WHAT DID THE NEW MARTYRS DIE FOR?
When we look down the roll-call of Christian martyrdom, we are struck by the great variety of reasons for which the martyrs suffered. Some were killed for what were clearly reasons of faith - because they confessed the One God against the pagans, or Christ against the Jews, or one or another dogma of the faith against the heretics. But others suffered to defend their chastity (e.g. Martyr Thomais of Alexandria), or because they rebuked injustice (e.g. St. John the Forerunner), or because they refused to return evil for evil (e.g. Saints Boris and Gleb), or simply because they were there, unwitting obstacles to the impious designs of evil men (e.g. the 14,000 innocents of Bethlehem, St. Edward the Martyr). The Holy Church accepts all of them as martyrs because, even if they were not killed specifically for their confession of the faith, nevertheless they died for Christ, being true Christians who suffered an unjust death at the hands of the evil one. They witnessed for Christ in the sense that they imitated Him in life and death, and thereby witnessed to the power of His Resurrection.
The holy new martyrs of Russia present a similar apparent variety in the reasons for their martyrdom. This has led to some to wonder whether they are all really martyrs for Christ. In particular, some have cast doubt on the sanctity of at least some of the Russian new martyrs and confessors on the grounds that they suffered for "political" reasons, for their pronouncements against the crimes of Soviet power or in favour of monarchism.
Now we are familiar with this argument in relation to the Tsar-Martyr Nicholas, an argument that was well refuted by Archbishop Anthony of Los Angeles: "We will speak to the point, in a way that befits an honest, believing Christian. The Tsar-Martyr, and his family as well, suffered for Christian piety. He was opposed to the amorality and godlessness of the communists, both on principle and by virtue of his position - on principle, because he was a deeply believing Orthodox Christian; by virtue of his position, because he was a staunch Orthodox Monarch. For this he was killed. To ask him anything concerning the faith was unnecessary, because he gave witness before the tormentors to his steadfastness in Christian principles by his entire previous life and works, and especially by his profoundly Christian endurance of the moral torments of his imprisonment. He was a staunch defender and protector of the Christian faith, preventing the God-haters from beginning a vicious persecution against believers in Christ and against the whole Orthodox Church. For this reason he was removed and slain...
"It is also known from witnesses still alive that prior to the Revolution it was proposed that the Tsar repeal the strictures against anti-Christian secret societies, and it was threatened that if he refused he would lose his throne and his life. The sovereign firmly refused this proposal. Therefore, they deprived him of his throne and killed him. Thus, he suffered precisely for the faith."
However, it is not only the Tsar's canonisation that has been labelled as a "political" act, an attempt to rehabilitate a "political criminal" or political programme.
Thus A. Zhuravsky writes in his book on the martyrs of the Kazan diocese in 1918: "To the present day many of our contemporaries have preserved the conviction that the majority of those clergy who suffered in 1918 suffered torments not so much for the faith as for their 'political' pronouncements, which were expressed in Church sermons against the violence of atheism, of the Bolshevik terror, of the trampling on the norms of Christian morality and even against Soviet power. Therefore there exists the opinion that it is not worth canonising this or that group of martyrs only because they suffered for 'political crimes', or, on the contrary, suffered as it were by chance, only because they happened to be servants of the cult. In the latter case, it is said, the very fact of 'witnessing' for the truth of Christ is absent."
Zhuravsky goes on to give an effective refutation of these charges: "As regards those who 'suffered by chance', let us point out only that everything happens in accordance with the Providence of God and the 'witness' is priesthood itself, clerical rank, belonging to Orthodoxy, for which these righteous ones were doomed to torments by the godless. Let us also remember that since the times of the persecutions against the first Christians the Eastern Church has maintained the position that the single fact of martyrdom communicates holiness. Moreover, if we turn to the Lives of the Saints, we shall find tens of short descriptions of 'facts' of martyrdom, when both the names of the saints and the circumstances of their martyric deaths remained unknown. For the first Christians it was clear: if the Christian died in the faith and from the pagans, then he died for the faith and for Christ, and consequently, was worthy of veneration, as having already acquired for himself the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. For that reason the Orthodox Church chants in the troparion to the martyrs: 'In your sufferings you acquired unfading crowns...'
"As regards politics, things are not quite so unambiguous. If we turn to the history of the persecutions against the first Christians, we discover to our amazement the wonderful similarity of the position (and reasons for persecution) of the Christians in the conditions of the Roman empire and of the Soviet state. According to Roman legislation, the Christians were persecuted, not for their convictions (for Roman law did not punish convictions, but actions), but for their refusal to bow down to the cult of the emperors. And the Christians were judged as hostes Caesari and hostes rei publicae, that is, as political prisoners, opponents of the authority of Caesar, and as 'enemies of the people'! In the trials of the Christians three main accusations were brought forward: that they were opponents of the state religion (sacrilegium - godless ones), as non-venerators of the cult of Caesar (crimen laesae majestatis) and as secret plotters (they formed secret societies). But that is exactly what we see in the 20th century! The Orthodox Christians and the clergy were also judged, not for their religious convictions (after all, freedom of confession was guaranteed by the Constitution), but for 'political' anti-Soviet activity, for refusing to bow down to the idol of the Bolsheviks' dreams. So do the first Christians, who refused to bow down to the statue of Caesar and rebuked the pagan abomination of idol-worship, differ so much from those pastors of 1918, who rebuked another idol (but also pagan), and other disorders (but of the same kind and nature), witnessing their zeal for their faith with every sermon? As Prudentius, the Christian poet and hymnographer, justly remarked: 'Despising the temple (the pagan temple - A. Zh.) means rejecting the emperors.' But we can make almost the same remark with regard to the 20th century: 'Despising (that is, rejecting) state atheism (godlessness, materialism) means rejecting the revolution (from the point of view of the authorities such a person was a 'counter-revolutionary'). Already from the end of the 1920s Christians began to be accused of, amongst other things, secret plots aimed at the overthrow of the existing system. Let us note that the latter had much in common with the Roman empire. In the Roman empire there was no pagan church: 'That which, among the Christians, related to the sphere of Church activity, in Rome related to the sphere of activity of the state. The priests, pontifexes and flamens were state functionaries; therefore by dint of historical necessity that challenge which the Christian Church hurled at the pagan faith and to which the pagan church had to reply was accepted by the state.’ [Bolotov]
"The Soviet state, like the Roman empire (its much more likeable forerunner), took the challenge of the Church of Christ to the bearers of godless (antichristian) ideology as a challenge to itself, a challenge to Bolshevism, a challenge to the initiators of the mindless plan to erect a new tower of Babylon of the future. And insofar as the state authorities bore the religious function in itself, it descended with all its strength upon its 'rival' and rebuker - the Orthodox Church. All this completely explains why we cannot reject the fact of martyrdom solely because at its base there lies the authorities' declaration of the passion-bearer's 'political guilt'. Every case must be examined individually."
Zhuravsky's point is well taken. And yet, in order to understand what precisely it was that the Russian New Martyrs died for, and the great difficulties they had in defining their relationship to the State - difficulties that the Roman Christians did not experience to anything like the same degree - it is necessary to consider the differences between the situation of the confessing Christians in Old Rome and in the Soviet Union. For since Christ had been born in the Roman Empire and had explicitly commanded the giving to Caesar of what was Caesar's, and the Apostle Paul had had no hesitation in using his Roman citizenship to defend himself against the Jews, the Roman Empire was natural and lawful for Roman Christians in a way that the Soviet state, for many powerful reasons, could never be for Russian Christians.
Thus Tertullian said to the pagans: "Caesar is more truly ours (than yours) because he was put into power by our God". Emperor-worship was not part of the original constitution of the Roman Empire; such famous emperors as Tiberius, Trajan and Marcus Aurelius explicitly rejected it; and those who tried to enforce it, such as Nero, Domitian and Diocletian, in essence imported it from the eastern pagan theocracies. Therefore emperor-worship was, as it were, an heretical aberration from the fundamental Roman conception, which was that the emperor is subject both to his own laws, of which he is the main custodian, and to the laws of God, being emperor "by the will of God" and not "as a god".
"In fact," as Professor Sordi writes, "the imperial cult had never been imposed formally, or even encouraged, by any of the emperors to whom the Christian apologists from Aristides to Quadratus, from Melito to Athenagoras, were addressing their works."
Thus the early Christians could quite clearly and sincerely distinguish the honour in which they held the institution of the empire and the emperor himself (who was established by God) from the disgust they felt for the cult of emperor-worship during the few reigns in which it was imposed; which is why they refused to offer incense to the emperor's statue, while continuing to pay taxes and carry out military service.
Soviet power, however, was established by the overthrow of the Christian Roman Empire and in direct opposition to everything which that Empire stood for. Unlike the pagan Romans, the Bolsheviks did not acknowledge that their power had been established "by the will of God"; nor did they consider themselves subject to any laws, human or Divine. Of course, no society can exist without laws, and the Bolsheviks did create a code of laws; but since the essence of their state was "the mystery of lawlessness" (II Thessalonians 2.7), they had no compunction in breaking their own laws whenever it suited them - which, in the case of relations with the Church and Christians, meant most of the time.
This placed the Christians before a most acute dilemma. Their first instinct - an instinct which found expression above all in the decrees of the Local Council of the Russian Church - was to refuse any kind of recognition for the Soviet state. Thus on November 11, 1917 the Council addressed a letter to the faithful, parts of which hinted at a complete rejection of the Bolshevik regime: "To our grief, as yet no government has arisen which is sufficiently one with the people to deserve the blessing of the Orthodox Church." Again, on January 19, 1918 Patriarch Tikhon issued his famous anathema against the Bolsheviks and their co-workers. And he adjured all Christians "not to commune with such outcasts of the human race in any matter whatsoever".
A few days later, the Council endorsed the Patriarch's anathema in even stronger language: "The Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia in his epistle to the beloved in the Lord archpastors, pastors and all faithful children of the Orthodox Church of Christ has drawn the spiritual sword against the outcasts of the human race - the Bolsheviks, and anathematized them. The head of the Russian Orthodox Church adjures all her faithful children not to enter into any communion with these outcasts. For their satanic deeds they are cursed in this life and in the life to come. Orthodox! His Holiness the Patriarch has been given the right to bind and to loose according to the word of the Saviour... Do not destroy your souls, cease communion with the servants of Satan - the Bolsheviks. Parents, if your children are Bolsheviks, demand authoritatively that they renounce their errors, that they bring forth repentance for their eternal sin, and if they do not obey you, renounce them. Wives, if your husbands are Bolsheviks and stubbornly continue to serve Satan, leave your husbands, save yourselves and your children from the soul-destroying infection. An Orthodox Christian cannot have communion with the servants of the devil... Repent, and with burning prayer call for help from the Lord of Hosts and thrust away from yourselves 'the hand of strangers' - the age-old enemies of the Christian faith, who have declared themselves in self-appointed fashion 'the people's power'... If you do not obey the Church, you will not be her sons, but participants in the cruel and satanic deeds wrought by the open and secret enemies of Christian truth... Dare! Do not delay! Do not destroy your soul and hand it over to the devil and his stooges."
This first instinct of the Russian Church in the face of Soviet power has never been extinguished among Russian Christians. It continued to manifest itself both at home and abroad (for example, in the First All-Emigration Council of the Russian Church Abroad in 1921), both in the early and the later decades of Soviet power (for example, among the "passportless" Christians of the Catacomb Church). However, it was very soon tempered by the realisation that such outright rejection of Soviet power on a large scale could be sustained only by war - and after the defeat of the White Armies in the Civil War there were no armies left to carry on the fight against the Bolsheviks.
Therefore from the early 1920s a new attitude towards Soviet power began to evolve among the Tikhonite Christians: loyalty towards it as a political institution ("for all power is from God"), and acceptance of such of its laws as could be interpreted in favour of the Church (for example, the law on the separation of Church and State), combined with rejection of its atheistic world-view (large parts of which the renovationists, by contrast, accepted). In essence, this new attitude involved accepting that the Soviet State was not Antichrist, as the Local Council of 1917-18 and the Russian Church Abroad had in effect declared, but Caesar, no worse in principle than the Caesars of Ancient Rome, to whom the things belonging to Caesar were due. This attitude involved the assertion that it was possible, in the Soviet Union as in Ancient Rome, to draw a clear line between politics and religion.
But in practice, even more than in theory, this line proved very hard to draw. For for the early Bolsheviks, at any rate, there was no such dividing line; for them, everything was ideological, everything had to be in accordance with their ideology, there could be no room for disagreement, no private spheres into which the state and its ideology did not pry. Unlike most of the Roman emperors, who allowed the Christians to order their own lives in their own way so long as they showed loyalty to the state (which, as we have seen, the Christians were very eager to do), the Bolsheviks insisted in imposing their own ways upon the Christians in every sphere: in family life (civil marriage only, divorce on demand, children spying on parents), in education (compulsory Marxism), in economics (dekulakization, collectivization), in military service (the oath of allegiance to Lenin), in science (Lysenkoism), in art (socialist realism), and in religion (the requisitioning of valuables, registration, commemoration of the authorities at the Liturgy, reporting of confessions by the priests). Resistance to any one of these demands was counted as "anti-Soviet behaviour", i.e. political disloyalty. Therefore it was no use protesting one's political loyalty to the regime if one refused to accept just one of these demands. According to the Soviet interpretation of the word: "Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one has become guilty of all of it" (James 2.10), such a person was an enemy of the people.
In view of this, it is not surprising that many Christians came to the conclusion that, as the English saying goes, "hung for a penny, hung for a pound" - it was less morally debilitating to reject the whole regime that made such impossible demands, since the penalty would be the same whether one asserted one's loyalty to it or not. And if this meant living as an outlaw, so be it. Such a rejection of, or flight from the state had precedents in Russian history; and we find some priests, such as Hieromartyr Timothy Strelkov of Mikhailovka (+1930) and even some bishops, such as Hieroconfessor Amphilochius of Yeniseisk (+1946), adopting this course.
Nevertheless, the path of total rejection of the Soviet state required enormous courage, strength and self-sacrifice, not only for oneself but also (which was more difficult) for one's family or flock. It is therefore not surprising that, already during the Civil War, the Church began to soften her anti-Soviet rhetoric and try once more to draw the line between politics and religion. This is what Patriarch Tikhon tried to do in the later years of his patriarchate - with, it must be said, only mixed results. Thus his decision to allow some, but not all of the Church's valuables to be requisitioned by the Bolsheviks in 1922 not only did not bring help to the starving of the Volga, as was the intention, but led to many clashes between believers and the authorities and many deaths of believers. For, as the holy Elder Nectarius of Optina said: "You see now, the patriarch gave the order to give up all valuables from the churches, but they belonged to the Church!"
The decision to negotiate and compromise with the Bolsheviks - in transgression of the decrees of the 1917-18 Council - only brought confusion and division to the Church. Thus on the right wing of the Church there were those, like Archbishop Theodore of Volokolamsk, who thought that the patriarch had already gone too far; while on the left wing there were those, like Archbishop Hilarion of Verey, who wanted to go further. The basic problem was that the compromises were always one-sided; the Bolsheviks always took and never gave; their aim was not peaceful co-existence, but the complete conquest of the Church.
And so, as a "Letter from Russia" put it many years later: "It's no use our manoeuvring: there's nothing for us to preserve except the things that are God's. For the things that are Caesar's (if one should really consider it to be Caesar and not Pharaoh) are always associated with the quenching of the Spirit..."
However, the Patriarchal Church remained Orthodox under Patriarch Tikhon and his successor, Metropolitan Peter, for two major reasons: first, because the leaders of the Church did not sacrifice the lives of their fellow Christians for the sake of their own security or the security of the Church organisation; and secondly, because, while the Soviet regime was recognised to be, in effect, Caesar rather than Pharoah, no further concessions were made with regard to the communist ideology.
Everything changed, however, with Metropolitan Sergius' notorious declaration of 1927. By declaring that the Soviet regime's joys were the Church's joys, and its sorrows the Church's sorrows, Sergius in effect declared an identity of aims between the Church and the State. And this was not just a lie, but a lie against the faith, a concession to the communist ideology. In fact, it implied that communism as such was good, and its victory to be welcomed.
Moreover, Sergius followed this up by committing the sin of Judas; he placed all those who disagreed with him under ban and in effect handed them over to the GPU as "counter-revolutionaries". Far from "saving the Church", as he claimed, he condemned its finest members to torture and death. And then his successors in the present-day Moscow Patriarchate followed this up with the sin of Pilate - the criminal indifference to the truth manifest in their participation, albiet under pressure from the communists as Pilate had been from the Jews, in the "heresy of heresies", ecumenism.
In order to protect the flock of Christ from Sergius' apostasy, the leaders of the True Church had to draw once more the line between politics and religion. One approach was to distinguish between physical opposition to the regime and spiritual opposition to it. Thus Archbishop Barlaam of Perm wrote that physical opposition was not permitted, but spiritual opposition was obligatory.
Again, Hieromartyr Bishop Mark (Novoselov) wrote: “I am an enemy of Soviet power – and what is more, by dint of my religious convictions, insofar as Soviet power is an atheist power and even anti-theist. I believe that as a true Christian I cannot strengthen this power by any means… [There is] a petition which the Church has commanded to be used everyday in certain well-known conditions… The purpose of this formula is to request the overthrow of the infidel power by God… But this formula does not amount to a summons to believers to take active measures, but only calls them to pray for the overthrow of the power that has fallen away from God.”
This criterion allowed Christians quite sincerely to reject the charge of "counter-revolution" - if "counter-revolution" were understood to mean physical rebellion. The problem was, as we have seen, that the Bolsheviks understood "counter-revolution" in a much wider sense…
Another, still more basic problem was that it still left the question whether Soviet power was from God or not unresolved. If Soviet power was from God, it should be counted as Caesar and should be given what was Caesar's. But bitter experience had shown that this "Caesar" wanted to seat himself in the temple as if he were God (II Thessalonians 2.4). So was he not in fact Antichrist, whose power is not from God, but from Satan (Revelation 13.2), being allowed, but by no means established by God for the punishment of sinners? If so, then there was no alternative but to flee into the catacombs, rejecting totally the government of Satan on earth.
In the early years after Metropolitan Sergius' declaration, many Catacomb Christians, while in practice not surrendering what was God's to the Soviets, in theory could not make up their minds whether the Soviet regime was Caesar or Antichrist. Thus Hieromartyr Joseph (Gavrilov), superior of Raithu Desert (+1930), confessed at his interrogation: "I have never, and do not now, belong to any political parties. I consider Soviet power to be given from God, but a power that is from God must fulfil the will of God, and Soviet power does not fulfil the will of God. Therefore it is not from God, but from Satan. It closes churches, mocks the holy icons, teaches children atheism, etc. That is, it fulfills the will of Satan... It is better to die with faith than without faith. I am a real believer, faith has saved me in battles, and I hope that in the future faith will save me from death. I firmly believe in the Resurrection of Christ and His Second Coming. I have not gone against the taxes, since it says in Scripture: 'To Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.'"
From this confession, impressive though it is, it is not clear whether Hieromartyr Joseph recognised the Soviet regime as Caesar, and therefore from God, or as Antichrist, and therefore from Satan. In the end the Bolsheviks resolved his dilemma for him. They shot him, and therefore showed that they were - Antichrist.
In the Russian Church in Exile, meanwhile, a consensus had emerged that the Soviet regime was not Caesar, but Antichrist. This was the position of, for example, Archbishop Theophanes of Poltava, Metropolitan Innocent of Peking and Archbishop Averky of Jordanville. As Archbishop Theophanes put it in the same critical year of 1927: "The Bolshevik authorities are in essence antichristian, and there is no way in which they can be recognised as being established by God."
The Catacomb Church was not able, of course, to define her position in an official manner because of the near impossibility of convening a Council representing the whole Church in the catacombs. However, her relationship to the Soviet State was defined in a catacomb document dating from the Brezhnev years as follows:
"Authority is given by God in order to preserve and fulfill the law... But how should one look on the Soviet authority, following the Apostolic teaching on authorities [Romans 13]? In accordance with the Apostolic teaching which we have set forth, one must acknowledge that the Soviet authority is not an authority. It is an anti-authority. It is not an authority because it is not established by God, but insolently created by an aggregation of the evil actions of men, and it is consolidated and supported by these actions. If the evil actions weaken, the Soviet authority, representing a condensation of evil, likewise weakens... This authority consolidates itself in order to destroy all religions, simply to eradicate faith in God. Its essence is warfare with God, because its root is from satan. The Soviet authority is not authority, because by its nature it cannot fulfill the law, for the essence of its life is evil.
"It may be said that the Soviet authority, in condemning various crimes of men, can still be considered an authority. We do not say that a ruling authority is totally lacking. We only affirm that it is an anti-authority. One must know that the affirmation of real power is bound up with certain actions of men, to whom the instinct of preservation is natural. And they must take into consideration the laws of morality which have been inherent in mankind from ages past. But in essence this authority systematically commits murder physically and spiritually. In reality a hostile power acts, which is called Soviet authority. The enemy strives by cunning to compel humanity to acknowledge this power as an authority. But the Apostolic teaching on authority is inapplicable to it, just as evil is inapplicable to God and the good, because evil is outside God; but the enemies with hypocrisy can take refuge in the well-known saying that everything is from God.
"This Soviet anti-authority is precisely the collective Antichrist, warfare against God..."
Thus we come to the conclusion that the confessing Christians of the Soviet Union suffered and died precisely for Christ and against the Antichrist. This was not a political struggle because the Antichrist is not a purely political figure. In his kingdom there is no sustainable boundary between religion and politics; everything is both religion and politics; for he claims to be both lord (of the bodies) and god (of the souls) of his subjects. This being so, it is impossible to resist the Antichrist in one sphere while co-operating with him in another - the totalitarian man-god must be rejected totally. It is the glory of the holy new Martyrs and Confessors of Russia that, having exhausted all attempts to achieve some kind of honourable modus vivendi with the Antichrist (more often than not, for the sake of others rather than themselves), when they were finally presented with the stark choice between the man-god and the God-Man, they boldly and unswervingly chose the latter, proclaiming: "Thou art my Lord and my God" (John 20.28).
March 26 / April 8, 1999.
Holy Archangel Gabriel.