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Pole to Pole

Day 28: Leningrad

Michael Palin - Pole to PoleA rough night's sleep. Had to dig out the paracetamol for the first time on the journey so far. At breakfast, found that two others in the crew had suffered as well. We reluctantly agree that the champagne must have been too good for us.

I take a launch from the front of the hotel and am swept upstream to the Monastery of Alexander Nevsky. Nevsky is a great Russian hero who defeated the Swedes by the river Neva in 1240. The monastery, the third biggest in Russia, was built as a tribute to him by Peter the Great in 1710. Today it's a very busy place, an indication that religion is alive and well despite seventy-five years of official atheism. Spastics and other disabled people are lined up inside the grounds. They are brought here to beg because families receive only a pittance from the State to look after them.

Inside the main church, beneath domes and columns decorated with epic, brightly coloured biblical scenes, priests who seem to have been chosen for their likeness to the prophets are moving around, conducting services, swinging censers, and in one case receiving a line of penitents who approach, kiss the icons, wait for a few words of comfort, receive a blessing and move on. I cannot take my eyes off one encounter. A woman, young and headscarved, is talking urgently to the priest, but softly too, so he has to bend and listen intently. He asks her something, she pauses and looks ahead for a while, then nods slowly. It's an incongruous moment of intimacy in the middle of this crowded, bustling place. She wipes away tears and bows her head. The priest lays a cloth over her head and makes the sign of the cross. She kisses the icons, crosses herself and moves away. She has an expression of inconsolable sadness as she passes by me.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 28
  • Country/sea: USSR
  • Place: Leningrad
  • Book page no: 59

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