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Velikoretsky Crucession

Photographer Alexey Yurenev joins pilgrims for the annual procession.

Characteristic of the Orthodox Church, crucessions are processions headed by a Christian cross. One of the largest, the Velikoretsky crucession attracts thousands of pilgrims from Russia and neighboring countries.

I have been documenting various religious processions – from Jewish Orthodox pilgrimages to neo-pagan festivals – to appease my obsession with faith, its contemporary purpose and representation. I was curious about the Velikoretsky pilgrimage, in particular, as it’s the largest in the Orthodox Christian world. Thousands gather to walk 150 kilometers behind a replica of a miracle-working icon that was lost in the 1930s. 

My photography approach involves submerging myself in the subject matter that I am documenting. I had no choice but to commit to the entire crucession, which turned out to be a true test of will and endurance. While carrying supplies to last you a week, you start walking every day at 2 or 3 a.m. and stop at 9 in the evening. Every couple hours you take short breaks with one long break in the afternoon. All you can do during those breaks is eat, sleep and change the Band-Aids on your feet. Seeing thousands of people of all ages walk beside you was empowering and an incentive to carry on.

This year Nikola showed mercy, as the pilgrims would say, for it was mild and sunny for the first few days. There was torrential rain for the last two days, making the rest stops more difficult than the walk itself. Overall the event was well organized, with the support of the local government. Personnel from the Ministry of Emergency Situations were spread along the length of the processing column, and there were buses picking up those who could no longer walk. We would stop in fields and abandoned or inhabited villages and small towns. Longer rest points were equipped with military-grade field kitchens and medical stations, as well as community tents for sleeping. 

There were about 20,000 people in the crucession at all times, and the headcount reached almost 50,000 on busier days. Pilgrims came from different backgrounds and church denominations. Although they had varying reasons for walking, the crucession was a unifying experience and, at some points, it reminded me of a ambulatory Burning Man. Several days into the pilgrimage, participants began sharing food and supplies, and local villagers would offer their homes as shelter. People were constantly reciting prayers like a mantra, falling into a collective state of half consciousness. Overall, the presence of egregore was overpowering. 

Magic happens when you apply willpower to self-sacrifice. I believe that most of the religions are based on that idea: subdue your passions and leash your inner animal to perfect yourself in the hope of achieving higher consciousness. 

After spending six days striving to make it from point A to point B, watching people struggle, I am more sensitive to the world that exists outside of the confines of our individual realities. Living in a microcosm of our city routine makes us ignorant of lives outside our comfort zone. This experience has made me believe in my own strength, making day-to-day obstacles seem easy to overcome. 

I have only gone ankle deep into this story, and I would love to explore the subject more thoroughly. Perhaps a different crucession next time?