St. Petersburg itself is a vast area; to reach my site of memory, we must open it like a Russian nesting doll (matryoshka), layer by layer. We begin with the largest and most central feature of St. Petersburg: the impressive Neva river. Lying in the middle of the Neva is one Vasilevsky Island, which sits within sight of such famous structures as the Winter Palace, the Admiralty, and Peter-Paul Fortress. In the center of this island is a large wooded area; upon closer inspection, Smolensky Cemetery reveals itself, the final resting place of generations of Petersburgers. Finally, tucked away inside this vast, overgrown graveyard stands the island’s chapel of St. Xenia, a small and unassuming turquoise structure. The chapel of St. Xenia is a standing memory of a century of Petersburg history, from the Revolution to Stalinist times, to the fall of the USSR and the present. Through the years, St. Xenia has constantly been a figure of contention. During Soviet times, worship at her chapel was forbidden, and a wall was built around it to keep people from asking for her intercession. Since perestroika, still she has managed to be a radical figure, as has become a favored saint among minority populations in St. Petersburg. Not only is her tale one of perseverance through hardship, but one that can be extended as an observational metaphor on the Soviets’ constant attempts to remove ‘backward’ Russian Orthodoxy as an institution, and to replace it with Soviet ideology and Party ideals.
Xenia as a Fool for Christ
As with any study of religious figures, extracting the whole truth from the mythos and hyperbole surrounding St. Xenia is an exhausting (and, perhaps, impossible) task. The only certain knowledge we have of her life is from witnesses’ testimonies and the markings on her grave. Two important narratives about her life are worth recounting, though, in order to better understand the symbol she has become, and for whom.
One of the most often cited stories about St. Xenia was that she was a ‘fool-for-Christ’ (iurodivaia). According to more than a few sources (including Zhizneopisanie, a Russian collection of saints’ lives), Xenia (born sometime around 1830) did not begin the saintly portion of her life until after her husband Andrei Petrov’s death about ten years into their marriage. In order to help his soul achieve salvation, since he had died before going to confession, Xenia wore his clothing, took his name, and proclaimed that it was not he who died, but instead Xenia herself. Thereafter, by day she wandered the streets of Petersburg, talking in riddles and dressed in rags, dispensing advice and living on the charity of others. Xenia was known as an almsgiver, always giving away any money that was given to her. By night, she stood in empty fields, praying in quiet solitude during all kinds of weather. (“Life”) These tales of Xenia’s life portray her as a Fool for Christ, who gave up her life and her dignity for her faith, and also as a simple pensioner, a woman of the people who is quite relatable to the average Russian.
Stories are also often told of her nighttime acts of goodwill. It is said that, during the building of the Smolensky Cemetery’s Orthodox church, Xenia appeared at night and “lifted bricks up onto the scaffolding around the church to speed up the construction work” (“Multiple Moralities”, 174). It was these nighttime works that gained her notoriety, after she was discovered by construction workers. (“Life”) This tale is often used as an example after Jesus’s own call for Christians to “be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). These two stories about Xenia’s life help place her in the narrative of Russian Orthodox faith. As the patron saint of St. Petersburg, she represents a spirit of giving, of caring for the poor and downtrodden, and of a dogged persistence in all kinds of difficult work or harsh weather. Many Petersburgers still look up to her as a model of charity and morality, as they have for centuries.
Xenia as a Saint of Social Suffering
As a Fool-For-Christ and as a woman who did not spend time communing with God either physically in a church or in any sort of official worship, Blessed Xenia has also traditionally represented those who practice “irregular religiosity” (Kormina 173). This term is usually defined as those who believe that “inner faith and infrequent visits to the church, or a little pilgrimage to a local shrine…for an individual prayer, is a perfectly adequate form of Orthodox worship” (Kormina 173). Therefore, Xenia plays a key role in representing those who still wish to be a part of Orthodox Christianity, but do not feel comfortable or fulfilled by praying in a church or under direction. This is an important facet of her sainthood. She represents the underdogs and the downtrodden, which means she maintains a strong support base of believers who are down on their luck or feel underrepresented by mainstream Orthodoxy. Xenia is also, more specifically, the patron saint of Petersburg, and of the disenfranchised, lonely, poor, old, and particularly women. Contrary to other prominent female Russian Orthodox saints, Xenia does not punish or praise, but rather is a figure of comfort and understanding, taking on a motherly visage more so than other, stricter saints (Kormina 172). She champions those who have lost loved ones, who are unemployed, or who are generally regarded as beleaguered by society. Over the years, Xenia’s followers have also grown to include other outsiders within the faith. In donning her husband’s name, clothing, and identity after his death, she has developed a new role as a symbol of comfort for transvestites and transgendered people throughout Russia. This facet of her worship is especially striking, given the ways in which Russian society shuns such individuals. The Russian Orthodox faith “criticizes transgenderism for usurping God’s supposedly ordained Creation dynamics” (Baker-Johnson) and also, infamously, does not support homosexuality. This means that anyone who falls within the LGBT+ spectrum is excluded from the regular religious community, in a country in which religion is a powerful binding force of Russian identity. And yet, this minority segment of the population can also receive the comfort that Blessed Xenia shares with her followers. Just as she herself was shunned during her time as an oddball and a grieving widow, she now has become a home for those who feel that same separation from typical Russian society.
The Chapel as a Site of Memory
Saint Xenia’s chapel in the Smolensky Cemetery is a tangible record of Russia’s changes throughout the last two centuries. When it was built in the 18th century, it was a symbol of Orthodoxy, of the Church’s ties with St. Petersburg and a tribute to the city’s patron saint. For many years, it was open to the public and believers would make pilgrimages to the site, hoping for Blessed Xenia’s intercession on behalf of sick children or a jobless spouse. After the Revolution, however, the religious landscape of Russia took a drastic turn towards the secular, due to the interference of the Communist Party’s anti-religious agenda. Of all the classically defined and accepted features of Soviet society, one of the most fundamental was the State’s aggressive micro-management of the lives of its citizens; from price control to state-run school curriculum, to a complete infiltration of every field of employment, the Communist Party had its fingers in every pot imaginable. One such hallmark of its control was the attempt to replace the Orthodox church’s seat at the Russian family table. Lenin and his successors rightly realized that religion can be both a powerful tool and a great weakness in an autocratic government’s control over its population. For the USSR, then, it was imperative to have no other infallible authority figure to compete with the Party leader—especially not God Himself. In order to accomplish this, the Party began to reinvent religious figures, holidays, and public spaces, transfiguring them from symbols of Orthodoxy to symbols of Communism. The following are a few examples of anti-religious propaganda, aimed at discrediting the old beliefs and depicting religion as the antithesis to science and education.
Their efforts were not completely successful. The site of St. Xenia’s chapel is one of many physical examples of how deeply rooted Orthodoxy is in the Russian psyche, and just how impossible it was to completely eradicate it. At first, people were merely discouraged from visiting the chapel or praying to St. Xenia. Despite these warnings, devoted pilgrims still came to pray at her site. In a final stand against Russian Orthodoxy, a ten-foot-high wall was built around the chapel. Still, people visited to pray to the saint, pleading for help after a fire or for a missing child. According to the blog of St. John of Kronstadt Orthodox Church,
“In the Soviet era, it was forbidden to go into the shrine—access was closed to worshippers, but people went all the same, venerating at the fence in faith. Since then the tradition has been preserved—worshippers go around the chapel building to pray, venerate, and kiss the wall.” (Bloom)
Those who could, left their prayers on slips of paper folded up and wedged between the slats in the fence, in the hope of obtaining Blessed St. Xenia’s intercession on their behalf. After the fall of Communism, the wall was removed; tourists and pilgrims from all walks of life, all over the world, can come to marvel at the chapel’s quiet beauty and to pray openly once more to St. Xenia of Petersburg. (Bloom)
In this way, St. Xenia’s chapel was and is a very real historical landmark that still stands after long years of anti-religious government campaigns. It is not too much of a stretch to compare the chapel and its survival to the Russian spirit of religious devotion. Both were attacked from all sides, literally and psychologically. Literally, as many cathedrals and churches were either demolished or converted into non-religious spaces, such as swimming pools, and St. Xenia’s cathedral was walled up. Psychologically, as both the chapel and Orthodoxy as a whole were subject to countless salvos of Soviet propaganda intent on destroying their foundations of prayer and worship.
Impressions upon Visiting the Chapel
The atmosphere inside the cemetery is one of immense peace and quiet. In a stroke of coincidence, I, who grew up in a rural area of Virginia, found that the site I had chosen to study was also the place in Petersburg that was most like my home—wooded, quiet, and serene. Smolensky Cemetery is the largest expanse of greenery and forest on Vasilevsky island, and so I spent hours wandering about the graves, away from the sounds of city traffic. A sense of calm permeates the forest, and dotted here and there between the trees are crumbling headstones, some too worn to read. Raspberry bushes abound and, since we were in St. Petersburg during the height of berry season, I got the chance to pick and eat wild raspberries while I wandered about the cemetery. In all my time in St. Petersburg, I never felt as at peace and calm as I did in that cemetery; it is easy to see, then, why so many people return to the cemetery as a place of meditation or solitude as well as a place of reverence and preserved memories.
Upon entering the chapel, I immediately felt that the peaceful atmosphere of the cemetery had been concentrated into an extreme reverence. As an observer, foreigner, and non-Orthodox Christian, I felt a little out of place in such a small place of intense worship. Inside the dimly candlelit chapel, people queued to kiss icons and to pray reverently before Xenia’s figure, while a small bookshop in the corner sold icons, books about Xenia’s life, and displayed a prominent sign requesting that visitors take no photographs. If words were spoken, they were in hushed tones that seemed to be swallowed up by the candle smoke and the high, shadowed ceilings. Prayers were murmured and heads pressed against the cool stone walls. I had never before been in such a place filled to the brim with worship. Outside the chapel, I spotted a young woman praying with her head pressed against the wall. If I had visited thirty years ago, would this woman have been joined in prayer by dozens of her fellow worshippers, forbidden from entering the chapel of their saint? What would it have been like, to stand amongst believers who so desperately wished to receive graces from Blessed Xenia that they would journey from miles away to place prayers between the cracks in the Soviet-constructed fence? How has St. Xenia changed through the years in her role in the minds of everyday Russian folk?