I hadn't wanted to go back to Russia after my last trip, in 1991.
At that time, I could see signs that 70 years of Communist rule were collapsing. The scarved babushkas on the streets of Leningrad no longer peddled Lenin and Marx; they sold the Bible and Dale Carnegie. Young people had dropped physics and engineering to go into "beezness." Some called the city by its historic name, St. Petersburg.
Other changes were less charm-ing -- street crime, for instance. We were warned not to take the train on our own. And a fellow tried to hijack our tour bus in Red Square. We watched in horror as he grabbed our guide and put a knife to her throat. Our bus driver kicked him off.
So I thought I'd had my fill of Russia -- until I saw the brochure for "Seeking the Face of Christ in Russia," a "pilgrimage" organized by Stillwater icon painter Deb Korlula. The trip promised an inside view of Russian Orthodoxy in the middle of January. Images of snow-covered churches, as in the classic film "Doctor Zhivago," floated through my brain. I signed up and recruited my daughter Kendra as my photographer.
Our group of seven Minnesotans did find snow-covered churches -- and monasteries, religious gift shops and icon-painting studios -- and this time they were filled with people. The Bolshevik Revolution nearly shut down the Russian Orthodox Church. Now it is back in force.
So is St. Petersburg, the historic capital of the Russian Empire, after standing in Moscow's shadow during Soviet times. It is a densely packed city of uniform streets and canals lined with classical 18th- and 19th-century buildings. (French architect Jean Nouvel's recently announced design for a skyscraping office tower will be the first contemporary building in the city.)
Every so often, the city's streets open up to squares, or parks or landmarks such as the spired Admiralty, the Mariinsky Theatre (where we attended the ballet) and Peter and Paul Fortress, which rises across the broad Neva River from the main part of town. In the past 15 years, crumbling buildings have been restored to their former glory and antiquated hotels renovated to European standards.
Religious icons grace churches
We stayed in the small, quiet Hotel Sonata on the sixth floor of a former office building. Each morning we gathered in the breakfast room for coffee, bread, cheese and sausage before walking down the marble stairs to find our white minibus waiting on the street.
We hit tourist sites such as the renowned Hermitage Museum, where the czars collected European art to show they were part of Western civilization. And we explored the inner sanctums of the Orthodox Church. Although the Bolsheviks closed all but a few of St. Peterburg's churches, many of the buildings survived because they were commandeered for more worldly uses -- gymnasiums, warehouses, workers' clubs.
I was excited to get inside the Russian Baroque-style Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood. (That's right, "on." It was built over the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.) When I was in Russia before, the unpainted church looked like a deserted gray ghost. The Soviets had closed it just 10 years after it was completed and converted it to a warehouse. Now its elaborate ornamental towers and gables have been restored -- as have the Art Nouveau-style mosaic icons that cover every wall, ceiling and column. Glinting gold and a peculiarly Russian blue, they are otherworldly.
The Soviets had turned the monumental porticoed St. Isaac's, designed by a French architect in the early 19th century, into an antireligious museum. It was a good choice: Its gaudy ornamentation and cavernous space contrasted the church's riches against to the workers' poverty. Still cavernous and cold, the cathedral now again hosts Orthodox services on significant occasions, such as the recent installation of the Russian church's new patriarch.
What a surprise, then, to walk into Trinity Cathedral Izmailovsky, one of those classic Orthodox churches with white stone walls and blue-painted domes. The muddy church yard was littered with construction equipment. Inside, scaffolding and temporary walls testified to the task at hand -- a major restoration after a massive fire had destroyed the dome and left the inside charred and open to the elements. And worshipers were everywhere -- praying to icons hung on the walls, lighting candles, listening to a priest preach.
"It rained and snowed inside," said the head priest, the Rev. Gennady Bartov, who showed us around and then invited us to his office in the undercroft. Two workmen were laying gold leaf on a frame for an important donated icon as we passed through the refectory and to the priest's arch-ceilinged office, where a large table held our four-course lunch: salads, fish soup, pork chops and potatoes and sweet rolls.
Bartov introduced his assistant whose bushy black hair fell to his black robes. Formerly an engineer who worked on the space shuttle, the assistant was now the "czar" of communications: He knew how to use a computer and could speak some English.
We ate another church lunch in a country setting -- the village of Pavlovsk, near Pushkin, Catherine the Great's enormous blue-walled palace. We went to the basement of the "church house" where the priest, Father Valery Shvetsvov, and his wife, Zina, live, and found another long table set for us.
The homemade food was superb -- a pork pâté with horseradish sauce and a raspberry torte for dessert. Our guide, Nadia, said that her sister Zina always took pastries along when she and her priest husband went to St. Petersburg to plead for funds to help restore their church. While we ate, members of the church choir sang for us, and after lunch the local ladies brought out their embroidered aprons and belts for us to buy.
On our way back to St. Petersburg, we saw lines of people snaking around every church we passed. "They are coming for holy water," Nadia explained. "It is Epiphany Sunday."
Center of Russian Orthodoxy
Alexander Nevsky Monastery is the center of Russian Orthodoxy in St. Petersburg. Peter the Great founded it in 1703 when he arbitrarily moved Russia's capital from hidebound, inland Moscow to St. Petersburg, the more Western-oriented city he created on the Gulf of Finland. Inside its stucco walls is a serene precinct housing administrative offices, a theological school, churches and two historic cemeteries, including one where novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky and composer Peter Tchaikovsky are buried.
We climbed lighthouse-like steps to one of the corner domes on a long yellow building to find four artists painting new icons to replace some of the thousands that had been obliterated after the 1917 Revolution. "We are very busy," said Alexander Stalnov, one of the principal artists.
It snowed the day we drove to Novgorod, a provincial city 120 miles south that is known for its ancient architecture and icons. The wet snow slicked the road and obscured the desolate villages of wood houses along the way. I was looking forward to seeing St. George's or Yuryev Monastery, founded on the banks of Lake Ilmen in 1030, just 50 years after Russia converted to Christianity.
My husband, Warren, and I had visited there in 1971. As we had stood on the silent banks of Lake Ilmen staring at the white stone walls, we felt transported to the 11th century. I couldn't imagine that it would still feel that way. But as we walked in snowy silence under the bell tower and into the monastery precinct, the past was palpable.
A few monks in black robes strode along the paths. The tall white stone cathedral built in 1119 was returned to the Orthodox Church 10 years ago and was open to visitors. Its huge wooden doors revealed a cold, dark interior. Inside, one elaborate chandelier cast a dim light on the smudged frescoes covering the narrow columns. We could see our breath.
Our guide started to sing a Russian chant, "Glory to God." Her voice swirled up into the black dome and echoed back down. So it must have been 1,000 years ago.
Linda Mack is a Minneapolis-based