Hundreds of thousands of Muscovites have spent hours in line this week, often queuing through the night, to get close to a religious relic they believe is part of a belt worn by the Virgin Mary.
The relic, on a month-long tour of Russia, is being displayed at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in central Moscow for a week only, and the level of interest has been so high that queues have snaked miles along the embankment of the Moscow River.
The belt is normally held in a monastic community on Mount Athos in Greece, but arrived last month in St Petersburg, where it was met by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Since then, the relic has been viewed by more than two million people in 14 cities even before it arrived in Moscow, where another half million have seen it. The huge excitement has even led to suggestions the belt may be flown over Moscow in a helicopter to bless the whole city before it departs for Greece on Monday.
Yesterday, police near the cathedral said the waiting time was down to around 14 hours, from a peak of 24 hours earlier in the week. About 1,500 police officers were on duty to stop anyone attempting to jump the queue. Snacks, hot cups of tea and portable toilets were provided at various points by Moscow authorities.
Traditionally, the Virgin's belt is believed to help women conceive, and cure all sorts of other pains and ailments. Ironically, a smaller part of the same relic is on display permanently at a church in Moscow, where it draws only a few visitors.
Some commentators suggested that Orthodox belief and the Russian national psyche made people feel that enduring a certain level of "suffering" before gaining their brief audience with the relic would make its powers all the more potent.
The internet has been rife with rumours that Kremlin employees and other top government officials had been given special passes that enabled them to avoid the queue. The Orthodox Church denied this, but Kseniya Sobchak, a socialite often described as the "Russian Paris Hilton", said yesterday she had been invited to visit using a special pass that allowed VIP visitors to skip the queues.
For those without VIP passes, the line yesterday stretched more than three miles. Svetlana, 52, arrived at 4am yesterday to join the end of the queue, and was arriving near the front by the middle of the afternoon.
"I had hoped that I would be able to get in and see it before going into work, but I've had to spend the whole day here. I called in sick," she said, with a guilty smile. "But I think God will forgive me such a small sin.
"After all, I don't get the chance to see the belt of the Virgin Mary every day, do I?"