This year the pilgrimage in conjunction with the presence of the relics of St. Nicholas from Bari.
On Thursday, June 8, one of the largest processions in Russia – indeed a real pilgrimage – was completed, the “Veliko-Peoplesko-Russian, or pan-Russian procession”, to a village in the north of the country. This year the procession was solemnized by the special participation of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Kirill (Gundjaev).
The pilgrimage traditionally takes place from June 3 to 8, and the main celebrations take place on June 5 and 6 at the Velikaja river (the “Great River”) and in the churches of the monastery of St. Trifone in Velikoretskoe, which means “the country of the great river”. The festival takes place in honor of an ancient Saint Nicola icon guarded by the monastery, and the path covers 150 km from the town of Vjatka to the sanctuary, through fields (not yet completely thawed after the long winter ). The central ritual is a general aspersion, and for many pilgrims a complete immersion, in the holy waters of the great river, where traditionally the icon was found again. This year, more than 35,000 people participated.
This is the longest collective pilgrimage among traditional Russian devotions. In 1383 a farmer named Agalakov found the icon on the banks of the river, an event that gave its name to the village. It was later transported to the town of Vjatka, renamed Kirov in the Soviet period, by the name of the famous revolutionary killed by Stalin in 1934. Kirov was the only possible opponent of the Georgian dictator, and his assassination marked the beginning of Stalin’s “Great terror”.
In 1935, the Kirov cathedral was destroyed, and the icon disappeared. Pilgrimage was forbidden in the same years (though some groups of faithful went underground to those places to pray), to be resumed only in 1989 as one of the signs of Russia’s “religious rebirth”, to commemorate persecution and the tragedy of Soviet history.
Since then the devotion has been renewed every year, carrying a copy of the old icon that Stalin had disappeared in procession. During the Jubilee of 2000, then Patriarch Aleksij II conferred the status of “pan-Russian” on the pilgrimage, which means not only national, but for all Russians at home and abroad. In fact, many believers from the Baltic States, Poland and other nations come to Velikoretskoe every year.
In the spirituality of Russian Orthodox, already very closely related to the icons and their taumaturgical power, associating that devotion with the gesture of immersion and aspersion takes on a particularly evocative meaning. Recalling the original Baptism of Kiev’s Russians in the waters of the River Dnepr in 988, whenever the Church’s liturgy offers contact with the blessed water, there is always a large number of faithful.
Particularly fascinating are the rites of the feast of the Baptism of Jesus (the Epiphany) of 6/19 January, when all Orthodox parishes reach a water site, preferably a river, to carry out the aspersions and immersions. Since the rivers are almost always icy in January, there is a large cross-shaped opening in the ice, where the faithful are immersed beginning with the priest, at least those physically capable of doing it. If participation in the main sacraments and liturgies in Russia is reduced, the percentage reaches much more significant numbers in these events.
This year, in particular, the Velikoretskoe pilgrimage took on a much more striking value, taking place on the days when the precious St. Nicholas relic of Bari is present in Russia, gathering millions of pilgrims to Moscow (in July it will be in Saint Petersburg). The Orthodox Church, but also the Russian government and President Putin, attribute an increasingly decisive meaning to these sacred gestures after a crisis of identity and trust in the population seems to have begun in recent months. The protest demonstrations of the past few weeks and those scheduled for the new 2018 presidential elections are opposed by the great gatherings of devotion, in which Russia is called to witness the moral superiority of its people and their own history to the rest of the world, without fear of isolation, even by calling to join for the victory of perennial moral values.