The connections to Russia

Pilgrims, pogroms a mad monk and the seceding Finns

The Grand Duchy of Finland

Several members of the expedition were Finns and at the time of the expedition Finland was part of the Russian Empire.

Sweden were the rulers of Finland until the start of the 19th century. During the Napoleonic Wars, Russia initially fought against Napoleon. However, after a series of crushing defeats, celebrated in street names and stations across Paris, Russia swapped sides. Russia then demanded that Sweden do the same and ally with them against England. When Sweden refused, Russia declared war and captured Finland. Finland became an autonomous province within the Russian Empire. However, Russian was never adopted as the primary language.

Valter Juvelius lived in Viipuri, a town which today is known as Vyborg, is close to Saint Petersburg and now part of the Russian Federation.

As Finland was part of the Russian Empire it was involved in the First World War against Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empires. Pertti Uotila joined up and became an officer in the Russian Imperial Cavalry. He fought in the disastrous Russian campaigns against Germany.

1916 painting of Pertti Uotila and his brother

Pertti (front) is in the uniform of a Russian Pihkova lifeguard dragoon


The expedition arrived in Jerusalem at a time the city was expanding rapidly. Immigration drove most of this. There were many sources of this immigration, some came from other parts of the Ottoman Empire, but many were from outside and they came from all faiths. Certainly, Jewish immigration was a large driver. The Yemeni Jews were small in number, but they were joined by large groups driven by the same way as the Sephardim several hundred years before; persecution of Jews by Christian European monarchs. In the late-nineteenth century, the ruler was Tsar Alexander III of Russia. Chaim Weizmann described the results:

“I can remember the stampede — the frantic rush from the Russian prison house, the tremendous tide of migration which carried hundreds of thousands of Jews from their ancient homes to far-off lands across the seas. I was a witness in boyhood and early manhood of the emptying of whole villages and towns”

The vast majority of these migrants did not go to Jerusalem or the Holy Land. Between 1888 and 1914, two million Jews left Russia, and of this 85% went to the United States. However, some did come to the Holy Land. In this wave of immigration, between 1881 and 1903, which has become known as the First Aliyah, nearly 35,000 Jews arrived in Palestine.

Easter Pilgrims

As well as people who came to live in Jerusalem, there were the pilgrims who visited the city briefly. The biggest group of these were Russian pilgrims. Every year thousands of Russian Orthodox Christian pilgrims would flock to the city. They were mostly impoverished peasants who travelled from their village in the interior of Russia to the port of Odessa to embark for the Holy Land.

The Russian government subsidised the boats. They were often overcrowded and any poor weather led to seasickness and unbearable conditions. Once they arrived in the Holy Land, most of the pilgrims would walk from Jaffa to Jerusalem. They were filled with religious devotion and would visit multiple Christian sites in the Holy Land. They would return to Russia in possession of mementoes the pilgrims believed would help ease their path to heaven. These could be shrouds washed in the river Jordan or measured against the stone where Jesus’ body was supposedly washed after his crucifixion. They would also return to Russia with earth from the Holy Land, which would be put in their coffin when they died.

The mass of pilgrims was a tremendous economic benefit for the city. Beggars flocked to Jerusalem during the annual Russian pilgrimage and disappeared again when the last boat has gone home. This influx was even though the Russian peasants were poor themselves. Candlemakers, icon painters, shroud makers and olive wood trinket-makers worked all year round to meet the demand at Easter. Not all returned to Russia. Some died in Jerusalem, happy in the belief that this would also speed their passage to heaven. Others fell victim to the temptations of the city. Rasputin, who performed the same pilgrimage in 1911, and who knew more than most about temptation, said that nuns should not go to Jerusalem ‘so huge is the seduction, so envious the enemy’. Many sadly ended up in poverty or prostitution.


After the members of the Parker expedition were discovered digging in the Dome of the Rock riots broke out and wild rumours flew around. One of these was that the Russian pilgrims had been armed and planned to massacre the city’s Muslims. At the same time after one day of disturbance troops sealed off the Russian Compound in order to ensure that there was no violence against the Russian pilgrims.

Finnish Independence

In 1917 following disastrous battlefield losses Russia experienced two revolutions. The second one brought the Bolsheviks to power and ended Russian involvement in the First World War. Finland took advantage of the instability and declared independence from Russia. This led to a bloody civil war in Finland, with Red versus White. As with most civil wars, it was brutal, with atrocities committed by both sides. The war also drew in the Bolsheviks, the Germans and the Allies. Pertti Uotila fought for the right-wing Whites, who eventually proved victorious.

After the Finnish Civil War, Uotila fought against Bolshevik Russia for several more years in the so-called Tribal Wars. The British opposed the Bolshevik Revolution and supported those fighting against it. They landed a force in Murmansk in Northern Russia to help in the fight. Winston Churchill said the policy was ‘to strangle at birth the Bolshevik State’. Many groups were fighting here and their identity was not always clear. Uotila’s friendship with the Old Etonians, made in the heat of Jerusalem, now proved crucial in the cold of the Arctic Circle. The British did not want any weapons they provided to local forces to reach either Bolsheviks or the Germans, so they were initially suspicious of a group of Finns fighting in German-supplied uniforms. Out of these strange-looking soldiers stepped Uotila to help sort matters out. He negotiated with the Royal Navy officers and convinced them that they should supply his Finnish forces with arms and munitions. His connections to the British establishment were vital in persuading the Royal Navy officers they could trust him. One of the foremost proponents of Britain’s policy in Russia was Winston Churchill, former First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1918 he was minister of munitions. Pertti had spent time in Jerusalem with Gordon Wilson, who was married to Winston Churchill’s aunt. This was not Uotila’s last fight with the Russians. After the Soviet Union signed the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. Two weeks later, the Soviets marched into Eastern Poland, as agreed with Germany. They also invaded Finland, and the two unequally matched nations fought the three-month Winter War. Uotila, now almost sixty, rejoined the Finnish Army. Despite the mismatch, the Finns were largely successful in defending their country.

Pertti Uotila

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