Among The Miracle-workers
The pilgrims and "workers of miracles" who wander through Russia can
always find, not only free lodging, but also opportunity for making
their fortunes. Their gains mount, often, to incredible figures, and
the faith and piety that they diffuse have both good and bad aspects.
There are places, for instance, like Cronstadt, which, at one time
inhabited mainly by drunkards, became before the war a "holy town."
Father Ivan and his peculiar reputation, there were hundreds
of other pilgrims who, though quite unknown on their arrival, soon
gained there a lucrative notoriety.
One of these was the _staretz_ (ancient) Anthony, who in three or four
years amassed a considerable fortune. His popularity attracted
representatives of all classes of society. People wrote for
appointments in advance, and went in order of precedence as to a
fashionable doctor. It was quite common to have to wait ten or fifteen
days for the desired interview. In Petrograd, where the population
belonged half to the twentieth and half to the sixteenth century,
Anthony was quite the mode. The _salons_ literally seized upon him,
and, flattered and fondled, he displayed his rags in the carriages of
fashionable women of the world, while the mob, touched by the spectacle
of his acknowledged holiness, gave him enthusiastic ovations. His
journey from Petrograd to Cronstadt was a triumphal progress. The
crowds pressed around him and he walked among them barefooted, in spite
of this being expressly forbidden by law. Finally, however, the police
were roused, and one fine day he set forth at the government's expense
for the "far-off lands"--of Siberia.
Cronstadt, town of drunkards and of miracle-workers _par excellence_,
boasted about two hundred _staretz_. The most famous among them were
the four brothers Triasogolovy--Hilarion, James, Ivan and Wasia.
The crowds, who had formerly visited Cronstadt only on Father Ivan's
account, became ever greater, and were divided up among the various
saints of the town, one of the most popular being Brother James, who
undertook to exorcise demons.
His methods were simple. A woman once came to him, begging to be
delivered from the numerous evil spirits that had taken possession of
her soul. In view of their numbers, Brother James felt it necessary to
have recourse to heroic measures. He rained blows upon the penitent,
who emitted piercing shrieks, and as this took place in the hotel where
the "holy man" was living, the servants intervened to put an end to the
sufferings of the "possessed" one. But Brother James, carried away by
enthusiasm in a good cause, continued to scourge the demons until the
woman, unable to bear more, broke the window-pane and leapt into the
street. Crowds gathered, and the Brother, turning to them, prophesied
that shortly he would be--arrested! Thereupon the police made their
appearance and removed him to the lock-up, and the crowds dispersed,
filled with admiration for Brother James, who not only coped with
demons, but actually foretold the evil that they would bring upon him.
In addition to the genuine visionaries, there were many swindlers who
took advantage of the popular credulity. Such was the famous pilgrim
Nicodemus, who travelled throughout Russia performing miracles. In the
end the police discovered that he was really a celebrated criminal who
had escaped from prison.
But Nicodemus was, as a matter of fact, better than his reputation,
for, in granting absolution for large numbers of sins, his charges were
relatively small. He is said to have assured whole villages of eternal
forgiveness for sums of from twenty to a hundred roubles.
Frequently some out-of-work cobbler would leave his native village and
set forth on a pilgrimage in the character of a _staretz_; or some
"medical officer," unable to make a living out of his drugs, would
establish himself as a miracle-worker and promptly grow rich. When one
_staretz_ disappeared, there were always ten new ones to take his
place, and the flood mounted to such an extent that the authorities
were often powerless to cope with it. Persecution seemed only to
increase the popular hysteria, and caused the seekers after truth to
act as though intoxicated, seeing themselves surrounded by a halo of