Friday, 13 July 2012

The Kremlin, Astrakhan
First of all you had the beautifully restored late 18th century church of Our Lady of the Assumption, one of the first generation of Catholic churches in Russia[1], visited by an impeccably well-behaved group of schoolchildren while i was there. Then i made for the Kremlin[2], brainchild of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century, and taking on its current appearance around the beginning of the 18th century. Besides two fine cathedrals, also of interest within its walls is a chapel said to house relics of St Cyril, known as Apostle to the Slavs (with his brother St Methodius).
Cathedral with relics of St Cyril, Astrakhan
   In the evening it was nice to find myself in a proper ‘platzkart’ (3rd class, but clean and comfortable) carriage on a real-life Russian locomotive. There is always a giant boiler/ samovar type thing at one end, from which hot drinks are served in glasses with special metal holders. If there’s one drawback, it is that a minority of Russians like to get drunk on them - two good ol’ boys sitting opposite me were clearly fond of this custom. One was basically harmless, but wished to scrutinise the sincerity of my motives to go on pilgrimage; while the other was prime suspect in the matter of a banknote that disappeared from my wallet. Then after a good sleep, i did feel a bit of a chump in the morning, when i had to be told that we weren’t due to reach Kazan until the next day. Russia being what it is, even a south-to-north journey, like this one, will take up a goodly measure of one’s earthly sojourn.
    On that carriage I also spoke briefly with a woman who noticed the postcards i was writing, and my Guadalupe badge. Showing her a picture of the Icon of Our Lady of Kazan which i was hoping to see, it turned out that she too was a Muslim, but she nonetheless asked me to say a prayer there, on her behalf.
   The original of this most revered of all Russian icons is said to have been discovered in 1579, and subsequently venerated as a palladium[3] for several centuries, until its theft and probable destruction in 1904. Amid the ferment of war and revolution in the succeeding years, the Roman Church came into possession of an important copy (at one time supposed to be the original), which eventually found its way onto the wall of Blessed John Paul II’s study. As a result of his freely returning it, in August 2004[4], it is now housed in the Church of the Elevation of the Cross, inside the Virgin Monastery of the Theotokos, Kazan. Sadly, just days after the Orthodox festivities attending its arrival, there occurred on Russian soil perhaps the single most heinous atrocity committed anywhere in this century; the brutal school siege in Beslan. I actually believe this act was an expression of satanic rage at the affront to his authority that had taken place.

[1] These owed their existence principally to Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia from 1762-1796, and specifically to the invitation she extended to Europeans, to immigrate and farm Russian land. Most of those who responded were from Germany, among whom were many Catholics. The descendants of these so-called Volga Germans were deported to the gulags and elsewhere in Kazakhstan and Siberia on the outbreak of war with Germany in 1941. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, many have taken up a ‘right of return’ to Germany. 
[2] Many older Russian towns and cities have a Kremlin - a fortress, often enclosing the local headquarters of civil and religious administration.
[3] An icon, or other artwork, on which the safety of a city or country is believed to depend; Our Lady of Czestochowa is the Polish equivalent.
[4] The Pope had longed to visit Russia in person to return it, but this proved ‘a visa too far’.

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