My speech at the 45th annual Congress of Russian Americans’ Forum in San Francisco

It was a great joy and honour for me to attend and speak at this wonderful Saturday, September 8th event at San Francisco’s historic Russian Center mansion. The Russian Center’s staff and volunteers beautifully executed all the details, both the Forum itself and the Banquet afterwards. It was a beautiful gathering of many interesting, passionate citizen diplomats, educators, businessmen and women, nobles, volunteers, and San Francisco lay Russian community leaders  and Church dignitaries!

My speech was well-received, and I was deeply moved by how many people from the audience asked thoughtful questions at the end, and then came up and congratulated me afterwards and asked for copies of the speech. My address—on the centenary of the martyrdom of the Russian Imperial Family—was only a very small contribution to a wide-ranging event, whose organizers prepared a detailed, comprehensive program in the historic Russian Center mansion. Every speaker was engaging, eloquent, and deeply committed to improving Russian-American cultural and interpersonal relations through interpersonal, Tier II civic diplomacy. It was a pleasure for me to be among the speakers at such a beautiful event.

Listening to all the speakers and interacting with so many of the different attendees, I was deeply inspired by the diligent witness and efforts of so many generations of Russian-American patriots who love this country, and also wish to preserve and pass on their cultural heritage and traditions to their children and grandchildren. The work of the CRA leaders, and their associated friends, sponsors, patrons, educators, and Church and business supporters, is vital to this process.

On Friday, before the Forum on Saturday, I was blessed to visit the house and orphanage founded by San Francisco’s great Orthodox saint, Archbishop John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco (+2 July 1966). Here, his successor, the present Russian Orthodox Archbishop Kyrill of San Francisco, unveiled and dedicated a lovely statue to the saint, which, like me, had traversed the country from New York to San Francisco, but had, before that, arrived all the way from Russia.

Standing with Vladyka John of Shanghai and San Francisco

Standing ‘with’ Vladyka Ioann, St John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco (+2 July 1966). This new statue of the holy hierarch was dedicated at St Tikhon’s Church this past Friday by H.E. Archbishop Kyrill of San Francisco, the present successor of St John over the ROCOR Western American Diocese. St Tikhon’s is the site of Vladyka Ioann’s cell, school, and orphanage. He rescued hundreds of Chinese war orphans whose parents were executed by the Japanese Imperial Army forces or, later on, the Maoist Red Army Communist forces.

After the dedication of the statue, we then enjoyed a lovely festive meal and great conversation. Afterwards, I explored the beautiful City by the Bay with a new friend, and, under the stars, put my feet in the Pacific for the first time.

After the delicious and entertaining Banquet on Saturday night, complete with traditional Russian songs and dance, I explored the city some more with new friends.

On Sunday morning, I met my gracious hosts, and we attended the historic Holy Virgin Cathedral—Joy of all Who Sorrow, where St John of San Francisco is entombed. I then drove with some dear new friends up through majestic Sonoma County, past vineyards, the Russian River, Bodega Bay, and the river estuary to the historic Fort Ross. This two centuries-old Russian fort and fur-trading settlement lays along California’s magnificent north Pacific coast surrounded by the Redwood forests and nearby wine country.

I could not have asked for a more gracious reception, and I am deeply grateful to those who invited me and graciously arranged my accommodation, especially CRA President Natalie Sabelnik, her wonderful children and volunteers, and Russian Imperial Union Order Los Angeles area director Ivan Podvalov​.

Not just Russians, but all of our ancestors, and all of our future descendants, owe the CRA and Russian Center a great debt, for the difficult work in preserving a society’s language, traditions, and culture in the wake of revolution, trauma, and the changing winds of time is invaluable in transmitting and preserving its history, not only for the peoples of that society, but for the knowledge and enrichment of the entire world. Я очень благодарю вас!

Me speaking at September 8 Congress of Russian Americans 45th annual Forum in San Francisco -- 8 Sept 2018

A friend took this photograph of me delivering my speech at the CRA Forum on Saturday, 8 September 2018 at San Francisco’s Russian Center.

I showed the following photograph of the Imperial Family as the visual background during my speech. The unabridged text of my original speech—which I shortened slightly for time considerations prior to speaking—is below. People may share it in full with my permission, but please accredit the source and link to the post here. Thank you.

Romanovs 1913

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At the Crucible of History: The Centenary of the Romanov Family’s Murder

and the Tragedy’s Implications Today

By Ryan Hunter

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Congress of Russian Americans’ 45th annual Forum and Banquet

San Francisco, California

Introduction:

Your Excellency [Ambassador Anatoly Antonov];

Your Eminence [Archbishop Kyrill];

Dear Nataliya Georgievna;

Esteemed ladies and gentlemen:

It is a great pleasure for me to be here with you today. Not being of Russian heritage myself, I am mindful of the honour that has been shown me in being asked to speak at this forty-fifth annual Congress of Russian Americans Forum. My topic is one quite familiar to most of us, and one which, I expect, is engraved upon all our hearts. Above all else, in terms of my remarks, I would ask you to keep in mind the old adage from George Santayana (1863-1952), the Spanish-American philosopher and man of letters, who observed that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

First, let me begin with a brief note about the photograph: it was taken in 1913, 105 years ago. In 1913, World War I had not yet begun, Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States, and George V the King of Great Britain and Ireland. Pius X was Pope of Rome, while China had only just overthrown its millennia-old monarchy. An Ottoman sultan still reigned from Istanbul, while the Meiji Emperor had died in Tokyo the year before. Most homes in the world used neither electricity nor gas, most people used horse-drawn carts or carriages rather than the just-introduced automobile, and the wealthiest kings and captains of industry were just as vulnerable as the poorest factory workers or paupers to numerous diseases which we now no longer have among us.

I invite you to look closely at this family pictured here, seemingly of a world so far removed from our own, a century apart, and see if you can find a glimpse into their unique personalities. Look at the faces of the two eldest daughters on the photograph’s left and right edges, beautiful in the golden age of their late teenage years. Notice the shy, inquisitive gaze of the oldest one, on the left, and the somewhat bolder smile and direct gaze of the next-oldest, on the right. The youngest daughter, who her parents called the ‘Imp’ for her mischievous antics, stands next to her clearly naturally reserved father. She is linked, arm-in-arm, with her brother, the family’s youngest child and only son. Standing in the back, the mother—who looks much like her own maternal grandmother—places her arm on her husband’s chair; even in this photo, worry etches her face, while to her right, our left, the middle daughter, whose face radiates kindness, looks on with a thoughtful stare.

Given the intimate serenity of this photograph, staged and pre-arranged as it was, it is almost astonishing to think about what happened to this family only five years after they sat for this photograph. This image here— born of a momentary flash of light, which captured forever a transient moment lost to Time in the blink of an eye—is a window into the ephemeral life of this family. It preserves for all time a moment when their father and husband’s dynasty had been on the throne of Russia for three hundred years, and—at the time this photograph was taken—seemed certain to continue in power for generations to come. Yet only a year after the family sat for their photograph, the old world order shattered as all of Europe and her colonies descended into the horrors of mechanised, post-industrial war.

The murders: A world ended in a hail of bullets in a foreboding basement

Just over one hundred years ago, in the pre-dawn hours of 17th July, 1918, the unlawfully imprisoned Imperial Family of Russia—held without any semblance of legitimate political authority, trial conviction, or legal pretext—was murdered by a team of Bolshevik Cheka secret police, along with four of their devoted servants and assistants. This was both a horrific tragedy and a history-changing political murder story.

The murdered family members were seven: The Emperor Nicholas II Romanov (50), his wife, Queen Victoria’s beloved granddaughter, the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna (46), their four daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga (22), Tatiana (21), Maria (19), and Anastasia (17), and their son and heir, the Grand Duke and Tsarevich Alexei Nikolayevich (13).

Murdered with them were their four devoted servants and friends, three men and one woman who have often been sadly forgotten next to their more illustrious co-sufferers. These noble souls who chose to share in the Imperial Family’s exile and imprisonment were: the physician Dr Yevgeny Botkin (53), palace footman Alexei Trupp (62), imperial cook Ivan Kharitonov (47), and maid Anna Demidova (40). All the servants who stayed with the Imperial Family and shared in their martyrdom were Orthodox Russians, save for Trupp, who was a Catholic Latvian. Interestingly, despite Trupp being a Catholic, he was also glorified (canonised) as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) along with the others in 1981.

[Do not read aloud the following two paragraphs mentioning the gruesome details of the murders].

The murders took place in the dimly lit cellar of the Ipatiev House in the isolated town of Yekaterinburg, Ural Siberia. Led by Yakov Yurovsky, the ten killers were all convinced atheistic Bolshevik revolutionaries from Baltic Latvia and Lithuania. From examining the sometimes conflicting later testimonials of the assassins themselves, it is believed that only the Emperor, the Empress, and the two men died from the initial hail of bullets, while tragically, the Tsarevich, his sisters the Grand Duchesses, and the maid Anna Demidova survived the initial blasts. The princesses—wearing diamonds and other gems sewn into their dresses, which had stopped the bullets—were savagely bayoneted and then shot at point-blank range along with their brother and Demidova, who had initially fainted but then, coming to, attracted the attention of her killers. In her last moments, according to the later testimonies of the men who killed her, Demidova attempted to fight back against her murderers.

One of the family’s poor pets, a French bulldog, had begun to bark from the noise; he was also killed by the Bolsheviks, while another dog escaped and was later found and adopted by the anti-Bolshevik White Army soldiers. To their horror, several days after the murders, the anti-revolutionary soldiers found that they had arrived too late in Yekaterinburg. So began, with these gruesome murders, Lenin and Trotsky’s consolidation of power and gradual defeat of the White Army forces. The details of the murders are disturbing to hear, but I believe that we must know these things—even the gruesome reality of the brutality inflicted—in order to fully understand the depths of the inhumane evil that motivated the murderers, both those who gave the order from afar and those who drunkenly carried it out.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the murders is that Lenin and all his lieutenants had—after inventing a revolutionary propaganda machine to spread both slander and distorted half-truths about the Tsar and his policies—somehow convinced themselves that these heinous murders were for the ‘good’ of ‘The People’. To them, no lives were sacred apart from the totalitarian cause of advancing the Soviet Proletariat against its ‘Class Enemies’, and no lives were to be spared in the relentless totalitarian pursuit of realising a classless utopia and cleansing it of all ideological enemies. In this madness, Lenin was consciously following in the ‘intellectual footsteps’ of one of his heroes, the Jacobin demagogue and would-be-dictator Maximilien Robespierre, upon whom rests most of the bloodletting of the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror and the near-genocidal massacres of Catholic royalists and counter-revolutionary traditionalists in the Vendee.

The latest archival research and careful examination of the existent primary sources has shown that the Soviet order to kill all those who were murdered on 17th July, 1918—not only the Emperor, but his wife, children, and their servants—came directly from Lenin and his close lieutenants, Yakov Sverdlov and Filipp Goloshchyokin. Not content with murdering the Imperial Family and their servants, their killers mutilated the victims’ bodies, attempting to destroy them by kerosene and fire before irreverently dumping them nearby at Ganina Yama. Typical of all dictatorial powers before or since, the Bolshevik revolutionaries sincerely believed that they would succeed in concealing the news of their atrocity from the world, but news of the murders began to circulate within days of the crime.

On 18th July, 1918—the very next night after the murder of the Imperial Family and their associates—the Bolsheviks killed the late Empress’ older sister, who was also the late Emperor’s aunt-by-marriage, the widowed Grand Duchess-turned-abbess Elizabeth Fyodorovna. Along with her devoted former maid and fellow nun Varvara Yakovleva and several cadet relatives of the Romanov family, Her Imperial Highness was taken by the Bolsheviks to an old mine shaft at Alapayevsk, clubbed on the head, and thrown alive down the mine shaft. Save for one grand duke, Sergei Mikhailovitch, who had been shot, the other victims survived the fall. They sang Orthodox hymns down in the shaft until they died of Bolshevik grenade blasts, blood loss, and smoke inhalation from burning brushwood that their killers had thrown down upon them.

One of the most beloved women in Moscow who was immensely popular with the faithful for all her social work and loving kindness—in some ways comparable to a kind of Orthodox Mother Teresa figure—the Bolsheviks did not dare to arrest Abbess-Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna in broad daylight. Like her sister, brother-in-law, young nieces and nephew, and millions of other future victims of Soviet repression and mass murder, Grand Duchess Elizabeth was arrested without legal pretense, imprisoned, and ultimately killed under that favourite weapon of tyrants, the shadow of darkness.

Glorified Orthodox saints with an ecumenical and universal appeal: The Imperial Family’s increasing veneration among Orthodox, traditional Christians, and both Christian and non-Christian conservatives and monarchists

Glorified (canonised) as martyrs in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) in 1981, and glorified as passion-bearing saints in the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000, the Imperial Family and their dear servants are widely honoured and venerated throughout the Orthodox world today. They are viewed by many Orthodox worldwide as martyrs (Greek for ‘witnesses’) who were killed in large measure due to their killers’ ideological hatred for all religion, Christianity generally, but Orthodoxy in particular. Many other Orthodox view them as ‘passion-bearers’—those who went to their deaths with Christ-like composure, pious forgiveness, and longsuffering meekness. In the case of the Imperial Martyrs, if we remember the whole of their lives and their final witness, whether we use the term ‘martyrs’ or ‘passion-bearers’ becomes ultimately rather semantic or pedantic. All passion-bearers are by definition living ‘witnesses’ of the Faith in the literal sense, and all martyrs are always ‘passion-bearers’ when approaching their deaths. From the historian’s perspective, it is immensely difficult, if not impossible, to clearly distinguish in examples of Christian martyrs between those killed only for their faith and those who were killed in related political persecutions. This is because, until very recently, religious and political affairs were deeply conjoined and interrelated in most states and societies, and victims of political violence were often targeted for religious reasons, and vice versa.

It is worth noting that the Romanov Imperial Family is widely loved and venerated beyond the canonical bounds of the Orthodox Church by many Christians of other confessions, and even non-Christians, in a manner which can be called a kind of ‘ecumenism of sacrifice’. Many Catholics and high church Protestants today revere the Imperial Family as the first holy sufferers among the Russian people under the Bolshevik yoke. Conservatives, traditionalists, and monarchists of all nationalities and religions often see in the Imperial Family both a beautiful embodiment of the lost ‘Old World’ social and political order, and a praiseworthy example of righteous, pious Christians whose lives and deaths manifested a perfection of traditional Christian virtues.

Legacy of a Regicide unique among ancient and contemporary regicides

It is certainly possible to see historical parallels between the murdered Emperor Nicholas Alexandrovich and Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna with earlier regicides of Christian monarchs, including the Jacobins’ judicial murders of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette of France (January and October 1793), Cromwell’s execution of the Anglican martyr King Charles I of England (January 1649), and that of St.  Charles’ paternal grandmother Mary, Queen of Scots (February 1587), who regarded herself as a Catholic martyr and was widely seen as such after her death at the order of her cousin, Elizabeth I of England. The ‘long nineteenth century’ in Europe saw many regicides in the wake of the revolutionary forces of Liberalism and budding political Marxism. The century opened with the regicide of Emperor Paul of Russia, and approached its end with that of the ‘Tsar-Liberator’ Alexander II (13 March 1881), the martyred Emperor’s grandfather, and Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) of Austria (1898).

Serving as a monarch was, indeed, an immensely dangerous position in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Emperor and Empress would have been intimately aware of this reality, since the Emperor himself had survived a Japanese assassin’s blade while traveling as the Tsarevich in spring 1891, and, as a young boy, he had been present at his dying grandfather Alexander II’s deathbed ten years earlier. The twentieth century began with the regicide of King Umberto I of Italy in 1900, followed closely by the double regicide of King Alexander I of Serbia and his consort Queen Draga in 1903. Prior to the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, King Carlos I of Portugal and his crown prince Luis Felipe were assassinated in 1908, while in 1913 King George I of Greece was assassinated. The First World War itself was famously begun as Serbia and Austria fought in the wake of the fallout of Gavrilo Princip’s June 1914 assassination of the Austrian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo. One can also discern a common ‘passion-bearing’ spirit, if not a full martyrdom, in the Romanovs’ Austrian contemporaries, the forcibly dethroned and exiled Emperor Karl and Empress Zita, both of whom are presently being considered for sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church. Emperor Karl famously longed to end the First World War, much as Emperor Nicholas had done so much to avoid its outbreak.

In these examples of other European regicides, I have no desire to at all diminish the significance of the Imperial Family’s murder—this was the first time that a monarch’s consort and entire immediate family were killed with him—but rather to instead show that they can be taken in association with other historic and contemporary regicides as examples in which these monarchs and consorts were attacked and killed by anti-traditional or radical revolutionary forces within their societies.

Out of divine providence: The murders/martyrdoms as a symbol of Russia’s outlasting of and triumph over Marxist-Leninism

 

In the short term, these brutal murders achieved what Lenin had sought—they eliminated the main focal point for the unity of anti-communist White Army resistance to the Bolshevik Red Army. Within several years, as the Russian Civil War began to wind down under Lenin, Trotsky, and then Stalin’s brutal regime, Britain and the United States recognised the Soviet Union as a legitimate political entity, and established full diplomatic relations with it, with other countries quickly following suit.

Yet today, increasing public veneration of the Imperial Family in Russia and Eastern Europe, and their popularity across Christian confessional lines, represents one of the most visible healings of memory, and a major component of Russia’s ongoing evaluation of its Soviet history in the wake of the 1991 dissolution. For many, the Imperial Family today serve as an inseparable symbol of the ongoing civil society transformations of post-Soviet Russian cultural, political, and religious life. Just as many formerly communist countries have torn down their Soviet-era statues of Lenin and Stalin, statues of Nicholas II and his family and shrines to their memory have risen across Russia, Ukraine, and Serbia, with plans for more to follow. The increasing public veneration of the Imperial New Martyrs in Russian society is thus an integral part of the Russian Orthodox Church’s vision of votserkovleniye, or the “in-Churching” of society, the comprehensive, multifaceted vision of a gradual re-Christianisation of Russian society and culture in the wake of the Soviet system’s collapse.

“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”, Santayana wrote. Today millions of Western schoolchildren rightfully learn about the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, but very few are educated at all about the horrors of the Soviet persecutions, purges, and successive international communist revolutions, in which tens of millions of people have died since 1917 as “enemies of the People”. This was not just in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, North Korea, and Cuba, but all across the world. From Vietnam and Cambodia to Georgia and Armenia, Ethiopia and Angola to Belarus and Latvia, Poland and Czechia to Slovakia and Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria to Serbia and Macedonia, millions of people died under communist firing squads, in gulags, concentration camps, torture chambers, and mental hospitals. Millions more died of deliberate famine-inducing policies and purges of dissenters.

It is undeniable that the Soviet Union was an experiment which could boast of many extraordinary scientific, industrial, and medical achievements, but I believe we should give praise for these successes to the peoples of the Soviet Union, rather than the Soviet government, which—especially under Lenin and Stalin—presided over policies which ultimately claimed the lives of tens of millions of people from 1922 to 1991. People worldwide—especially Westerners, and in particular, my fellow Americans—must study and educate ourselves about Communism’s murderous history or, in their ignorance, they will be more likely to sympathise with its proponents today. While it is fortunate that many American university students are increasingly reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writings on the Soviet regime, the great majority of Americans remain unexposed to and uneducated about the realities of the Soviet system. We cannot afford to ignore the unavoidable historical realities of its brutal legacy of totalitarianism, mass murder, and systematic repression. This murderous legacy began symbolically, in many respects, with the murder of the Imperial Family on 17th July 1918.

The Imperial Family as a symbol today of Russia’s ongoing resurrection, healing, and revitalization in the wake of the Soviet legacy

The ever-increasing, popular veneration of the Imperial Family today is not merely a socio-cultural and political phenomenon. It is also undoubtedly part of something else, a metaphysical reality that transcends the purely earthly political dimension. There is something here which, while working “in” and through time, also stands outside of it: Divine Providence and the healing of historical memory which is only possible through such Providence. After an almost seventy years’ long experiment in atheistic, totalitarian Soviet dictatorship, today’s ongoing spiritual process of a gradual re-Christianisation of Russian society is something which—while often connected to visible political developments—also exists outside of or beyond them. It is here that the historian in me must put on another ‘hat’ or ‘face’, as it were, to observe a supra-political reality that is undeniable to those who perceive it. I must here put on the hat of ‘believer’, ‘amateur theologian’, and ‘Church historian’.

Through the wise actions and policies of so many brave Soviet citizens—Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, Moldovan, Georgian, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Tajik, Turkmen, Uzbek, Kazakh, and Kyrghiz men and women across the world—and, I believe, Divine Providence—the Soviet experiment collapsed in less than seven decades in the same place where it had first been violently launched a century ago. The devastating manner of its collapse—and the often either indifferent or incautious response of international communities and state actors to the enormous economic and political void left in its wake—is something that any sentient person would view with sadness and the greatest empathy.

Every country and people must come to terms with the complexities of its past, and my own nation is no exception. I am certainly among many of my fellow Americans who believe that the United States could and should have done far more to aid the peoples of the former Soviet Union in the destabilising decade of ‘shock privatisation’, economic collapse, and terror by oligarchic mafias after 1991. Despite that many Western and former Soviet economists and humanitarian leaders urged the United States, NATO, and the UN to lend far greater assistance to the peoples of the suffering former Soviet states in the 1990s, there was no Marshall Plan for the peoples of the former Soviet Union. Along with many related foreign policy issues, and moral and ideological shifts both in American and Russian political society, the historical memory of the 1990s is unsurprisingly a source of resentment among many people and governments of the former USSR today.

Yet, both as a believer and an American, I cannot help but marvel at the hand of God working in the gradual re-Christianising Russia of today. This Providential hand does not work in isolation, but acts alongside the extraordinary efforts of all levels of Russian society today to creatively reimagine, reconstruct, and revitalise their national identity and image after the Soviet dissolution. Who could have imagined, a half century ago, that we would be in our present state of affairs? For all the ongoing drama, dysfunction, and distrust fostered by the latest Moscow-Washington political crisis, unproductive consulate closures, mutual allegations of international election interference, and talks of this present ‘New Cold War’, I remain—perhaps due to my youth—a cautious optimist with a view toward the longue durée.

Even if one examines many of the conflicts currently dominating Eastern European and Central Asian politics—whether one is talking about internal Orthodox Church geopolitical conflict between Moscow and Constantinople over Kiev, the deepening Orthodox-Catholic divide over the Ukrainian crisis and the complicated relationship between the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Moscow Patriarchate, or the response of both non-Muslims and Sufi Muslim religious leaders to the rise of fundamentalist Wahhabi and Salafist political Islam in Central Asia and the Middle East—it is undeniable that religion, once pushed to the very bottom and margins of Soviet society, is now a major component of public life, civil society, and political debate in all the former Soviet republics. None of the former Soviet states today maintain atheistic, single party communist dictatorships, and—regardless of the exact state of rule of law, due process, or democracy in any former Soviet states—none of the various political leaders in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) can aspire to anything even remotely approaching the totalitarian level of political control or terror held by Lenin and Stalin.

Think of all the progress that has been made in Russian and American commercial relations, developing business ties, and above all the laudable work of so many citizen diplomacy groups in overcoming negative stereotypes, biased news coverage, and misguided ideological prejudices between ordinary Russians and Americans. Think, also, of those who, even now, sadly seek to bring to Western countries the murderous communist ideology which inflicted untold suffering on tens of millions in Russia, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and indeed worldwide.

We certainly need a new spirit of mutual respect, rapprochement, and détente today, but I believe that it is vital that we hail what progress our two countries have made in the last five decades. Who could have imagined in 1968—shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which both superpowers confronted the very real possibility of imminent nuclear destruction—that an ambassador appointed by Moscow would one day gladly share the stage with a Russian Orthodox archbishop? Who could have imagined that, one day, the Russian president and prime minister would publicly attend Paschal and Nativity services in Russian cathedrals and monasteries, and exchange gifts and greetings with the Patriarch and bishops? These unquestionably positive developments would have been unthinkable only a half century ago, as would the notion of statues of Lenin being replaced across Eastern Europe with ones dedicated to the very family whose execution he ordered. We can see prudent statecraft, political changes, and careful diplomacy behind these shifting realities, but also, surely, the hand of Providence. As my godmother is often wont to say, echoing her dear, late spiritual father, His Grace Bishop Basil Rodzianko (1915-1999), a man who once served in this city: “the Providence of God brings good out of evil.”

Let us marvel at the work of  this Providential hand. A century ago today, the men newly ruling Russia ordered the murder of its previous ruler, its last monarch of a three centuries-old dynasty, and his entire family and household. Today, the people governing Russia overwhelmingly abhor the Marxist-Leninist ideology that inspired these murders, and instead, many of them are among the patrons and pilgrims of the commemorations taking place across Russian cities and towns this year. It is remarkable to me, as a historian, that this past summer, the men and women governing post-Soviet Russia today attended the solemn memorial services officiated by His Holiness Patriarch Kyrill in Yekaterinburg in observance of the centenary anniversary of the murder and martyrdom of the Imperial Family. This is a truly extraordinary development: in only a century, think of all that has changed in Russia and the other former Soviet states that has led us to this moment in history.

Conclusion

As we remember and honour the glorified Imperial Family throughout this centenary year, it is only fitting that we do so in the spirit which, I am sure, they would want us to remember them: prayerfully, charitably, and seeing them not as disunited from their people—whose first sufferings under the Bolshevik revolutionaries they themselves experienced all too intimately—but as co-sufferers with their people. This is the truest, highest, ancient ideal of Christian kingship: the notion that monarchy—far from being some sort of purely authoritarian top-down relationship—is a mystical three-way consecration, in which the monarch is consecrated to God and made responsible before Him for the spiritual welfare of his or her people. Given how seriously the Emperor Nicholas Alexandrovich took this meaning behind the words of his Coronation Oath, it is not impossible that the Tsar-Martyr might have recalled them in his final moments on this earth.

It is only my imagining, but I cannot help but wonder if he recalled—even momentarily—some of the words of his solemn Oath, with which he consecrated himself to serve his people before God:

[…] I acknowledge Thy unsearchable purpose towards me, and bow in thankfulness before Thy Majesty. May my heart be in Thy hand, to accomplish all that is to the profit of the people committed to my charge and to Thy glory, that so in the day of Thy judgment I may give Thee account of my stewardship without blame…

The spiritual fruits of this “unsearchable purpose” can be gleaned in the notion which the Emperor himself referred to several times during his reign: his premonition that he would serve—in his earthly reign and ultimately his death—to symbolically expiate the sins of his people before God. This concept—introduced to the Emperor at an uncertain date, but, according to tradition, communicated to him through a letter which St Seraphim of Sarov had written many decades before and entrusted to his disciples—naturally utterly confounds and baffles secular historians. However, to dismiss it out of hand is to miss a vital aspect of how the Emperor saw himself and his own life, reign, and death. It is this inner, metaphysical, and deeply spiritual dimension to the Emperor, his ultimate podvig, in a sense, which is untranslatable or utterly inconceivable to an entirely secular mind, and yet glimpses of it appear in the late writings we have from the Empress, and from their eldest daughter, in the surviving diary entries of the Grand Duchess Olga Nikolayevna, who famously composed the haunting poem in which she prayed for her family to receive the grace to pray for their persecutors (and ultimately, their killers), “Father, forgive them!”

On that infamous July night a century ago, after an extraordinary, tumultuous reign and a life of tremendous trials and tribulations, Nicholas Alexandrovich Romanov, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias, entered into eternity, suffering—depending on one’s perspective—martyrdom or murder along with his entire family and closest servants. Recalling the cautionary words of St. Olga Nikolayevna written shortly before her death—words passed from her august father that “the evil which is now in the world will become yet more powerful, and it is not evil which conquers evil, but only love”—we see both a magnificent encapsulation of the Christian message, as well as a cause for ultimate spiritual triumph. Bearing her words in mind, we can think of the family’s horrific deaths not with a sense of isolated tragedy, confined only to their suffering, but instead we can think of how they consecrated themselves to their people in an imitation of Christ’s sufferings.

Having been first consecrated together as Emperor and Empress of all the Russias on 26 May 1896, just over twenty-two year later, on 17 July 1918, Nicholas II and Alexandra Fyodorovna, along with their five dear children and four closest servants, were consecrated in a different way, a manner which ultimately mystically fulfilled the Tsar’s coronation oath in a deeply metaphysical sense. Bearing this in mind, it is then possible for us to say—in the same transcendent spirit which animated their last days and final writings— “Christ is Risen!”

While the sheer brutality and tragedy of their deaths would disturb anyone, we can also see the Imperial Martyrs as the first of millions of sufferers in the long Soviet saga of persecution, which, by the grace of God, came to an end in less than seventy years, while still casting its shadow across the world today. Honouring the Imperial Family’s lives and legacy today, we also inseparably honour the tens of millions of victims of communist totalitarianism in the former Soviet Union and, indeed, everywhere. In doing so, let us keep in mind the nuances and examples found in their lives and deaths, and the metaphysical reality of the hope of our Resurrection above all else. May this centenary year be a Providential source of healing of divisions and wounds between friends, families, neighbours, and nations and peoples, especially Russia and the United States, and Russia and Ukraine. May the witness and prayers of the Imperial New Martyrs, and all their co-sufferers, be with us, in every city and country, and may they bring much-needed healing of the traumas of historical memory, the bitterness of ancient conflicts, and resentment of past wrongs. May we strive to build a world worthy of their legacy as they intercede for us all before the Throne of God! Thank you very much—Я очень благодарю вас!

At the Crucible of History: The Centenary of the Romanov Family’s Murder

Romanovs 1913

For today and tomorrow, I am using this photograph as my Facebook cover photo.

Many of you already know who these people are, but for those who do not, let me tell you why I am featuring them, and what they represent to me. Above all else, in terms of my thinking, keep in mind the premise that “those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it…”

First, let me begin with a quick note about the photograph: it was taken in 1913, 105 years ago. In 1913, World War I had not yet begun, Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States, George V King of Great Britain and Ireland. Pius X was Pope of Rome, while China had only just overthrown its millennia-old monarchy. An Ottoman sultan still reigned from Istanbul, while the Meiji Emperor had died in Tokyo the year before. Most homes in the world used neither electricity nor gas, most people used horses or carriages rather than cars, and the wealthiest kings and captains of industry were just as vulnerable as the poorest factory worker or pauper to numerous diseases which we now no longer have among us.

Look at this family pictured here, seemingly of a world so far removed from our own, a century apart, and see if you can find a glimpse into their unique personalities. Look at their faces: the two eldest daughters on the photo’s left and right edges, beautiful in the golden age of their late teens. Notice the shy, inquisitive gaze of the oldest, on the left, and the somewhat bolder smile and direct gaze of the next-oldest, on the right. The youngest daughter, whom her parents called the ‘Imp’ for her mischievous ways, stands next to her clearly naturally reserved father, arm-in-arm with the family’s youngest child, her brother and the only son. Standing in the back, the mother, who looks so much like her own maternal grandmother, places her arm on her husband’s chair; even in this photo, worry etches her face, while to her right, our left, the middle daughter, whose face radiates kindness, looks on with a thoughtful stare.

Who were these people, who was this family? What happened to them only five years after they sat for this photograph, a moment in history when their father and husband’s dynasty had, been on the throne of Russia for three hundred years and seemed certain to continue in power for generations to come?

One hundred years ago, in the pre-dawn hours of July 17, 1918, the unlawfully imprisoned Imperial Family of Russia—held without any semblance of legal authority or pretense—was murdered by a team of Bolshevik Cheka secret police along with four of their devoted servants and assistants. This was both a horrific tragedy and a history-changing political murder.

The murdered family members were: the Emperor Nicholas II Romanov (50), his wife, Queen Victoria’s beloved granddaughter, the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna (46), their four daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga (22), Tatiana (21), Maria (19), and Anastasia (17), and their son, the Grand Duke and Tsarevich Alexei Nikolaevich (13).

Murdered with them were their four devoted servants and friends who chose to share their exile and imprisonment: their physician Dr Eugene Botkin (53), footman Alexei Trupp (62), cook Ivan Kharitonov (47), and maid Anna Demidova (40). All the servants who stayed with the Imperial Family and shared their martyrdom were Orthodox, save for Trupp, who was a Catholic Latvian, but, interestingly, he was also glorified as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) along with the others in 1981.

The murders took place in the dimly lit cellar of the Ipatiev House in the isolated town of Yekaterinburg, Ural Siberia. Led by Yakov Yurovsky, the ten killers were all convinced atheistic Bolshevik revolutionaries from Baltic Latvia and Lithuania.

The Emperor, the Empress, the two oldest Grand Duchesses, and the men died from the initial hail of bullets; the Tsarevich, Grand Duchesses Maria and Anastasia, and Anna Demidova survived the initial blasts. The princesses, wearing diamonds and other gems sewn into their dresses, were savagely bayoneted along with their brother and Demidova, who attempted to fight back. One of the family’s poor dogs, a French bulldog, was also killed, while another escaped and was later found and adopted by the anti-Bolshevik (White) Army soldiers. These details are disturbing to read and to learn, but I believe that we must know these things to understand the depths of the utter evil and the sadism that motivated the murderers, both those who gave the order and those who drunkenly carried it out.

The most disturbing part is that Lenin and all his lieutenants had—after inventing a revolutionary propaganda machine to spread both slander and distorted half-truths about the Tsar and his policies—somehow convinced themselves that these heinous murders were for the ‘good’ of ‘The People’ and the totalitarian cause of advancing the Soviet Proletariat against its ‘Class Enemies’…

The order to kill them all—not only the Emperor, but his wife, children, and their servants—came directly from Lenin and his lieutenants Yakov Sverdlov and Filipp Goloshchyokin. Not content merely with killing the Emperor, Empress, and their children and servants, their killers mutilated the victims’ bodies and then attempted to destroy them by kerosene and fire before irreverently dumping them nearby at Ganina Yama.

The very next day, July 18th, 1918, the Bolsheviks killed the late Empress’ older sister, who was also the late Emperor’s aunt-by-marriage, the widowed Grand Duchess-turned-nun-and-abbess Elizabeth Fyodorovna. Along with her devoted former maid and fellow nun Varvara Yakovleva and several cadet princes of the Romanov family, the Grand Duchess was taken by the Bolsheviks to an old mine shaft at Alapaevsk, clubbed on the head, and thrown alive down the mine shaft. Save for one grand duke, Sergei Mikhailovitch, who had been shot, the others survived the fall and sang hymns down in the shaft until they died of Bolshevik grenade blasts, smoke inhalation from burning brushwood that the Bolsheviks threw down upon them, or blood loss.

One of the most beloved women in Moscow who was immensely popular with the faithful for all her social work and loving kindness—in some ways comparable to a kind of Russian Orthodox Mother Teresa figure—the Bolsheviks didn’t dare arrest Abbess-Grand Duchess Elizabeth in broad daylight. Like her sister, brother-in-law, young nieces and nephew, and millions of other future victims of Soviet repression and mass murder, Grand Duchess Elizabeth was arrested without legal pretense, imprisoned, and ultimately killed under shadow of darkness.

Glorified as martyrs in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) in 1981, and glorified as passion-bearing saints in the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000, the Imperial Family and their dear servants are widely venerated throughout the Orthodox world. Many Catholics and high church Protestants also revere them as well. They are viewed by most Orthodox as martyrs (Gr. ‘witnesses’) who were killed in large measure due to their killers’ utter hatred for all religion, Christianity generally, but Orthodoxy in particularly. Others view them as ‘passion-bearers’—those who went to their deaths with Christ-like composure, forgiveness, and long-suffering.

In the short term, the brutal murders achieved what Lenin had sought—eliminating the main focal point for the unity of anti-communist White Army resistance to the Bolshevik Red Army. Within several years as the Russian Civil War began to wind down under Lenin, Trotsky, and then Stalin’s brutal regime, the United States recognized the USSR as a legitimate political entity and established full diplomatic relations with it, with other countries quickly following suit.

Yet today, increasing public veneration of the Imperial Family in Russia and Eastern Europe represents one of the most visible healings of memory. For many, it is an inseparable part of the ongoing civil society transformations of post-Soviet Russian cultural, political, and religious life. Just as many formerly communist countries have torn down their Soviet-era statues of Lenin and Stalin, statues of Nicholas II and his family and shrines to their memory have risen across Russia, Ukraine, and Serbia, with plans for more to follow.

“Those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it”. Today millions of Western schoolchildren rightfully learn about the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, but very few are educated about the horrors of the Soviet holocausts and various communist purges and revolutions, in which tens of millions of people have died as “enemies of the People”. This was not just in Russia and China, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, North Korea, and Cuba, but all across the world. In Vietnam, Cambodia, Georgia, Armenia, Angola, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Macedonia, and Mongolia, millions of people died under communist firing squads, in gulags, concentration camps, torture chambers, mental hospitals, etc. Millions more died of deliberate famine-inducing policies and purges of dissent. People must learn of communism’s murderous history or, in their ignorance, they will be more likely to sympathize with its proponents today and ignore the historical realities of its massive abuses and murders.

While controversial among some Westerners for how the Russian government has utilized the Romanovs’ murders to foster conservative nationalist and Orthodox political sentiments (it is worth noting here that all governments engage in co-opting national historical events and prominent personalities for ideological purposes), the growing popular veneration of the Imperial Family today is also undoubtedly part of something else, a reality that transcends a purely earthly political dimension. This is something that, while often connected to political considerations, also exists independent of them: the ongoing spiritual process of a gradual re-Christianization of Russian society after the +70 year experiment in atheistic communist Soviet dictatorship. This was an experiment with many scientific and medical achievements, but also one of innumerable totalitarian horrors, persecutions, and genocidal levels of engineered starvation in Kazakhstan and Ukraine, which, along with all the purges, claimed the lives of tens of millions of people from 1918 to 1991.

Through the wise actions and policies of so many brave men and women across the world, and, I believe, Divine Providence, this murderous experiment collapsed in less than eight decades where it had first been violently launched a century ago. A century ago today, the men ruling Russia ordered the murder of its previous ruler, its last monarch of a three centuries-old dynasty, and his entire family and household. Today, the people ruling Russia overwhelmingly abhor the ideology that inspired these murders, and instead many of them are among the patrons and pilgrims of the commemorations going on across Russian cities and towns today. In only a century, think of all that has changed. Think, too, of those who, even now, seek to bring to Western countries the communist policies which led to untold suffering for tens of millions in Russia, Eastern Europe, and indeed worldwide.

In remembering and honoring the Romanovs today and tomorrow—and all the tens of millions of victims of Soviet and communist oppression everywhere—let us keep in mind the historical nuances surrounding their lives and deaths, the examples found in both, and the reality of the hope of our Resurrection above all else. May they intercede for us all before the Throne of God!

A window into Russia’s past: The Imperial Chapel at the Winter Palace

Truly the church is heaven upon earth; for where the throne of God is, where the awful mysteries are celebrated, where the angels serve together with men, ceaselessly glorifying the Almighty, there is truly heaven. And so let us enter into the house of God with the fear of God, with a pure heart, laying aside all vices and every worldly care, and let us stand in it with faith and reverence, with understanding attention, with love and peace in our hearts, so that we may come away renewed, as though made heavenly; so that we may live in the holiness natural to heaven, not binding ourselves by worldly desires and pleasures.
-St John of Kronstadt (1829-1908), spiritual adviser and confessor to Russian Emperors Alexander III and Nicholas II.

The Imperial Chapel at the Winter Palace (Baroque), consecrated for use in 1763 under Empress Catherine II (r. 1762-96). Executed on Empress Elizabeth Petrovna's order (r. 1741-62) by Francesco Rastrelli.

The Imperial Chapel at the Winter Palace (Rococo), consecrated for use in 1763 under Empress Catherine II (r. 1762-96). Executed on Empress Elizabeth Petrovna’s order (r. 1741-62) by Francesco Rastrelli.

The Imperial Chapel or “Grand Church” at the Winter Palace was completed in the Rococo style then immensely popular across Europe. Its Russian name is Cобор Спаса Нерукотворного Образа в Зимнем дворце. It is where Emperor Nicholas II Alexandrovich and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (Alix of Hesse) were married on 14/26 November 1894, on his mother the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Dagmar of Denmark)’s birthday.

Portrait by Laurits Tuxen of the wedding of Tsar Nicholas II and the Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, which took place at the Chapel of the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg, on 14/26 November 1894.

Portrait by Laurits Tuxen of the wedding of Tsar Nicholas II and the Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, which took place at the Chapel of the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg, on 14/26 November 1894.

The chapel was designed by the Italian maestro Francesco Rastrelli, who was personally in charge of the three-tier iconostasis, whose magnificent icons were painted by Ivan Ivanovich Belsky and Ivan Vishnyakov. The Italian Francesco Fontebasso painted the evangelists in the church’s spandrels and the “Resurrection of Christ” plafond in the vestibule.

It was constructed during the reign of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, Peter I’s daughter, from October 1753-June 1763, and dedicated in Empress Catherine II’s presence by Archbishop Gabriel (Gavril) Kremenetsky on 12 July 1763. The church is located on the piano nobile in the eastern wing of the Winter Palace, and is the larger, and principal, of two churches within the Palace. A smaller, more private church for the use of the Imperial Family was constructed in 1768, near the private apartment in the northwest part of the wing.

The gilded pulpit of the chapel from which sermons were delivered and the Gospel read.

The gilded pulpit of the chapel from which sermons were delivered and the Gospel read.

Western-style icon of the Lord's Ascension into heaven on the chapel ceiling.

Western-style icon of the Lord’s Ascension into heaven on the chapel ceiling.

The western wall. As is tradition in all Orthodox churches, the entrance is at the west and the iconostasis and altar to the east.

The western wall. As is tradition in all Orthodox churches, the entrance is at the west and the iconostasis and altar to the east.

As the ‘chapel royal’ of the Russian Imperial Family, the chapel was designated as a nominal cathedral, dedicated to the icon of the Lord ‘Not-Made-by-Hands’ (see here). This eponymous icon, painted by Feodor Ukhtomsky in 1693, lavishly decorated with gold and diamonds, was placed near the sanctuary by Archbishop Gabriel in 1763.

The Cathedral of the Not-Made-by-Hand Image of Our Saviour in the Winter Palace, by Eduard Hau (1866).

The Cathedral of the Not-Made-by-Hand Image of Our Saviour in the Winter Palace, by Eduard Hau (1866). Painted during the reign of Alexander II.

Russian copy, undated, of the Icon of Christ 'Not Made by Hands'.

Russian copy, undated, of the Icon of Christ ‘Not Made by Hands’.

The Imperial Chapel was targeted early on in the Russian Revolution by the atheist Bolsheviks, who ordered it closed for worship in May 1918 just two months after Emperor Nicholas II’s abdication. It is now used as an unconsecrated exhibition hall of the Hermitage Museum. Between 2012 and 2014 a comprehensive restoration project resulted in the recreation of the original design of the Court Cathedral. The icons, the candelabra, the standard lamps and pieces of the iconostasis, the pulpit, the lantern and the altar canopy were returned to their original place.

May divine services one day again be held in this beautiful church!

Photographic montage of St. Emperor Nicholas II

Courtesy of Nigel Fowler Sutton’s superb YouTube channel. Here Mr Sutton presents photographs of the Tsar from infancy to his final days of confinement and ultimate death.

Tsar Nicholas II was the last Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias. Born on 18 May 1868 he came to the throne on 1 November 1894 following the untimely death of his father Tsar Alexander III. He ruled the vast empire of Russia until his abdication on 15 March 1917. Together with his family, he spent the next year in captivity, subject to great deprivation, ridicule, and harassment by his Bolshevik jailers. During the night of the 16/17 July 1918 he was murdered at the Ipatiev House in rural Ekaterinburg with his wife Empress Alexandra, his son the Tsarevich Alexey, his four daughters, the family doctor, his valet, the lady-waiting to the Empress and the family cook.

In 1981 the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) glorified the late Imperial Family as Royal New Martyrs of the Orthodox Church. The new martyrs also include St. Elizabeth Feodorovna Romanova, sister to Empress Alexandra and aunt-by-marriage to Nicholas II. In 2000, with the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Alexey II, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church followed suit, glorifying them as passion-bearers, or those who meet earthly death with Christian dignity and fortitude.

Commemorating St Elizabeth the New Martyr and those murdered with her

I am leaving a glittering world where I had a glittering position, but with all of you I am descending into a greater world – the world of the poor and the suffering.

-Grand Duchess Elizabeth Romanova to her group of nuns in 1909, following her husband’s 1905 assassination when she decided to take the veil.

Princess Elizabeth was born in February 1864 to Grand Duke Louis IV of Hesse and by Rhine, a German principality, and Princess Alice of the United Kingdom. A noble and thoroughly English granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria, Elizabeth was widely praised as the most beautiful princess in Europe, and the beloved older sister of Russia’s last Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (Nicholas II’s consort). In 1884 Princess Elizabeth married Grand Duke Serge (Sergey), fifth son of the assassinated Emperor Alexander II (1818-1881) and brother to the then-reigning Emperor Alexander III (1845-1894). She thus became by marriage the aunt to Nicholas II, her sister’s husband, when Nicholas and Alexandra married in 1894.

The young Elizabeth (known as Ella to her family) and Alix (the future Empress Alexandra) with their grandmother Queen Victoria.

The young Elizabeth (known as Ella to her family) and Alix (the future Empress Alexandra) with their grandmother Queen Victoria.

Shortly after her marriage, Elizabeth voluntarily chose to become Orthodox, horrifying her Lutheran and Anglican Protestant relatives and delighting her brother-in-law Emperor Alexander III. Her beloved grandmother Queen Victoria supported her in her decision. Having no children of their own, Ella and her husband raised the young orphaned children of one of Serge’s relatives as their own.

Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna with her husband Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich, son of Emperor Alexander II Nikolaevich.

Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna with her husband Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich, son of Emperor Alexander II Nikolaevich.

Grand Duke Serge served his nephew Nicholas II as the Governor General of Moscow; in this capacity he was, like his father Alexander II in 1881, literally blown to pieces by a nihilist terrorist in February 1905. In the Kremlin at the time of the murder, Princess Elizabeth rushed outside and somehow summoned the strength to collect parts of her husband’s body which lay strewn about in the snow. She then visited her husband’s killer in prison, imploring him to repent of his crime so that her nephew the Emperor Nicholas II might show him clemency. The killer refused and was subsequently hanged.

Giving up her luxuries and possessions to the poor, the widowed Elizabeth became an Orthodox nun, devoting the rest of her life to serving Russia’s poor and needy, and endowing the Martha and Mary House in Moscow as a women’s shelter and home for the poor. This house and attached convent served all classes of Moscow society, and became a center for charitable noblewomen and wealthy matrons to serve Russia’s poor.

Grand Duchess Elizabeth Feodorovna as a nun

During World War I, along with her sister Empress Alexandra and her nieces the Imperial Princesses, Sister Elizabeth tended tirelessly to wounded soldiers. She was so beloved among all segments of Russian society that, upon coming to power in 1917, the godless Bolsheviks initially did not dare touch her.

Ultimately the Bolsheviks exiled Sister Elizabeth to the Urals, closed down her convent, and on July 18, 1918 — a day after they murdered her sister Empress Alexandra and her entire family — murdered her, her loyal friend and fellow nun Varvara (Barbara) and several royal princes by throwing them alive down a mine shaft in Alapaevsk. The martyrs sang Church hymns as they lay dying in the mine shaft, so the Bolsheviks threw burning brushwood and grenades down the mine shaft.

Elizabeth’s remains along with those who died with her were soon recovered by the anti-communist White Army, and sent first to the Russian expatriate community in China, before ultimately finding rest in the Russian church of St Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, a church she and her husband had endowed in memory of his mother Empress Maria Alexandrovna, Emperor Alexander II’s consort. Grand Duchess Sister Elizabeth was glorified (canonized) as a new martyr by the Russian Church Abroad in 1981 and in Russia itself in 1992. Grand Duchess St. Elizabeth’s saintly reputation is such that the Anglican clergy of Westminster Abbey even erected a statue of this illustrious princess (German-British by birth, Russian by marriage) in July 1998, eighty years after her death, on the west facade of that illustrious church. May the Holy New Martyr Saint Elizabeth, and Saint Barbara murdered with her, pray to God for us all!

Please see below the sources I used for this short article. They are well worth reading in their entirety!

A signed photograph of Grand Duchess Elizabeth from 1894, the year her brother-in-law Emperor Alexander III died and was succeeded by her nephew by marriage, Nicholas II, with his consort Alexandra, her sister.

A signed photograph of Grand Duchess Elizabeth from 1894, the year her brother-in-law Emperor Alexander III died and was succeeded by her nephew by marriage, Nicholas II, with his consort Alexandra, her sister.

Sources:

Christopher Warwick. Ella: Princess, Saint and Martyr. John Wiley & Sons. 2006.

http://www.amazon.com/Ella-Princess-Martyr-Christopher-Warwick/dp/047087063X

“Elizabeth the New Martyr”. Orthodox Wiki.

http://orthodoxwiki.org/Elizabeth_the_New_Martyr#cite_note-6

Father Demetrios Serfes. “Life of the Holy Royal Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth”. Lives of the Saints.

http://www.serfes.org/lives/grandduchess/life.htm

Metropolitan Anastassy. “Life of the Holy New Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth”. Orthodox Christian Information Center.

http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/duchess.aspx

Rita Childe Dorr. “1917 Interview with Grand Duchess Elizabeth”. Alexander Palace. Alexander Palace Time Machine.

http://www.alexanderpalace.org/palace/annainterview.html

Crowned, anointed, and communed as clergy: On the coronations of Russian empresses regnant

It is well-known that in May 1896, at the last coronation of a Russian monarch and his consort, Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna were both crowned and anointed by the Russian Orthodox Church’s senior-ranking metropolitan. Russian tsars had been crowned from time immemorial, but what is fascinating about this last coronation ceremony was that many of the time-honored rituals Nicholas II participated in as the monarch were rituals first observed in 1730 at the coronation of a female sovereign, Empress Anna Ivanovna.

Laurits Tuxen's 1898 Coronation of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna.

Laurits Tuxen’s 1898 Coronation of Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna.

Keeping with imperial precedent dating (according to Brenda Meehan-Waters’ 1975 essay “Catherine the Great and the Problem of Female Rule”) to Elizabeth Petrovna’s 1742 coronation, the sovereign Emperor Nicholas crowned himself, symbolizing that the autocratic power devolved to him directly from God and not from the blessing of the Church. In contrast, Empress Alexandra, as the consort and not the sovereign in her own right, was crowned directly by her husband, who briefly took off his own imperial crown, touching it to her forehead before crowning her with the smaller consort’s imperial crown. This act of the physical crowning of the Russian empress consort by her sovereign spouse closely follows Byzantine custom for the crowning of the Augusta/Βασίλισσα (see Wooley, Maxwell, B.D. Coronation Rites. Cambridge University Press, 1915), and has its first example in Russian history with Peter I’s 1724 coronation of his consort Catherine, who ultimately succeeded him as sovereign (r. 1725-27). Catherine I does not seem to have had a coronation as Empress regnant, but at her coronation as consort in 1724 she received the pomazanie, the anointing with holy chrism, following her crowning by Peter.

Crowning of Empress Maria Alexandrovna by Emperor Alexander II, 1856 - Coronation Book of 1856.

Crowning of Empress Maria Alexandrovna by Emperor Alexander II, 1856 – Coronation Book of 1856.

Nicholas II crowned Alexandra as Empress consort immediately following his own coronation. He took off his Imperial crown and touched it briefly to her forehead, symbolizing her sharing in his sacred duty of ruling Russia, and then proceeded to crown her with the smaller consort's crown.

Nicholas II crowned Alexandra as Empress consort immediately following his own coronation. He took off his Imperial crown and touched it briefly to her forehead, symbolizing her sharing in his sacred duty of ruling Russia, and then proceeded to crown her with the smaller consort’s crown.

To emphasize Nicholas’ role as monarch, in which he fulfilled a quasi-sacerdotal role as intercessor for his people before God, in keeping with his male and female predecessors the Emperor was anointed during the Divine Liturgy at the Royal Doors/Beautiful Gate by Russia’s senior-most Metropolitan. Mirroring the anointing performed at one’s chrismation, the monarch was sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit in the eight holy places — on his forehead, his eyes, his ears, his nose, his mouth, his breast, his hands, and his feet. Reflecting that she was not the sovereign in her own right, but her husband’s help-meet and consort sharing equally in his imperial dignity and the ultimate spiritual responsibility for governing the empire, Empress Alexandra too was anointed by the metropolitan, but only once, upon her forehead. 

The anointing of Nicholas II, May 1896, Uspenskiy Sobor, with Empress Alexandra waiting behind him for her own anointing.

The anointing of Nicholas II, May 1896, Uspenskiy Sobor, with Empress Alexandra waiting behind him for her own anointing.

The key distinction between the monarch and his consort came not even at the anointing, which was performed immediately before the Holy Gifts were administered, but in the reception of communion itself. Emperor Nicholas II, as the monarch — not, as it has been argued, due to his maleness — received the Lord’s Body and Blood directly in the altar itself. He communed directly of the Body and Blood as if he were a priest or a bishop, using his hands to take the bread and the chalice, symbolizing his spiritual equality among Russia’s senior bishops and metropolitans just this once in his life. Thus, for all intents and purposes, during the Divine Liturgy on this one occasion the monarch was regarded by the Church as a mixed person, set apart as part-priest and part-layman. In contrast, the Empress Alexandra, as the imperial consort and therefore not a “mixed person”, but nonetheless exalted over all other lay people, was the first of the laity to receive communion, but she received on the solea as did the laity, and from the chalice via the spoon, with the Body and Blood mixed together in the lay manner.

Announcement of the Coronation of Nicholas II

Announcement of the Coronation of Nicholas II

Brenda Meehan-Waters’ superb essay “Catherine the Great and the Problem of Female Rule” reveals remarkable evidence that, prior to Emperor Paul changing the Russian imperial succession laws in 1797, three of Russia’s four empresses regnant communed of the Body and Blood exactly as reigning emperors did. Meehan-Waters confirms Robert Massie’s unsourced and uncited claim in his Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (2011) that Catherine II would have received communion in the clerical manner in the altar of the Kremlin’s Uspenskiy Sobor, as well as gone into the altar area to be anointed immediately before receiving the sacrament. What neither Meehan-Waters or Massie observe is whether or not empresses regnant were anointed simply on the forehead, as later empresses consort were due to their sex, or, more likely, as reigning sovereigns, they were likely anointed as male monarchs were, on the eight holy spots consecrated with the holy myrrh during chrismation.
 
Meehan-Waters writes that, beginning with Anna Ivanovna in 1730, all Russian empresses regnant took communion in the priestly manner, performing a fundamentally male sacerdotal role — or, rather, showing that the Orthodox Church did not understand the sacerdotal role performed by the monarch at his or her coronation as an intrinsically or necessarily male one. This is extraordinary. Considering that Catherine I’s coronation as consort in 1724 marked the first time in history the Russian Orthodox Church had officially blessed and sanctified any coronation of a woman — we have no evidence that Orthodox Muscovite tsaritsas were ever crowned along with their husbands or in separate ceremonies — it is all the more remarkable that, only six years later, the Church was not only blessing a second woman as Empress regnant of Russia, but was allowing her to take communion as if she were part of the clergy, and to receive the holy anointing in the altar itself.
 
For her evidence of this great claim, Meehan-Waters cites V.I. Zhmakin’s “Koronatsii russkikh imperatorov i imperatrits 1724-1856 gg.”, (“Coronations of Russian emperors and empresses”, chronicling from Catherine I to Nicholas I), which appeared in Russkaia Starina issue 37, 1883, page 500, 517, and 522.
 
The political and theological implications for this are huge. By taking the Body of Christ in their own hands and putting it into their own mouth, and then drinking directly from the chalice containing the Blood, the three Russian empresses regnant who did this — Anna, Elizabeth, and Catherine II — did something that no male emperors before them had done, and no empress consorts after them would ever do. By communing as if they were priests or bishops, these empresses regnant assumed unto themselves a fundamentally male role that, strictly speaking, was utterly without solid Christian theological justification. For all intents and purposes, at Anna, Elizabeth, and Catherine II’s coronations, the Church treated these sovereign women as if they were mixed persons, part God-ordained and God-consecrated lay woman, and, astonishingly, somehow, as part priest. 
Catherine II communing at her Coronation Divine Liturgy, 12 September 1762, Uspenskiy Sobor, Kremlin, Moscow.

Catherine II communing at her Coronation Divine Liturgy, 12 September 1762, Uspenskiy Sobor, Kremlin, Moscow.

This practice of empresses regnant communing as if they were male clergymen is without firm Christian theological foundation, yet Meehan-Waters provides no evidence that any layman or member of the clergy present in the Uspenskiy Sobor objected to, or attempted to correct or stop Empress Anna or her two female successors from doing this. Instead, we have only silence, and thus, we can assume, either quiet approval or at least benign tolerance of this one woman, the female sovereign, communing as if she were a priest. The metropolitans who communed these women did not, strictly speaking, have to do so, but they did, and left no objection to history.
 
Here is the text in question from Meegan-Waters, from page 305-306 (bold emphasis mine):
 
Religious ritual, particularly the coronation ceremony, exalted the image of the autocrat. The Russian imperial coronation rite evolved during the eighteenth century, reflecting so many other aspects of Russian life introduced by Peter the Great. The Petrine imperial coronation ceremony was first performed in 1723 for the crowning of Peter’s second wife Catherine. It differed from the pre-Petrine ceremony, also based on the imperial Byzantine form, in its diminution of the role of the Church and exaltation of the autocrat. Christian coronation ceremonies usually include symbolic reminders of the priestly function of the ruler. Thus the coronation of a woman presents a problem, since she is ineligible for priesthood. However, the coronation of the Empress Anna in 1730 set important precedents in the religious symbols of the ceremony. Empress Anna was the first Russian sovereign to walk up into the holy altar — the altar set aside for the clergy — for her anointing. She was also the first monarch to take holy communion according of the rite of the clergy rather than the laity. In 1742 Empress Elizabeth followed these precedents while starting an important one of her own. She was the first Russian ruler to place the crown and the imperial mantle on herself, without the assistance and symbolic approval of the metropolitan. Catherine the Great followed the same ceremonial order, which became in the nineteenth century the fixed ritual for the Russian coronation rite. Thus the imperial coronation ceremony, which evolved during the eighteenth century and symbolically attested to the increased power of the ruler, had its origins in ceremonies designed to glorify Russia’s female rulers.
Stefano Torelli's 1777 portrait of the coronation of Catherine II, Tretiakov Gallery.

Stefano Torelli’s 1777 portrait of the coronation of Catherine II, Tretiakov Gallery.

Historical overview and preface to the article published first on Pravoslavie.ru on 7 September 2015:

Some thoughts on the Russian monarchy, the implications of the Pauline Succession laws adapted by Emperor Paul I Petrovich Romanov after his 1796 accession upon his mother Empress Catherine II’s death, and the theological, mystagogical, and political significance of the coronation and anointing of Russian tsars and tsaritsas, emperors and empresses:

A brief overview of the eighteenth century imperial succession: from Peter I to Paul I

Emperor Paul’s succession laws in no ways completely legally barred or excluded women from inheriting the Imperial Throne; in practice they simply meant that every Russian monarch beginning with Paul himself was succeeded by his firstborn son, or, if he had no son, his closest male relative (i.e. brother). Prior to his issuing these decrees, Paul’s great-grandfather Peter I had broken with tradition, as he did so often, and declared that the reigning monarch could appoint whoever he or she wished as his or her chosen successor, including bypassing his or her own child/ren. Peter I himself had his own son and heir — the conservative, traditional, anti-Westernising Tsarevich Aleksey (Alexis), his son by his equally conservative and devout first and ex-wife Evdokia Lopoukhina — imprisoned on likely trumped- up treason charges and tortured (apparently only accidentally to death) in St Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Fortress. Ironically, despite changing the succession law from what had been a system of (unofficial) primogeniture to one of ‘whomsoever the monarch chooses’, Peter I himself died in 1725 without publicly naming his eldest surviving daughter or anyone else as his successor. A series of succession crises would characterize Russian Court politics until Catherine II’s death in November 1796.

Rather than his eldest but still young daughter Elizabeth Petrovna succeeding automatically, as would seem natural, leading imperial regiment officers, a coterie of Court notables, nobles, and leading churchmen agreed to give the Throne to Peter I’s Livonian-born widow, a barely literate peasant woman, former Lutheran, and former Army colonel’s mistress Marfa Skavronskaya (Catherine I) as sole monarch. Russia’s first Empress regnant Catherine I died after reigning for only two years, and, again, rather than her and Peter I’s daughter succeeding her as Empress, another Court coterie (dominated this time by conservatives) chose Peter I’s young grandson — son of the murdered, conservative Tsarevich Aleksey — to be monarch as Peter II in 1727. Conservative and devout like his father, and somewhat opposed to his grandfather’s forced Westernisation policies, Peter II moved the imperial court back to the more traditional, staunchly Orthodox ‘old capital’ of Moscow. He died mysteriously after only three years, again leaving no will just like his two predecessors.

After Peter II’s unexpected 1730 death, rather than acclaim as empress his aunt (the dead Tsarevich Aleksey’s half-sister) Elizabeth, Peter I’s daughter, another new Court coterie invited Peter I’s niece, Anna Ivanovna, a Baltic German and the widowed Duchess of Courland, to take the Throne. When the childless Anna died in 1740, she had appointed her infant nephew Ivan VI as her successor, with his mother Grand Duchess Anna Leopoldovna acting as Regent, but in 1741 Elizabeth Petrovna finally rose to the occasion to claim what many saw as her long-awaited rightful inheritance, deposing the boy emperor and his mother in a largely bloodless palace coup. Elizabeth ruled capably (if somewhat indolently) for 21 years, expanding Russian territory westward and southward and smashing Frederick II “the Great” of Prussia’s forces, before dying childless at Christmas 1761, leaving her hated, childish, temperamental, pro-Prussian, unpopular nephew as Emperor Peter III (from Schleswig-Holstein) and his popular, astute, savvy German-born wife Catherine as empress consort.

Less than eight months into his politically disastrous reign – during which time Peter managed astonishingly to alienate almost every powerful elite noble faction, offended the Orthodox Church with his Lutheran sympathies, and outraged Russian army officers and courtiers by returning most newly-conquered land to Prussia – Peter fatally and tactlessly made clear his intention to divorce the popular Catherine and marry his mistress. Catherine followed Elizabeth’s example and raised a small army of her supporters in a well-organised palace coup, ousting her feckless husband, and proclaiming herself as Empress regnant. Given that Catherine was not by blood a Romanov or even remotely Russian, this was a remarkable, unprecedented development for her to dare to do this, and speaks to her effectiveness as both a politician and a coup planner. Rather than acclaiming her young son and Peter III’s heir the Tsarevich and Grand Duke Paul as Emperor and she, Catherine, governing on his behalf merely as his Regent until he attained his majority, she was intent –her coterie of armed supporters just as much as she – on taking the supreme autocratic power for herself.

Paul and Catherine’s relationship

It is well known that Emperor Paul despised his mother Catherine II “the Great” because she kept him isolated, frustrated, and indolent away from her Court, viewed him as a political threat, took numerous male lovers (some of whom were much younger than him!), and treated him coldly. The Grand Duke was particularly outraged that his mother planned before her unexpected death in November 1796 to bypass him in the succession, excluding him in favour of his eldest son, her favourite grandson, the future Emperor Alexander I. In her Memoirs, Catherine also publicly claimed to have conceived Paul in 1754 out of wedlock by her first admitted lover, an imperial regiment officer Sergey Saltikov, openly alleging Paul to be both illegitimate and also, biologically, not a full Romanov. Most historians have argued due to their strong physical and temperamental resemblance that Paul was undoubtedly Peter III’s son by Catherine, despite her insinuations to the contrary. Catherine’s only real possible evidence-based claim to argue for Paul’s illegitimacy was the popularised account that at the time of their marriage, her temperamental, rather bizarre husband – like France’s dauphin, the future King Louis XVI – suffered from possible phimosis, and was thus incapable of a normal sex life until he underwent a medical procedure, most likely partial or full circumcision.

After a remarkably successful reign of 34 years, Catherine died (rather ignobly, of a stroke while on the toilet in her boudoir) before she could actually formally disinherit Paul. It comes as little surprise that one of Paul’s first acts as Emperor, to underscore his own legitimacy as his official father’s actual son (which he strongly believed himself to be) was to order his mother buried right alongside her long-dead, hated husband whom she had overthrown and whose murderers she had never punished 34 years earlier. Thus, Paul had his official parents, who had so despised each other in life, made to lay together eternally in death.

Catherine despised her first-born son because 1) Paul was, by custom and almost all interpretations of established royal and imperial primogeniture inheritance laws, the legitimate heir to his father’s usurped Throne which she unlawfully occupied, 2) he reminded her of his official (and almost certainly biological) father, her late husband and predecessor on the throne, Emperor Peter III, whom she overthrew and deposed and whom her supporters murdered in 1762, and 3) temperamentally Paul was much like his official father Peter, whom Catherine loathed, as both contemporary reports and her Memoirs affirm.

What the Pauline Succession laws meant for imperial women

Paul’s succession changes —promulgated in April 1797 on the day of his and his Empress Maria Feodorovna’s joint coronation in Moscow — did not stipulate that no woman could ever inherit the Russian Throne and become the monarch. Rather, the Pauline Laws sought to establish an orderly and stable rule of succession to the imperial throne in the wake of what had, until then, been a preceding 75 years of intermittent succession crises and palace coups. The new laws established that following normal male-preference primogeniture, all living male dynasts (legitimate male relatives of the monarch) were to inherit the Throne in order of senior kinship relation to the monarch, and, only then, in default of any surviving male dynasts, the monarch’s female heirs (any daughters).

It is crucial to understand that the Pauline succession laws, adopted as the Imperial Succession laws of the House of Romanov, are not a Russian importation of Salic Law (which completely bars female succession) via royal France. Nor did Emperor Paul adopt these laws simply because he hated his mother. Catherine II was a brilliant empress in many ways, who presided over numerous much-needed administrative reforms, re-codified Russian law, endowed the Smolny Institute for girls and numerous other educational institutions and academies, and expanded Russia’s Empire west into Poland and south to the long-awaited Crimean Black Sea coast, with this making possible the dream of the “Greek project”; the eventual liberation of Constantinople from the Ottoman yoke. Yet, it remains indisputable that, hand-in-hand with these titanic accomplishments, Catherine was also a serial adulterer (as was her husband, and as were most male monarchs before and after her), indirectly a husband-killer and a regicide, and, most obviously, a usurper by the most basic definition of usurpation.

Catherine II was all these things, yet she is rightly termed ‘the Great’; yes, she continued culturally Westernising Russian elites, in the process cementing Peter I’s rending of the Francified Russian court and nobility from the more organic, traditional cultures of the Russian narod, but she was far more diligent to the mundane business of ruling the Empire than Elizabeth had been, far less violent in her policies and reform-minded approach to governing than Peter I, and far less eccentric, tyrannical, or despotic in her personal temperament than either Ivan IV, Peter I, or Anna. It is particularly worth noting that despite her personal flaws as an adulterer and deposer of her husband, rather than oppose her, the heart and centre of Russian history and cultural identity, the Orthodox Church, chose to crown and anoint her as empress regnant in her own right rather than accept her only as Regent for her son Paul, the lawful heir to the murdered Emperor Peter III. The Church’s active participation in the sacralisation and, therefore, political legitimisation, of a woman who was by the most basic definition of the term a usurper stands out here as a remarkable moment of tacit approval for actions which, on their face, seem to violate both established Church norms of personal conduct as well as monarchical principles of theoretically orderly succession. Yet, once the Church’s metropolitan had given her the crown to set on her own head, and then with chrism and public oaths sacredly anointed and blessed her rule, like it or not, courtiers and churchmen alike had to accept Catherine’s accession to the supreme power as a fait accompli; as Shakespeare observed in Richard II (Act 3, scene ii), “not all the rough water of the rough rude sea can wash the balm off from an anointed king”.

The Orthodox sacramental, theological, and mystagogical significance of crowning, anointing, and communing women in the clerical manner

Since time immemorial, the coronation and anointing of an Orthodox monarch by the Orthodox Church has been popularly and officially understood as a high mystery or sacrament of the Church, a divine charism and manifestation of God’s grace which confers real spiritual strength, healing, fortification, blessing, and illumination on the person being crowned and anointed. These spiritual realities are ubiquitously present throughout the coronation prayers, from the very beginning of the ceremonies at the narthex/vestibule and the western door, to the concluding prayers of thanksgiving and rejoicing at the end of the post-coronation Divine Liturgy itself.

As many Russian saints have observed (as recently as St John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco), the coronation ceremonies are understood as a sacrament just as communion, confession and absolution, baptism and chrismation, and marriage are. This sacrament is ‘set apart’ from the others not by any set of exclusive rubrics or any official hierarchical downgrading or upgrading of its classification, but merely by its inherent and implicit uniqueness and exceptionality. Any and most Orthodox men and women do marry, do baptise, do make confession, but there is only one monarch, and therefore, in each reign, one coronation and anointing. This exceptionality is a positive one in that it serves to confer, project, and manifest the transferring of sacred authority and divine blessing – and with these, a political mandate to rule – onto and to one person and his/her consort.

Yet, in terms of the ‘salvific’ purpose of the coronation rites, the sacrament is truly universal in the sense that the coronation and anointing prayers serve to create and establish a covenantal relationship between God, the ruler, and the people, a three-way, mutually beneficial, solemn and sacred trust. This trust, naturally, extends beyond the realm of the Church and her faithful laity to include any and all non-Orthodox and non-Christian subjects of the monarch living under his or her jurisdiction and authority: thus, the monarch will ultimately have to render before God an account not only of his or her stewardship of the Christians in his realm generally, and the Orthodox ones in particular, but his stewardship, careful administration, and deliverance of justice and maintenance of peace for his non-Orthodox subjects.

Thus, the coronation of an Orthodox monarch is the Church’s highest form of publicly and sacredly obliging the new sovereign to care for all his or her subjects; in fact, symbolically and ritually, it binds the new monarch in sacred oaths to govern all his or her peoples as justly, fairly, and benevolently as possible. This is why, although traditionally Jews and Muslims are forbidden by their own laws and customs from entering a Christian sanctuary – since Christians are considered to practice shituf or shirk, a form of imprecise polytheism that conflicts with the Islamic concept of tawhid and the Jewish one of God’s absolute modal oneness – after the Orthodox coronation ceremonies, the new emperor or king would always make time to receive the accolades, well-wishes, and oaths of allegiance from leading representatives of his non-Orthodox subjects in an adjoining hall or palace room.

The Church’s role in the physical process of blessing, sacralising, and legitimising the rule of a new king, queen, emperor, or empress is undeniable, and ubiquitous throughout the coronation rites: the rites are performed in the realm’s paramount Orthodox cathedral, presided over by the realm’s senior Orthodox clergy, with all senior representatives of ecclesiastical and lay civil and religious life present to signify their assent and agreement. It is, after all, in Eastern Roman/Byzantine imperial practice – which all Orthodox realms consciously strove to imitate in their own coronation rites – the presiding bishop of the Church, the patriarch or metropolitan, who personally anoints the new monarch, and who usually physically crowns the monarch (or, in the post-Elizabethan tradition in Russia, presents the imperial crown to the monarch who then places the crown on his/her own head). Even in the most autocratic of political interpretations of the latter Russian development, the monarch still receives the crown from the hand of the ruling primate of the Church rather than from a lay nobleman.

My earlier article on the crowning and anointing of Russian empresses (both regnant and consort) was not intended to argue that women should not, could not, and ought not to be crowned as Orthodox monarchs, but rather that it was immensely significant that — beginning with Catherine I’s coronation and anointing as empress consort in 1724 at her husband Peter I’s insistence, through to 1762 when the Church crowned and anointed Catherine II, Russia’s last (as of yet) empress regnant — the Church actually not only crowned and anointed but also communed these ruling empresses, as She would do for all (post-1762) further empresses consort of Russia. Further, all Russian empresses regnant beginning in 1730 with Anna Ivanovna (who was, by all accounts, ironically a cruel tyrant in her temperament) communed of the Eucharist at their coronations behind the iconostasis in the altar, the most sacrosanct and holy area usually completely forbidden to most laymen and all laywomen (unless, in modern times, for instance, a priest or bishop was ill or dying in the altar and the only doctor present in the temple was a woman).

Iconographically, the reality that newly-crowned and anointed empresses regnant communed in the altar area surrounded by the all-male clergy is a crucial distinction and development of real theological importance with impossible-to-ignore implications. It shows that the Church, on the day of a woman’s coronation as empress regnant, was treating her identically to any male emperor or tsar; by allowing her to touch the Eucharist and commune herself at the altar with her own hands in the clerical manner, the Church on this occasion proclaimed her, a woman, to be not only an icon of Christ but an absolutely legitimate bearer of sacred royal authority and kingship as much as any male emperor. By virtue of allowing her to commune at the altar in the priestly, clerical manner – receiving the Holy Gifts in her hands rather than orally on a spoon from the chalice, as the laity do – the Church accepted that the quasi-sacerdotal role of ostensibly male kingship could indeed pass through and to a woman.

That the symbolic pinnacles of the coronation service itself – the physical crowning of the new monarch, his or her anointing by the primate, and, then, his or her solemn communing of the Eucharist at the altar in the clerical manner – were all celebrated and observed regardless of the monarch’s sex shows that, at a sacramental level, the Orthodox Church was blessing the direct participation of an extraordinary woman, a female monarch, in rites which carried an undeniably priestly role. Thus, rather than the monarch being permitted to commune at the altar because he was a male and, iconographically, was therefore naturally placed in a (male) priestly role as chief intercessor for his people before God, the reality of female monarchs communing in this way at the altar requires a different explanation. The Church must have understood the new monarch – regardless of sex – participating in the Eucharist, communing of the Lord at the altar, as a symbolic and mysterious moment of supreme sacralisation and conferral of the exceptional status of the monarch. No other Orthodox person, even the imperial consort, is permitted to literally touch God – in the Eucharist – with his or her own hands. Thus, the communing of himself or herself of the Eucharist by his or her own hands is, rather than a male sacerdotal function, a manifestation and realisation of the supreme, otherworldly, priestly dignity of kingship – or, more accurately here, sovereign power and supreme authority by the grace of God.

Having earlier in the coronation rite received the heavenly and divine authority to rule his or her people for their corporate benefit as God’s humble steward, and the chief defender and protector of the Orthodox Church and its Faith, the monarch now – in the most intimate and sacred moment of his or her lifetime – receives God Himself directly into his or her own hands, literally touching the Lord and feeding Him to himself or herself with his or her own hands. This most intimate of acts for the Christian, by which he or she communes of the Lord Himself, is in this moment the indwelling of Christ into the very mouth, body, and veins of the new anointed servant of God. The monarch, in this moment, communes in the understanding that the ‘bread’ and ‘wine’ he or she is imbibing are, in the spiritual and metaphysical sense, actually Christ’s own Body and Blood.

It is in this moment that the ‘exclusivity’ of male and female falls away; just as Christianity has always insisted that men and women are spiritually equal before God, with each soul created after the divine image, in this most unique of unique circumstances – the communion of the Body and Blood by the newly crowned and anointed monarch – a female monarch is just as much a person set apart in a sacerdotal calling, a priestly Davidic calling of kingship and sacred rule, as any male monarch. This is why – on this singular occasion at the climax of the Divine Liturgy immediately following her coronation and anointing – an empress regnant communed in the same manner as did male monarchs and, more importantly, the Church’s bishops and priests. While this obviously did not and does not automatically and logically translate to the Orthodox Church believing that women can and should be ordained as priests, what it shows is that in the instance of the coronation of a monarch, theologically the Church sought to confer the same blessing and sanctity on a female monarch as it did to a male monarch, making no distinction in how a female monarch would commune of Christ’s Body and Blood immediately following his or her anointing.

The uncertain position of the Russian Church on the coronation of women before Catherine I

Prior to 1724, the Russian Orthodox Church had not established a solid precedent of permitting the crowning of a Russian tsar’s consort as tsaritsa in an Orthodox ceremony universally recognised as legitimate. Upon Tsar Fyodor I’s death without issue in January 1598, his widow Tsarina Irina Godunova evidently had the opportunity to become the reigning sovereign in her own right, as the direct Rurikid male line had now become extinct; some accounts thus refer to her retirement to the Novodevichy Monastery as an abdication, following which her brother Boris Godunov was duly informed of his election and appointment as tsar by Patriarch Job and the Zemsky Sober (“Assembly of the Land”).

During the “Time of Troubles” after Tsar Boris I’s death in April 1605, shortly before his murder, the Polish Roman Catholic imposter/usurper the “False Dmitry” insisted on having his wife Marina Mniszech crowned and anointed as Tsaritsa in May 1606 in an ostensibly Orthodox ceremony. The coronation, presided over by Patriarch Ignatiy (Ignatius), was of dubious legitimacy since Ignatiy was never universally recognised as primate by the Orthodox. This was because Dmitry (or his supporters) had installed in June of 1605 after rather irregularly removing his predecessor, Iov (Job).

Despite the apparent legitimacy that this coronation would, on its face, seem to confer on Marina, there is no evidence that she ever embraced Orthodoxy, so this factor, along with her Polish ethnicity and status as the hated Dmitry’s wife, may have served to render her illegitimate in the eyes of most of Moscow’s population. The question of the legitimacy of her status as Russia’s first crowned and anointed tsaritsa is further complicated due to Patriarch Ignatiy’s eventual deposition following the False Dmitry’s murder, and the former’s subsequent embrace of union with Rome. Because of these factors, the Orthodox usually view Ignatiy as a Catholic Polish puppet and thus omit him from the register of Russian patriarchs. At the time of Maria’s coronation by Ignatiy, he was not yet in communion with Rome and technically, due to Job’s forced exile, the only reigning Russian hierarch resident in Moscow. Yet his open support for Dimitry’s cause provoked considerable opposition from many of the other Russian hierarchs who, like Job, refused to recognise Dmitry as a legitimate tsar (and thus Maria as tsaritsa and Ignatiy as patriarch).

Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) theological and political precedents in the coronation of empresses regnant and consort

That the Orthodox Church in Russia should have objected to crowning its male monarchs’ female consorts is rather odd, since Eastern Roman/Byzantine imperial practice which so strongly influenced Muscovite Court ceremonial, conscious political identity, and religious ritual did have the custom of the Patriarch of Constantinople crowning and anointing the emperor’s wife as empress (consort). Despite the precedent of the Constantinopolitan Church crowning the imperial consorts, it is worth noting that the few imperial women who ever briefly ruled Constantinople as empresses regnant were never crowned as such in their own right; rather, these women were crowned and anointed as consort when their husbands were still alive, as happened with Catherine I of Russia (who was never crowned as empress regnant following her assumption of the Russian Throne at Peter I’s death).

Some historical revisionists without firm theological foundation in Orthodoxy have sought to argue that the figure of the Virgin Mary/Theotokos/Bogoroditse/Miter Theou/Bogomater can be used to justify and legitimise female monarchs ruling from a Christian theological perspective. The problem with this argument is that literally no Orthodox or Catholic saints or any authoritative writings view the Virgin Mary as a kind of ruling heavenly monarch; she is understood as the Queen Mother of Heaven, not a ruling monarch in any way — she reigns in glory and majesty but does not rule; her Son rules, and will ultimately judge, in Orthodox eschatology, sitting as King on His Father’s throne. Christ’s Mother’s eternal, blessed role is that of heavenly supplicant, intercessor, “steadfast protectress and constant advocate” on behalf of the faithful before her Son, a role which numerous Late Antiquity, medieval, and early modern Christian princesses and queens consort sought to follow and emulate, interceding for mercy before their husbands, fathers, or sons on behalf of the poor, the imprisoned, or the condemned. Stony Brook University Russian history professor Dr. Gary Marker explains these highly gendered conceptions of kingship, consort queenship, authority, and clemency at length in his superb book Imperial Saint: The cult of St Catherine and the dawn of female rule in Russia.

Thus, the theological precedents and justifications for female rule in the Orthodox understanding cannot be based on the Theotokos (there is literally no evidence to support such claims), but rather more selectively on the Old Testament biblical judge Deborah, and to a much lesser extent on the widowed warrior Judith. We have evidence that Christian royal court poets, feast and pageant planners, coronation chroniclers, etc. conceived of and explained the exceptional phenomenon of women ruling as monarchs using these exceptional biblical figures. All the queens mentioned in the Old Testament were either lauded as righteous, pious consorts, brave protectresses and advocates who defended the Israelites from their enemies (Persian Jewish queen consort Ester), or demonised as treacherous, evil whores and murderesses (Jezebel and Athaliah). The Hasmonean Salome Alexandra (שְׁלוֹמְצִיּוֹן אלכסנדרה, Shelomtzion or Shlom Tzion) was the only queen regnant of Jerusalem, though she was not universally acknowledged as such, with some viewing her instead as a particularly capable regent.

Numerous medieval western Christian kingdoms did have female monarchs, some of whom were very capable and successful, but it serves little purpose to a try to anachronistically superimpose modern-day feminist and revisionist interpretations of how Christians viewed someone such as the Virgin Mary in desperate hopes of finding (or conjuring up) unreliable evidence to try to support dubious new interpretations. Put simply, it is appallingly bad, prejudicial history which subordinates and manipulates any evidence to an already – sought after, predetermined ideological end or purpose.

While the Byzantines/East Romans did have several empresses regnant — only five from 330-1453 — none of these women ruled as monarch for more than a few years, similar to the “caretaker”/transitional roles of the handful of ancient Japanese empresses regnant. The imperial Roman Augusta (feminine of Augustus) widely considered to be Late Antiquity’s first Empress regnant was St. Pulcheria, who governed the Eastern Empire for over 30 years for her brother Emperor Theodosus II as the first official woman Regent in Roman history. A devout orthodox/catholic Nicene Christian, she kept a high degree of personal autonomy and independence by taking a vow of chastity and celibacy. Only when Pulcheria’s brother died childless was she proclaimed as the reigning empress, and then she immediately undertook, while still remaining a virgin, to marry the general Marcian in order to secure much-needed political and military support and solidify her rule. A dedicated opponent of Nestorius, she convened the 451 Council of Chalcedon. She died only a few years later and her nominal consort (de facto co-ruler) Marcian actually remained as the monarch until his own death (essentially having obtained the Crown Matrimonial as Lithuanian duke Władisław Jagieło did upon marrying Poland’s reigning Queen St. Jadwiga, who predeceased him).

St. Justinian the Law-giver’s actress-courtesan-turned-Empress St. Theodora; unofficially they can in some ways be considered de facto co-rulers, but she was never formally proclaimed as such. Irene of Athens (r. 797-803) was an empress consort and then dowager and Regent who seized the throne by blinding her own son when the young Emperor sought to assert his own authority apart from her. Then the Macedonian dynasty’s last two reigning monarchs, the imperial porphyrogennetai Zoe and Theodora stand out; Zoe ruled alongside three successive husbands who actively co-ruled with her, while Theodora was around 70 and childless when Zoe died and she finally ruled as monarch for several years. These few women were either able rulers (Pulcheria and the last Theodora), or made infamous by Eastern Roman chroniclers as the epitome for why Christian women should not rule empires (Irene). The Church either actively blessed or at least tolerated all these women as monarchs who ruled briefly, but there is not a single instance in Byzantine history in which a woman ruled for many years (e.g. a decade or more) as empress regnant.

From the first Catherine to the second: the Russian Church’s coronation and anointing of four empresses in less than forty years (1724-1762)

Why was Catherine I never crowned as monarch after her unexpected accession in 1725? Perhaps 1) since she died only two years later, this was before it could be properly planned and adequate funds set aside, 2) she and her advisors thought that her anointing and expensive, popular 1724 coronation as empress consort still sanctified and blessed her to rule after Peter I as monarch, or 3) the Church was not yet ready to crown a barely literate Livonian peasant woman, former Lutheran, and former Army colonel’s mistress, Marfa Skavronskaya, as monarch, though of course she had converted to Orthodoxy and taken the name Catherine when she married Peter I.

What is remarkable and astonishing is how rapidly the Church went from reluctantly allowing Peter I to crown his wife Catherine as the first Orthodox woman anointed and crowned as the imperial consort with the Church’s full cooperation and public blessing in 1724, to in 1730 fully blessing the Baltic German Anna Ivanovna’s coronation and anointing as Russia’s new, second empress regnant, even allowing her to commune at her coronation in the altar like a priest or bishop. What is especially fascinating is that neither Peter I nor any of his male predecessors as tsar seem to have communed in the altar at their coronations, or, if they did so, this was evidently such a routinely observed or normative, prevailing coronation custom as to go without commentary or remark in any period chronicles. What we do know for certain is that there is no evidence available indicating that Catherine I communed at the altar at her coronation, but rather, it seems likely that she communed in the lay manner, as all future empresses consort would do, on the solea, being the first of the laity to receive communion.

Thus, it is entirely plausible that the first Russian monarch, male or female, to commune at the altar in the clerical manner was actually Anna Ivanovna, a dour, temperamentally unstable Baltic German princess who was by no means the universally acknowledged rightful heiress in 1730 (the rightful heir to the childless and heirless Peter II, being, according to primogeniture, his half-aunt Elizabeth Petrovna, Peter I’s daughter by Catherine I). Thus, while all male Russian emperors beginning with Paul I received communion at their coronations at the altar, in the clerical manner, we know that this practice was first definitively observed at the coronation of a widowed Baltic German woman as sole empress regnant in 1730.

My brief article (published in September 2015) which goes into more detail regarding the coronation ceremonies themselves: http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/80559.htm

Sources:

Bogdanow, A. “Russkije patriarchi. Snizchoditielnyj Ignatij”krotov.info (in Russian). Retrieved 2012-05-01. Accessed 2016-09-07.

Horan, Brian Purcell. The Russian Imperial Succession. RIUO.org. http://riuo.org/RussianImperialSuccession/russianimperialsuccession.html

McGrew, Roderick E. Paul I of Russia: 1754-1801. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Meehan-Waters, Brenda. “Catherine the Great and the Problem of Female Rule”. The Russian Review, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Jul., 1975), pp. 293-307. JSTOR. https://www.jstor.org/stable/127976?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Nikolaieff, A.M. “Boris Godunov and the Ouglich Tragedy” Russian Review 9, No. 4 (1950), pp. 275-85.

Succession to the Imperial Throne of Russia. Fundamental Laws. Ed.  Antony, Archbishop of Los Angeles and South California. Order of the Imperial Union of Russia, Bridgeport, Connecticut, 1984.

Thyret, Isolde. “‘Blessed is the Tsaritsa’s Womb’,” 479-96; Idem, Between God and Tsar. Religious Symbolism and the Royal Women of Muscovite Russia. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2001.

Zenkovsky, Sergey. Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales. New York: Meridian Books, 1974.

Zhmakin, V.I. “Koronatsii russkikh imperatorov i imperatrits 1724-1856 gg.”, (“Coronations of Russian emperors and empresses”), Russkaia Starinaissue 37, 1883, pp. 500, 517, and 522.

Partners in holy and royal matrimony and equal bearers of the burden of imperial role, Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra sketched as they leave the Uspenskiy Sobor in full regalia following their coronation and anointing.

Partners in holy and royal matrimony and equal bearers of the burden of imperial rule, Emperor Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra are here shown sketched as they leave the Uspenskiy Sobor in full regalia following their coronation and anointing.

Link

On Marriage and Family Life: Invaluable Notes by New Martyr Empress Alexandra Feodorovna

“Our love for each other may be sincere and deep on sunny days, but it is never as strong as on days of suffering and sorrow, when all the previously hidden richness of the soul is revealed.”

-Empress Alexandra Feodorovna

I first came across this extraordinary article some months ago by way of its republished link here on Pravmir (Orthodoxy and the World), a superb website maintained in English by the Russian Orthodox Church. I cannot describe the utter amazement and spiritual joy which moved within me as I read the Empress’ reflections and observations on matters of crucial importance to any Christian: marriage and family life. I can only wonder in awe at what a wonderful, godly and extraordinary marriage Sts. Nicholas and Alexandra so clearly lived, and pray that I may someday be such a loving husband as the Emperor was for his wife, and blessed with so wonderful a wife as was the Empress for her husband.

 

This is the official engagement portrait of the young Nicholas and Alix, who, once chrismated into the Orthodox Church, took the name Alexandra. Her family and friends continued to call her "Alix" or "Alicky", and her husband reserved for her the pet name "Sunny".

This is the official engagement portrait of the young Nicholas and Alix, who, once chrismated into the Orthodox Church, took the name Alexandra. Her family and friends continued to call her “Alix” or “Alicky”, and her husband reserved for her the pet name “Sunny”.

One of the official portraits of the young couple. Their marriage is one of history's greatest love stories.

One of the official portraits of the young couple. Their marriage is one of history’s greatest love stories.

To me, more than any other saints or historical figures, the Royal New Martyrs embody the Christian mariage idéal, one born of love, patience and deep affection, and grounded in numerous expressions of kindness and trust, abiding friendship, the spiritual rock of pious faith, and constant, mutual self-sacrifice for the other, in whom each saw reflected the image of God. As the Empress writes, with the couple trusting in God’s providence to guide them in all things, 

“. . . patience and love overcome everything, and two lives unite into one – a nobler, stronger, fuller, richer one, and this life will continue in peace and tranquility. . . In this manner two lives will unite into a single life, and in such a marriage each other’s thoughts, desires, feelings, joy, sorrow, pleasure, and pain will be shared.”

Nicholas II and Alexandra 2

The Empress’ profoundly Orthodox Christian spiritual formation and education breathes through each sentence like a quiet, steady spirit, her Orthodox soul acting in harmony with her intellectual expression of mind. Given the Empress’ obvious talent as a gifted writer and poet, even aside from the profound contents of her writing, every sentence she writes is eminently quotable, worth jotting into a journal or notebook and pondering with your spouse or hopeful spouse.

Even from a non-Orthodox or even a secular perspective, numerous observations in this wonderful collection of the Empress’ thoughts read like more refined and thoughtful versions of the bits of advice for husbands and wives which many Christian pastors and non-Christian self-help gurus offer today. Here are just four brief examples: 

“Another secret of bliss in married life is attention to each other. The husband and wife should constantly show signs of the most tender attention and love for each other. Happiness in life is made up of individual moments, of small pleasures – a kiss, a smile, a kind glance, a heartfelt compliment, and countless small but kind thoughts and sincere feelings. Love also needs its daily bread.”

“The main requisite in a family is unselfish love. Each spouse should forget his own ego and dedicate himself to the other person. Each one should blame himself and not the other person when something goes wrong. One needs to possess restraint and patience, since impatience can spoil everything. A harsh word can delay the merging of the spouses’ souls for months. There should be a desire on both sides to make the marriage a happy one and to overcome everything that stands in the way of such a goal. The strongest love has the greatest need of daily fortification. Most unforgivable of all is precisely rudeness in one’s own home, towards those whom we love.”

 

 “You should fear the least sign of incipient disobedience or alienation. Instead of acting in a restrained manner, the husband or the wife says an ill-advised or careless word, and suddenly a small crack appears between these two hearts that up to now have been one whole, and this crack widens and widens until the spouses find themselves torn apart forever. Did you say something thoughtless? Ask forgiveness immediately. Did a misunderstanding arise between you? It does not matter whose fault it was, but do not allow it to stand between you even for an hour.”

 

“Refrain from quarreling. Do not go to sleep with a feeling of anger in your heart. There should be no place for pride in family life. You should never coddle your feeling of injured pride in scrupulously trying to determine precisely who has to ask forgiveness. Those who love truly never engage in such casuistry, but are always ready to give in and apologize.”

Here, Empress Alexandra (far left) sits with her husband (standing next to her) and her grandmother Queen Victoria (1819-1901, r. 1837-1901) on one of the Imperial couple's many visits to England. To Queen Victoria's left, standing beside her is her son and heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII (r. 1901-1910).

Here, Empress Alexandra (far left) sits with her husband (standing next to her) and her grandmother Queen Victoria (1819-1901, r. 1837-1901). To Queen Victoria’s left, standing beside her is her son and heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII (r. 1901-1910). I am not sure which of the Grand Duchesses is the infant here, but plausibly it could be Olga, the eldest, as there are no other babies present.


As I read each line, I became more and more aware that I was reading not only the incredibly astute, compassionate, and self-aware observations of a very well-educated and sophisticated Empress, but also, the prayerful revelations of a living Saint. How can one read words such as these, and not know, not discern as clear as the sun rises in the morning sky and sets in the evening, that this Empress as a profoundly holy woman whose life – along with that of her husband – radiated with an inner nobility and long-suffering kindness borne by the grace of God?

This sketch shows the moment at their joint coronation in which Nicholas II, already crowned with Catherine II's Great Imperial Crown, moves forward to place the smaller consort's crown on his wife's head. Moments before this scene, the Emperor would have briefly lifted off the crown which he had just placed on his head, and touched it to his wife's forehead, symbolically joining her to his exercise of the monarchical power entrusted to him by God.

This sketch shows the moment at their joint coronation in which Nicholas II, already crowned with Catherine II’s Great Imperial Crown, moves forward to place the smaller consort’s crown on his wife’s head. Moments before this scene, the Emperor would have briefly lifted off the crown which he had just placed on his head, and touched it to his wife’s forehead, symbolically joining her to his exercise of the monarchical power entrusted to him by God.

Here are several more beautiful observations which the Empress has left for all generations to read. 

The Empress writes here on the subject of a husband’s constant fidelity. May all men strive to follow such wise counsel, which comes from a wife whose husband adored her to the very depth of his being:

“When the beauty of the face fades, the shining of the eyes dims, and with age come wrinkles, or when illnesses, sorrows, and cares leave their traces and scars, the love of a faithful husband should remain just as deep and sincere as before. There are no measurements on earth that are capable of measuring the depth of Christ’s love for His Church, and not a single mortal can love with the same depth of feeling, but nevertheless each husband must do it to the extent that such love can be recreated on earth. No sacrifice will appear too great to him for the sake of his beloved.”

On the mutual care and devotion which a husband and wife should have for each other, especially during times of trial and difficulties, the Empress observes:

“Both the husband and the wife should give to each other the best in each of them. . . Heavy work, difficulties, cares, self-sacrifice, and even misfortune lose their acuteness, bleakness, and severity when they are softened by tender love, just as cold, bare, and rugged cliffs become beautiful when wild vines entwine them with their green garlands, and exquisite flowers fill all their cracks and crevices.”

On how to create and sustain a peaceful, loving home, which is the joint responsibility of the entire family, but especially the mother and father:

“Each home has its own trials, but peace reigns in a truly loving home and cannot be upset by any worldly tempests. The home is a place of warmth and tenderness. At home one should speak only with love. Such a house can nurture only beauty and gentleness of character. One of the misfortunes of our times is that quiet family evenings are being pushed out by business, amusements, a whirling social life.”

The Empress comments extensively on the holy work of raising children in a loving, warm home. Note especially the last two sentences, and this, more than anything else, perhaps encapsulates the Emperor and Empress’ view of themselves: their roles as Emperor and Empress of Russia were secondary in importance to that of father and mother to their beloved children:

“It is a great art to live together, loving each other tenderly. This must begin with the parents. Each home is like its creators. Refined natures produce a refined home, while a coarse person creates a coarse home.”

 

“Each wonderful thought that comes into a child’s mind afterwards strengthens and ennobles his character. Our bodies age against our will, but why should our souls not remain forever young? It is simply criminal to suppress a child’s joy and force children to be gloomy and full of self-importance. Very soon life’s problems will lie upon their shoulders. Very soon life will bring them anxieties, cares, difficulties, and the burden of responsibility. So let them remain young and carefree as long as possible. Their childhood should be filled as much as possible with joy, light, and merry games.”

 

“Parents should not be too embarrassed to play and horse around with their children. Perhaps in those moments they are closer to God than when they are engaged in what seems to them to be important work.”

I will describe what she writes no further, but I simply urge you to read these incredible words for yourself, and then, if you are so moved, as I was, to then share them with as many people as you are able. Were every Christian married couple in the world to follow the Empress’ exhortations here, I am convinced that adultery, abuse, and painful divorces would fade from among Christians. 

Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna

Most Holy Empress Alexandra, passion-bearer and New Martyr of the Church, pray to God for us!

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!

Abbot Tryphon shares Metropolitan Anthony’s sermon reacting to Kishenev pogrom

SCAPEGOATING THE JEWS

His Eminence Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) of Kiev and Galicia (1863-1936) was one of the most famous 20th century hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church. A renowned author and theologian, in 1918 he received the majority of votes for the restored office of Patriarch of Moscow, but the future confessor and martyr Patriarch Tikhon was to be enthroned instead. Fleeing in 1918 from the advancement of the Bolsheviks as large numbers of his fellow bishops were being executed, Metropolitan Anthony was charged by Patriarch Tikhon with leading the Russian Church in exile.

With all the horrific conspiracy theories regarding 911, the banking industry, and the takeover of our American government by Jews, it is time, I believe, to read the words of this holy hierarch, an address made to a mob following a murderous pogrom against the Jews in Kiev. We should take to heart these words of Metropolitan Anthony for this present age, for the economic crisis, together with the mass unemployment stats, as our world is in the same dangerous state that was found in Germany, just prior to the rise of Adolf Hitler. Never again can any of us sit by in silence, and allow any people to be scapegoated for the sins of all.
Love in Christ,
Abbot Tryphon
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The Very Reverend Igumen Abbot Tryphon is the spiritual leader at All Merciful Saviour monastery located on Vashon Island in Puget Sound near Seattle, Washington State. The monastery is within the canonical jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. The monastery’s widely acclaimed and popular Facebook page can be found here. Abbot Tryphon’s popular blog can be accessed here.
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My comments:
       Metropolitan Anthony delivered this sermon in the Cathedral of Zhytomyr (in west-central Ukraine today) following the 1903 Easter pogrom in Kishinev (today Chișinău, Moldavia) against local Jews and 1905 Kiev pogrom. These murderous pogroms, some of the most violent during this period, caused major debate within the Russian Empire, with prominent members of the intelligentsia such as Tolstoy giving the subject of pogroms significant attention for the first time.
       Additionally, the Kishinev and Kiev pogroms caused an international outcry, with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt summoning the Russian ambassador Count Cassini to explain why Tsarist officials did not intervene to protect the local Jews. American Jews collected thousands of signatures from Jews and Gentiles alike in a petition to Tsar Nicholas II which he ultimately rejected. Few of the perpetrators were punished for their crimes, ranging from theft to violent assault to cold-blooded murder, and this was one of the reasons why so many Russian and Ukrainian Jews immigrated soon after to the United States and Britain. 
       Neither Emperor Nicholas II nor his father Alexander III ever ordered any pogroms. All pogroms in the Russian Empire took place at the instigation of local mobs in what is today Moldova, western Ukraine, southern Poland, and western Belarus — overwhelmingly Greek Catholic areas. There is no documentation for widespread pogroms within Russia proper. Further, it is an open secret that Metropolitan Anthony condemned the pogroms with the explicit permission of the Tsar; remember that prior to the abolition of the monarchy in 1917 following Nicholas II’s abdication, the Russian State closely controlled the life of the Russian Church, which was the official state religion. Metropolitan Anthony could not have acted so boldly without tacit support from the Emperor himself. This was no idle coincidence. Tsar Nicholas II personally donated hundreds of thousands of rubles to the victims of the pogroms, even though he was not directly responsible for them.
An additional source with the entire known transcript of the sermon can be found here.
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   Here is the Metropolitan’s sermon:
      “At the very time when in the holy temples there was being sung, “Let us embrace one another and say ‘brother’ even to those who hate us…” yes at that very time, outside the church walls, a drunken, beastly mob broke into Jewish homes, robbing the peaceful inhabitants and tearing human beings into pieces. They threw their bodies from windows into the streets and looted Jewish stores. A second crazed, greed-filled mob rushed in to steal the clothing and jewelry from the bloodied corpses, seizing everything they could lay hand on. Like Judas, these robbers enriched themselves with silver drenched in blood – the blood of these hapless human sacrifices!
       O God! How did Thy goodness endure such an insult and offense to the day of Thy saving passion and glorious resurrection! Thou didst endure Thy terrible struggle so that we would be dead to sin and live in Thee (Rm.6:11), but here they cruelly and in a most beastly manner slaughtered those who are Thy relatives according to the flesh, who, though they did not recognize Thee are still dear to Thy heart as Thou Thyself didst say not long before Thou didst suffer in the flesh, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou who killest the prophets and stone those who are sent to thee; how often have I longed to gather your children as a hen gathers its chicks under its wing, and you desired it not” (Matt. 23:37).
       O brethren, I wish to make you understand this so that you would comprehend that even today the Jewish tribe is dear to God’s heart, and realize that God is angered by anyone who would offend that people. Lest anyone suppose that we are selecting words from the sacred scripture with partiality, let me cite for you the words of that man whom the Jews hated above all men. This is the man whom a select company of the Jews vowed neither to eat nor drink until they had killed him (Acts 23:12) – Apostle Paul.
       Hearken to the words of God’s Spirit speaking through him: “I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing my witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh: Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen” (Rm. 9:1-5).

       Startling and frightening word! Did you truly write them, Paul, you who came to love Christ, who began to live in Christ as Christ lived in you? For whose sake did you consent to be separated from Christ? Was it not you, Paul, who wrote the lines preceding this verse “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rm.8:38-39). Even the angels could not have done that which you would voluntarily have done for the sake of the salvation of the Jews – those who were your enemies, your betrayers, they who beat you with whip, chained you in prison, exiled you and condemned you to death.

Behold, brethren and marvel: these words of Apostle Paul are spoken concerning the Jews, even though they were opposed to Christ’s faith. Lest your perplexity continue, that same apostle and martyr explains in the following chapter, the reason for his love of the house of Israel! “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God” (10:1-2)

The words are confirmed in our own day by the life of the Jews. Observe for yourselves their dedication to their law, their preservation of the Sabbath, their faithfulness to their spouses, their love of work and their love toward their children, whom they encourage toward obedience. There was a time not so long ago when many Christians excelled them in all these things, but in our present corrupt and degenerate age, we must look with regret upon all these qualities of the way of life of pious Jews. In our cities, the majority of Christians no longer distinguish between the ordinary day, feast days and fasts, but have fallen into negligence and a loose life.

It is true that there are also some like this among the Jews, but from whom did they learn such a disorderly path? Alas, from those whose forefathers confess Christ, from Western European and Russian nihilists who, like toads, swarm over our land, whose books and newspapers poison the air around us like the plague and cholera.

The Karaim and Talmud Jews must be respected, but woe to both those nihilists from among the Jews and from among us, who are corrupting both family and society, who sow the seed of their contagion among Russian and Polish youth, and who are the main cause of the hatred toward the descendants of the holy forefathers and prophets beloved by the Lord. I am not speaking about respect for these nihilists among the Jews.

Listen as the blessed apostle further explains the reason for his warm, self-denying love toward this people; hear how he explains their unbelief and obduracy toward Christ “I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy” (11:11). If the Jews had all accepted Christ’s faith, then the heathens who despised the Jews would have rejected it. If the Jews had all believed, then we, brethren, would not have become Christians, but would still be worshiping Jupiter and Venus or Perun and Volass as our pagan ancestors did. Be cautious, therefore, about slandering the unbelief of the Jews; rather grieve over it and pray that the Lord may be revealed to them. Do not be at enmity with them, but respect the apostolic word about the Israelite root and the branches that broke from it “Because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not high minded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. ” (11:20-21)

O Christians, fear to offend the sacred, even though rejected, tribe. God’s recompense will fall upon those evil people who have shed blood which is of the same race as the Theanthropos, His most pure mother, apostles and prophets. Do not suppose that this blood was sacred only in the past, but understand that even in the future reconciliation to the divine nature awaits them (2 Pet.1:4), as Christ’s chosen vessel further testifies, “For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written. There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob: For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins” (11:25-27).

Let the savage know that they have slain future Christians who were yet in the loins of the present day Jews; let them know that they have shown themselves to be bankrupt opponents of God’s providence, persecutors of a people beloved by God, even after its rejection (11:28).

How sinful is enmity against Jews, based on an ignorance of God’s law, and how shall it be forgiven when it arises from abominable and disgraceful impulses. The robbers of the Jews did not do so as revenge for opposition to Christianity, rather they lusted for the property and possessions of others. Under the thin guise of zeal for the faith, they served the demon of covetousness. They resembled Judas who betrayed Christ with a kiss while blinded with the sickness of greed, but these murderers, hiding themselves behind Christ’s name, killed His kinsmen according to the flesh in order to rob them.”

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The Blessed and ever-memorable Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) of Kiev and Galicia lived from 1863-1937. One of the intellectual and pastoral luminaries of the Russian Orthodox Church, he held my different positions: professor at theological academies, bishop of various dioceses, then archbishop and Metropolitan in what is today west-central Ukraine. At the 1917-1918 Local Sobor (Council) of the Russian Church he received the most votes out of any of the candidates for the restored office of Patriarch. Following intermittent imprisonment by the hostile Bolsheviks and Soviets and the Red Army’s eventual victory over the disunited White forces, Metropolitan Anthony left Russia with many of the remaining clergy once the open persecution of Christians by the atheist State intensified. He eventually assumed the position as First Hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad (what became known as the ROCOR).