Our destination is Murom, among the most ancient of Russian cities. Arrayed on seven hills along the left bank of the Oka River, Murom was a proud sentinel on the eastern periphery of ancient Rus in medieval times, before the empire stretched on, leaving behind a poor provincial town rich in monasteries, memories, and myths. Soviet rulers tried to suppress many of these, and part of the story of Russia today is the effort to reconnect with the past. Out here, part of that past is also mine.
Four centuries ago, a pious young woman arrived here as the wife of a "husband of good birth and prosperous." Despite a life of extraordinary trials—a husband ever away at war, the birth of 13 children and the death of 8, the famines, plagues, invasions, and banditry of what history calls the Time of Troubles—Juliana Osorin remained steadfast in her charity and faith. After her death in 1604 she was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church as St. Juliana of Lazarevo, after the village outside Murom where she lived. Her canonization was intended to persuade a people in panic and despair that holiness could be achieved in the home and family, not only through escape to a monastery. My mother, born Juliana Ossorguine, is her direct descendant and namesake.
I had been to Murom before, when Russia was emerging from another time of troubles. It was March 1992. The ice on the Oka was melting, and everywhere there was a sense of new beginnings. I had been the New York Times bureau chief in Moscow during the last years of the Soviet state, in the 1980s, and I was back to report on the collapse of communist rule and the rise of a new Russia.
It was a giddy and chaotic period, a time of confusion and great hopes—for democracy, economic freedom, and perhaps most of all, for spiritual revival. The Russian Orthodox Church was rising everywhere from the ashes of the Soviet era, and millions of Russians were rushing to be baptized. Most were only dimly aware of the religious significance of the sacrament but eager to reclaim a past and an identity that the communists had for 75 years worked to erase.
Thousands of ruined churches—including those the Soviets had used as warehouses, factories, or barns—were being restored to their original function, and eventually to their former splendor. The monumental Cathedral of Christ the Savior, destroyed on Stalin's orders in 1931, rose anew on the banks of the Moscow River. Believers who had gone underground during Soviet times emerged and began energetically establishing parishes, orphanages, halfway houses, and schools. Thousands of men were ordained to the priesthood, and thousands more—men and women—took monastic vows, all yearning to recover a guiding faith.