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Pole to Pole

Day 28: Leningrad

Michael Palin - Pole to PoleIn the crypt they are preparing for the first public baptism of the day. Christenings were not approved of in the hard-line days and had to be conducted secretly, but now things have changed. There are two ceremonies a day and four on each Saturday and Sunday. I take my place among the families of the thirty or forty babies who have been brought along. Everyone but me seems to be in their best clothes. The priest is an imposing, charismatic figure, though not above sneaking a small comb from beneath his robes and attending to his thick black hair every now and then.

Impervious to a constant barracking of coughs, gurgles and whines, he gives a long opening address before making his way round the gathering to anoint those present on the forehead, base of the neck and ears in the sign of a cross. As he approaches I notice men are rolling up their trouser legs. Nigel, tracking back at a crouch, whispers urgently,

'Better roll up your trousers. They're all doing it.'

I don't imagine the priest will notice me anyway, curled as I am into the curve of the vault. But I'm wrong. Not only does he notice me but brings the entire service to a halt as he looks at my knees with considerable suspicion.

'What is your belief?'

'Church of England' sounds rather insipid in the middle of all this, so I opt for the more general 'I believe in God'.

His anointing brush remains poised in mid-air. He turns to his assistant. They confer. He looks back at me. The Russian congregation look on, quite baffled.

'I have been baptized!' I add, helpfully.

More consultation. The priest regards me sternly, but with faint alarm.
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  • Series: Pole to Pole
  • Day: 28
  • Country/sea: USSR
  • Place: Leningrad
  • Book page no: 60

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