32. Easter ceremonies (1906)

What I Saw in Russia, 1905-1906 by Maurice Baring.

(Maurice Baring (1874-1945), fifth son of Edward Baring, ist Lord Revelstoke, was a poet and man of letters whose genius for languages led him first to the Diplomatic Corps. In 1904 he resigned from the Foreign Office and went abroad as a war correspondent in Manchuria for the Morning Post. After the war he remained as special correspondent in St Petersburg, where he learnt Russian and developed an abiding sympathy for the Russian people. His Landmarks in Russian Literature, published in 1910, showed for the first time his remarkable gifts as a translator and literary critic.)

Certainly Russia is different from all other countries, and by saying it is the most Western of Oriental nations you get no nearer an explanation of its characteristics than by saying it is the most Oriental of Western nations. You live here, walk about, talk, and forget that you are in a place winch is quite unique until some small sight or episode or phrase brings home the fact to you, and you say 'This is Russia', as Vernon Lee in her book on The Spirit of Rome exclaims, 'This is Rome', when driving towards Monte Maggiore she hears the sound of the harmonium and the school-children's hymn issuing out of a piece of broken ruin covered with fennel. Such a moment has just occurred to me tonight, when driving home through the empty streets at 11 pm. I passed a church as the clock struck, and I heard a voice speaking loud quite close to me. I turned round, and saw a policeman standing on the pavement, having faced about towards the church. He was saying his prayers in a loud sing-song; his whole body was swaying as he repeatedly crossed himself; in his arms he carried a twig of budding willow, which is the symbol of the palm-branches of to-day's festival. These branches yesterday and today have been sold and carried about all over Russia. Palm Sunday here is called the Feast of the Willow-branches. When I saw this policeman saying his prayers, I experienced that peculiar twinge of recognition which made me think: 'This is Russia.'

I have spent Easter in various cities — in Rome, Florence, Athens, and Hildesheim — and although in each of these places the feast has its own peculiar aspect, yet by far the most impressive and the most interesting celebration of the Easter Festival I have ever witnessed is that of Moscow. This is not to be wondered at. for Easter, as is well known, is the most important feast of the year in Russia, the season of festivity and holiday-making in a greater degree than Christmas or New Year's Day. Secondly, Easter, which is kept with equal solemnity all over Russia, is especially interesting in Moscow, because Moscow is the stronghold of old traditions, and the city of churches. Even more than Cologne, it is

`Die Stadt die viele hundert Kapellen and Kirchen hat.'

There is a church almost in every street, and the Kremlin is a citadel of cathedrals. During Holy Week, towards the end of which the evidences of the fasting season grow more and more obvious by the dosing of restaurants and the impossibility of buying any wine and spirits, there are, of course, services every day. During the first three days of Holy Week there is a curious ceremony to be seen every two years in the Kremlin. That is the preparation of the chrism or holy oil. While it is slowly stirred and churned in great cauldrons, filling the room with hot fragrance, a deacon reads the Gospel without ceasing (he is relieved at intervals by others), and this lasts day and night for three days. On Maundy Thursday it is removed in silver vessels to the Cathedral. The supply has to last the whole of Russia for two years. I went to the morning service in the Cathedral of the Assumption on Maundy Thursday. 'It's long, but it's very, very beautiful.' The church is crowded to suffocation. Everybody is standing up, as there would be no room to kneel. The church is lit with countless small wax tapers. The priests are clothed in white and silver. The singing of the noble plain chant without any accompaniment ebbs and flows in perfectly disciplined cadences; the bass voices are unequalled in the world. Every class of the population is represented in the church. There are no seats, no pews, no precedence or privilege. There is a smell of incense and a still stronger smell of poor people, without which, some one said, a church is not a church. On Good Friday there is the service of the Holy Shroud, and besides this a later service in which the Gospel is read out in fourteen different languages, and finally a service beginning at one o'clock in the morning and ending at four, which commemorates the Burial of Our Lord. How the priests endure the strain of these many and exceedingly long services is a thing to be wondered at; for the fast, which is strictly kept during all this period, precludes butter, eggs, and milk, in addition to all the more solid forms of nourishment, and the services are about six times as long as those of the Catholic or other Churches.

The most solemn service of the year takes place at midnight on Saturday. From eight until ten o'clock the town, which during the day had been crowded with people buying provisions and presents and Easter eggs, seems to be asleep and dead. At about ten people begin to stream towards the Kremlin At eleven o'clock there is already a dense crowd, many of the people holding lighted tapers, waiting outside in the square, between the Cathedral of the Assumption and the tower of Ivan Veliki. A little before twelve the cathedrals and palaces on the Kremlin are all lighted up with ribbons of various coloured lights. Twelve o'clock strikes, and then the bell of Ivan Velild begins to boom: a beautiful full-voiced, immense volume of sound — a sound which Clara Schumann said was the most beautiful she had ever heard. It is answered by other bells, and a little later all the bells of all the churches in Moscow are ringing together. Then from the Cathedral comes the procession: the singers first in crimson and gold; the bearers of the gilt banners; then the Metropolitan, also in stiff vestments of crimson and gold, and after him the officials in their uniforms. They walk round the Cathedral to look for the Body of Our Lord, and return to the Cathedral to tell the news that He is risen. The guns go off, rockets are fired, and illuminations are seen across the river, lighting up the distant cupola of the great Church of the Saviour with a cloud of fire.

The crowd begins to disperse and to pour into the various churches. I went to the Manege — an enormous riding school, in which the Ekaterinoslav Regiment has its church. Half the building looked like a fair. Long tables, twinkling with hundreds of wax tapers, were loaded with the three articles of food which are eaten at Easter — a huge cake called kulich; a kind of sweet cream made of curds and eggs, cream and sugar, called Paskha (Easter); and Easter eggs, dipped and dyed in many colours. They are there waiting to be blessed. The church itself was a tiny little recess on one side of the building. There the priests were officiating, and down below in the centre of the building the whole regiment was drawn up. There are two services — Matins, which begins at midnight, and which lasts about half an hour; and Mass, which follows immediately after it, lasting till about three in the morning. At the end of Matins, when 'Christ is risen' is sung, the priest kisses the congregation three times, and then the congregation kiss each other, one person saying 'Christ is risen', and the other answering 'He is risen indeed'. The colonel kisses the sergeant; the sergeant kisses all the men one after another.