Relic of Virgin Mary causes Moscow's worst traffic jams in years


Twenty years ago there was no possibility of a Christian relic going on public display in this city

THE BLOOD pressure of Moscow’s motorists has dropped to almost safe levels now that the Belt of the Virgin Mary has left town for its home in the Greek monastic complex of Mount Athos. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had been queuing for weeks to see the relic, understood to be an item of apparel of the Blessed Virgin, and believed to cure barrenness and disorders of women’s health.

The results of the miles-long queues and the bussing in of pilgrims from regional towns and cities has been a series of mammoth traffic jams, the likes of which have not been seen since the arrival of the head of Saint Panteleimon the Healer 11 years ago. The multitudes queued to kiss the ornate box in which the relic is held, but even a glimpse of the reliquary, it is believed, can affect whatever cure the respective believers request.

More than one million turned up in St Petersburg where the Belt was displayed earlier this month, and in Moscow, more than three times the size of St Petersburg’s trifling 4.5 million population, the attendances have been in proportion. Things have changed.

When I came to live and work in Moscow for this newspaper 20 years ago not only was there not the slightest possibility of a Christian relic being put on display, there was no Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in which to display it. Built to commemorate Imperial Russia’s victory over Napoleon, it was not an architectural gem. That was not the reason, however, why former divinity student Josef Stalin had it razed to the ground and replaced by a vast open-air heated swimming pool.

After the Soviet Union fell, Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, launched the city into a massive building boom. His wife, incidentally, owned a construction company and became the richest woman in Russia. A kind woman, she looked after her husband well and one of the city’s most dramatic projects was the reconstruction of the huge cathedral on its original site, smack in the city centre.

For the exposition of the holy relic the buses and the metro disgorged their pilgrims at points where marshals divided them into blocks of 50 or so and the long queues, up to 24 hours on some days, began.

In today’s Russia where the spirit of egalitarianism is long since dead, people of middling importance were given special tickets which allowed them to skip the queues and claim their cures ahead of the common herd.

One of the minority of men to have viewed the reliquary has been Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, whose political party, United Russia, expects to retain its majority in the Duma in the general election of December 4th. Being pictured in veneration at the cathedral will not have done his party any harm.

For Mr Putin and his political adjunct, President Dmitry Medvedev, the traffic snarls have been of little consequence.They can use the middle lane on wide Kutuzovsky Prospekt which has been reserved for political leaders to speed to and from the Kremlin and Moscow White House and their stately state residences in the west of the city. That is one of the Soviet political privileges that has survived all the dramatic changes that occurred since the red flag came down from the Kremlin in December 1991.

Other gatherings in Moscow in this final week before the parliamentary elections were tiny in comparison. One called by the opposition A Just Russia party, to protest at the widespread belief that the vote would be rigged, mustered less than 300 people. There was a biblical aspect here too, for Mr Putin in a fierce election speech pointed the finger at A Just Russia and others as the modern-day equivalent of Judas Iscariot, out to betray their country for Western money.