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Russia’s new saints and the challenges of memory

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The Soviet-era repression of Christian clerics has led to the posthumous recognition of many new Orthodox saints. But the faithful, it seems, are not interested. They still prefer the quick fix of traditional saints to these humble “new martyrs”, writes Stella Rock.

Stella Rock
9 August 2011

Saints, in Russia as elsewhere, tend to reveal themselves posthumously in a number of ways. They work miracles and generate popular veneration; they elude the natural process of physical decay and remain uncorrupt after death; they appear in the dreams of the living, or – as corpses – spontaneously rise up out of the earth, exude wonderful fragrance. When, during the reconstruction of an isolated Siberian village church in 2002, the well-preserved body of a priest was unexpectedly revealed by the excavator, those present knew almost at once that they were witnessing the discovery of a saint. Beneath the abundant hair still adhering to his scalp, a small bullet hole indicated that this was one of the thousands of clerics executed during the first decades of the Soviet regime. That his hands appeared to be fixed in the sign of benediction announced to some present that he had died blessing his executioners: the anonymous priest had to be one of Russia’s ‘new martyrs’ (more listed here, in Russian).

St Konstantin the Priest-Martyr, as he is now known, was only twenty two years old when he was shot in 1918, and had been a parish priest for just over a year. When Merkushino’s villagers violently rebelled against a Red Army draft, their young priest apparently encouraged them to take their troubles to the shrine of the local miracle-worker, St Simeon, a few days’ walk away in Verkhutorye. The villagers set off carrying icons, pitchforks and hunting rifles (these were wild times, and icons alone might not be protection enough), but never made it to St Simeon’s shrine. Their procession was interpreted as armed insurrection, and as the ‘instigator’ of this rebellion against Soviet power Konstantin was publically executed ten days later, together with the church warden.

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Monastery of St Nicholas, Verkhutorye: home to the relics of St Simeon.

Before the revolution Merkushino was a thriving village with a harbour and 3,000 parishioners, according to Father Ioann, Konstantin’s cheerful successor who – along with the nuns of an Ekaterinburg convent – has been instrumental in rebuilding Merkushino as a place of pilgrimage. Nowadays there is a single shop, which caters for a hundred or so households and the pilgrims that have been coming to the village since the late 1990s. The attraction is not St Konstantin, however, although he lies in a glass-topped casket with his hands impressively visible. Pilgrims come rather to venerate the empty grave of St Simeon, the wonderworker to whom Merkushino’s peasants turned for help in 1918. Like Konstantin, Simeon rose out of their village earth uncorrupted to declare his own sanctity, after lying in obscurity for decades. Viewing his miraculously preserved body, elderly villagers began to recall a humble tailor, who prayed on a rock and died in his early thirties. Within a few years Simeon had a reputation for sanctity that demanded his relics be moved to a more prestigious home.

‘While our people do not value the spiritual feat of the new martyrs, while they do not understand that period, its mistakes and the causes of these atrocities, we cannot build a new Russia.’

Nun, Ekaterinburg

Simeon’s fame now, as then, is as a miracle-worker. In 1704, when Merkushino’s villagers were persuaded to move St Simeon’s body to a monastery in the nearby town, they discovered beneath it a spring which seemed to heal them as efficiently as his relics. It apparently still does – and although St Simeon’s spring is reputed to be particularly efficient at curing eyes and legs, the saint may be appealed to for just about anything. The monastery at Verkhutorye keeps a photo album next to his relics, full of letters and photographs sent to the saint. Among those thanking him for help is a woman from Germany who, after being told that she couldn't have children, prayed to St Simeon and gave birth to a daughter. Shrines associated with him are correspondingly popular. ‘In July, the height of the pilgrimage season,’ Father Ioann tells me, ‘we might get 20 to 28 busloads of pilgrims every weekend, all wanting even just a cupful of the holy water. Sometimes they drink the spring dry.’

While major pre-revolutionary shrines such as those associated with St Simeon are now flourishing, shrines associated with the ‘new martyrs’ of the Soviet period – such as Butovo, where twenty thousand victims (many of whom were bishops, priests and nuns) were shot – do not seem to resonate with the Orthodox faithful. A few recently canonized saints have developed a large following (most notably the Romanovs and the blind Soviet seer Matrona), but the vast mass of new martyrs remain unvenerated. ‘Unfortunately’, muses the parish priest of Butovo’s Church of the Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia in a recent magazine article, ‘our relationship with the Church is primarily material, that of consumers. We basically pray that God will sort out our earthly life; send us health, resolve life’s problems’(link in Russian). Saints who are reputed to provide a quick fix for the miseries of pain, infertility, alcoholism and cancer easily trump their more humble counterparts, the clergy and recalcitrant lay Christians who quietly toppled into mass graves in Russia’s deep forests.

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St Konstantin the Priest-Martyr was 22 when he fell victim to Bolshevik repression. He was canonised in 2002. Picture: Sandra Reddin

That Russians continue to neglect those who have been canonised as ‘new martyrs’ troubles the current church hierarchy. In February 2011 the Bishops’ Council approved a document that has been over a year in preparation, entitled ‘On measures to preserve the memory of new martyrs, confessors and all those innocents who suffered under the opponents of God in the years of persecution.’[link in Russian] The document reiterates the Russian Orthodox Church’s reverence for those who bore Christian witness during the Soviet period, declaring that ‘the spiritual fruits of this feat must be assimilated by our society.’ Moreover, the Church calls on society ‘to preserve the memory of these tragic pages of history’.

To ensure that the period of persecution is remembered and that the example set by these new saints is fully appreciated by the faithful, the document enumerates a range of measures. New churches must be dedicated to them and services held at the sites associated with their lives and deaths; study of them must be included in the curricula of seminaries and Orthodox educational institutions; their names must appear in the official church calendar and liturgical texts celebrating them ‘speedily published’.  Lest they be forgotten beyond the walls of the church, diocesan officials are called upon to work with local government to create public memorials in honour of the new saints, and to ensure that ‘the names of those responsible for the organisation of the persecution and destruction of innocent people’ are erased from street signs and public places.

This latter measure is likely to prove controversial, as the quintessentially post-Soviet images of Dzerzhinskii’s statue being knocked down and the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour being rebuilt obscure a far more complicated pattern of public recollection and amnesia. Ekaterinburg may have rejected the name Sverdlovsk and built a grandiose church over the spot where the Romanovs were shot (a conscious effort to create ‘a source of historical memory’), but the statues of those many hold responsible for their murders still stand on the city’s main thoroughfares. Sverdlov’s monument is occasionally daubed in red paint by disgruntled locals, but mostly he, like Lenin, quietly coexists with the city’s most famous saints. At dawn on the anniversary of the murders, pilgrims processing to a monastery built around the mineshaft into which the royal bodies were thrown must pass under Lenin’s upraised arm. This five hour ‘procession of the cross’ – a Church-led gesture of collective repentance for regicide – now attracts tens of thousands of participants, but until just last year pilgrims travelling from distant regions of Russia purchased their train tickets to Sverdlovsk station in Sverdlovsk oblast.

The Romanovs are the only ‘new martyrs’ widely venerated in Russia. Their status, their photogenic appearance, the tragic youth of the children, and the quantity of evidence available about their personal and public lives all combine to endow them with significant popular appeal. Diocesan literature repeatedly stresses their potential as role models for contemporary families, their piety and love for one another, as well as their symbolic value as representatives of a Holy Russia waiting to be resurrected. Believers are able to feel an intimate connection with individual Romanovs, or with the family as a whole, in the same way that they do with ‘Batiushka Seraphim’ of Sarov, or ‘little Ksenia’ of Petersburg.

In contrast, many Soviet-era martyrs left behind scant trace of their lives and, without a narrative to which worshippers can relate their own lives and problems, they hold little popular appeal. Sometimes not even a photograph survives, which presents a problem for those icon painters faced with the task of creating an iconographic type for the newly canonised saint. When Konstantin was canonised as a new martyr in 2002, the Ekaterinburg nuns tasked with creating his icon had to base their initial sketches on photographs of his brother, since none of Konstantin himself could be found, and on his corpse. Fortunately, along with his hair, the 22 year’s beard, eyelashes, clothes and skin (with the exception of that on his feet) were still intact, which meant that a reasonable likeness – stylised according to Byzantine iconographic traditions – could be achieved. 

St Konstantin’s Life was also composed by the sisters at Ekaterinburg’s Novo-Tikhvin Convent Amongst the nuns are a number of professional historians, and the Ekaterinburg diocesan commission for the canonization of saints is based at their convent. Committees across the country are tasked with constructing a case for every candidate their diocese wishes to recommend for sainthood, which – if the local Bishop judges it to be satisfactory – will then be sent to Moscow’s Synodal Commission for authorisation. This complicated task is made harder by the fact that state archives, as the Bishops’ Council report makes clear, continue to restrict access to documentary testimony of the lives of Soviet citizens, including evidence of their repression and execution.

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Winters in Urals are long and harsh. Merkushino: the one-time home of St Konstantin the Priest-Martyr and St Simeon, now rebuilt as a place of pilgrimage. Picture: Sandra Reddin

The Novo-Tikhvin convent has a metochion at Merkushino, and when – a year before his body was discovered – the nuns spotted a reference to Merkushino’s parish priest on a list of clerics executed in 1918, they began to research further. Sisters interviewed elderly residents in Merkushino, the children of Konstantin’s contemporaries, and combed archives for details of his brief life. The usual problems of perspective are aggravated in such contested historical territory: was the peasants’ march to Verkhoturye a pilgrimage, as the villagers maintained, or – as later reports of Party eyewitnesses would have it – a ‘crusade’ against the Soviet authorities then (albeit tenuously) in control of the Urals? In every case, the Commission for Canonisation must attempt to discern whether a victim was shot for political reasons, or simply for being a member of the Church.

This was a particularly messy period, and individuals were continually faced with morally challenging decisions. One Verkhoturye convent brochure is pleasingly frank about the oddities of the time: 'For the sake of truth, it should be remembered that until this time [1922, when the convent was turned into a workers’ co-operative] the convent survived the evil times comparatively well. The retreating White Army troops behaved rudely and disgracefully towards the convent, stealing produce, but the Red Army, on the contrary, to everyone's astonishment, behaved extremely respectfully.' But the pressure on religious institutions mounted, and increasingly to maintain an active and public Christian faith meant being prepared for the arrest, imprisonment and perhaps death of oneself and – even harder – one’s family.

"That Russians continue to neglect those who have been canonised as ‘new martyrs’ troubles the current church hierarchy."

Stella Rock

The new martyrs, suggests Butovo’s Father Kirill, call the whole Church to reflection. How was it that Orthodox Russia dissolved into fratricidal strife and the atheist excesses of the 20s and 30s? While some find it easier to seek out and blame ‘saboteurs’ or foreign enemies, Father Kirill believes the example of the new martyrs promotes a careful, if painful, examination of collective conscience. One of Butovo’s bishop martyrs, he reminds us, sadly reflected at the end of the 1920s that ‘we could have done so much, and we did nothing’ [Dmitrii (Dobroserdov), Archbishop of Mozhaisk, shot in 1937]. The Ekaterinburg nuns agree. For them, uncovering the past is not so much about creating or maintaining historical memory as about learning from history in order to live better in the future. As one sister puts it:  ‘While our people do not value the spiritual feat of the new martyrs, while they do not understand that period, its mistakes and the causes of these atrocities, we cannot build a new Russia.’ 

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