This is the weekend of the Russian Orthodox New Year, and here in Jerusalem, near the sites associated with the ministry of Christ, it is still possible to hear the last faint echoes of Holy Russia -- the imperial Russia that ended so abruptly 60 years ago.
High on the Mount of Olives overlooking the city is the Russian Church of the Ascension. Within its walls there lives the oldest close relative of Czar Nicholas II, the last czar of all the Russias, who was killed along with most of his family in 1918.
She is Mother Tamara -- born Princess Tatiana Romanov -- daughter of the Grand Duke Constantine, cousin to the Czar. Today she lives in virtual seclusion with her memories among a dwidling coterie of aging White Russian nuns.
Down the slope, in the Garden of Gethsemane, is the onion-domed Church of Mary Magdalene -- looking like a transplanted relic of ancient Muscovy. In its crypt lies the body of the Russian Grand Duchess Elizabeth who, like her sister the Czarina Alexandra and her brother-in-law the Czar, was thrown into a mine shaft by the Bolsheviks.
Her body was retrieved and taken across Siberia to China by the retreating White Russian armies. She had expressed a wish to be buried in Jeruslem when she came here with her husband, the Grand Duke Serge, to consecrate the church in the 1880s. And so her body was brought here from China on a British warship on the instructions of King George V of England. The grand duchess was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria and the king's cousin.
The other day, the Russian ecclesiastical mission in Jerusalem, as the White Russian church mission calls itself, held its annual New Year reception in its headquarters near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre within the Old City. There the consuls general of Jerusalem, the churchmen of the Holy Land as well as Arab and Jewish notables, gathered to drink and talk beneath large portraits of Nicholas and Alexandra and the old white, blue and red striped flags of imperial Russia.
It seemed for a moment as if the Russian revolution had never taken place and that time had frozen for an instant into the world as it was before the 1914-18 war.
Most of the Christian holy places in Jerusalem were captured by the Jordanians in the 1948 war and Jerusalem became a divided city. The Russian churches on the Jordanian side were left to the White Russian exiles as they had been under the British mandate since the Russian Revolution. But the Israelis, in their gratitude to the Soviet Union for being among the early supporters of their cause, turned the Russian churches on their side of the line over to Moscow.
When the Israelis overran all of Jerusalem in the 1967 war there began a long and as yet unresolved feud between the Red Russians and the White Russians over who should control the Russian churches and the matter is still in the law courts. The Soviet Union severed diplomatic relations with Israel following the 1967 war and today, ironically, the only Soviet presence in Israel is to be found in the Russian Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in West Jerusalem under the leadership of the Moscow-appointed Archimandrite Nikolai.
It is said by the White Russians, and by some Israelis, that at least some of the bearded priests who arrive from Moscow are in fact Soviet secret agent.
In the days of imperial Russia, partly because of religion and partly because the Russians wanted a toehold on the Mediterranean, the Russians became the protectors of the Orthodox Christians in the Holy Land. In the 19th Century, churches and hospices were built all over Palestine and in 1913 no fewer than 13,000 Russians -- most of them poor but reverent peasants -- came here on pilgrimage.
All of that ended with the outbreak of World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917. Today the Orthodox community here numbers only about 300, half of them Arab converts, and pilgrimages have dwindeled to a trickle from lands outside the Soviet Union.
Today the abbess of the Church of Mary Magdalene, Mother Barbara, is in her 90th year. Some of the events of the last 60 years have become confused, but her recall of old Russian before the revolution is total.
Her study is lined with old coins and faded photographs of holy men and the Russian aristocracy who died so long ago. The room is dominated by a portrait of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, who took the vows of a nun after the assassination of her husband in 1905.
"I was walking in the Kremlin that day with my dear Scottish nanny, Miss Nesbitt," Mother Barbara recalls. "I heard the bomb. So did the grand duchess. She knew at once that it was her husband. She rushed out into the cold. I believe it was February. The grand duke had been blown to pieces, the horses killed and the coachman had been badly wounded.
"He said it would have been better if he had been killed -- that the Grand Duke had been so kind. Then she went to the prison and told the murderer that she forgave him and that she hoped that God would forgive him. He told her that he needed neither her forgiveness or God" forgiveness.
"She was a wonderful, remarkable woman -- a saint, really. I remember during the war with the Japanese (1905) she started a center for wounded soldiers and I, a young girl, visited the center after school. I helped sort out bags of clothes that had been donated. I looked to see which was a shirt and which a stocking. It was my chance to see her every day."
Mother Barbara spoke of her St. Aretz, her spiritual advisor.
"They were all clairvoyant, you know. After all, many had spent 20 years in seclusion communicating only with God." Rasputin, the crude Siberian monk who held such influence over Czarina Alexandra was not a Staretz, according to Mother Barbara. "He was not of the forces of light. He was an evil force. I remember Rasputin coming to Moscow and somebody said I should go and see him. But I had heard from people such terrible things that didn't attract me at all."
In the darkest days of the revolution, when she, the daughter of a well-known banker, was suspect and not allowered to leave Moscow, her Staretz told her that she would spend her life far away in Jerusalem and that it was God's will. She did not believe it at the time.
"In 1922 we were expelled from Russia. Solzhenitsyn has written about this. I tried to read about it but, frankly, it was too painful," Mother Barbara said.
When her father died in Nice in 1928, she came to Jerusalem to become a nun and here she has lived for 50 years.
"They were killed, all killed," said Mother Barbara as she looked with dimming eyes at the portraits and photographs on her walls. The next abbess will not have known the Grand Duchess Elizabeth and the living memory of Holy Russia will have been extinguished and it all will become as a tale told from a book. But today, in the study of the mother superior of the Church of Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem, everything that has long since been swept away remains as it was -- as if it had all happened only yesterday.