When Vladimir the Great brought Christianity to Kyiv in AD 988, stories of Saint Nicholas came along, too. Nicholas is greatly revered in Russia as the protector of the weak from the strong, the oppressed from the oppressor, and the poor from the rich— he is the Russian champion of the disadvantaged. By the 1600s his name was synonymous with the word “icon” and foreign visitors often referred to an icon as “a Nicholas.”
St. Nicholas is prominent in Russian Orthodox liturgy as Thursday prayers are dedicated to him as representative of all the saints. Nicholas is the only saint shown in three-dimensional statuary in the Russian Orthodox Church.
Saint Nicholas is the Orthodox tradition’s Wonder or Miracle Worker. As such he is Russia’s most beloved—the most venerated—saint; his icon often appearing on triptychs with Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Numerous Russian cathedrals, monasteries, and churches have been dedicated to St. Nicholas. In villages, St. Nicholas was revered as merciful intercessor for working people. Merchants and others revere St. Nicholas the Miracle-worker as the patron of all who travel on land or sea, and have dedicated marketplace churches to him. Ship captains carry St. Nicholas icons on board ship. Long-haul truck drivers keep his icon on the dashboard, hoping for protection from accident. Metropolitan Hilario has noted that St. Nicholas unites the West and the East, coming to the aid of all those who turn to him in sincere and ardent prayer. His icons have been prized gifts for weddings and birthdays. The beloved saint’s name is also very popular for Russian boys.
Russian cosmonaut Sergey Volkov installed an icon of Saint Nicholas on the ISS (International Space Station) in November 2011. The ISS is a joint project of US NASA with the space agencies in Japan, Russia, Canada and Europe.
Proverbs like these reveal Nicholas’ great popularity in Russia:
“Bring your tribulations to Nicholas the Merciful, and he will take them to the All-Merciful Savior.”
“If anything happens to God, we’ve always got St. Nicholas.”
“There is no icon like Nicholas.”
As patron of farming and cattle and master of water, St. Nikola the Wonder-Worker is in many sayings. For example, “The winter Nikola will bring the horse to the stable. The spring Nikola will feed the horse.” Peasants prayed to him in all situations; he assisted in any trouble. Mothers invoked Nicholas for safety when their sons went to war, before a wedding for a happy marriage, and at times of childbirth.
St. Nikola’s winter day, December 6th or 19th, was believed to be the beginning of winter matchmaking. Legend had it that on this day St. Nicholas comes down from heaven and goes about the whole land, helping ordinary people. St. Nicholas Feast Day was the second most important holiday, only Easter was greater. It was believed that Nicholas held the keys to Heaven, opening the gates of Paradise and meeting those who had died. In the 1600 and 1700s letters to Saint Nicholas were placed in the hands of the deceased, requesting that their sins be forgiven.
Christmas came to be celebrated late in Russia, as Easter was the primary festival in the Orthodox calendar. Tsar Nicolas I’s Prussian princess wife, brought German customs along with her in 1817. She introduced Christmas trees and gifts were brought by St. Nicholas. Father Frost was gaining ground by the end of the 19th century and Communist rule saw him totally supplanted as gift giver by Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost) who came at the New Year. Grandfather Frost often came with the Snow Maiden and the New Year’s Boy. Christmas itself was banned, people selling Christmas trees arrested and others supporting Christmas programs punished. Focus was put on New Year, not December 25. As Communism spread in Eastern Europe their traditional gift-givers, the Christ Child, St. Nicholas and angels, were also discouraged. Christmas has made a comeback since 1991 and is celebrated by religious Russians. New Year’s is still the primary festival.
St. Nicholas Center Collection
In the name of St. Nicholas, more than 6,000 pilgrims make a three-day walk following an icon of St. Nicholas, from Kirov to the holy village of Velikoretsky. This June pilgrimage has taken place for the past six centuries, though during the Soviet era the numbers fell to a trickle amidst persecution. Since the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Procession of St. Nicholas is again very popular. About 3,000 pilgrims completed the 50-mile walk within the designated three days. Others take longer to finish. A service of thanksgiving for the works of St. Nicholas the Miracle-maker is held at the end of the pilgrimage. (More)
The Foundation of St. Nicholas the Wonder-worker is installing monuments to him at various places along Russia’s frontiers, because Saint Nicholas is patron of all travelers and, also, border guards. Bronze sculptures have been placed in Anadyr, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Omsk, Batajsk, Elista, and Maikop, among other places.
One was installed in July 2007, on the Kurils’ Tanfilyev island. The consecration service was led by a priest from Moscow, with officers and soldiers of the Coast Guard Federal Security Service, and representatives of the St. Nicholas Foundation. In 2005 an Orthodox chapel was built for border guards stationed on the otherwise uninhabited island.
Large billboards featuring St. Nicholas and other Orthodox saints appeared along highways in St. Petersburg and Moscow to try to reduce traffic accidents. The text adjacent to the saints’ images asked the saints to “pray to God” on behalf of passersby. A similar campaign in the Tver region was said to have reduced accidents by a third. Officials there also cited road repairs, traffic cameras and other safety measures.
Russia Gives Saint Nicholas Statue to Bari, Italy
Icon, Lost and Found
Story of the St. Nicholas icon on Nikolskaya Tower, Moscow Kremlin
40,000 Pilgrims on the Velikoretsky Way of St. Nicholas
St. Nicholas Lighthouse Chapel
Russia’s first floating lighthouse chapel
Order of Saint Nicholas Archbishop of Myra in Lycia the Wonderworker Awards
Given by Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker Charitable Foundation
More in other sections
St. Nicholas relics go from Bari, Italy to Russia
Russian Folk Tale
Saint Nicholas Monuments
Placed by the Foundation of Saint Nicholas Wonder-Worker and others
Comprehensive site in Russian, web translators are a big help
Saint Nicholas Icons in Russia
Russian site with 136 St. Nicholas icons from thirty-five major Russian museums. Scroll down the list of saints to find Nicholas; primary icon types (e.g. Velikoretsky, Mozhaisk, Zaraysk) are listed separately. After clicking on a category, click on “Icons.”
Russian Bronze Icons more than 300 shown in detailed photographs! Here are some of the groupings:
10th – 16th Century — 78 icons
17th - 19th Century — 53 icons
St Nicholas of Mozhaisk — 29 icons
St Nicholas of Zaraysk — 5 icons
“6,000 Pilgrims March Behind Saint’s Icon,” The Times, London, June 8, 2001, News, p. 8.
“Monument to St. Nicholas the Wonder-worker to be erected on one of the Kurils disputed islands,” Interfax Religion, July 24, 2007
“Russian Orthodox saint statue erected on disputed island” Serbianna, July 26, 2007
“Santa Claus, AKA Nicholas,” by Olg Bogdanova, Taday, December 19, 2007
“‘Pray for Us’ Religious Billboards Seek to Keep Drivers Safe in St. Petersburg,” The Moscow Times, January 14, 2019
“Russian adventurer rows across Southern Ocean, reaching Chile after 154 days alone at sea, breaking five world records,” by Mark Agnew, South China Morning Post, May 14, 2019
“Metropolitan Hilarion celebrates Divine Liturgy at the relics of St Nicholas the Wonderworker”, Russian Orthodox Church Department for External Church Relations, December 14, 2016
Journeys through the Russian Empire: The Photographic Legacy of Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky by William Craft Brumfield, Duke University Press, 2020.
A beautifully produced record of photos from the early 20th century presented with contemporary photos of the same sites. Over a dozen St. Nicholas churches are included.
Architecture at the End of the Earth: Photographing the Russian North by William Craft Brumfield, Duke University Press, 2015.
Here is more about Russian architecture, again a beautifully produced book with photos and information particularly about church and village in the north. Six St. Nicholas churches are included.