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


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.


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!

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 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:


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

Horan, Brian Purcell. The Russian Imperial Succession.

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.

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.

My interview with Dr Valerie Karras

On Saturday, June 27, 2015, I attended a fascinating Orthodox Women’s Conference held at the historic ROCOR Church of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin & St Sergius in Glen Cove, New York. Here are some pictures I took of the beautiful, small chapel.

Dedication plaque commemorating the founding of the parish in 1951.

Dedication plaque commemorating the founding of the parish in 1951.

Church exterior.

Church exterior.

These icons of the Lord and the Theotokos are originally from Tsarskoye Selo, the "Tsar's Village", the residence of the Russian Imperial Family.

These icons of the Lord and the Theotokos are originally from Tsarskoye Selo, the “Tsar’s Village”, the residence of the Russian Imperial Family.

The beautiful wooden iconostasis.

The beautiful wooden iconostasis.

The conference theme was “Living and Thinking Orthodoxy Yesterday and Today”. Dr. Nadieszda Kizenko, Associate Professor of History at SUNY Albany,  moderated the discussions. It was a great joy to see my spiritual father Metropolitan Jonah, who spoke on the theme of “Sharing Orthodoxy with Teenagers”, as well as my godmother, who both came up from Washington, DC along with a dear friend Sister Eisodia. Several wonderful parishioners from St John the Baptist ROCOR Cathedral in DC were also present for the event, which was attended by probably 70 people, mostly laity. The very kind Fr. Demetrius Nicoloudakis and his daughter Anastasia visited from Pennsylvania, and it was a great joy to meet them. Metropolitan Jonah spoke first, and then sat through the second presentation before returning to DC with my godmother so that they could attend Vigil at St John’s for his name’s day the following day.

Dr Valerie Karras, Adjunct Lecturer in New Testament at Eden Theological Seminary and board member at the St Phoebe Center for the History of the Deaconess, spoke on “The Liturgical Roles of Women in the Early and Byzantine Church”. This presentation was especially fascinating, as she covered a topic of great interest to me, the institution of the female diaconate which existed from the apostolic age up to the twelfth century in Constantinople. Following this second lecture, a delicious lunch was served by the volunteers. After lunch, Sr. Dr. Vassa Larin, whose sister Natasha Fekula organized the conference, spoke on the question of “Does Tradition Change?”. Sister Vassa, Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Studies at the University of Vienna, is the popular host of the YouTube channel “Coffee with Sister Vassa”. Following this fascinating lecture, Professor Kizenko moderated a series of question-and-answer with the audience. At the end of the conference, I asked Dr. Karras if she had time for a brief interview. She warmly responded ‘yes’, so below, please read for yourself the results of our interview.

June 27 Conference Poster for "Living and Thinking Orthodoxy: Yesterday and Today".

June 27 Conference Poster for “Living and Thinking Orthodoxy: Yesterday and Today”.

Ryan Hunter: I’m with Dr Valerie Karras who just presented at the Orthodox Women’s Conference here in Glen Cove, New York on June 27, 2015. Dr Karras, where did you pursue your Master’s and your PhD?

Valerie Karras: I received my Master’s in Theological Studies from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology which is the official seminary of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. It’s located in Brookline, which is a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. I then went to The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC and did all of my doctoral work there. I then went to Greece to start working on my dissertation, but I also enrolled in the doctoral program at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. I actually ended up finishing that doctorate, doing that dissertation, and completing that first. I then came back to the States and began teaching and finally finished my dissertation for Catholic University.

Ryan Hunter: What led you to become interested in the subject of the female diaconate in the early Church?

Valerie Karras: I had done some research on it and read about it during my Master’s, and some more during my doctoral work at Catholic University but actually it was really after I did my doctorate at Thessaloniki [that I became interested], because the topic of my doctoral dissertation at Thessaloniki was on patristic views of gender, the ontology of gender, looking at their exegeses, their interpretations of the creation accounts in Genesis. Initially I was planning on that to be the first chapter of a much larger work on Orthodox women, on women in the Orthodox Church, but there was so much there that that became my dissertation. So after I finished that and came back to the United States, I decided to just ditch all the research I had done before then for my initial topic, for my Catholic University dissertation, which was on monastic influence in the post-iconoclastic period, and instead I decided to look at what women were actually doing liturgically in the Byzantine Church.

Ryan Hunter: Who do you regard as some of your mentors, and how did they contribute to this field of study?

Valerie Karras: There are so many along the way. My parish priest actually, Father George Nikozises, who had been director of religious education before he came to our parish, suggested I go to the [Holy Cross Greek Orthodox] seminary. I had been planning on law school. Then I decided that I actually wanted to work with the Church, but what I was initially thinking of was doing administrative work dealing with our church choirs, I was very involved in the music of the Church. He said to me, “I think you need a stronger theological background”, so he suggested I go up there [to Brookline] to get my Master’s. I enrolled in the MTS [Master’s in Theological Studies] rather than the MA in Church Service because I was already doing the fieldwork so to speak, I was very involved with the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians and the Diocesan Choir Federation, so I thought “I’ll just take as many theological classes as I can”, and then I fell in love with it, I just wanted to do Church history and theology.

At the seminary I had several professors who were supportive, in particular Father Ted Stylianopoulos and Archbishop Demetrios (Trakatellis), who at the time was Bishop Demetrios. Father Ted is the one in fact who suggested that I apply to Catholic University, I had not even heard of it. It was a perfect program for me, for what I wanted to do, and also where it was located in DC, because Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Library and Research Center is right there. Bishop Demetrios (at that time)– because I was debating about whether to switch to the MDiv program, which was a three year program– said to me, “You’re going on for a doctorate, you don’t need to do that.” One of his classmates was Elaine Pagels, now a professor at Princeton, and he said “She came right out of her undergraduate work. Just go on and do the doctoral program.” So I did. The other women who were at the seminary when I was there were important. Koula Fitzgerald, who had already graduated when I started as a student there, kind of mentored us together, and shared some of this material with us. Then over in Greece my dissertation chairman was very supportive even when I was doing stuff that he didn’t necessarily agree with, coming to conclusions, but he actually found one for me. At one point I had found all of this material from almost every Church Father I was looking at on how they don’t think that there will still be male and female, that the distinction literally will not exist in humanity in the eschaton, and we will no longer exist as male and female, as men and women. I found that in everybody except for Chrysostom, and he [my dissertation chairman] said to me “Oh no, Chrysostom has it too,go and look at his homilies on Matthew” where he deals with the Sadducees asking Jesus about what I like to call ‘one bride for seven brothers’, a take off of the musical. Sure enough, Chrysostom doesn’t say it in so many words, but there’s no other way to understand it, he says “notice that Christ does not say that they shall be like the angels insofar as they do not marry, but rather that they shall not marry because they shall be like the angels”. Well, the angels are sexless, genderless beings.

Zizioulas was really the most important one [at Thessaloniki], Metropolitan John of Pergamon, particularly when I first got there [Thessaloniki] because he was the only one of the three on my committee who spoke English. I spoke French with Fondoulis, who was the Liturgics professor there, for about two years until my Greek got good enough that I could carry on a conversation.

Ryan Hunter: Metropolitan John Zizioulas, the same one who the Ecumenical Patriarch just sent to comment on Pope Francis’ latest encyclical, Laudato Si, on the environment?

Valerie Karras: Yes, and he’s the one who’s also in charge of putting together the agenda for this Great and Holy Synod, the Council that’s going to be held. He’s probably the Constantinopolitan Patriarchate’s most important ecumenical officer. Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) last night [at Fordham University] said that he [Zizioulas] is the most important and best Orthodox theologian in the world today. I was really excited that Zizioulas was willing to work with me, and it’s funny because when I first met with him about this topic, I said that what I was expecting to find was that the Fathers were products of their time, that there would be some sexism, but I thought that on the theological level, this was my own feeling on the theological level, that sexual differentiation is an intrinsic part of human nature and that is somehow a reflection of the divinity, that it’s part of being created in the image of God, and Zizioulas kind of gave me this small smile, he said “I don’t think that’s what you’re going to find, but you start doing the research.” I did, and once I started doing the research, it took awhile for the Fathers to convince me, but they did and my views changed 180 degrees, so then I was like “Oh no, nobody wants to hear what I have to say because it’s going to be the ‘kill the messenger’ syndrome'”, and I have gotten a fair amount of that, people who don’t want to accept that this is really what the Fathers are saying. I’m very big on intellectual honesty, and I just put it out there, that this is what they [the Fathers] have said. You don’t have to accept it, these are all theologoumena, they’re not essential for salvation, just as you don’t have to accept the idea of women being ordained today to the diaconate, so that’s an issue that the Church needs to determine today. But you have to recognize that this is what these people said and did. Those are historical facts, you don’t get to choose your facts. What you want to do with them and how you want to understand them today in our contemporary situation is a different issue.

Ryan Hunter: Your presentation earlier highlighted the variety of consecrated and liturgical roles filled by women in the early Church. These roles gradually fell into abeyance. Do you realistically see them being restored?

Valerie Karras: Some of them have been, and it’s weird how they’ve been restored in different ways. I’ve noticed that a number of parishes at least in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, I’m not sure about the other jurisdictions here, they now have these young girls serving as myrrh-bearers during Holy Week. Now I would actually like to see what the Church of Jerusalem did, because it’s interesting — those [myrrh-bearers] were women [grown women who anciently filled the role of myrrh-bearer] and I think that there is still this issue…we have to deal with this crazy issue that somehow menstruation makes you impure. I think that’s why we like to see these younger girls dressed all in white, it’s all this purity idea. My response to that is going all the way back to that Didascalia Apostolorum from around AD 250 and it says “What’s the matter with you, woman, do you think that you’re without the Holy Spirit during this period? If that’s the case, you really have lost the Holy Spirit”, and then it goes on to say none of these things, and it mentions things like nocturnal emissions– these are all basic bodily functions, God has made our bodies this way, none of this is impure. I think that just takes care of it.

Ryan Hunter: So you said some of the early roles held by women have been restored...

Valerie Karras: Yes, the female diaconate in different ways. I’ll first mention a couple of the non-Chalcedonian Churches, the Armenian Church and the Coptic Church have, in different ways [restored the female diaconate]. Inthe Armenian Church starting around the seventeenth century we start seeing occasional references to deaconesses. Then it really seems to ramp up in the nineteenth century, and these female deacons in the nineteenth and twentieth century–and I don’t know whether there are any left alive now, I’m not sure what’s happened now in this modern era why they’re not doing it, but they were at least up through the middle of the twentieth century…

Ryan Hunter: Even after the Genocide?

Valerie Karras: Right, yes there were many, in fact I gave a talk at the large Armenian church in Worcester, Massachusetts when I was a professor at Hellenic College/Holy Cross, and the priest there, who had grown up in Jerusalem, he remembered a female deacon at the church or the cathedral  there — I’m not sure where exactly it was, and I don’t know, now I can’t remember whether this was something that he saw regularly, or whether she just happened to be visiting — because all of their female deacons in the nineteenth and twentieth century were nuns. He remembered her serving liturgically and that she did everything that the male deacon did, served identically, and in fact in that photograph that I showed [earlier at the conference] she [the Armenian deaconess] is vested identically to the male deacon.

Ryan Hunter: Yes, she has the orarion and everything…

Valerie Karras: Yes. A friend of mine, a colleague from another institution who’s of Armenian background, her family found a photograph of a great aunt who was a nun who was apparently also an ordained deacon. It’s a photograph of her with several of the other nuns who were deacons in this monastery, they’re all wearing the orarion. They’re not vested completely, but they’re wearing the orarion. It’s just amazing. Now the Coptic Church, as far as we can tell, there’s maybe some evidence that there were female deacons in the early Church, in the Church of Egypt, but not a lot.

Ryan Hunter: After the Chalcedonian schism, or?

Valerie Karras: No, it would have been before. They [the Coptic Church] have deaconesses today, they have a lot of them. They’re not ordained as a major clerical order, they’re consecrated.

Ryan Hunter: They’re considered a minor clerical order?

Valerie Karras: I’m not even sure it’s considered clergy, I think it’s more of a tonsuring and consecration. They’re doing all the kind of typical work that you would see of deaconesses in terms of social service and religious education and that sort of thing.

Ryan Hunter: What’s astonishing about what you just pointed out, the fact that it’s the Coptic Church that has resurrected and restored this practice–arguably this is one of the Churches that has suffered more in recent years than many of the others, so in times of crisis, in times of such turmoil, they’ve restored this ancient practice. Do you think there’s anything to be said for the argument that the first world Orthodoxy, so to speak — the United States, Canada, Britain, parts of Europe–they haven’t restored this practice because they haven’t encountered the kind of persecution that makes them want to restore that aspect of what the early Church did?

Valerie Karras: Maybe, but I think that it’s in these areas where we are seeing some of the strongest push for it [the restoration of the female diaconate]. I think that it’s because the Church in general is a minority and it’s in a new place , everything is sort of being rethought. You don’t just take for granted everything, but look at Russia. On the eve of the Bolshevik Revolution at the All-Russia Council, they were talking about it [instituting female deacons]. They didn’t really know a lot about it, but there were a number of prominent people, including among the royalty and the upper hierarchy [such as St Grand Duchess Elizabeth Romanova] who were talking about the need for a female diaconate. Now this would not be a restoration because the Russian Church never had it, and yet they knew about it and they thought that it was something that would be good for the Church. Of course, we’ll never know what would have happened if not for the Bolshevik Revolution, but there was this openness overall, it was like this breath of fresh air, the Patriarchate had just been restored, it was “let’s enliven Orthodoxy, what are we doing here?”

Ryan Hunter: Your presentation earlier suggested that many of the ancient vocations open to women in the Church — consecrated widows and ordained deaconesses for instance — could and should be revived. How do you see this being accomplished?

Valerie Karras: One way would be to do what Saint Nektarios [of Aegina] did. I think people forget that it has only been about a century — it’s really been less than a century — since we had a few female deacons in the Church of Greece ordained to the diaconate according to those euchologia (εὐχολόγιa) [prayer books with the services in them from the priest’s point of view]. So we’ve got Saint Nektarios doing this, and I think that’s a really important precedent that nobody said [this was impossible] even though there was some disagreement about what we had done. Nobody said it’s not legitimate, how could you say that when we have this long history? Presumably, all he did was use the rite, the service [of ordination] that’s right there in the older εὐχολόγιa.

Ryan Hunter: Were there any efforts by other hierarchs at the time to discipline him in certain ways for ordaining the women as deacons?

Valerie Karras: I think he was getting some sort of flak, because I think that’s why he wrote the letter to the Archbishop of Athens saying “well they were really ordained more like subdeacons” [a clever defense of his having ordained them at all]. But again, what’s the function? We have different functions for subdeacons and deacons. Subdeacons do not do petitions [during the Liturgy, e.g. “In peace let us pray to the Lord”] and these women did. I think that’s amazing because they [female deacons] didn’t do petitions even during the Byzantine period. The whole reason that he [St Nektarios] had ordained these women was because this was a women’s monastery [at Aegina] on this little island and they didn’t always have a priest, and he wanted them to have a fuller prayer life, a fuller liturgical life and cycle of services, their Liturgy of the Hours which is so central to monastic life. So it made a lot of sense, and I think that’s exactly why when the Synod of the Church of Greece decided that they would look at restoring the female diaconate, they wanted to restore it starting with these women’s monasteries, [they believed] that there was a real liturgical need there. Now I think that our parishes equally need them, not so much for liturgical reasons, although that can certainly help there too, but for pastoral reasons.

Ryan Hunter: You kind of touched on this before regarding certain Russian royalty that were active in this regard, but has any of your research touched on the role of Emperor St. Nicholas II or his sister-in-law Grand Duchess Elizabeth in supporting the institution of female diaconate in pre-revolutionary Russia?

Valerie Karras: No, I’m sorry to say that I only know a couple of things that I’ve read [in this area] because my own time periods of specialization are the Early Church and the Byzantine Church, so I don’t really deal with modern Church at all.

Ryan Hunter: I asked you this earlier, but I didn’t get it recorded, so I wonder if you could perhaps touch on this again. You mentioned that most Byzantine women were not public figures, but then we have the imperial consorts, the Augustae, the Empresses, and then we have some instances such as Irene of Athens of women who actually declared themselves as βασιλεύς, they declared themselves as emperors in their own right. Is there any evidence that you’ve come across that deaconesses, who would have been serving in the Byzantine Church at the time, were present at the coronation rites of Byzantine emperors or the empresses?

Valerie Karras: I haven’t seen that. but then I also just haven’t seen the rites described in a detailed way that would say “this is all the clergy that do it”. Because of your question, I do want to kind of look back at Constantine Porphyrogenitus’ De Cerimoniis to see if he’s got anything. Now, I had mentioned about the Empress Helena — I’m sorry I can’t remember whether she was married to, I think it was Emanuel II [Manuel II Palaiologos], I’m not absolutely certain, but it was one of the Palaiologoses, but this is the Late Byzantine period. She took the Eucharist, she took communion, at the door to the altar. Now by that period we know that there were no longer ordained female deacons. There seem to have still been female deacons, women who were styled female deacons but had not actually been ordained, but this may have been used as a monastic title. We know about that coronation, that enthronement, very well because of this Russian pilgrim who writes about it in detail. But it’s unfortunately in this period after female deacons.

Ryan Hunter: It’s interesting, when you mentioned that earlier in your presentation, that this empress as late as the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century was communing at the Royal Doors, at the entrance to the sanctuary, the Beautiful Gate, because that is where empress consorts of Russia, as well empresses regnant and all male emperors before the Pauline Succession Laws changed, received communion at their coronation rites. I don’t believe this was done at any other time, but at their coronation rites, they did receive communion at the Royal Doors. The emperor and I believe the empresses as well, if they were reigning in their own right, were anointed with the holy myron or chrism at the same spot

Valerie Karras: Presumably they were following Byzantine custom.

Ryan Hunter: All of the Russian coronation rites were based off of the available Byzantine service rites and customs.

Valerie Karras: So even though we only know this about Eleni, about Empress Helena, it probably was occurring with many or even all of the other empresses as well. Pulcheria’s situation is unusual because she was essentially reigning, particularly after her brother Theodosius II died [in AD 450]. She does take Marcion as her consort, but she’s the one who’s still running the show, because when she convokes the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon [in 451]  — I remember this because of the work I was doing on monasticism — she sent out an imperial letter demanding that all the monks stay in their monasteries and not be wandering around and showing up at the Council [and disrupt the Council proceedings] because that had been an issue two years earlier with what was called the Robbers’ Council of Ephesus in 449.

Ryan Hunter: So the Empress Pulcheria herself, in her own name, wrote this letter, issuing an imperial edict?

Valerie Karras: Right.

Ryan Hunter: One other question. I personally am not afraid of this happening, I don’t see it as a threat of any kind, but as Sister Dr. Vassa Larin said earlier, the Church does not exist in a vacuum. Keeping that in mind, do you have any fear that people both within and without the Orthodox Church would mistake the restoration of the historic female diaconate as opening the door for advocates of women to the presbyterate [priesthood] and even to the episcopacy? How would you address those concerns?

Valerie Karras: Well obviously people do have that fear, and that’s why you get some really bad theology and a failure to be honest about the historical record from somebody like Father Lawrence Farley, who then admits that his concern is that if we were to restore the female diaconate then a female priesthood will be not far behind. No, I don’t accept that, because there are two major differences here. One is that where we have a long and solid history of the female diaconate, we do not have that with women ordained to either the priesthood or the episcopacy. So it’s a completely different issue on that level because it’s not a question of restoring something that historically existed, it would be a question of changing the eligibility for those two offices in our faith. So I think that’s one major difference.

The other issue is that these are two very different offices [the priesthood and the diaconate]. It really concerns me particularly when clergy don’t seem to understand the difference between the diaconate and the priesthood. Now there’s a relationship between the priesthood and the episcopacy, in fact of course one of the titles for bishop is ἀρχιερεύς, chief priest, head priest. So [in the Liturgy] the priest is acting on behalf of the bishop, that’s what the bishop signs the antimension that the priest has on the altar, so the priest is able to celebrate the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharistic Liturgy, and the other sacraments on behalf of the bishop. The only sacrament that the bishop does that the priest cannot do is the ordination of higher clergy, or of clergy generally. In the case of the deacon, the deacon is kind of a liminal position. Even though the deacon is ranked as one of the three major orders of clergy — we see that from the early Church orders, there’s clearly a distinction in the ordination rite, and certainly that’s made explicit in some of Justinian’s legislation — even though the deacon is ranked with the priest and the bishop as part of the hierosyni or priesthood in the broader sense, one of the major orders of clergy, the diaconate is still kind of a liminal office. As I mentioned before, the priest doing all these sacraments, being able to celebrate the sacraments, the deacon cannot; the deacon cannot be the celebrant, the deacon cannot baptize, the deacon cannot celebrate the Eucharist; he assists in the celebration of the Eucharist but he is not himself the celebrant.

Deacons cannot marry; in the Roman Catholic Church where the theology is that it’s really the two people getting married who marry each other, the deacon can be the one overseeing this because he’s really just the witness, but in our Church we see the priest or bishop as actually the celebrant of the marriage, and therefore it cannot be a deacon doing it. So the deacon is very different from the priest and the bishop because the deacon does not celebrate the sacraments. The word ‘deacon’ comes from διάκονος (diakonos), diakonia, the Greek word that means ‘service’. We see from the New Testament on that their primary roles were to do what we would today call social service, and they also did administrative functions — archdeacons, that sort of thing, they did a lot of the administrative functions for the Church.

The second thing that shows this difference, I think, is, strangely, the funeral rite. A deacon is buried as a layman, it’s the same rite as we use for the laypeople. They do not have the rite that is done for priests.

Ryan Hunter: Is that uniform throughout Orthodoxy?

Valerie Karras: It should be.

Ryan Hunter: InterestingSo everything that you’re saying is underlining the fact that there is this clearly articulated distinction between the order of the presbyterate, the priesthood, and the diaconate?

Valerie Karras: Right.

Ryan Hunter: So you’re not concerned that there would be some sort of push — “well, women have the diaconate now, so let’s jump to the priesthood”?

Valerie Karras: No, I don’t think it works that way. Don’t take this to mean that I don’t think that women can or should be ordained to the priesthood or the episcopacy; I’m saying that it’s a completely different subject, it is not closely related to the diaconate for the reasons I just said.

Ryan Hunter: Thank you very much for your time, and it was a very interesting interview. Thank you as well for your earlier presentation.

Valerie Karras: You’re welcome!

Romanov Family Invited to Return to Russia

As many of you have heard by now, a Leningrad Oblast legislator, Vladimir Petrov, affiliated with President Putin’s ruling party has extended a formal invitation to the two rival branches of the Romanov family to reside in an old imperial palace, either in St Petersburg or the Crimea, and begin to take up a host of national functions. RT reports:

A regional lawmaker has addressed the heirs of the Romanov imperial house with a request to return to Russia promising them a special legal status and one of historic palaces in Crimea or St. Petersburg.

Vladimir Petrov of the legislative assembly of the Leningrad Region wrote letters to Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna and Prince Dimitri Romanovich asking them to become symbols of national culture and maintaining traditions, like in many European nations that retained their monarchies to this day.

Coming as it does from a relatively minor official in Putin’s governing United Russia party, Petrov’s invitation does not mark a restoration of the Romanov monarchy, but the beginning of what will likely be a several years-long process of deliberate rehabilitation of the living Romanov family members. Should HIH Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna and HIH Prince Dimitri Romanovich accept Petrov’s invitation, we would likely see their incorporation into leading echelons of Russian high society. They would serve, as Petrov notes, as a symbol of national unity and historical identity, an institutional connection to Russia’s pre-revolutionary imperial past, and as non-political embodiments of Russian heritage and cultural history.

Petrov writes:

For the whole length of its reign the Romanov imperial dynasty remained a foundation of the Russian statehood. At present Russia is undergoing a complicated process of regaining its glory and worldwide influence. I am sure that in this historical moment the Romanovs would not stay away from all processes that are taking place in Russia…

Petrov “suggested that this move would help to smooth political controversies within Russia and help to restore the “spiritual power” of the nation”, adding that he and other United Russia leaders in the Leningrad Oblast legislature “would very soon develop and draft a bill “On the special status of representatives of the Tsars’ family” that would give some guarantees to the returning Romanovs. He also said that the royals could use one of the palaces that belonged to them before the revolution and that now remain vacant or are misused.”

To this day a lot of wonderful Tsar’s palaces near St. Petersburg are either empty or used not according to their destination. I think if one of these palaces is used as an official residence of the Romanov family it would only be for everyone’s benefit,” the lawmaker said in comments to Izvestia daily. He noted that another option was to settle the royals in the Livadia Palaces in Crimea.

So far, Prince Dimitri Romanovich has not yet commented publicly on the invitation, but Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna’s representative, ” the head of the Chancellery of the Russian Imperial House, Aleksandr Zakatov” told Izvestia “that some representatives of the dynasty were ready to move to Russia. However, he noted that Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna held a high post of the head of the imperial house and therefore her return should be decent and solemn.”

Noting that the Grand Duchess claimed neither “property or political privileges [or]  powers, she only wants the imperial house to become a historical institution and part of the national legacy”, Zakatov observed that “this recognition must be manifested in a legal act” passed by the legislature before Maria Vladimirovna would consider moving to Russia.

While the “two major competing branches of the Romanov dynasty – one headed by Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna and the other by Prince Nikolai Romanovich” have often sparred with each other in the past century, “their representatives often visit Russia and take part in various events.” As RT reports, “none of them have made any political claims.”

RT notes growing support for the possible reestablishment of the constitutional monarchy: “An opinion poll conducted in 2013 in connection with the 400th anniversary of the Romanov royal house showed that 28 percent of Russian citizens would agree to the rule of Tsars…” My own hope is that, with a peaceful and popular restoration of the monarchy some years from now in the wake of the Romanovs’ rehabilitation, Russia could continue to strengthen its post-Soviet national identity and economy, and civil society at large.

No less prominent a person than His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia has publicly supported HIH Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna’s claim to the Russian throne, observing the following:

Are the claims of the descendants of the Romanovs to the Russian throne legitimate? I would like to say right away that there are no pretenders. Today, none of those persons who are descendants of the Romanovs are pretenders to the Russian throne. But in the person of Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna and her son, Georgy, the succession of the Romanovs is preserved—no longer to the Russian Imperial throne, but to history itself.

And I should acknowledge with gratitude to this family and to the many other Romanovs the current contributions they make to the life of our country. Maria Vladimirovna supports a great many good initiatives, she makes visits to Russia, she meets with people, she grants noble status to ordinary people who have in various ways distinguished themselves. I remember very well how, when she was visiting Smolensk, she elevated an old peasant woman to noble status who had done much for her neighbors during the difficult years of the war and immediately after the war. Thus the cultural contributions of this family continue to be very significant in our society.

As His Holiness notes, the Grand Duchess has already been closely engaged in fulfilling non-controversial, ceremonial aspects of imperial duties that would typically be performed by a constitutional monarch. This pattern of already-existent engagements and public activities would likely set an example for any further incorporation of Her Imperial Highness or the other Romanov claimants into Russian public life. With their presence at major national and religious events celebrated by the Russian State and the Russian Orthodox Church, we would likely see an ever-increasing rise in support for the monarchy’s restoration.

This could be a huge, groundbreaking development, with could being the operative word. While the Romanovs are not being offered the Russian Throne, the Leningrad Oblast is offering them residence in one of the many imperial palaces that surround St Petersburg. If they accept, Grand Duchess Maria Vladimirovna and Prince Dimitri Romanovich will likely be acting as cultural figures in Russia, showing up to all the culturally and historically important events and celebrations, and doing charity work on the side, much like King Alexander II in Serbia and Tsar Simeon in Bulgaria. While this is not an invitation to return to the Imperial Throne, this action will surely help rehabilitate the image of Monarchy in the collective mind of the Russian people.

Clandestine plans possibly exist between the Kremlin and the Danilov (MP headquarters) to restore the Romanov House in time for the 2017 centenary of Emperor Nicholas II’s abdication or the 2018 centenary of the imperial martyrdoms. One thing is certain: Petrov could not have extended such a high profile invitation to the Romanov family without the Kremlin’s direct approval and Putin’s subtle encouragement. As one priest friend of mine observed, an eventual “restoration of the Romanov dynasty represents a breathtaking turn of events because it repudiates the Marxist claim to historical inevitability that lies at the heart of that spiritually bankrupt (and murderous) ideology. Like him or not, Putin is a very smart man, arguably one of the strongest leaders on the world stage today. This man understands culture and history.”

This is precisely why a minor Leningrad legislator could not have done any of this without first checking with the Kremlin and the Danilov. This carries the clandestine approval of Putin and his inner circle as well as the Patriarch. We are about to see a breath-taking overturning of the “inevitable” Marxist “once you become a republic you can’t go back” Hegelian view of history. As the same priest observed, when it comes to the possible eventual restoration of the Romanovs, “Dostoevsky may trump Nietsche, at least in the Christendom of the East.”