VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Believers of the Russian Orthodox faith have set out on a 6,000-mile "millennium pilgrimage" to Moscow in an effort to call people back to their traditional faith--and promote Russian nationalism along the way.
The nine pilgrims who left this city on the Sea of Japan this week expect to reach their destination on Jan. 7, 2000--the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus, according to the Orthodox calendar.
"This is to remind people that they are Russian," organizer Mikhail Alexandrov said as he set out this week on the walk across Russia. "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."
As it approaches the next millennium, Russia finds itself in the moral and economic ruins of nearly a century of failed social experimentation and in search of a spiritual lift.
Hard times in post-Soviet Russia have made people more open to spirituality, said Father Innokenty, press secretary for the Vladivostok diocese. "If the system is sick, the heart is the first to feel it," he said.
Reflecting the broadening embrace of religion in the post-Soviet era, top regional officials were on hand for the pilgrims' departure Monday. In addition, federal guards and the emergencies ministry have offered their assistance.
As the procession left Vladivostok, traffic backed up for miles as motorists slowed to stare. Mothers rushed their children over for priests to bless. One man who had been waiting at a bus stop with a suitcase picked up his bag and joined the walkers.
The pilgrimage is being escorted by a supply bus, but the marchers have vowed to carry the icons in their possession every step of the way, through mosquito-infested forests, likely dust storms and snowfall.
"In Chita, for example, it will be minus 40 degrees, but the icons must be walked the whole way," said Alexander Melnikov of the Andrei Pervozvanny religious foundation, which is sponsoring the trek.
As the pilgrims pass through towns and villages, priests hope to baptize converts, conduct weddings and call for people to join them for part of the journey. About 20 well-wishers set out from Vladivostok with the pilgrims, including priests in cassocks, organizers in business suits, Cossacks in czarist-style uniforms and women in the white kerchiefs and aprons of an Orthodox nursing order, Sisterhood.
Although the monks and lay members on the march speak of deeply religious motives, others describe their journey in nationalistic tones. The Russian Orthodox Church, founded by Byzantine missionaries in the 10th century, has become a rallying point for political extremists who reject closer ties to the West.
With the pilgrimage, the devout marchers hope to unite the Slavic people of Russia and strengthen the faith that more than two-thirds of Russia's 148 million people claim to share, said Vladimir Lepeshkin, deputy chairman of the regional Committee for Religious Affairs.
The appeal to ethnic brethren, however, has nationalist reverberations that could be unsettling to the non-Slavic communities in Russia. That would explain the pilgrimage's attraction to some whose agenda is more about division than unity.
Vladivostok resident Leonid Kashchuk, 28, marched in Cossack uniform. "I'm a Cossack, and Cossacks are for faith, the czar and the motherland," said Kashchuk, who was carrying an icon in the procession.