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Bodies in Motion: Steam-Powered Pilgrimages in Late Imperial Russia

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image of Russian History

This essay examines the phenomenon of group pilgrimage in early twentieth-century Russia. Made possible by modern advances in technology and transportation, parish pilgrimages represented a new form of spiritual travel at the end of the imperial era, allowing greater numbers of Orthodox men and women to visit and venerate sacred sites across the length and breadth of the Russian empire. Undertaken with the blessing of Orthodox bishops and often underwritten by local merchants and entrepreneurs, organized parish pilgrimages also afforded new pedagogical opportunities for the Orthodox clergy to instruct their flock in the articles of faith, to supervise and give structure to lay devotional practices, and to assert the continued meaningfulness of the Orthodox faith against the rival claims of sectarians, secularists, and socialists alike. In adapting an age-old practice for present-day purposes, the clerical organizers of parish pilgrimages sought a spiritual solution to the crises engendered by Russia’s passage into modernity. Just as mass pilgrimages by rail and steam could accommodate greater numbers of participants, so too did they invite a wide range of multiple meanings from the Orthodox men and women who took part in them.


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