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Russian Orthodox Believers Flock To Cathedral To See Saint's Remains


Russia is bringing new meaning to the phrase Christmas in July. Almost 2 million Russian Orthodox believers have been waiting for hours outside Moscow's main cathedral for a chance to see the relics of St. Nicholas the Miracle Worker. These relics are on loan from Italy, where they've been in the custody of the Roman Catholic Church.

St. Nicholas is a revered saint for Russians. And we know him as the inspiration for Santa Claus. NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow.


LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: To get to Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, you can take the metro to Kropotkin Square station. But when I went there recently, a volunteer was telling pilgrims they'd have to go two more stops to reach the end of the line of people waiting to see the relics.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: The line of pilgrims snakes along the Moscow River embankment for more than two miles. Konstantin Golubenkov, a burly 44-year-old who works in the plumbing and heating business, took the day off to pay homage to the saint.


KIM: "In Russia, we love St. Nicholas," Golubenkov says, "and he really does help."

He and his wife prayed to him for a second child. And...

GOLUBENKOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "Here's a living miracle," Golubenkov says and points at his daughter Vasilisa, a smiley 6-year-old.

GOLUBENKOV: (Speaking Russian, laughter).


UNIDENTIFIED PRIEST: (Chanting in Russian).

KIM: Inside the giant cathedral, the believers are dwarfed by the soaring dome as priests in golden vestments hold a prayer service. The pilgrims approach a casket displaying a rib of St. Nicholas, kiss the glass on top of it before volunteers in green aprons briskly pull them away. The whole process lasts a couple of seconds, and the hours of waiting are over.

VLADIMIR LEGOYDA: It is a pilgrimage. And pilgrimage - it's a sort of spiritual experience that you have to overcome yourself. You have to do something that is not maybe physically comfortable, but it brings forth some spiritual fruit.

KIM: That's Vladimir Legoyda, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church. The church was one of the main targets of the Communist revolution 100 years ago. Christ the Savior Cathedral was blown up by Stalin and then rebuilt after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

LEGOYDA: You know, it's all like a miracle. Just the very fact that we have more than 1.5 million people for, like - what? - two months, it is a miracle.

KIM: To Orthodox believers, St. Nicholas is known as Nikolai the Miracle Worker, a 4th-century Christian saint famous for his kindness and good deeds. In the West, his life is thought to be the basis for the story of Santa Claus. One of the pilgrims, Yelena Vodoryezova, doesn't like that idea.

YELENA VODORYEZOVA: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "He's not Santa Claus to us," she says, "but St. Nikolai. And we pray to him every day to save our souls."

I meet an elderly gentleman coming out of the cathedral after seeing the saint's remains.

BORIS CHERNOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Boris Chernov says, "if you're from American radio, then I'm a simple Russian pensioner."

CHERNOV: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Chernov says he used to be an atheist and a member of the Communist Party.

CHERNOV: (Speaking Russian, laughter).

KIM: "Then life took such a turn," he says, "and I found God."

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF AGNES OBEL'S "FALLING, CATCHING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.