After the liturgy at Shamordino convent Dima leads us pilgrims down a walkway towards the holy springs. Sometimes it seems that the whole of Russia has sprung a massive series of leaks there are so many springs, often associated with a particular saint or holy man and each with specific healing qualities.
The walkway turns into a steep set of steps to negotiate a slope. We stop on a platform at the top of the slope to admire the view, whilst Dima tells us that it was here that the Elder Amvrosy from Optina Pustyn monastery had a vision of the Mother of God in the sky telling him to found a convent on this spot.
As I listen to the story, I come under attack from mosquitoes and I am swatting them away, when suddenly I brush my glasses off my face and over the side of the platform. I think I see something move where they hit the weeds and I crawl under the railing and drop down to the ground to look for them. Dima is still talking and, as I glance back up at the platform, several fellow pilgrims are watching what the curious Englishman is up to grubbing among the wormwood and nettles. Panicking that they are lost for good, I am just about to give up when I see them, slightly twisted and muddy where I have trodden on them during my search.
At the bottom of the slope is a chapel over a spring where people are collecting water in plastic bottles. A queue of people is waiting outside a sort of kiosk to bathe in the spring water. We press on though to another spring in the forest which turns out to be a standpipe with a trickle of water issuing from it. Apparently it is particularly good for eyesight. Dima kindly gives me some of the holy water in a spare bottle for me to take back to my hosts.
By now the midday sun is scorching hot as we struggle back up the steep steps to the convent. All pilgrims are invited by the nuns to lunch in the refectory at long, heavy wooden tables with benches: a simple meal of macaroni soup, kasha (buckwheat), black bread and apple compote, book-ended by prayers. My fellow pilgrims tuck in heartily, but I am conscious of the large packed lunch back on the bus that Ekaterina, the wife of my host family, has prepared for me.
Before we get back on the bus, Dima takes me to see the simple grave of Tolstoy’s sister, Maria, which lies under a strange bifurcated lime tree. She became nun in the late 1880s, under the spiritual guidance of the Elder Amvrosy, and lived at the convent until her death aged 82 in 1912. Dima tells me that if Tolstoy had lived a little longer he would have come back into the Orthodox Church (he was excommunicated as a heretic in 1901). I think that’s unlikely as the divisions between Tolstoy and the Church were far too deep. But who knows? When Tolstoy left his estate for the last time before his death in October 1910 to become a wandering pilgrim, with nothing but the clothes on his back, he went first to the Optina Pustyn monastery for spiritual guidance and then came to visit his sister, Maria, here at Shamordino. From near here he took the train, intending to travel south to the Caucasus, but was taken ill and died at Astapovo station.
History suddenly doesn’t seem that remote.