Donkey walk

The donkey walk  is a Russian Orthodox Palm Sunday ritual reenactment of Jesus Christ's entry into Jerusalem

The Donkey Walk of tsar Alexis (Vyacheslav Schwartz, 1865).
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The best known historical donkey walk was practiced in Moscow from 1558 until 1693. The Metropolitan and later Patriarch of Moscow, representing Jesus Christ, rode on a «donkey» (actually a horse{insufficient citation}), while the Tsar of Russia humbly led the donkey on foot.

From 1561 to 1655 the donkey walk began in the Kremlin and terminated at Trinity Cathedral (now Saint Basil's Cathedral), but in 1656 Patriarch Nikon reversed the order of procession.

The Donkey Walk. Dutch print, 17th century.
pinterest button The Donkey Walk. Dutch print, 17th century. unknown, Public Domain

The donkey walk and the Great Blessing of Waters on Epiphany were the two most important Muscovite court ceremonies, emphasizing the tsar's respect for the Orthodox Church, projecting an image (not necessarily true) of harmony in politics. Similar rituals in other cities existed until 1678 until Moscow monopolized the ritual. The tradition was abolished by Peter I.

Donkey walks have been occasionally recreated in the 2000s.

Contemporary accounts

 The Donkey Walk of tsar Alexis (Vyacheslav Schwartz, 1865).
pinterest button The Donkey Walk of tsar Alexis (Vyacheslav Schwartz, 1865).   Schwarz, Wjatscheslaw Grigorjewitsch, Public Domain

Mikhail Kudryavtsev noted that all cross processions of the period began, as described by Petreius, from the Dormition Cathedral, passed through St. Frol's (Saviour's) Gate and ended at Trinity Cathedral, popularly known simply as Jerusalem. For these processions the Kremlin itself became an open-air temple, properly oriented from its «narthex» (Cathedral Square) in the west, through the «royal doors» (Saviour's Gate), to «sanctuary» (Trinity Cathedral) in the east.

The ritual was mocked and abused by Ivan the Terrible in his 1570 campaign against the Novgorod clergy. After looting the churches of Novgorod, Ivan demoted the archbishop of Novgorod and ordered him, a tonsured monk, to mount a mare backwards, ride to Moscow in a skomorokh's garb, marry there and lead a life of a skomorokh until the end of his days.

Demise of the tradition

Feeble-bodied tsar Feodor III of Russia, the eldest surviving son of Alexis, was too weak to attend the ceremonies of 1676 and 1677. By 1678 he recovered and participated in that year's donkey walk along with Patriarch Joachim; later, he seems to have attended most of the ceremonies of his short reign until failing to take part in the donkey walk of 1681.

After Fyodor's death the throne passed to co-rulers, brothers Ivan and Peter. In 1683 Ivan was sick and Peter led the donkey alone but in the next few years Ivan and Peter participated in the ritual together. As Ivan's health declined, Peter became the sole leader of the procession. After the death of his mother (January 25, 1694) he cancelled the procession; in fact, 1694 became the last year of Muscovite court ritual as it existed under the first Romanovs.

Peter, who forced the church into submission to the state, needed no external shows of political harmony and formally abolished the ritual in 1697; instead, it was replaced with a mock drunk orgy of Peter's statesmen and minstrels.

Modern Russia

The ritual was resurrected in the 2000s in Rostov, with key roles being played by the Archbishop of Rostov and Yaroslavl and the governor of Yaroslavl Oblast.

Useful Information

The donkey walk
Russian: Хождение на осляти or Шествие на осляти

Nikon's reform

Patriarch Nikon, among his other reforms, reversed the order of the donkey walk; since 1656 it began at Lobnoye Mesto (allegory of Golgotha) and terminated in the Kremlin (the new allegory of Jerusalem).

Nikon's voluntary retirement in 1658 vacated the Patriarch's seat de facto but not de jure; Metropolitan Pitirim of Krutitsy acted for the Patriarch during the 1659 donkey walk, causing Nikon's instant, unforgiving response. Nikon, still the head of Russian Orthodox Church, banished Pitirim from his seat and bitterly reprimanded Alexis I of Russia as an accomplice in "promiscuity of spirit". He wrote that for him riding the donkey was a fearful act of being a living icon of Christ himself, a deed and burden that only the Head of Church may bear. Pitirim repeated his act in 1661 and 1662 and was anathemized by Nikon although the retired patriarch's rage had little effect in real politics and Pitirim remained at the helm of the church.

According to a description by Adam Olearius, who attended the 1636 procession, the direction of the donkey walk has already been changed by that time. Olearius left an account of the procession starting at Lobnoye Mesto (incorrectly called Execution Place but in reality only a platform for public announcements) and proceeding into the Saviour's Gate of the Kremlin. The procession was led by a wagon carrying "a beautiful tree whose branches are hung with apples and various other treats" and six boys singing Hosanna. Similar processions, without the tree, were also held on the day of enthronement of the Patriarch in Moscow and ordination of the bishops in other cities, but in 1678 donkey walks outside of Moscow were prohibited by the Sobor (Synod).