John Lloyd in Moscow

On the morning of Sunday 3 October, Russia’s most treasured icon was borne into the Bogoyavlensky Sobor, the Cathedral of the Epiphany, in Moscow. The Madonna of Vladimir, a 12th-century depiction of the infant Jesus resting on the arm of an abstracted Madonna, was delivered to the church by Zil minibus. In spite of his recent heart trouble, Patriarch Alexei of Moscow and All Russia, his great grey beard stirring slightly in the autumn wind, was there to see it up the steps and along the nave of the magnificently painted, glowing interior of the church with which he is most closely associated.

There was the usual desperate crush to get into the confined space of an Orthodox church. An old woman stood guard on a side door, letting in the church’s many retainers and snarling at anyone who tried to slip in with them – mostly women of her own age. A German TV crew was escorted in by a verger, but most people stood patiently outside, crossing themselves from forehead to stomach, right shoulder to left, and bowing swiftly in the Orthodox manner as the choral service was relayed through a vile loudspeaker.

It was a service for peace and harmony. Metropolitan Kyril of Smolensk, the youngest and most political of the Synod, had announced it on TV after the news the night before, as he relayed the Synod’s declaration on the struggle between President and Parliament, which included an anathema – delivered with a narrowing of the eyes – on those who would spill blood. The Patriarch, under whose aegis talks between representatives of the besieged White House and of the President had been taking place, believed that God should be invoked through the intercession of the Madonna of Vladimir – which was why she had been hauled from her resting place in the Tretyakov Gallery and pressed into service again.

Orthodoxy has not recovered its place as the religion of the people. This is not Catholicism in Poland, much less Islam in Iran. In most churches, services are sparsely attended, and usually by old ladies. But where the congregation is large it is varied. The wretchedly poor are there as well as the fashionable and the official. Alexei stood facing the iconostasis, chanting, crossing himself and bowing. He gave no sermon. The point of the service, for patriarch and congregation alike, was immersion in the mystery of the faith.

Outside, a middle-aged woman with a mouthful of gold teeth was trying to rouse a group of bystanders in support of her own opinions, freely bestowed on a young priest. ‘Tell him,’ she implored them. ‘Speak to him; tell him the Church must save Russia, the Patriarch must save Russia.’ Earnest and struggling to get his words in, the priest explained that this was not the Church’s mission. ‘I cannot save Russia. I can only save myself.’ A dignified reply, it seemed, but one which gave rise to great indignation. ‘You hear this? Listen to him! He can only save himself! As Russia suffers, it suffers, on the edge of death.’ This is indeed how the people speak.

Later, on the march to the White House, suffering Russia was again at the centre of things. There were fewer flags than usual: in retrospect it was clear that the project was too serious for mere display. The flags that could be seen had often been in evidence during the previous two years as the opposition to Boris Yeltsin took shape. The Soviet flag was in the majority: plain red (no need for a variety of colours to represent different strands in the nation – this was a Union in which all contradictions, colourful or otherwise, had been resolved) with the little hammer and sickle at the top left. There was a handful of elderly men and women who walked, solitary more often than not, with a portrait of Joseph Stalin on a pole or clasped like an icon to their chests. There was the Andreyevsky (St Andrew’s) flag and the black, yellow and white flag, a reassertion of the right to rule of Imperial Russia.

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