Seventy-five years ago, our homeland was engulfed by a wave of mass repressions, implemented by the government against its own citizens. At the NKVD’s Butovo firing range alone—the largest burial site for victims of Soviet terror in Moscow and the region—more than 20,000 people were buried, condemned to death, more often than not on trumped-up charges. Thousands of Orthodox people—men and women, laity, monastics and clergy—fell victim in this tragic period, suffering for faith in Christ. In 1937 the greatest number of executions occurred, specifically in December: in this last month of the year the conveyor belt of death carried out hundreds of victims day after day. December 11 became the day of the martyric death of one of the most authoritative hierarchs of the Russian Church, the oldest of those condemned to death at Butovo by the NKVD—82-year-old Metropolitan Seraphim (Chicagov).
Many of the victims of the repressions of that time are now glorified by the Church in the Assembly of New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. Their podvig has particular significance for preserving the Orthodox faith in Russia, and for its spiritual rebirth.
What moral lesson should we, living today, extract from this chapter of Church history? In what way are we called to imitate the New Martyrs?
—No matter how hard they tried for decades to tear people away from the Church, they failed. It’s impossible. After all, believers are part of the people, and they shared the lot to which the majority of the population was destined. But believers drank an especial cup of sorrow. Everyone having at least a miniscule relationship with the Church and religion was numbered among the politically unreliable “element” and therefore were the first candidates in line for repression.
The Church immediately felt the advent of a new tragic period in Russian history. Already at the beginning of 1918, when some, in the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, with puppy-like joy perceived the “shift,” and others were almost certain that everything was returning “back to square one,” at the All-Russian local Council the Russian Orthodox Church adopted the definition “On measures undertaken due to the ongoing persecution of the Orthodox Church.” The title of the document speaks for itself.
More than half a century has passed since the repressions. Echoes of these tragic events still remain in the memory of the older generation—the massacre of dissidents, and especially of believers, not only in prison torture chambers, but in broad daylight, without a trial or conviction.
The lives and podvigs of the New Martyrs are a reality for our contemporaries that can be studied or examined for certain in epistolary and archival documents, and by the recollections of eyewitnesses. We know exactly how they were harassed, how they were arrested, tortured, tried and disposed of. And, passing through such a crucible of testing, they were not broken.
I think that for any man, the experience of humiliation, suffering, torture, and the expectation of the hour of death does not pass painlessly or emotionlessly. At such times, even people of holy life experience, as they say in modern language, feel stress. The lives of many saints testify to this. But, being deeply believing people faithful to God, in the hour of trial they found strength and consolation in prayer, just as in ancient times. Our situation today could hardly be approximated to that tragic time, but difficulties for believers today are quite sufficient, and today stress, for various reasons, is the inevitable companion of the modern, even believing, man. However, the means of spiritual healing remain just as before—grace, which is given to man through firm faith and continual hope in the mercy of God, and also the simple and guileless invocation of the Trinity over everyone and everything.
—At the end of 2010, the “Lestvitsa” Center for Orthodox Culture, together with the state archives of the Dnipropetrovsk region organized the exhibition “Love is Bigger than Life,” dedicated to the memory of the repressed clergy. The townsfolk were given the opportunity with the help of the archival documents to expand their understanding of that difficult time, to further study and to reflect upon the events of the past century and thus attract public attention to the feats of the martyrs and confessors.
Why did we do this? To not repeat these bitter mistakes, the price of which is human life. Human memory should preserve not only the joyous moments in life, but also the sorrowful pages of the past. I should also note that this exposition enjoyed a wide positive resonance in the community: many residents of the region visited it, and some found their relatives among the hundreds of names…
The podvig of the New Martyrs and Confessors is a great force capable of reviving and strengthening not only our Orthodox Church life in the twenty-first century, but also the life of our people. This podvig again and again helps everyone who is ready to understand and listen to understand that true freedom is found in truth, but in denying the truth it is impossible to find freedom.
On December 3, 2012, the Dnipropetrovsk Diocese prayerfully honored the memory of the Ekaterinburg bishop-hieromartyr Makary (Karmazin). Seventy-five years ago the heart of this righteous man stopped beating: he was shot. But today we glorify him as the victor in this terrible battle. Although his torturers considered him defeated, they tried to erase his memory, as with all of the confessors of Christ, from the pages of the souls of men who knew and loved him, and they tried to besmirch his good name with fabricated interrogation reports and the inventions of investigators who accused him together with his colleagues of political crimes. But we know that Orthodox confessors gave their lives not for political convictions, but for Christ, for truth and for genuine freedom.
The example of the confessors for faith in Christ is extremely important for modern man, so frequently surrounded by false presentations of life, because it helps us to understand the obvious truth: No matter how valuable earthly life is, it is never more valuable than eternal life. Remembering the whole host of holy New Martyrs, every man thereby honors the memory of those who preserved faithfulness to truth and thereby remained free from the most terrible and grievous external circumstances of life.
—The tragic events of the twentieth century again remind us that the Church of Christ is always in a state of persecution throughout its history. We should remember that and not become complacent, but be ready at any moment to witness to our faith by denying comfort, stability, and even our whole lives.
When we turn our gaze upon this historical period, to many it seems that under the conditions of persecution it’s easier to be determined, but in fact it is not so. The torturers often offered some kind of compromise, and under external pressure people constantly have to make a choice. And now we often display our faintheartedness, not always consistently and loudly protecting the Church from attacks; so how much more difficult is this to do when the wellbeing and lives of your loved ones are hanging in the balance!
And another important lesson is identifying the priorities in our lives. After all, the most important thing for people living under persecution is the opportunity to be with Christ. Churches were closed, and some people even ordered funerals for themselves, understanding that the end of their earthly lives would not be accompanied by the prayers of the Church. Every one of us should ask ourselves: how much do we appreciate the opportunity to go to church, confess, and commune? After all, it’s a real miracle that happens in our lives—Confession and Communion.
The main example left to us and future generations by the New Martyrs is following Christ even when all external circumstances do not facilitate it.
—The two-thousand-year experience of the Orthodox Church testifies that the drops of martyric blood of Christians for confessing the faith is as seeds of wheat thrown upon rich soil, yielding an abundant crop. Where there were persecutions, the Church grew and strengthened in spirit. Why does the physical destruction of Christians subsequently lead to an increase in their numbers? What is the reason for such a paradox?
In all times human life has been of the highest value in society. And for what could a man sacrifice his own life? Not for the sake of comfort, pleasure, money, power, or the pleasures of the flesh. On the contrary: life is valued more often by those who love the above-mentioned things in life. But when they die, their descendants usually don’t remember them… Only those remain in our memory who lived not for themselves, but for others.
In the Gospel of John we are given the words of Christ: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (Jn. 15:13). We have heard these words of Christ many times. They touch the soul, but do we live this way? Do we have the determination to sacrifice the sweetness of life for the sake of confessing the faith? But the Russian New Martyrs followed the Lord to His crucifixion for the sins of the people. They shared the cross with the Savior and were taken into Heaven by Him. This is a great sermon of Orthodoxy. Life can be sacrificed only for the sake of the most valuable thing in the world—for the sake of love. Out of love for fallen man Christ voluntarily accepted a martyr’s death, and out of love for their people the New Martyrs did not betray their faith, and went to Golgotha. Seeing such a podvig, many of our compatriots returned to the saving faith of our fathers.
I suggest, to become worthy of such a sacrifice, which the New Martyrs offer us, we should think about whether we live according to Christ’s commandments or we’re only pretending that we’re Orthodox. Each us of knows the answer in the depths of our conscience… Thus, grant us O Lord, to offer repentance and become true Christians, such as were our brothers, following Christ, and grant us O Lord strength to die daily, giving love and joy to our loved ones, and grant us, Lord, to die to sin and to be resurrected unto eternal life.
—Orthodoxy has been the moral foundation of our people for centuries, the living law by which they guided themselves. Part of society’s rejection of this moral basis for existence entailed its own disintegration. People, taken in by an illusory external regeneration brought on by the revolution, forgot and renounced Christ’s call to genuine, inner regeneration, without which it’s impossible to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, seeking to live according to the lusts of the flesh, in its pleasure, “as everything.” Those who lived otherwise, who kept the truth of God, entrusting their entire lives to Him, are a living lesson for the majority that elected for another path. That’s why they were doomed to physical destruction. I recall the Grand Inquisitor’s question to the Prisoner [Christ] in Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov: “Why hast thou come to hinder us?”
Tens, hundreds of thousands of people, including Orthodox hierarchs, priests, monastics, and simple believers, received a martyr’s crown. It is important and dear to us that the New Martyrs are intercessors for us before the Lord. But, being our older contemporaries—many of them suffered in the 50s and 60s of the preceding century—they teach us, people of the twenty-first century, by their Christian bravery a great lesson of genuine faith and piety, setting a certain bar of moral heights which is reachable in our times.
In the Gospel, the Savior, addressing His disciples, reminds us: Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men (Mt. 5:13). Enduring suffering, going to death, the martyrs and confessors recalled these words. Their example inspires us today to be this very evangelical “salt,” not ashamed of our faith in the midst of a society dominated by wholly other values, preaching Christ with our whole lives despite everything.