​33. Holy Week in the Kremlin before the First World War

The Fourth Seal by Sir Samuel Hoare.

(Sir Samuel John Gurney Hoare, 2nd Baronet and Viscount Templewood (1880-1959), was a classical scholar and MP for Chelsea from 1910-1944. During the 194-18 War, he was a General Staff Officer, and served in the Military Mission to Russia, being mentioned in despatches, and given a CMG in 1917. During his subsequent distinguished political and diplomatic career between the Wars, he held more high offices than anyone except Churchill.)

No one, who did not see the Kremlin Cathedrals before the revolution, can realize the intimacy, the mystery and the splendour of these ceremonies. The small churches, their walls covered with frescoes of Byzantine figures on a background of gold, their screens, a blaze of precious stones and metals, the only lights, the candles before the Ikons and in the hands of the faithful, the only music, the bass of the deacon, the baritone of the bishop, and the concerted harmonies of the Imperial choir, produced as complete a picture of Holy Russia as could well be imagined. Amidst these impressive surroundings it was impossible not to be deeply moved by the fervour of the standing people, and the haunting sighing of the Slavonic language. Sometimes, the services would last far into the night. Yet, such was their dramatic hold, such their wealth of picturesque detail, that we cheerfully stood, hour after hour, and returned to them again after a hurried rest. Day by day, we followed the ordered sequence that commemorated the tragedy of Holy Week Day by day, we came to feel something of the suppressed excitement that brought Moscow, and indeed the whole of Russia, into a veritable paroxysm of joy on Easter Day.

We began the week by visiting the long refectory in which the Holy Chrysm is boiled for the use of the Orthodox Church. There, in a dimly lit hall, we saw the great silver cauldron stirred by the monks in their black Basilian habits, we heard the reading of the psalms that continued day and night without intermission, and we smelt the curious scents of the many herbs and spices of which the Chrysm is composed. On Maundy Thursday, when the mixing and boiling were complete, the Chrysm was taken from the College of the Holy Synod and blessed by a Bishop in the Cathedral of the Assumption...

`April 22nd. Sunday. Last night's service at the Cathedral of the Assumption was very impressive, but very long. It did not begin until i and was not over until 4.45. Again, we stood in the choir. The Cathedral, as usual, was packed and, except for the lamps on the shrines, at first, completely dark. Then, as the service went on, everyone lit candles. No one except Johnny and I had books, and how the people packed as dose as can be imagined are able to stand for four or five hours on end I cannot imagine. The service took the form of a funeral service round the catafalque — in this case, a pall. There were any number of clergy in black and silver and two fanning the pall with the big golden fans called Ripidi. There were innumerable Psalms, Troparia, litanies, and, amongst other things, the whole of the 119th Psalm, interleaved with a Troparion for each verse said in a kind of dramatic duet by two priests. Towards the end of the service the clergy with the pall and lighted candles processed round the Cathedral. It was impossible for us to get through the crowd, otherwise we should have joined in the procession. The service was very dramatic, culminating in a bishop reading the Gospel about guarding the tomb fast.

`By this time it was quite light and as we came away all the bells of Moscow were ringing — as they all do during the processions round the churches. You should have heard the voices of the readers — they are amazing, and the way they keep it up for hours on end!

`Today I was surprisingly little tired. However, I stopped in bed until ii. Then after luncheon we went off to the Cathedral of the Assumption for the end of the Liturgy. This was splendid, as we came in for the Nebuchadnezzar and the Image lesson, the Benedicite sung to a wonderful chant, and the sudden changing of all the vestments from black to white

The irritations of daily life, the plots of politicians, the futilities of the Government, the scandals in high places had been purged from my mind by the solemnities of Holy Week, and by the religious fervour of the men and women, soldiers and civilians, whom I had seen standing and kneeling before the sacred places of Russia.

One scene in particular remained vividly in my mind's eye. We had been to the ceremony of Easter Matins in the Cathedral of the Assumption. Of all the services that I had attended, it alone had depressed me by its atmosphere of ceremonial conformity. The congregation had been overwhelmingly official, Generals and bureaucrats in uniforms and decorations with their wives in stiff and ugly dresses. They had come to conform with the practice that puts Easter Matins into the same category as a levee or a parade. It was with a feeling of relief that Birkbeck and I, remembering the congregations of the simple and devout that had filled the church throughout Holy Week, pushed our way through the crowd and entered the Palace of the Kremlin. The Governor and his wife, Prince and Princess Odoevsky-Maslov, had bidden us attend the Matins and Liturgy in their private chapel, and stay with them for the supper that celebrated the coming of Easter.

A very old footman in the Imperial livery guided us through a labyrinth of little rooms into a small and ancient chapel. The old Prince and Princess were kneeling, he, in the white uniform of the Gardes a Cheval with the cross of St Vladimir round his neck, and the Star of the White Eagle on his tunic, she, in a white dress, such as might have been fashionable thirty years before, whilst four priests in gold vestments were finishing Easter Matins and beginning the Liturgy. In another corner was a group of servants, footmen and maids, most of them as old as the man who had guided us, acting as choir and singing the difficult chants with evident devotion and a traditional skill. The chapel was the most ancient in the Kremlin; the service, the culmination of the Russian winter and the Orthodox fast; the men and women taking part, the truest and most loyal representatives of the Russia that was passing away. Here, at least, was single-hearted devotion in a moment of doubt; here, at least, was unquestioning loyalty to the Orthodox Church and to the Tsar as God's vicegerent.

The supper that followed the Liturgy gave me a scarcely less striking scene from the Russia of the past, the Prince and Princess, the four priests, Birkbeck and myself, bidding each other Easter wishes, eating the Easter sweet cheese, all of us tired by the strain of Holy Week, the priests with the bright eyes and drawn faces that come after protracted fasting, all of us rejoicing at the great festival like children at Christmas.