Thousands and thousands of Orthodox believers stood on the streets of Moscow in temperatures as low as 8 degrees Wednesday, in lines that stretched for nearly two miles, awaiting their own personal miracle.
Theirs was a mood of thanksgiving. Inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior lay a decorative, glass-topped box holding part of a camel-hair belt believed to have been worn by the Virgin Mary more than 2,000 years ago. Its presence here was miracle enough, but the relic is thought to grant women fertility and health.
Those at the front of the line had been outdoors close to 20 hours, waiting to file quickly past the box and touch it reverently, if briefly. They smiled, making patience a virtue, as if they had been waiting all their lives for this moment.
“This is our one opportunity to see it,” said Yevgenia Leskova, who had gotten in line just after midnight Tuesday and was positioned to reach the cathedral by 8 p.m. Wednesday. “The Mother of God wore this belt when she was pregnant, and it can help women get pregnant and cure us of disease.”
The belt, though so revered by women, belongs to a Greek monastery on Mount Athos that only men may visit. The relic had not left Greece for centuries, until this visit to Russia, and went on view in Moscow at midnight Saturday after display in St. Petersburg and other cities. About 1 million people are expected to see it in Moscow before it leaves Sunday.
The crowd here is made up mostly of women, though men can be found. A special, shorter line was set up for the disabled and children younger than 5, who could be accompanied by an adult.
Evelina Khachaturyan was holding her 3 1 / 2-year-old grandson, Saveli, puffed up with down to protect against the cold, about 22 degrees in late afternoon. “Our boy coughs very often,” she said, “and we want him to touch the belt so he can be cured.”
Last year, Saveli’s mother had a miscarriage. “We want his mom to have a second child,” Khachaturyan said.
About 14,000 police officers have been deployed to keep order, many brought from outside Moscow. They keep groups of about 200 within separate, fenced enclosures along a riverbank, and when the gates to the next staging point are opened, elderly and young alike sprint ahead a few hundred yards, stop and wait again.
“We run,” said a 50-year-old woman named Galya. “It keeps us warm.” Those in her knot of people, though happy to chat, did not wish to give their full names. Galya revealed, however, that she was hoping for the miracle of pregnancy.
“I’m superstitious,” said Anya, 25. “If you really have a dream, you can’t talk about it.”
Galya reported that the police were universally polite and talkative — a minor miracle for Russians, who often fear bullying by their men in uniform.
The route was strung with 133 buses, engines running, in which people could sit and warm up for a few minutes. Portable toilets — 440 of them — lined the sidewalk. Kiosks selling coffee and croissants had been towed in. In the morning, free cups of tea were offered.
“We’ve been here 15 hours,” Galya said, “and we’re still smiling. We would be happy to stay here longer.”
A few moments later, her wish was granted. Word spread that a church service was about to begin, stopping the line for two hours.
Members of a group that had been waiting 17 hours called their endurance a test from God. Their calm, they said, was a gift from God. And they could not say what would be granted, but only speak of what they would ask.
“I want to get a blessing for my children,” said Yelena Zhivkovich, 17 hours into her wait. “Being here is an expression of our faith.”
She leaned against a bus, on which the setting sun glinted against a window, framing a reflection of the enormous Peter the Great statue across the river. The women curled their toes in their boots, trying to keep them from freezing.
“We have daughters, and we want to pray for them,” said Leskova, 37.
Her friend, who gave her name as Marina, said they were so tightly packed into the crowd during the night that it was almost possible to sleep standing up. Perhaps 25,000 people were in line at any time. “You can say we really look bad after standing here so long,” she said. “But in the summer, we are usually very beautiful.”
On the other side of the cathedral, Alexei Bogdanov, a 32-year-old truck-parts salesman, had seen the relic and was waiting for his wife. Tears came to his eyes when he touched the box, he said.
“We lived in our country for almost 70 years without faith,” he said. “And now we have found it again.”