inspiring work. We did not meet Father Tikhon on our visit as he was away and a few days later he was consecrated bishop by Patriarch Kirill.
As we were informed by Dimitry, our guide and a student of the Seminary, the thousands who were tortured in the underground cells of the nearby NKVD headquarters, whose remains the builders of the new church are frequently discovering, form a kind of enormous Antimins under the monastery. The evening service here was most spiritual and the choir singing superb. In the end we were asked to give an interview to Pravoslavie.ru website run by the monastery. The questions were about the Orthodoxy in Britain, our community and our pilgrimage.
On Sunday 18th we spent the morning at Saint Elizabeth's unique foundation, the Martha-Mary Convent in central Moscow. First we attended Holy Liturgy in the convent's crowded though spacious church during which the congregation as well as the Sisters sang the responses. This was a special liturgical day for the Convent, namely that of New Confessor Gabriel of Milickess who served at Martha and Mary and where his relics are venerated. Afterwards we were given a fascinating tour by Sister Valentina of the House Museum of Saint Elizabeth, full of paintings, documents and furnishings dating from our saint's residence – or at least exact copies of such. The whole convent, and not only the church, now fully and beautifully restored, is filled with the unseen presence of our beloved saint.
We shared the meal with Igumena Elizabeth, the sisters and bishop Panteleimon, the Head of Social Services of the Patriarchate, who had served this liturgy. In his speech he welcomed us and mentioned that we came from the homeland of Grand Princess’s mother who had greatly influenced the charitable character of Saint Elizabeth.
In the afternoon we visited the Tretiakov Gallery and, inside, the church of Saint Nicholas, which is part of the art gallery, and venerated Moscow's most treasured icon, the Vladimir Mother of God. Before the revolution this image was housed in the Dormition cathedral in the Kremlin. It was later taken to the gallery as an “exhibit” but is now thankfully in a functioning church.
In the evening we had a cultural interlude, going to Bolshoi Theatre to see a very traditional Russian opera, “The Tsar’s Bride” by Rimsky-Korsakov, first performed in 1899. Another part of our group went to the Kremlin Palace to watch a dance performance by the famous “Beriozka” Ensemble.
Both performances were good introductions to our next day, as went to see the Kremlin, the ancient residence of the Russian Tsars. The appointment of Grand Prince Sergey, the Tsar’s brother, as a Governor-General of Moscow in 1891 was an acknowledgement of the rising status of Moscow. Saint Elizabeth as first lady of Moscow became here a great benefactor for poor and disadvantaged. We were shown the sites of the tragic events of February 1905, when her husband was brutally assassinated by a terrorist. Our saint buried the shattered remains of her beloved husband in a specially constructed tomb in the Kremlin's Chudov Monastery. This monastery was desecrated and demolished in the 1920s and the tomb covered over.
We then visited the five great Kremlin churches with their incomparable iconography, a pilgrimage in itself. One of our group had been fortunate enough to obtain permission to attend a Liturgy celebrated in the Dormition Cathedral, formerly the coronation church, on the previous day, for services have been resumed in nearly all the Kremlin churches. Before leaving Red Square, we also venerated the miraculous Iveron (Iverskaya) Icon in its tiny chapel – a traditional stopping place for all pilgrims to Moscow.
We next journeyed to the great Novospassky Monastery. After the fall of the communist regime, the Grand Prince's body was located and transferred to Novospassky – the ancient burial place of the Romanov family. We were met there by the representatives of Grand Prince Sergey Alexandrovich Foundation who showed us the Romanov necropolis, its fascina ting museum and the beautiful memorial cross – an exact copy of the one designed by Vasnestov to mark the site of the assassination, and which was destroyed personally by Lenin. Father Stephen served a Panikhida over the resting place of Sergey Alexandrovich in Slavonic and English.
In the monastery church above the necropolis we venerated the miraculous icon of the Mother of God “Pantanassa” which is much frequented by cancer sufferers. We had one pilgrim seriously affected by this illness so our common prayer in front of the icon was very personal and ardent. Afterward we were shown the ancient Transfiguration church which is only in use in Summer, and we had to light candles to see it and to pray there. It was a very special experience for we had the feeling that we had moved back many centuries. Finally we attended the evening service and heard the famed singing of the monastery choir.
The following day we were taken outside Moscow, but still next to its river, to see the places where Saint Elizabeth and her husband lived for many years: Usovo and Ilinskoe. Ilinskoe was the site of their summer palace, a pretty wooden house, now vanished, though the old church of the Prophet Elias still stands. This was our saint's favourite residence but as it lacked a heating system, the Grand Prince built a more modern house at Usovo which they would visit in the autumn and winter. This is now occupied by the President of Russia.
A beautiful church in old Moscow style together with a “Saint Elizabeth and Grand Prince Sergey Memorial Centre” has recently been built near the Usovo estate and every year a procession on foot is made between this church and the one at Ilinskoe. We managed to cover half of this distance on foot, accompanied by Ludmila, our guide from the Saint Elizabeth and Grand Prince Sergey Society. The views along the river were almost as they were centuries ago. Back in the memorial complex we were shown old photographs and other exhibits and treated to a wonderful lunch in the beautifully painted dining hall.
In the afternoon we returned to the city and to the Donskoy Monastery to venerate the sacred relics of the Holy New Confessor Patriarch Tikhon which are kept in the main church. This saint is especially dear to us for amidst all his sufferings and persecutions in the early 1920s, he found time to approve and bless for use, one of the first and fullest translations of Orthodox services into English – the “Hapgood” Service book.
From the Donskoy we drove to the completely reconstructed Moscow Diocesan House with its huge hall and beautifully frescoed chapel. It was in this hall that most of the sessions of the Moscow Council of 1917-1918 were held and where Metropolitan Tikhon of Moscow was chosen to be the first Patriarch of All Russia for more than two hundred years. The persecution began almost immediately, and Vladimir, Metropolitan of Kiev was martyred before the Council closed. A wonderful icon on the iconostas depicts all the bishops of this council who died a martyr's death.
On Wednesday we travelled early to the tiny church of Saint Nicholas in Klenniky, near the city centre and attended the Holy Liturgy there. Everybody noticed a special prayerful atmosphere there. The adjoining parish house was a centre of Orthodox life and resistance during the days of persecution. Here lived the famous Elder, Saint Alexey (Mechev), now a greatly venerated saint called simply Alexis of Moscow. His relics are here and we also saw his tiny room. Saint Alexis died in 1923, before the worst days of persecution, but his son Sergey (Mechev) is one of the New Martyrs. We were told wonderful stories about Saint Alexis and the community which lived on after him and it was clear that this spirit still survives in this special spot.
In the afternoon we travelled to Butovo, the main memorial in Moscow to the martyrs. Here were the killing fields of huge numbers of innocent sufferers in the late 1930s: 1937 to 38 being the most bloody years. Not only Orthodox believers were shot here but members of other religions, dissident communists, suspect national groups and many others. In a large open field, once forested, raised rectangular areas mark the resting places of the massacred thousands. In the middle of this place is a small and exquisite wooden chapel where prayers are offered to the Martyrs and for the other victims.
In 2007 a large church was erected nearby and this has now been completely frescoed in ancient Russo-Byzantine style. In this magnificent place we served a Moleben to all the New Martyrs. It was this church which was consecrated by Patriarch Alexis II and Metropolitan Laurus on the day after the re-establishment of Communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Church Abroad. Maria and John witnessed this event.
On our way home we stopped at another newly completed Moscow church – the Pokrov in Yasenevo – in order to see the wonderful mosaics which now cover the walls and ceiling. Although it had no direct connection with our pilgrimage we could not omit such a place. All the decoration of the building has been the work of parishioners and the costs raised by the inhabitants of this quarter of Moscow. The mosaics are inspired by the great Byzantine churches of Sicily.
The last full day of our pilgrimage was a “free” day in which our members were invited to choose from a list of suggested holy or cultural places. First, however, we all returned to the Martha-Mary Convent for a final moleben of thanksgiving to our dear patron saint for a successful pilgrimage. This was held before her shrine in the main church. After, we were given a special tour of the lower church and the spot where the saint had planned her burial place.
Six of us, guided by nun Martha, now journeyed to the famed Trinity-Saint Sergius Lavra where we were shown all the historic treasures of the monastery and seminary and could venerate the relics of one of the greatest Russian saints, Sergius of Radonezh. This saint of course was the heavenly patron of the husband of our Saint Elizabeth.
Once again, as several times before in our journey together, we found moving and unexpected links as we moved from one holy place to another. Thus our pilgrimage came to an end. All of us felt that we had been truly blessed every step of the way and every moment of this unforgettable journey.