For over three decades, Blessed Nikolai of Pskov waged the spiritual struggle of being a fool for Christ. Well before his death, he acquired grace-filled gifts of the Holy Spirit and was made worthy of the gifts of wonder working and prophecy. His contemporaries in Pskov referred to him as Mikula (Mikola, Nikola) Sallos, which, translated from the Greek means “blessed, holy fool.” During his lifetime, people already venerated him as a saint, calling him “Mikula the Holy.”
In February 1570, after waging a devastating campaign with his oprichnina [special forces] against Novgorod, Tsar Ivan [Ioann] Grozny [the Formidable, often translated in the West as “the Terrible”] was preparing to inflict the same fate upon Pskov, which he suspected of treason. According to the Pskov Chronicle, “the Tsar came... with great anger, roaring like a lion, wanting to tear apart the innocent people, and to spill a great deal of blood.”
The entire city prayed that the Tsar’s anger might be averted. The miraculous Liubyatovskaya “Tenderness” Icon of the Mother of God bears an inscription to the effect that on hearing the bells for Matins ringing throughout the city, the Tsar (whose forces were arrayed in Liubyatov) “with his heart softened, said to his warriors, ‘Blunt your swords against the stones, and let the killing come to an end.’”
The residents of Pskov came out onto the streets. Kneeling in front of their houses, each family, met the Tsar with the bread and salt of greeting. On one of the streets, Blessed Nikolai ran out, riding a broomstick, and shouting “Ivanushka, Ivanushka, come eat bread and salt instead of Christians’ blood.”
The Tsar ordered that the fool for Christ be seized, but he disappeared. Ivan Grozny still harbored the intention of looting the city. He attended the Moleben in the Holy Trinity Cathedral, venerated the relics of Holy Righteous Prince Vsevolod-Gavriil, and then sought Blessed Nikolai’s blessing.
When the Tsar came into Blessed Nikolai’s cell, the Blessed One said, “Don’t touch us, itinerant; leave us, [otherwise] you won’t have anything on which to flee.” The Fool for Christ offered the Tsar a piece of raw meat to eat. Ioann said to him, “I am a Christian, and do not eat meat during Lent.” “You drink human blood,” replied the Blessed One, and with “many terrifying words” instructed him to put an end to his killing and his looting of God’s holy churches. Ioann did not listen and ordered the removal of the Holy Trinity Cathedral bell. Then, as prophesied by the Saint, the Tsar’s best mount fell dead.
The Blessed One’s prayer and instruction awakened the Tsar’s conscience. Frightened by the fulfillment of the prophecy, and stung by the denunciations of his evil deeds, Grozny ordered his forces to stop looting, and fled the city. Oprichniky who had witnessed this later wrote, “The powerful tyrant... left defeated, put to shame and fright, literally driven off by the foe. Thus did the lowly one, who had [no weapons], terrify and drive off the Tsar and his many thousands of soldiers.”
Blessed Nikolai reposed on 28 February 1576 and was interred in the Holy Trinity Cathedral, in the city he had rescued. This was an honor previously accorded only to the princes, and later, the archpastors, of Pskov.
Local veneration of the Blessed One began a mere 5 years after his death. In 1581, while the forces of King Stephan Batory of Poland were besieging Pskov, a blacksmith named Dorothei had a vision of the Mother of God and the assembly of the saints of Pskov—including Blessed Nikolai—praying for the city.
To this day, the relics of Blessed Nikolai of Pskov are in Pskov’s Holy Trinity Cathedral.