The Centenary of the Russian Exodus and the Memory of the New Martyrs of Russia

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The martyrdom and suffering of the victims of the Russian Revolution testify to the imperishable value of every human being to God

Revd Dr Augustine Sokolovski

The centenary of the Russian Exodus is an important occasion for commemoration of the numerous victims of the religious persecutions in Russia. The Church calls them the new martyrs.

Those who stayed in Russia after the Revolution and suffered for their Christian faith were remembered and commemorated by those who had left Russia. The Russian Church in the Soviet Union, however, was unable to remember or even acknowledge their existence because it was under enormous pressure from the Soviet State. Many Christians were indeed persecuted and murdered by the Bolsheviks. The Anniversary Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000 canonized more than 800 saints, including the last Russian Emperor Nicholas the Second and his family. The appropriate icon depicts the assembly of the new martyrs of Russia with the tzar and his family in the middle. Nicholas Romanov resembled the biblical Job: “blameless and upright, one who feared God and (after his long and profound suffering) turned away from evil”. The memory of St Job on 19 May is the birthday of Tzar Nicholas the Second.

An ikon of the Romanov martyrs

There are some remarkable and fascinating parallels between saints. Saints Boris and Gleb, unjustly murdered by their brother Sviatopolk the Accursed in 1015, became the first saints of the Russian State with the capital in Kiev. Their brother Yaroslav the Wise (died in 1054) was the one who started and promoted their veneration soon after their death. According to an ancient axiom attributed to Tertullian, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church”; the Church is founded by their blood. This why the Divine Liturgy used to be celebrated on the tombs of the holy martyrs.

The murder of the last Russian Emperor, who was brutally killed along with his wife and children, became the cruelest symbol of the Russian Revolution of 1917. It chills the blood of Russians up to now and encourages us to remember his remarkable, courageous, and consistent dignity up to his last breath. He suffered, like the protagonist of Kafka’s The Trial, both defamation and deprivation of all human dignity in a cruel execution and death.

For several generations of Soviet people Tzar Nicholas the Second was a symbol of arbitrary power, cruelty, and weakness. The great achievement of the Russian Exodus was the preservation of his good name abroad. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia canonized him as a saint back in 1981. This “local” canonization was prophetic. It signified the forthcoming restoration of the memory of the new martyrs as well as the dignity of the Russian pre-revolutionary history.

Those who stayed in Russia and suffered for their faith and loyalty to the Church and the people included not merely upper-class princes and hierarchs but also lower-class simple, small, “invisible” women and men. We should remember all of them, all those whom no one would ever remember. It was, indeed, their suffering that made the Russian Exodus possible a century ago.

St John Kochurov is considered to be the first martyr of the Russian Orthodox Church during the Revolution of 1917. St John was a priest in Tsarskoye Selo, a former residence of the royal family. On 31 October 1917, a few days after the Revolution, the Bolsheviks stormed the neighborhoods of Petrograd (former Saint Petersburg). Father John tried to calm down his parishioners and his fellow citizens who had fled the city in panic and fear with the words: “They are our brothers, coming to visit us! Please do not be afraid of our brothers!” At that moment nobody seemed to remember the tragic biblical truth that Abel had a brother … named Cain. Those words of St John Kochurov proved to be truly biblical. The disaster that befell Russia then was of biblical nature and magnitude. Cain killed his righteous brother Abel. It was the brothers who betrayed Joseph and sold him into slavery. It was the brothers of Jesus who did not believe the gospel of the Lord. It was the brothers who killed Him on the Cross.

Saints Boris and Gleb

St Stephen was the first martyr who suffered for his faith in Jesus Christ in AD 34 (Acts 6-8). He is therefore called the Protomartyr. According to an ancient Church tradition the martyrs of noble origin were called the Great Martyrs. It is tempting to call the last Russian Tzar a Great Martyr and Fr John Kochurov, a Protomartyr of the revolutionary Russia. But neither Nicholas’ executioners nor the angry mob which killed Fr John were interested in their faith. They did not demand from them to renounce Christ. By killing, they simply sought to close the page of the “ancient regime” as soon as possible and to spread irreconcilable discord among the brothers in the so-called Russia of the past. Thus, they actually triggered the tragic Russian Exodus.

The Church of Christ has always suffered from the strife of the brothers. The words: “These are our brothers!” underline the history of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian State in the 20th century. This history is lived through these words. These words were meant to calm the people back in 1917 but they gradually became an expression of confusion, followed by a cry of fear and horror at the incredible betrayal and cruelty among brothers. This expression became a silent cry, the same as in The Scream by Edward Munch; it became a question of why the brothers behaved like that in their celebration of the Untruth.

The martyrdom of all those who perished in the tragic events of 1917 and the following years, those whom the Church calls the new martyrs, should by no means be simplified, or demeaned by many words, or shrunk into oblivion.

The Christian testimony of the “Passion Bearers” – as the Russian Orthodoxy calls the ancient Boris and Gleb and the new, “photographically documented” Nicholas the Second and John Kochurov – reveals the extreme fragility, fallibility and general similarity of seemingly unsuccessful human biographies. But it also reveals the truth: “The shame of it should outlive them”, as Franz Kafka put it at the end of The Trial. The shame of it should, indeed, outlive the executioners, not their victims. In this sense all the victims who brought about the Russian Exodus of the 20th century became the testimony to the imperishable value of every woman and man to God.

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