Profound examples of holiness: the Royal Martyrs in their own words and through the words of those who knew them

In 1905, twelve years before Emperor Nicholas II’s abdication and three years from his own repose, St John of Kronstast, who had served as confessor to Nicholas II’s father Emperor Alexander III (r. 1881-94, d. 1894), spoke these prophetic words:

“We have a Tsar of righteous and pious life. God has sent a heavy cross of sufferings to him as to His chosen one and beloved child, as the seer of the destinies of God said: ‘Whom I love, those I reproach and punish’ (Rev. 3.19). If there is no repentance in the Russian people, the end of the world is near. God will remove from it the pious Tsar and send a whip in the person of impure, cruel, self-called rulers, who will drench the whole land in blood and tears.”

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Nicholas himself made a similar observation about his fate when speaking to his Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin. In his diary, Stolypin noted with some degree of incredulity that Nicholas spoke these words without any hint of alarm or distress. This must have taken place sometime before the latter’s 1911 assassination at the Kiev Opera House in the presence of the Emperor and his eldest daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana. Immediately after the assassin, Dmitri Bogrov, shot him twice, causing panic to erupt among those around him, Stolypin calmly rose from his chair, removed his gloves and unbuttoned his jacket, exposing a blood-soaked waistcoat. He sank into his chair and loudly exclaimed “I am happy to die for the Tsar” before motioning to Nicholas in his imperial box to withdraw to safety. Nicholas remained in his position, and in one final gesture Stolypin bowed to his sovereign, blessing him with a sign of the cross and saying “May God save him!”. Bogrov then attempted to stab Stolypin, but tripped and was subsequently caught and hanged.

“I have a premonition. I have the certainty that I am destined for terrible trials, but I will not receive a reward for them in this world… Perhaps there must be a victim in expiation in order to save Russia. I will be this victim. May God’s will be done!”

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Nicholas II smiling in a signed photo taken in 1898, his fourth year on the throne.

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A signed portrait of the Empress from 1899, five years into her reign with Nicholas II.

According to Anna A. Vyrubova, the Empress’ closest confidante, best friend and lady-in-waiting, in Her Majesty’s Lady-in-Waiting, p. 171 (reprinted in Orthodox Word, St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, Platina, Ca.,  Vol. 34, No.5 (202) Sept-Oct, 1998,p. 215), a Russian holy woman by the name of Maria blessed the Empress in December 1916 when she visited her cell and foretold her eventual martyrdom:

“In December of 1916, Her Majesty traveled from an emotional rest to Novgorod for a day, with two Grand Duchesses and a small suite.  She visited field hospitals and monasteries and attended the Liturgy at the St. Sophia Cathedral. Before her departure the Tsaritsa visited the Yurievsky and Desyatina Monasteries.”

“In the latter she visited Eldress Maria Mikhailovna in her tiny cell, where the aged woman had lain for many years in heavy chains (this was self inflicted – Editor’s notes) on an iron bed.  When the Tsaritsa entered, the Eldress held her withered hand out to her and said, ‘Here comes the martyr, Tsaritsa Alexandra!’  She embraced her and blessed her.  In a few days the Eldress reposed.”

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In 1917, the venerable St. Metropolitan Makary (Макарий) Nevsky of Moscow beheld the Savior speaking to the Tsar in a vision:

“You see,” said the Lord, “two cups in my hands: one is bitter for your people, and the other is sweet for you.” In the vision the Tsar begged for the bitter cup. The Savior then took a large glowing coal from the cup and put it in the Tsar’s hands. The Tsar’s whole body then began to grow light, until he was shining like a radiant spirit. Then the vision changed to a field of flowers, in the middle of which Nicholas was distributing manna to a multitude of people. A voice spoke: “The Tsar has taken the guilt of the Russian people upon himself and the Russian people are forgiven.”

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As the First World War dragged on with mounting casualties and no conclusive end, causing a decline in morale and furthering discontent among those disposed toward revolutionary sentiment in the armed forces and urban factories, the Empress and her older daughters continued to serve actively as hospital nurses. Numerous historical accounts of the Empress’ life during the war years, especially the memoirs of the women who perhaps knew her best, her dear confidantes the Countess Anna A. Vryubova and Baroness Sophie von Buxhoeveden, recall her dedicated service in the blood and disease-filled hospitals of wartime Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Despite that Nicholas and Alexandra disliked her cousin, the blustering Kaiser Wilhelm II, and had decidedly English cultural sensibilities (Nicholas II and Britain’s King George V were first cousins, as their Danish mothers were sisters, while the Empress Alexandra and her older sister Ella, the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, had grown up at the court of their grandmother Queen Victoria), as the war dragged on, communist and anarchist groups working to subvert the monarchy and undermine the war effort at the same time began to circulate pamphlets and scrawl graffiti attacking the Empress as a German “imposter”, “traitor”, “spy”, and worse. According to this superb Pravmir article from May 2006 on “Tsar Nicholas and His Family”,

As soon as the war broke out, the Empress and the four Grand Duchesses (Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia) became nurses; and hospitals were opened at Tsarskoye Selo, near the family’s residence, where wounded soldiers were brought. They worked long hours, diligently and tirelessly following the commandment of Christ to visit the sick, since “inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me” (Matthew 25.30).

Anna A. Vyrubova, the Empress’ closest friend, wrote: “I have personally seen the Empress of Russia in the operating room, assisting in the most difficult operations, taking from the hands of the busy surgeon amputated legs and arms, removing bloody and even vermin-ridden field dressings.” Vyrubova says that she was a “born nurse”, who “from her earliest accession took an interest in hospitals, in nursing, quite foreign to native Russian ideas. She not only visited the sick herself, in hospitals, in homes, but she enormously increased the efficiency of the hospital system in Russia. Out of her own private funds the Empress founded and supported two excellent schools for training nurses, especially in the care of children.”

Unsurprisingly, this is the same Empress who wrote in her diary at some point during that fateful year of 1917, “In order to climb the great heavenly staircase of love, we must ourselves become a stone, a stair which others will climb.”

In this deeply moving poem to Empress Alexandra, “To My Beloved Mama”, which she composed at Tsarskoye Selo on April 23, 1917, just over a month following her father’s abdication, the 22-year old Grand Duchess Olga wrote:

“You are filled with anguish.

For the suffering of others.

And no one’s grief

Has ever passed you by.

You are relentless

Only toward yourself,

Forever cold and pitiless.

But if only you could look upon

Your own sadness from a distance,

Just once with a loving soul-

Oh, how you would pity yourself.

How sadly you would weep.”

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The Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna as a young girl.

These are the qualities of a saint, ones which the young Princess discerned in her own mother. Grand Duchess Olga, clearly a beautifully gifted writer possessed of praiseworthy talent as a poet, evidently perceived the devastating combined impact that her father’s abdication and the Tsarevich Alexei’s incurable hemophilia continuously wrought on her mother’s emotional, physical and spiritual health.

As the following letter from the Princess indicated, Grand Duchess Olga, as the oldest of the children in the Imperial Family, consciously served as a kind of envoy for her beleaguered parents to the outside world beyond their prison walls:

“Father asks the following message to be given to all those who have remained faithful to him, and to those on whom they may have an influence, that they should not take revenge for him, since he has forgiven everyone and prays for everyone, that they should not take revenge for themselves, and should remember that the evil which is now in the world shall grow even stronger, but that it is not evil that will conquer evil, but only love. . .”
~ Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna, writing from Tobolsk in the Urals during the Royal family’s exile there in summer 1917, about a year before their brutal execution.

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Emperor Nicholas II sawing wood with Alexei during the Imperial Family’s winter at Tobolsk.

The change in the Grand Duchess’ tone is remarkable: from an already highly perceptive young woman, it is evident that the several harrying months spent under house arrest confined to a few small rooms at the old Governor’s House in Tobolsk had caused the close-knit Imperial Family to keep a more eternal perspective. We read of a young woman both clearly aware that her words would eventually be read by many people who heartily supported the Romanov monarchy and the cause of their liberation from the Bolsheviks, and acutely aware that her father abhorred the continued bloodshed of the civil war between Whites and Reds.

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Nicholas’ exhortation for his supporters to refrain from further bloodshed in the cause of his liberation is at first glance surprising (though not when we take into consideration the Emperor’s profound concern for his people, whom he loved as much as he did his own children), and indeed, extraordinary, all the more so given the successes so many White army forces were having against the Bolsheviks at the time the Grand Duchess wrote this letter. One can only infer that the Imperial Family were permitted to receive little to no news of ongoing political developments outside the walls of their prison. Nonetheless, for the former Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias to write that “he has forgiven everyone and prays for everyone, that they should not take revenge for themselves”, one comes away with a clear sense that the Imperial Family anticipated their eventual martyrdom.

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The Imperial Family depicted in traditional Russian costume as New-Martyrs and Saints of the Orthodox Church.

Reading the following poem, another one beautifully composed by the Grand Duchess Olga, its meaning is unmistakable: by the time that she wrote these words, it is certain that the Imperial Family expected to be martyred. The Princess’ poem here is both hymn and dirge, a psalm of praise and one of sorrow and fear, but above all, a canticle of deep faith and a discernment of God’s will in all things. True of saints’ writings, we see that the centrality of the Princess’ poem is not her dwelling on her own anguish or horror at the thought of a potentially agonizing death, or lamentation at the thought of her earthly life cut short so abruptly, but a profound trust in God’s providence that His purpose guides all things and that, ultimately, He would work good out of evil.

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I do not know how many months or weeks before her death the Grand Duchess wrote this haunting poem, but I come away thinking that it is truly astonishing – and almost unheard of today- for a young woman my age to be so accepting of a possibly imminent death or any manner of torture. So long as the Imperial Family, with God’s aid, continued to endure and persevere in faith, withstanding all evil and, above all, forgiving “our neighbors’ persecution”, the Grand Duchess prays, above all, to receive strength to “pass the last dread gate” into eternal life.

Grant us Thy patience, Lord,

In these our woeful days,

The mob’s wrath to endure,

The torturer’s ire;

Thy unction to forgive

Our neighbors’ persecution

And mild, like Thee, to bear

A bloodstained Cross.

And when the mob prevails

And foes come to despoil us,

To suffer humbly shame,

O Savior aid us!

And when the hour comes

To pass the last dread gate,

Breathe strength in us to pray,

Father forgive them!

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Here is a beautiful quote from Saint John the Wonderworker (1896-1966) on the Emperor, which the younger saint said in July 1963, the 45th anniversary of the martyrdoms:

“Why was Tsar Nicholas II persecuted, slandered and killed? Because he was Tsar, Tsar by the Grace of God. He was the bearer and incarnation of the Orthodox world view that the Tsar is the servant of God, the Anointed of God, and that to Him he must give an account for the people entrusted to him by destiny, for all his deeds and actions, not only those done personally, but also as Tsar. . . Thus did the Orthodox Russian people believe, thus has the Orthodox Church taught, and this did Tsar Nicholas acknowledge and sense. He was thoroughly penetrated by this awareness; he viewed his bearing of the Imperial crown as a service to God. He kept this in mind during all his important decisions, during all the responsible questions that arose. This is why he was so firm and unwavering in those questions about which he was convinced that such was the will of God; he stood firmly for that which seemed to him necessary for the good of the realm of which he was head.”

 Holy Royal Martyrs, pray to God for us that He may save our souls!

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