Oral Stories about a Village Sacred Place
The Social Dimension of Narrative Tradition
(A Pilgrimage in Contemporary Russia: Competing Religious Discourses)

Jeanne Kormina

Variants of this paper were presented at the workshop "Micro-Perspectives on Post-Soviet Transformations" (Helsinki, March 2003) and at the conference "Sacred Places of Russian Culture" (Greginog, Wales, April 2003)


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History and locality
Local people
Case of Maria


J. Eade and M. Sallnow in their much-quoted introduction to the book "Contesting the Sacred: the Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage" (1991) state that a shrine is a spiritual space capable of accommodating diverse meanings and practices. These sacred meanings ascribed to local sacred places are cultural-bound; they are constructed and transmitted by pilgrims and institutes, which have control of a sacred place. And if there is no such institution (like a church or so called "keepers of a shrine" who usually are professional believers) supporting and reproducing certain meaning different groups of visitors attach meanings of their own to it. In this case a situation of competing religious discourses arises. It can be observed on the level of religious practices and narratives related to the sacred place.

My paper presents case study of village sacred place in Northwestern Russia conducted in 1999-2002. I take worship at this shrine as a space for competing religious (and not only religious) discourses. I propose to concentrate on the folklore of the sacred place, that is on narratives told by different groups of believers to confirm the sanctity of the shrine. The point is that people choose different types of stories, or genres, when they talk about the sacred, and each of these groups has more or less steady narrative repertoire. In my paper I will discuss (1) the narratives of pilgrims; (2) the narratives of locals; (3) the narratives of the local priest and his close parishioners.

History and locality

The shrine called Peshchorka (cave) is located in Gdov region of Pskov province not far from northwestern shore of lake Peipsi about ten kilometers from the Russian-Estonian border. Before the 1930s there were a lot of Estonian farmsteads in this area, and this shrine was located in the area where Russian villages and Estonian farmsteads were situated alternately. This shrine in that time didn't belong to any village as it does now. Now it is located in the village of Trutnevo that has appeared as late as the 1930s as a collective-farm center.

A big cattle-breeding farm and pig farm have been built on the bank of a small river very close to the sacred place. This detail was interpreted in an etiological legend told us by one informant. I'll return to this story later. Before the churches were closed in the 1920s, once a year on the sixth Friday (sixth Friday after Easter) people had organized religious processions from the church to this place (the between the church and the cave is about 10 kilometers). Later on people continued to worship this place without a priest, church services, or religious processions. According to some evidence, after the war such processions and services were organized by local religious activists, women who in effect assumed a role of a priest.

The inner topography of Peshchorka is a very typical combination of a stone with "God's footprint" on it, a stream, and a cave. The wall of the cave (it is red sandstone) is completely covered with inscriptions. These are names, sometimes with dates. The earliest inscription, we found, dated to the end of the 19th c. Several names are written in Latin letters. It must be noted that none of local inhabitants told us that he or she had ever written their names here; moreover, most of them considered these inscriptions to be just "letters", sometimes even "sacred letters", "non-Russian letters" and not names. Nobody knows how and when these letters appeared. Some local people tell say when hooligans tried to rub these letters off they appeared again. I have to note that only pilgrims write their names on the walls of the cave.


Pilgrims come to the shrine mainly from the neighboring cities Gdov and Slantzy. As most of these people have another experience of pilgrimage, they consider this local sacred place as one of many other places of the sort. It seems that modern pilgrimage has in many respects succeeded organized Soviet tourism. People come to the shrine by buses arranged specially for this pilgrimage - the same way as in Soviet times they came by bus organized by the trade union or simply by some activists to go shopping to Estonia. The aim of travel is collecting (expressions and local exotica) and restoring one's health. It is quite logical, that the folklore of pilgrims (and for pilgrims as well) includes stories about miraculous healing that took place at a sacred place.

In our case it is a story of a woman called Nina (now she is in her 70s) from the town of Slantzy. She was hurt in an accident in the mine and at the beginning of 1970s was miraculously healed at Peshcherka. This case was described in a local newspaper in the 1990s. Even now Nina comes to Peshcherka from time to time; she is a very famous person here; even a video recording of her storytelling (40 minutes long) has been made. Without doubt, such stories serve to advertise the place. They are meant to be used by pilgrims and at the same time they are being transmitted by pilgrims.

In transmitting and supporting this story the "keepers of a shrine" play a very important role. These keepers are people who take care of the shrine and at the same time they pretend to play a role of religious experts and gain control over the sacred place. They are the ones who know how to worship at the shrine and why. They live near the shrine. They appear if a shrine becomes a place of pilgrimage from afar (see Щепанская 1995), and they play an active part in advertising the sacred place.

Local people

The old discussion about the relationship between myth and ritual in a religious system has some relevance for folk religion. To maintain a tradition of worship people need at least 1) a sacred object; 2) the date of celebration of the sacred place; 3) knowledge of what to do with the sacred object, in other words, knowledge of its function; 4) a narrative confirming the sanctity of the object. In other words, myth (narratives) and ritual (practices of worship) are necessary. During the years of anti-religious campaign the Soviet authorities mainly struggled against religious practices. They started by physically destroying the "objects of religious cult". Thus, in Trutnevo they turned over the stone with a God's footprint and moved it from its place. They constructed the dairy-farm and pigsty on the bank of the stream near Peshcherka - in this way they violated the sanctity of the place repeating by this action those of legendary invaders who according to folk legend stabled their horses in churches. Apart from this, the authorities refused to allow a holiday on Sixth Friday. However, the anti-religious activities of the Soviet authorities served to keep the tradition of worshipping sacred places alive. In contemporary peasant culture narratives about punishments for blasphemy play the role of a "myth" that sanctions the worship of a sacred locus. These stories are spread practically all over Russia. Though their popularity is connected with actual historical experience, the stories with certain specific plots and rhetoric appeared in folklore repertoire because the narrative scheme used in them already existed in folklore (see Штырков 2001). It is quite possible that before the Soviet period the place of "myth" was occupied by etiological legends kept and transmitted by religious specialists, "keepers of a given shrine".

The plot of these stories is very simple: a person (or persons) violates the sanctity of a sacred place (it could be a church, a chapel, a hole tree, a spring and so on) and later on he (or sometimes she) is punished (dies or suffers from some accident or illness). For example, a person who chops an icon in half with an axe then himself chop in half by a train. A girl who is the first to go and dance in a village club opened in the former church becomes paralyzed. In the folklore of Peshcherka the heroes of such stories are struck damp. For example, one story tells of one Yakovlev who was a collective farm director and went on the 6th Friday to Peshcherka to forbid people to visit the place. He swore at believers and when he was paralyzed he could say nothing but these obscene words.

In all such stories the persons who commit sacrilege at Peshcherka are inhabitants of the village of Trutnevo. These narratives stress that the sacred place is a part of the intimate life of the village, and that it belongs to the village. The history of the sacred place reflects local history - times of collective farm, anti-religious campaigns, German occupation, restoration of church life. It preserves family stories - about Yakovlev's family, for example. Thus, a sacred place may play the role of objectified memory. At the same time local inhabitants may use it as a means of constructing and representing their collective identity. As D. Christian noted, "In some villages even today the shrine is the only attraction the village has to outsiders, the shrine feast day the only time when strangers come. A shrine can put a town on the map" (Christian 1981: 105).

One Estonian woman who lives in Trutnevo (Meta, born 1927) told us that when she had been a child the family names written on the wall of the cave, were Estonian. As the sand of the wall crumbled, these names disappeared. New (mainly Russian) names, which we can see now, were written later, in place of the old Estonian ones. This way she states that the sacred place belonged to Estonians; they are natives in the area.


Recently worship of this place has been enlivened up by the local priest Fr. Constantine. He has started restoring the church in the village of Vetvennik and conducting services there. Trutnevo belongs to his parish, and so he decided to support worship of this sacred place. He organizes a religious procession on 6th Friday, arranges organized pilgrimage tours from towns and, what is the most interesting for us, tries to adapt existing practices of worshipping to the church canon. His problem is that the holy nature of this place is maintained only at the level of local narrative tradition and practices of worship. He found no written evidence which can be used as proof of the sanctity of the place. He hopes to build a chapel, and he actively propagates his own variant of the etiological legend about the appearance of Our Lady's footprint on the stone in Peshchorka. Father Constantine has published an article about this miracle in the local newspaper and he always tells his story during the sermons he gives at Peshchorka. He receives support in his activity from local religious activists. One of them is even dreaming of having an icon of Our Lady of Trutnevo painted.

The priest's narrative is a story about the landlord called Trutnev who decided to build a water mill on the small river near the cave. But his workers failed to make a dam: every morning it was found destroyed. On the third night one of the workers decided to see who was destroying the dam. He didn't sleep and saw a lady in white with a child in her arms. In the morning this worker told the landlord about what he had seen and the old men said that it was a sign that this place was sacred. The dam was built then 300 meters far from the place of this vision. I can say that this story in the whole and the motif of Our Lady as a woman in white in particular are known only to people in the priest's circle. Local inhabitants don't tell this story.

The story of the local priest contains some very common Christian motifs, such as destroying a building erected at a sacred place is destroyed, or apparition of the Virgin as a lady in white. At the same time the whole story sounds like a production of a local librarian or a History teacher rather then like a religious legend. To explain existing worship the priest prefers to invent a story about origin of the footprint on a stone. He has some artifacts at his disposal (the stone, the ruins of the mill, the name of the village - Trutnevo), some motifs borrowed from church literature, and the idea that history is the best form of explanation. He could prefer to support a story of miraculous healing, but he didn't.


The aim of the priest (and the church) is to educate his "flock", and teach peasants how to practice religion. His closest pupils and followers are those who have to spread their new knowledge among other local people, including the etiological legend composed by him. However, this task is hard because socially most parish activists are strangers to the local inhabitants. I'll mention two of them, Agnessa and Lidia. Both of them claim to be responsible for the sacred place; both of them try to show their competence in questions of religious practices and beliefs connected with Peshcherka.

Agnessa. She is an Estonian, born in 1930. In her childhood she was baptized a Lutheran, and only after her mother's death did she ask the priest in Gdov to baptize her an Orthodox. She was baptized, and got a new name Alla. As Fr. Constantine said, he and the people of his circle called her "the keeper of Peshcherka". Her house is located very close to this place, she keeps candles and sells them at Peshcherka on religious holidays. The very important person Nina from Slanzy used to stay in Agnessa's house. Agnessa's personal folklore repertoire includes narratives by pilgrims (miraculous healing), local inhabitants (punishment for sacrilege), and the priest. It is interesting that she produces different variants of the stories about apparitions of a lady in white (for example, to a young girl).

Lidia, the second "candidate" for the position of a keeper of Peshcherka, came to Trutnevo 6-7 years ago from the Ukraine (Rovenskaya province). She used to belong to very different folk and religious tradition. When in her native village in Ukraine she used to go to church every Sunday and on holidays, at her new place she has no such opportunity. The distance between her house and the nearest church is about 10 kilometers, and there is no regular transportation. There were no village sacred places in her native village, and she doesn't know such an important thing for folk religion in the northwestern Russia as zavet - a vow. Nevertheless, she takes an active part in taking care of the sacred place. Her sons made a big wooden cross at the bank of the river and a table for icons in the cave. Of course, she doesn't know local narrative tradition and cannot tell stories about sacrilege. She knows the stories of Nina's healing and the apparition of the Lady in white.

A kind of competition between Agnessa and Lidia is going on. They share the right to be keeper of the sacred place. In an interview Lidia stressed that Nina and other pilgrims stayed in her house.

Case of Maria

Maria was born in 1930, and arrived from Bryansk province twenty years ago. She doesn't pretend to be a religious leader as Agnessa and especially Lidia do. As well Like Lidia, she lived in an area where people used to go to church in Soviet times. Though she is Russian ethnically, she speaks a south-Russian dialect which differs from north-Russian and, of course, she has a specific cultural background. Characteristically, she was amazed that local people were unwilling to help the priest to restore their church and don't go to church on holidays. She gathered money in villages for the church restoration (the priest asked her to do this), she fasts, gives towels to the church. She doesn't compare Peshcherka to a church. Her vows (work on the restoration or decoration, bringing of flowers and towels) are always connected with churches, not with the village sacred place as it is for local people. It is important to note that the local inhabitants criticize her for her piety. Such a life style, keeping the fasts and going to the church differs considerably from that of local people. Incidentally, she is the only person whose etiological legend about Peshcherka locates it in Christian sacred history. She says that when King Herod gave orders to kill all the babies, Our Lady with her child (he was about 3 or 4 years, according to her story, he could walk) had hidden in the cowshed. It was a kolkhoz' cowshed in Trutnevo, located just by the cave. They left their footprints on the stone.

Paradoxically, these three women need religion and a church for socialization and getting acquisition of social position and prestige, but in fact they get the reverse result. To be too close to the church means to be a stranger in the opinion of local people.

In our case study we there coexist different styles of religiosity, different religious cultures. They can be discovered both in narrative repertoire and the religious practices of people who worship at the same sacred place. Probably, this diversity of religious discourse observed in the contemporary Russian Orthodox Church could be explained as the result of weak control by the institution (the church) of how its flock practices religion. At the same time this diversity is quite normal. People believe that the locus they worship is sacred. It is the task of a priest to dress the sacred in a proper style (to turn a stone with "God's footprint" into a Christian Orthodox stone). He interprets the sacred place according to the rules of his discourse. So do other visitors to a shrine. They attach different meanings to it using their own strategies of interpretation. Some of these strategies I have tried to demonstrate in this paper.


Christian 1981 - Christian W.A. Local Religion in Sixteenth-Century Spain. Princeton University Press. 1981.

Eade & Sallnow 1991 - Eade J., M. Sallnow. Introduction. In: Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage, ed. J. Eade and M. Sallnow. London: Routledge. 1991. P. 1-26.

Штырков 2001 Штырков С.А. Наказание святотатцев: фольклорный мотив и нарративная схема // Труды факультета этнологии. Вып. 1. СПб. 2001. С. 198210.

Щепанская 1995 Щепанская Т.Б. Кризисная сеть. (Традиции духовного освоения пространства) // Русский север. К проблеме локальных групп. СПб. 1995. С. 110176.