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Pilgrimage to Russia

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Photo: Andrea Fazzari

In time the Mishinichi acquired the surname Ovinov, which eventually became Avinov. Grigorov took us to Pruskaya Street, where Misha had lived, and we walked along the crest of an earthen wall from where, in 1170, the city repelled an invasion by neighboring Suz­dalians, supposedly zapping them with the powerful Znamensky Icon, for which a special church was later built: the frescoes were commissioned by our 14th-century ancestor Felix Ovinov.

We proceeded into Novgorod’s kremlin, a 30-acre inner city surrounded by a high, thick brick wall with periodic guard towers, plus a moat on three sides and the Volkhov River on the fourth—some of the most advanced and formidable fortifications of the time in this part of the world. The main attraction inside the kremlin’s walls is the Cathedral of St. Sophia. In its dim, high-vaulted, candlelit interior, babushkas were prostrating themselves before the Znamensky Icon, which was moved here from its own church in the 20th century. We saw a 14th-century bronze door on one side of the cathedral, blackened by the centuries, with embossed panels representing various important people and events. The panel in the lower right corner depicts a centaur turning back and firing an arrow. This, Grigorov said, was Felix Ovinov.

A hundred and fifty yards from the cathedral, under the kremlin wall, was a yard where Felix’s great-nephews Zakhary and Kusma were decapitated by an angry mob in 1477 (Zakhary was the father of Ivan, Grigorov’s and my common ancestor). Ivan III was about to descend on Novgorod, and the mob wanted the head posadniki to ask the Lithuanians for military help, but the two brothers wanted to negotiate. This was the beginning of the end of Novgorod’s independence.

On the other side of the cathedral was the museum, which has a monumental collection of medieval icons, many of them four or five feet high. Not far off was the 17th-century Cathedral of Our Lady of the Sign.

This is a place for churches: we visited the Yurievsky Monastery, whose cupolas, on tall white towers, you can see from the bridge, gleaming five miles upriver. To Nick they seemed like rocket ships ready to take off to paradise. The flatness of the landscape was broken every five miles or so by one of these celestial launchpads.

Near the monastery was the Vitoslavlitsy Museum of Wooden Architecture, to which centuries-old log churches, masterpieces of wooden construction, some four stories high with seamless dovetailed corners, and beautiful log izbas had been moved from the surrounding villages. We took a boat trip up to Lake Ilmen, passing Gorodische, the original settlement where Rurik was welcomed (hence Novgorod—the "new city" that he founded). The banks were crowded with willows, white terns swooped and dived after fish, and fishermen in inflatable rafts snoozed at their poles.

We visited the outlying Khutynsky and Viazhischsky monasteries—the former on the site of a viper den (the snakes were expelled by a saint who attracted so many pilgrims that he had to turn bread crumbs into loaves), the latter nestled in beautiful woods. Our last stop was Kolmovsky Monastery, a nice but not particularly impressive place of worship next to the abandoned psychiatric wing of the main hospital. But this was where Zakhary, Kusma, Yuri, Grigory, Mikhail—the whole clan—were buried. Somewhere in the overgrowth between the church and the river is where our people lie, Grigorov told me.

"Now I have shown you everything I wanted to," he said when we returned to the hotel. The last I saw of my dear, long-lost cousin, who had really put himself out for us, reconnected us with our severed rootskis, was him hurrying to the train station with his Adidas bag slung over his shoulder, at his customary double-time clip. Our distant lines had briefly intersected, and now we two Alexes were going our separate ways, resuming our lives in the very different countries where the lottery of life had cast us. I wondered if we would ever see each other again. But even if we didn’t, we would be comparing notes for the rest of our days. We had become part of each other’s story.

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