Beloved brothers and sisters! This time we would like to tell you the story of the Holy Martyr, the last Russian Emperor, St Nikolai II.
It’s quite significant that long before Nicholas II’s ascension to the throne, a monk at the Glinsk monastery in Russia, Iliador, chanced to have an enigmatic vision at end of the 19th century. Fr Iliador was at prayer when he felt some change in his senses. Then, he saw a dark horizon. A bright light came. The sun rose in the East and started to move slowly to the West… all of a sudden, the sun grew red, stopped moving, and a voice from above said, “This is the road of the royal martyr Nikolai II”.
Tsar Nikolai was not understood by the Russian people and he has remained so to this day. Quite a few books have been written about the last days of the last Tsar. There are so many eye-witness accounts by people who chanced to meet him, generals, members of the court, government ministers… But, very few things written about the royal martyr are true. How can one not venerate a Tsar, when, at the sacramental hour of coronation, he accepted all the attributes of power, the sceptre, the orb, and the crown, with the words, “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. Then, the Tsar read a prayer, full of humbleness and gratitude to God, “Oh Lord, do instruct me in the duty Thou hast sent me to attend. Direct me in this great service. May my heart be in Thine hands so as to arrange the lives of people I have been entrusted with in a way useful to them and pleasant to Thee, so that on doomsday I should have no shame answering to Thee”.
Tsar Nikolai, a very religious man, was an example of piety throughout his life. However, when he followed God’s providence in everything, many called him ignorant and conservative, and perceived his faithfulness as hypocrisy and obscurantism. His submissiveness to the strokes of fate was seen as evidence of the weakness of his character, indecision, and short-sightedness.
Nikolai II remained committed to himself and to his life in the faith when he was held prisoner by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Aware that he would die, he never lost courage; he remained a religious person and treated with love everybody around him. General Tatishchev, who courageously followed in his Emperor’s footsteps to Calvary, one day dared to express his surprise about the piety of all members of the royal family. He was amazed to see not a single quarrel and to hear not a single angry word from the royal martyrs. The Emperor responded modestly, “Even you have just come to know what kind of people we are. How can I feel angry about the torrents of falsehoods and filth the press has been pouring on our heads? Oh Lord, forgive them! They don’t know what they are doing”.
One must be a truly religious person to understand the very nature of Orthodox autocracy. A republic sets itself the earthly ideal of prosperity and abundance. A democracy puts an emphasis on human rights, but, despite itself, it dooms each person to selfishness. Autocracy alone seeks a moral goal, that of bringing up its people not for the earthly kingdom, but, for the Kingdom of Heaven. The throne of the Tsar is placed so highly that he, anointed by God, does not reflect the interests of any group or party. An autocrat is not a despot; he is a father who loves all his children. He prays for them and he takes care of them all. Не knows that, in due time, he will be responsible for all his actions to God Himself. It was a tragic misunderstanding of the very nature of the God-given power of the Tsar on the part of Russian intellectuals, who kept urging the ordinary people to go astray. It explains the Russian tragedy of the early 20th century.
In 1903, Nikolai II and his wife Alexandra arrived in the city of Sarov, in central Russia, for special ceremonies honouring St Seraphim of Sarov. During that visit, the Tsar was given a note, written by St Seraphim of Sarov himself, which the saint asked to keep carefully especially for Nikolai II. The wonder-worker Seraphim had been dead for many decades. The Tsar read the note, but, didn’t tell anybody what it was all about. Today, we know that that note contained a prophecy. St Seraphim predicted the Tsar would die the death of a martyr…
Nikolai II was never fully happy. He used to say. “I have more than a feeling that I am doomed to terrible hardship, for which I will have no reward in this world. Whatever I undertake, I fail to accomplish. I have no good fortune. Anyway, the human will is so weak”. Those who revere the memory of our last Emperor would certainly find both amazing and important the words he pronounced ten years before 1917, “Probably, there has to be a sacrifice to save Russia. I will become that sacrifice, if it is God’s Will”.
These words are a clue to glorifying the Tsar, already glorified by God, for what makes a human being a saint is sacrificial service to God, the readiness to go to the cross for the sake of doing one’s duty. But, what was it that made the Tsar so firm in his intention to die for the sake of the Christian truth and for the sake of the country he loved? It was a result of the podvig (untranslatable, “heroic exploit” is VERY weak: editor’s note) of his life, which had been ridiculed and spat on so many times.
In 1889, Tsar Nikolai II convened an unprecedented conference in The Hague. The conference adopted a general principle of the peace settlement of international disputes. That was not the sole example of the genuine Christian love for peace displayed by the Emperor. Here is another one. In 1915, when World War I was raging, many thousands of Serbs were driven out of their home country. Exhausted by a nightmare trek on foot across the Albanian mountains, they were about to die on the shore. The ships of the allied powers were idle in the sight of dying Slavs. At that crucial moment, Nikolai II demanded that the allies save the Serbs by picking them up from the Albanian coast. He warned that, otherwise, Russia would withdraw from the war. Dozens of Italian, French, and British ships then had to evacuate the Serbian refugees. The Serbian army was saved, too. Serbia always gratefully remembers that humane act by the Russian Emperor. Later, in 1930, the Serbs asked the Synod of their Orthodox Church to bring up the question of canonising the Russian Emperor Nikolai II… the Serbs revered him as a Saint long before Nikolai II was canonised. Many enigmatic events are said to be connected with him.
An old Serbian woman was weeping for her sons, whom she thought were killed in battle. Two of them were dead and one was reported missing. After ardent prayer for her missing son, she fell asleep, and she had a dream of the Russian Emperor. Nikolai II told her, “Your son is alive. He is in Russia, where he is fighting together with his brothers, martyrs for the Slavic cause. You will not die before you see your boy”. Shortly after that dream, the old woman got word that her son was alive. Several months later, she embraced him at home, safe and sound.
In another case, on 11 August 1927, a Belgrade newspaper carried an article entitled “The Face of Emperor Nikolai II in the Monastery of St Naum on Lake Ochrida”. That article narrated a story told by a Russian painter, Kolesnikov. The painter was invited to the monastery of St Naum to paint fifteen medallions on the walls of the church. When fourteen faces of saints were ready and just one more medallion was left, the painter felt some inexplicable feeling that didn’t let him finish the work. The last medallion remained vacant for a little while. One evening, when the painter came to the church, he saw something unusual. The church was dark. The rays of a setting sun lit the dome. The play of light and shadow was charming.
Everything around seemed unearthly and strange. The painter glanced at the oval that remained vacant. The medallion suddenly came alive and in the frame there appeared a sad and beautiful face, the face of Nikolai II. The painter was struck dumb, not knowing what to think, when he saw the miraculous vision of the Russian Tsar who had died the death of a martyr. He felt a strong religious impulse. He took a ladder and, wasting no time on drawing the silhouette of the Tsar’s face with charcoal, he started applying paint with his brushes at once. He never went to sleep that night. He dozed off for a little while just before dawn. As soon as he woke up, he hurried to the church again. He worked with tremendous inspiration as he had never had before. Time was nothing to him.
Later, he recalled, “I painted the portrait without having a photograph with me. In the past, I chanced to see the late Emperor several times very close, when he visited art exhibitions and I gave my explanations. His image left its imprint on my memory. When I finished the work, I supplied that portrait and icon at the same time with this inscription, “Emperor Nikolai II of all Russia, who took the crown of a martyr for the well-being and happiness of the Slavs”.
Serbian General Ristic, the commander of the military district, visited that church several days later. He stood there for a long while, looking at the portrait of the late Russian Tsar, and there were tears running down his cheeks. Then, he turned to the painter and said that, for the Serbs, Nikolai II was and would be the greatest and most revered of all Russian saints. A Serbian legend has it that every night on the eve of the anniversary of the killing of the Russian royal family, the last Russian Emperor comes to that cathedral in Belgrade. He comes there to pray in front of the icon of Saint Savva for the Serbian people. After that, he is said to go on foot to the headquarters of the Serbian army to see if everything is in order there.
When he was still a small boy, Nikolai liked the icons of the Mother of God very much. Later, he would admit that he always envied his brother George, because he had such a handsome patron-saint, the killer of the dragon. Those who chanced to meet the Tsar in person were amazed by the love he had for all of God’s creatures and his considerate attitude to each person and his great love for his country and its people. An ambitious plan for Russian industrialisation was brought to the Tsar for signature one day in 1908. The Emperor studied the scheme and said, “Peter the Great had little money and used forced labour. That cost the lives of one million of his subjects. Our plans would cost 10 million to 15 million premature deaths to my people. I am in my right mind, and I cannot make this sacrifice. Therefore, we have to be patient and count on God”. In contrast to Nikolai II, the post-revolutionary rulers carried out the industrialisation of the country without feeling the slightest remorse at the thought that it cost dozens of millions of lives of Russian and non-Russian people.
Quite a few stories can be told of how kind and merciful the Russian Emperor was. Here are some of them. One day, Nikolai II inspected a military hospital and saw an armed guard by the bed-side of a soldier, a deserter who had inflicted a wound on himself. After recovery, he was going to be put on trial and face a severe punishment. Nikolai II, in whose power it was to pardon and to punish, said then, “Tell those in charge of this man that I forgive him. He has got one bullet already, which has punished him all right”. Upon recovery, the deserter was pardoned.
The Tsar loved the army very deeply and the army responded with love. After his abdication (the Tsar thought he declared it for the sake of Russia), the Emperor saw the army’s collapse and he had no peace. He addressed the Provisional Government in these words, “I am asking you, do take care of the Russian soldiers. I cannot sleep at the thought that the army is starving”. However, this plea fell on deaf ears. Indeed, he was not so much a Tsar, but a considerate caretaker of all his subjects.
Before the revolution, the chief of the gendarmes told the Tsar there would be no revolution in Russia for a hundred years if only he permitted him to execute 50,000 people. The Emperor rejected the request with horror and indignation. In the 22 years Nikolai II was on the throne, a little more than 4,000 death sentences were passed for those kinds of offences that are punishable by death in any other country of the world. Whenever the Tsar spoke of his enemies, nobody could notice even a hint of irritation. Most people were surprised. When anyone asked him why it was so, the Tsar would reply, “I toned down the string of personal irritation a while ago. Anger won’t help. Besides, an angry word spoken by me would sound far stronger than if it were uttered by anybody else”.
After his abdication, Nikolai II and his family started their way to Calvary. God himself helped them carry their cross by uniting all members of the royal family with love. The confessor of the Royal family, Archpriest Vladimir Khlynov, who conducted services for the Tsar and his family in exile, recalled that the Tsar once said to him, “I cannot forgive myself for giving power away. I never thought that it would end up in the hands of the Bolsheviks. I thought I was handing power over to the representatives of the people”.
In the house where they were held hostage in Yekaterinburg, the royal martyrs happened to have their last church service. It was conducted by Fr Ioann Storozhev, who would later recall, “It seemed to me that both Nikolai Aleksandrovich and his daughters were tired, if not depressed. At a certain point, I was supposed to recite the prayer. For some reason, the deacon started singing the prayer instead of reciting it. I started singing, too. As soon as we began, I heard the Romanov family standing right behind me go down on their knees. Despite themselves, they were getting ready to die and they served a funeral service for themselves. God permitted that”.
There was so much light in the humble soul of the Tsar when he said before his death, “I order no revenge should be sought for me. Oh Lord, forgive all those persecuting us”. A horrible, cruel, demonic murder was committed in the basement of that house. God sent the parents the happiness not to hear the moans of the teenage prince and the cries of Grand Princess Anastasia. Those two were the youngest in the family and the first bullets failed to bring death to them. They were killed with bayonets. The most innocent and sacred ones took the greatest suffering.
Let us remember the names of those killed: Emperor Nikolai II, age 50, Tsaritsa Alexandra, age 46, Grand Princesses Olga, age 23, Tatiana, age 21, Maria, age 19, Anastasia, age 17 and Tsarevich Alexei, age 14.
“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”, our Lord said. The new martyrs of the royal family sacrificed their lives to God for the sake of their country. They were certain that their country, given to them by God cannot perish.
16 July 2008
Fr Artyom Vladimirov
Moscow Theological Academy
The Christian Message from Moscow
Voice of Russia World Service
There is an interesting sidelight for us as Orthodox in America in all this. You can tell how “Orthodox” someone is by their attitude to the Royal Martyrs. If one finds concord on this issue, somehow, even the strongest disagreement on other things does not seem to matter. However, if one discovers that one’s interlocutor minimises them, it doesn’t seem to matter how much you agree in other areas. I say, it is a litmus test. It is why one can say with confidence that many recent converts truly lack the lived faith.
Of course, one takes into account that many were taught poorly. For instance, Schmemann came of the Paris gang that pressured the Tsar into abdication and formed the Masonic Provisional Government. Why didn’t his students know this, and be on their guard in consequence? It is a little-known fact, but, most of the so-called “Russians” in this country (and Canada) are actually Carpatho-Russians, Lemkos, and Galicians. These people came from impoverished regions of the Hapsburg Empire, so, they had no first-hand knowledge of life in imperial Russia. It is an interesting question to me what would have happened in the American diaspora if Schmemann, the hard-core Galician nationalists, and the second-wave Russians had stayed in Europe (Fascinating! Alas! A topic for another paper, I fear!).
Secondly, Anglo-Saxon converts were pandered to by the likes of Schmemann because as they were ignorant of Russian lived history, A.S. could lie outrageously and get away with it (which is precisely what happened). Schmemann hated the miraculous, taught that St Basil the Blessed (and other Holy Ones) were clinically insane, brought Western textual criticism into the classroom, disparaged the Received Text, and, above all, hated autocracy and the man who embodied it, St Nikolai II. He was a charismatic and intelligent man, as most leaders of heretical movements are. Indeed, he was charming, witty, and quite pleasant to be with. Unfortunately, he was a raving secularist unbeliever underneath it all, worse than any communist. I should mention that his whole family repudiated his ideas, especially his identical twin brother Andrei.
So, we see that St Nikolai II is a litmus test of the highest accuracy. Schmemann disparaged the holy royal martyr, as did his students, so, the fact that much of their thought was Renovationist, not Orthodox, is not surprising. Wherever you find veneration for the royal martyrs, there is hope. That is why I believe that many of the rank-and-file who left the ROCOR after May 2007 are going to return. The prayers of St Nikolai II are going to lead them home. His intercessions are going to lead most in the OCA home to the MP, just as the funds he freely disbursed from his privy purse established most of the early Russian Orthodox parishes in the “lower 48”. The ethnic people shall remember his benefactions. As for the Anglo-Saxons… those who honour the royal martyrs shall go home with us and be “blood of our blood, bone of our bone, soul of our soul”. Those who do not, who worship Schmemann, “democracy”, and “autocephaly”, shall end outside of us, whether in the AOCANA or in a “rump OCA” is anyone’s guess.
Pray to the Royal Martyrs for the good estate of the Church that they established here in America. It is only common gratitude. “Honour thy father and thy mother, so that your days shall be long upon the earth”. The OCA does not honour its real earthly father, the monarch that made the very Metropolia possible, so, the fact that it is not long for this earth is not surprising.
We must go home. St Nikolai II is waiting for us, as are all the host of the Russian Martyrs of the Bolshevik Persecution. You can have the saints, or you can have Schmemann. I choose the former… what about you?