Moscow (AsiaNews) – On Thursday (8 March), special celebrations were held not only for International Women’s Day, but also for something dictated by popular piety, namely the 20th anniversary of the recognition and transfer of the relics of the Blessed Matrona Nikonova, also known as Moskovskaya because of her fame in the capital, where she lived.
Women’s Day is an important event in Russia, as the day of the uprising of Petrograd women that started the Russian revolution 101 years ago, eventually becoming an iconic moment for the international women’s movement. On this day, in 1998, the then Patriarch of Moscow Alexy II (Ridiger) decided to conduct the identification of the relics of the Blessed Matrona, at the end of the meeting of Synodal Commission slated to rule on her righteousness. The following year the Orthodox Synod solemnly proclaimed her canonisation as a blessed of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Matrona cult spread right after the end of the atheist regime, which had tried to inhibit it for decades, despite its already widespread fame, even outside of Moscow. In 1993 a monastery in Moscow published a memoir of a friend of Matrona, Zinaida Zhdanova, who died in her nineties in 2007. Zhdanova lived with the saint in her final years (Matrona died in 1952) and saw many miracles of healing attributed to her, as well as her acts of divinations and the spiritual advice she gave to those who came to visit her in her tiny little room in the centre of the city. She herself could not move since she was blind from birth (empty eye sockets) and paralysed from the age of 17.
Zhdanova’s book was widely read, so much so that it became a symptom of Russia’s post-communist religious revival. The thaumaturgical aspect of Matrona’s life, together with many particularly surprising episodes in the Soviet Union’s rigidly atheist and anticlerical Soviet society, suggested a devotion that bordered the occult and magic, accessible to those who had no relationship with the faith and the Church. For this reason, the patriarch and his aides decided to carry out a thorough investigation, calling Zhdanova’s Memoirs “apocryphal”. They also put their own publication, ‘A life of Matrona’ purged of all superstitious aspects. The remains of the Blessed, which the Soviets had tried to hide because of the large-scale underground devotion, were brought back to the Monastery of the Protection of the Mother of God in Moscow. Huge crowds of faithful visit it every day, and each Sunday people queue for hours to honour her. On this 8 March, there were so many people that the chapel stayed open all night.
One of most striking apocryphal stories in Zhdanova’s Memoirs concerns the meeting between Matrona and Generalissimo Stalin. In 1941, after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union breaking the German-Soviet pact, the Georgian dictator was in a panic for days, not knowing what to do. Although someone who trusted no one, he did not expect Hitler’s betrayal. Tempted to flee Moscow, he was taken to the clairvoyant, who foretold his victory if he remained in the capital, despite the imminent arrival of the enemy: “the Russian people will stand with you, if you remain in your place”. The Soviets held out against the invader and showed extraordinary heroism (like in the Battle of Stalingrad, and the siege of Leningrad), partly because Stalin allowed the reopening of the churches, perhaps to fulfill Matrona’s prophecy. Russian patriotism, stifled by the party’s internationalist ideology, was reborn at that time and led to a great victory, and since then the Church has remained a faithful ally of the regime.
Stalin’s “rehabilitation” among Russians is visibly taking place, so much so that according to the most serious polls almost 60 per cent of the population justifies even the victims of the concentration camps. In past few years, after the annexation of Crimea, the nationalist-Christian ideology that drives Putin’s politics has become increasingly loud, inspired by the memory of the “Father of the peoples” and his victories are a source of inspiration. Unprecedented aspects of personal religiosity have been attributed to Stalin, a leftover from the days in the seminary he attended in his youth in Tbilisi, when he dreamt of becoming the patriarch of Georgia.
No wonder then that the devotion to his “spiritual godmother” has become exceptionally exalted on this occasion, which happens to coincide with the ongoing election campaign that will likely result in Putin’s re-election as President of Russia. Patriarch Kirill (Gundyayev), who led the service at Matrona’s tomb, urged people to learn from the saint to accept trials and tribulations. “Suffering must not discourage us, it must not take away our strength, it must not, as we say today, change the quality of our human life. Suffering must only strengthen our faith, and sharpen our religious sense,” said the patriarch said in his homily to the thousands of pilgrims gathered around the remains of the Blessed Matrona.