A PILGRIMAGE is under way in Russia that, if successfully completed, will far outshine even the feats of the foot-slogging Rasputin, the self- styled holy man who mesmerised the court of the last tsar, Nicholas 11, and his wife Alexandra.
Historians have questioned boasts made by the bedraggled Siberian peasant that he once saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary which inspired him to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But he does seem to have trekked around Russia, joining the legion of clerics, self-proclaimed prophets and assorted cranks who wandered the length and breadth of the country dispensing their wisdom and living off the charity of others.
Now - a century on - he is about to be outclassed. A small party of Russian Orthodox pilgrims has set off from Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan to walk 6,300 miles across Siberia and the Urals to Moscow in European Russia.
Although some intend to use public transport for parts of the journey, others plan to walk the whole way. Carrying icons for the entire route, they expect to cover just under 20 miles a day, arriving in Moscow a week after the turn of the millennium - on 7 January 2000, Orthodoxy's Christmas Day.
Like the wandering clerics of the past, they plan to baptise people, recruit converts and conduct weddings in the towns and villages along their path. The journey will take them across seven time zones and an unforgiving, empty landscape in which winter temperatures can plunge to -45 degrees and are constantly well below freezing. "This is to remind people that they are Russian," one of the party, Mikhail Alexandrov, 41, told the Vladivostok News as they set out. "It's to return to our base, the only base of the Russian people: the Orthodox faith. It is the only belief that can strengthen our motherland and restore our people."
In contrast to the Soviet era - when the Church was restricted and, at times, severely repressed - the pilgrims were waved off cheerfully by the regional governor, a Kremlin representative, and the local head of the security services.
The concept of the pilgrim - or "palomnik" - and his long, painful, penitential treks into a hostile wilderness is deeply embedded in the Russian Orthodox tradition, and pre-dates the founding of the church in Kiev in the 10th century. By the 15th and 16th century, perpetual wandering had become a form of Christian asceticism, as had its opposite - pillar-like immobility (one particularly zealous character, Ilya of Murom, allegedly remained sitting, immobile, for 30 years).
"There have always been in Russia people called "strannik" who spent their life travelling from one monastery to another, praying and even making prophesies," said Yuri Minulin, president of the Orthodox Pilgrimage Centre in Moscow.
Ivan the Terrible made frequent pilgrimages to Russia's long chain of monastic shrines. Nor was he the only tsar to do so: Nicholas 11 and his wife Alexandra went on trips to monasteries to pray - to no avail, as it turned out. Some Russians went further afield: by the 19th century, well-off believers were travelling to the Holy Land in significant numbers, a practice that has since revived.
In the last few years, advertisements - unimaginable under Communism - have begun appearing in the press and churches offering pilgrimages to religious sites in France, Israel and elsewhere.
The Vladivostok-Moscow trek coincides with another, darker, reminder that the distinction between past and present in the Orthodox Church is barely visible. Reports surfaced this week of a conflict between clerics, centring on allegations that the conservative churchman, Bishop Nikon of Yekaterinburg, has ordered that "heretical books" be confiscated from theological students at an ecclesiastical school and publicly burned.
Meanwhile, even Rasputin's claim to have had a divine apparition has been matched. One of those joining the pilgrimage to Moscow was Igor Chernozatonsky, head of a pyramid investment scheme which crashed last year, bilking 55,000 investors in the Far East. When his fund fell apart, he disappeared. This week he suddenly resurfaced among the monks and other pilgrims on the road, claiming that the Virgin Mary had instructed him to walk to Moscow. "This is God's punishment for my sins," he told reporters as he trudged solemnly along, icon in hand, increasing the distance between him and his creditors with every step.
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