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

______________________________________________________________________________________

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!

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