These days in Church circles there is more and more talk that the lives of the new martyrs remain irrelevant, and the names of the majority of new martyrs and confessors of Russia are little known even to church people. That is true, and it indicates that Church-related issues are alien to the bulk of modern Russian society. This is why new martyrs’ подвиг is still incomprehensible.
Interestingly, this attitude in our society towards Church issues is a repeat of our fellow-countrymen’s sentiments of more than 100 years ago. It means that the environment in which new martyrs’ worldview concerning the Christian faith was formed is very similar to that of our times. And in many aspects, that formation developed not because of the surrounding reality, but in spite of it.
The Russian tsar Peter the Great and his entourage openly apostatized from the Church during that era, and by the beginning of the twentieth century this apostasy reached the lower class, the most conservative strata of society. The people’s alienation from the Church was often reinforced by the apostasy of the clergy themselves. This is why the new martyrs are truly the salt of the Russian land—the people who were able to remain faithful to Christ and the Church during the period of countrywide religious confusion.
It would seem that the canonization of a host of Russian saints in the post-Soviet period would contradict the above. About 1,500 new martyrs have been canonized; that is an enormous number for the Russian Church. But if we take into consideration that 130,000 representatives of the clergy alone were executed by firing squad in the Soviet period before 1943, then this number is no longer so imposing. The emergence of a militant atheistic state on the ruins of the former Russia is indicative of the nearly total falling away of the Russian people from God and the Church of Christ. The Lord allowed this to happen because He obviously could not find ten righteous people per each Russian “Sodom”. Beyond all doubt, rudiments of religious life tend to continue in people’s everyday life, but a living and conscious faith becomes a great rarity.
The faith of some turned into unbelief, and the faith of others turned to ritualism. Some even managed to combine both. For example, Sergei Iosifovich Fudel [1900-1977, a Russian theologian and memoirist] mentioned a former senior conductor who weekly attended church services and regularly fasted but in reality turned out to be a full-fledged atheist: “Our conversation was gradually switched over to a more serious topic—the death of our loved ones. And as soon as I said that the day would come when we would see all of them again, the old man instantly raised his bushy eyebrows in sincere amazement. ‘Are you serious? Do you really mean it? Those are all priests’ tales! We will die and everything will stop! There will be nothing there’.”
Today many speak of the revival of the Orthodox faith in Russia. If we measure it only by the number of churches and monasteries that have been built or restored over the past twenty-five years, then the revival is obvious. But if we take into account that the overwhelming majority of our fellow-countrymen who identify themselves as Orthodox (between seventy and eighty per cent of Russia’s population) have a very vague idea of church life and go to church only on the days of their personal sorrow, then we see that the picture is not optimistic at all. And if we add that one third of these “statistically Orthodox” people say that they do not believe in God, then we will have to admit that the ideological heirs of the aforementioned senior conductor are spreading across the Russian land and gradually filling it with themselves.
For this reason the idea that it is necessary to study the history of early twentieth century Russia looks very natural. Most precious for us is the evidence of Russian saints of that era who repeatedly warned Russian society of fatal effects of abandoning God and falling away from the Church.
In this sense, the life of Hieromartyr Hilarion (Troitsky; 1886-1929) is very interesting, because the falling away of the Russian people from the Church was one of the main subjects he studied during his days as a student.
By the time Vladimir Troitsky (the secular name of St. Hilarion) studied at the seminary and academy (1900-1910), a considerable part of Russian society had been carried away by revolutionary ideas. And it was the theological schools that often became hotbeds of these ideas. The winds of revolution did not pass by the Moscow Theological Academy either. “Vladimir Alexeyevich joined the academy in 1906, when the fumes of the revolution that had infiltrated into the academy were just beginning to clear away but without disappearing completely. Vladimir Alexeyevich had to endure much. He used to say, ‘Shame on the academy that has changed the white robes of sober and pure science for the bright but dirty multi-colored rags of street politics.’ Shame upon the academy, which he loved ‘as a beloved bride’… But the terror did not disappear without leaving a mark on Vladimir Alexeyevich: His thoroughly analytical mind could not settle down until it determined why that terrible storm had captivated such broad circles. One of the key factors that determined the movement’s large scale was the secular nature of our society, which for the most part had lost its ties with the Church and had forsaken its age-old traditions… As soon as it became clear enough… he devoted his compulsory essays and his spare time to developing the question of the Church and ecclesiasticism.”
In 1909, in his fourth year at the Moscow Theological Academy, Vladimir Troitsky delivered a speech during the celebration of the academy’s ninety-fifth anniversary, which was later published in the Theological Bulletin journal under the heading: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
The young theologian saw the meaning, purpose and justification of life in the Church. Apostasy from the Church cannot remain unpunished and is already a punishment in itself. Worship and service of the true God in Christ are possible only in the Church, and those who drift away from the Church actually abandon God together with Her. As the saying goes: “A holy place is never empty.” A false concept of God comes to replace the real God—which, as a matter of fact, is an idol. “Life is full of idols. We encounter idols and idolaters at every step. True, you will not be able to see idols of stone, gold and silver. But the subtle and often unconscious idolatry, which uses service of the true God as a cover and is therefore more dangerous, has spread over the face of Earth like a dirty wave.”
Idolatry of this kind comes into a Christian’s life unnoticed and by degrees takes control of his heart. “Ask one of our contemporaries: What does he live for? What is the most important thing for him? He will say: family, a position, public activities, or commerce. Very few will mention science and some will state pleasures and personal welfare. But will anybody say that the things he holds dear to his heart are God, the Church, the salvation of soul, and eternal life? No, hardly anyone will ever remember this, the ‘one thing needful’. Christ is totally removed from human life, though many dare not openly drive Him away. People do not want to abandon Christ completely, but they do not love Him enough to prefer Him to all other ‘gods’. And so all efforts are exerted to ensure that all the idols of the world are preserved so that they could worship both Christ and belial simultaneously. People have divided their lives among many gods. The larger part of one’s life is devoted to the service of idols of all sorts, and only an infinitesimal bit of life is devoted to a quick and hasty worship of the true God.”
Church life, which sanctifies human life and gives it purpose, is replaced with religiosity that becomes only an insignificant part of life and serves mainly practical needs. “Now we hear only of the ‘satisfaction of religious needs’ or ‘performance of religious duties’; and both the needs and duties are surprisingly scanty in comparison with other requirements and obligations of various kinds.”
The conciliar character of church life is lost. Idols of non-Church forms of “Christianity” come up to take the Church’s place. “Idols are more and more supplanting Christ in human life… In our days Christianity manifests itself only as a private, hidden piety, while Christian life has completely fallen into decline. Christian life is possible only in the Church; only the Church does the life of Christ live.”
The twenty-three-year-old man became convinced of the truths that were to become the unfailing guiding star in his life: Without the Church there is no life, no salvation, no knowledge of God; that is, no theology, which is inseparable from piety, according to the tradition of the Church and, above all, to the writings of the Holy Fathers, those “spirit-bearing theologians.” And the future hierarch referred only to the Orthodox Church as to the Church with a capital C.
Despite his very young age, as early as 1909 Vladimir Troitsky perfectly understood not only the main trouble of Russia (which later led to a catastrophe) but also the sole way out of this trouble: “Clouds without water, carried about of winds, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness for ever (see Jude 12, 13) have come to our Russian plain from all sides. Their mouths are uttering pompous words… The gates of hell have accumulated all their strength and rushed towards the Holy Church… We believe, firmly believe that no winds, no tempests are capable of drowning the ship of Christ!... To count the empty and dead idols of the vain world but loss, to count all of them but dung (cf. Phil. 3:8) and to serve God alone and His Holy Church—there is not and cannot be anything higher than this!”
And it is not only worldliness, the secular mind, but it is also false ideas of God and the paths of salvation, the distortion and disregard of the truths of faith that tempt man and lead him astray. And it is difficult to say what is worse. “If you flee from a wolf you will run into a bear,” Elder Ambrose of Optina used to say. During the VII Ecumenical Council, Epiphanius, a learned deacon from Catana in Sicily, approached St. Tarasius, Patriarch of Constantinople, with a question on the heresy of iconoclasm. He asked, “Is this heresy more pernicious or less pernicious than those that existed before?” And His Holiness Patriarch Tarasius answered, “Evil is always evil, especially in the Church matters; as for the tenets of faith, either you transgress against a minor one or against a basic one—it makes no difference; because in both cases the law of God has been violated.”
This is precisely how Father Hilarion (in 1913 he became a monk and from 1913 till 1920 was archimandrite and inspector of the Moscow Theological Academy) perceived heterodox denominations. In his view, they are ontologically so alien to Orthodoxy that he did not consider it possible to call them Churches.
“Several Churches have appeared,” he used to say with perplexity. “The Orthodox, Catholic and even Protestant and Anglican Churches and so on, though it should be clear that one Head can have only one body.” For him the antonym to the word “Catholic” was not the word “Orthodox” but “the Church”; thus he stressed “the essential difference between Catholic life and Church life,” since for him there is only one theanthropic community whose proper name is “the Church”.
For Hieromartyr Hilarion, ecclesiology (study of the Church) was not so much a branch of theology as a basic principle, quintessence, the prime pre-requisite of theology, since the Church is a theanthropic organism in which man, who was created in God’s image and likeness, restores his natural integrity, acquires the likeness of the Holy Trinity and becomes God by grace. The Church as “the fullness… that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:23), reveals Herself not only as the keeper of the Revelation, the Holy Tradition, but also as the Holy Tradition itself, because She was founded and handed over to us by the Son of God, and as the Revelation itself, because God is revealed to us in His energies only in Her and through Her.
The realization of this meaning of ecclesiology for St. Hilarion was the foundation of his unshakeable steadfastness in the “raging sea” of schisms during the Bolshevist persecutions of the Church.
Archimandrite Hilarion devoted special attention to refuting the errors of Catholicism, Protestantism and humanism—those three rationalist tendencies of religious life outside the Church that had the greatest influence on his contemporaries’ views.
But, in spite of all the efforts of Archimandrite Hilarion and others like him, who called on the Russian people to come to their senses, to return to their roots, to the faith of their fathers, which had once united the scattered tribes into one nation; that is, simply to return to the Church in mind as well as in practice, these appeals were heard only by few people and could not stop the general apostasy.
And in 1914 the premonitions began to come true. War broke out. Archimandrite Hilarion regarded it as a lesson to the straying Russian society, an opportunity for atonement for falling away from the Church through sins and heresies. His sermons became more powerful and inspired. “Russian Orthodox people!... The formidable hour of judgment of the Russian land has come. All of us have sinned very much over the past ten years. We, Russian people, allowed unbelief to spread across our land. We have unprecedented corruption. We, the Russian people, have sinned against our noble history. We have sinned against the memory and precepts of our forefathers. We are sinners before our own shrines. We have begun to lose the fear of God. We have forgotten how to love the tsar and our motherland. We have already grown accustomed to abusing and defaming all that is native to us, and praising and extoling all that is foreign. The hour has come when we must redeem our people’s sins and faults before God.”
As the war went on, the primary hopes for the return of the Russian people (especially of educated people) to the mother Church gave place to disappointment. The majority of Russian people were more interested in the external political structure than in the inner spiritual order, in secular rights rather than Christian duties, benefit rather than the truth. If spiritual things were not exchanged for material ones, then they were definitely exchanged for emotional ones, poetical dreaminess and a revolutionary revolt (sometimes they were combined in a fantastic way, as is seen from the life and works of Alexander Blok). Human will prevailed over divine will, and temporal interests overshadowed eternal ones. There was no mass return of the intelligentsia from the Babylonian captivity of Western culture to the Jerusalem of the Church.
The future hieromartyr’s opening academy lecture, read on August 26, 1916, was the last call to the Russian intelligentsia and the last warning. Its name finely illustrates its main idea: “Sin against the Church.”
Young students from Leonid Andreyev’s novel, The Days of Our Life, who admire the ringing of Moscow bells that call the faithful to the Sunday Vigil, but who instead of going to the service continue their picnic with beer on a precipice of Vorobyevy Hills, are, according to the lecturer, the brightest illustration of the rejection by the Russian intelligentsia of the Church and therefore their national roots. After all, the words “Russian”, “Orthodox” and “of the Church” are almost synonyms. “The Russian people’s character was nurtured for whole centuries under the direction of the Church, and apostasy from the Church for a Russian is equal to rejection of Russia. We can imagine Russia without the Parliament, without universities, but it is impossible to imagine Russia without the Church .”
The disregard of this will inevitably lead to deplorable results for Russia. For someone who renounces the Church “renounces Russia also, loses touch with the Russian soil, becomes a cosmopolite… A Jew… who forsakes the law of Moses is an absolute nihilist who is detrimental to his home country along with any country he lives in. And it is the Russian intelligentsia that imported radical sceptics, nihilists and anarchists to European life. Tolstoy and Bakunin are ours. Russian revolutionaries are being driven from one place to another in Western Europe as well. Perhaps no other people has ever gazed into the abyss of denial more than the Russian people.”
In 1917, two revolutions shook the foundations of the Russian state, after which Russian society was plunged into the abyss of revolutionary changes, the lamentable consequences of which have not yet been overcome.
Holy Hierarch Hilarion did not lose himself in the whirlwind of revolutionary perturbations. His love for the Church and submergence into Church Tradition enabled him to retain firm guidelines, to find the right way to relate to the atheist authorities and numerous schisms, and to perform his podvig as a confessor in the appropriate manner. He managed to find the strength not to lose heart under the most hopeless circumstances of life—both in exile and the concentration camp. And the saintly bishop did not separate himself from the Russian people. But his view of the correlation between the Russian man’s attitude towards the Church and our state’s prosperity remained unchanged until his martyrdom. “And do we say that the Soviet authority is not from God?” he answered the sly question of People’s Commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky. “Yes, it is certainly from God! As a punishment for our sins…”
As they say: “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. A wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” Then how can someone who learns neither from his own nor from others’ mistakes be characterized? Let us hope that we will be able to learn at least from our own mistakes.