MOSCOW – In the three weeks since St. Nicholas came to Moscow, more than 300,000 people have stood in huge lines for up to 10 hours to visit a gilded ark thought to carry his bone fragments. Yet the queues stretching down the Moscow River embankment from Christ the Savior Cathedral are something of their own marvel.
The massive turnout to see the saint's relics, which are on loan from their home in Bari, Italy for the first time, underline how strongly the Orthodox Church has become a part of Russians' sense of themselves a quarter-century after the collapse of the officially atheist Soviet Union.
"It was tough, but you got a chance to think about your life, all the problems and the sins you have committed," economist Svetlana Dzhuma, 24, said after exiting the cathedral in a state of elation.
President Vladimir Putin, who says he was secretly baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church as an infant, paid his respects to the relics on the day they arrived in Moscow, where photos of him kissing the ark were widely featured in Russian media.
Although Russians remain predominantly secular and have opposed church-backed initiatives such as a ban on abortions or public school classes on Orthodox Church teachings, the overwhelming majority of them strongly identify as Russian Orthodox.
Nicholas, who died in 343, never set foot in the territory that became Russia. But he has become the Russian Orthodox Church's most popular saint, credited with miracles and with preventing catastrophes in Russia. His prominence in the church has made the relics something of a must-see even for people who are not regular church-goers.
Russia has witnessed a Christian revival since the crumbling Soviet state began to loosen its grip on religious life in the late 1980s. The percentage of Russians calling themselves Christian Orthodox shot up from 17 percent to around 77 percent, Lev Gudkov, director of the independent Levada Center polling and research organization, said.
However, roughly 40 percent of those who identify as Orthodox Christians say they do not believe in God or eternal life, and the number of churchgoers who take communion is stable at around 7 percent.
Gudkov described the thinking as "a very superficial change in identity: I'm a Russian, therefore Orthodox. It's a change from the Soviet identity to an ethnic Russian and religious one."
Putin in his third term as president has evoked Russia's Christian roots and relied on the church to provide the ideological backing for his policies at home and abroad. Among his justifications for Russia annexing Crimea from Ukraine was that the ancient settlement of Chersonesus there is as important to Russians as Jerusalem's Temple Mount is to Jews, Muslims and Christians.
The Orthodox Church got permission to host the St. Nicholas relics after Patriarch Kirill met with Pope Francis last year in the first such meeting between the leaders of the two religions since the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches split about a millennium ago. The ark will be on display, first in Moscow and later in St. Petersburg, until the end of July.
Speaking after a prayer celebrating the relics' arrival, Kirill referred to the crowds of believers waiting to see the relics as a sign of the resurgence of faith.
"If someone has the energy to stand seven, eight hours or longer on the street, in the heat, in the cold, under the rain, it speaks of a very strong faith," he said.
Yulia Kamolova, a 34-year-old accountant, got up at 5 a.m. and stood in line for nine hours to see the relics "to cleanse myself" and to show them to her 12-year-old son. Retired pharmacist Svetlana Timonina said Nicholas, known in Russia as "the wonderworker," was her favorite saint and that he had answered her prayers in the past.
Many in the line spoke of the miracles for which they prayed. Andrei Olenko, 52, said he traveled from Crimea hoping for a turnaround for the former farming collective where he works. "Our farm is falling apart, and we would like (St. Nicholas) to help the farm," Olenko said.
The Levada Center's Gudkov said "this craving for a miracle, craving for a cure," is becoming noticeable as the country's disillusioned people have started pinning their hopes for a better future to a blind faith in the supernatural instead of on the ideal of a democratic government.
"People were waiting for a miracle, that once they gave up the Soviet ideology and Soviet state they will get prosperous — and then it didn't happen," he said.
Xenia Loutchenko, a Moscow-based commentator on church affairs, said it would be an oversimplification to dismiss those lined up to visit the relics as ignorant or superstitious, as many of Moscow's atheists have.
What fuels this craving for a miracle is that with standards of living falling, Russians have little faith in a positive change from social institutions or the government.
"The thing is, people don't have much to hope for with the current state of our health care, what people hear from doctors and bureaucrats: They have nothing else to rely on, other than to go and pray."