We commemorate today the Assembly of Russia’s New Martyrs and Confessors—all those who were martyred in the years of severe persecutions against the faith and the Church of Christ. It is a great occasion for the whole Church as we remember these tragic events, but at the same time celebrate them, because the era that continued in our country for seventy years in during twentieth century also revealed to the world a great assembly of confessors and new martyrs. They preferred dying to renouncing Christ, and today they pray for us and our Motherland in the triumphant heavenly Church.
The persecution started immediately after the 1917 October Revolution, when the Bolsheviks took over. The persecution against the faithful was purposeful and long, and surpassed in cruelty all the previous persecutions against the Church, including those by the Roman emperors in the first, second, and third centuries. The theomachist regime did everything to destroy religion and the Church, her people and those who bore the grace-giving spirit of Christ that used to nourish our Motherland for centuries.
It was a brutal and bloody repression, because the authorities sought to fully exterminate the Church. They proceeded from the utterly fantastic and antihuman idea that religion was a vestige of the past and should die out on its own; but if it did not die on its own it should be helped to die as soon as possible.
The Bolsheviks created an antihuman and criminal ideology to guide the rulers of our country for decades. This ideology led to millions of victims, the people of different beliefs and social status. They began with the class struggle against the nobility and merchant class followed by the dispossession of well-to-do peasants, then resettlement and destruction of whole ethnic communities. One destruction campaign followed another and these criminal actions continued for several decades.
The Russian Orthodox Church was only one of the targets of that suicidal campaign waged by the authorities against their own people. But it was the Church who showed great courage and spiritual heroism, which has been imprinted in people’s memory and glorified by the Church today by canonizing Russia’s holy new martyrs and confessors.
The machine of persecution swallowed not only innocent people but also those who themselves were guilty of the crimes. Indeed, persecutors are known to become persecuted sometimes. We do not see any heroism in the actions of these people in the awareness that they were victimized by the world they themselves created. Those whom we glorify were not guilty of anything but their faith in Christ, their service of the Church, their love of God, and their efforts to guide the people of God to salvation. The people we glorify as Russia’s new martyrs and confessors were not all victims of those terrible years, but those who remained faithful to the Lord to the end, who were not broken by the machine of repression, who did not renounce Christ even under torture and imprisonment, who did not betray their loved ones, as was often the case.
We do not know their number, whether it was tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions, because the whole truth about those years will never be revealed. Not all the archives will ever be opened so that the records could reveal who remained faithful to the end and who stumbled. Besides, there are many forgeries in the transcripts of interrogation we use to restore the story of a given new martyr. Some recorded as having renounced their faith did not actually do that. The full story of these saints’ heroism is known to the Lord alone. But the Church has glorified all the new martyrs and confessors—those we know, those whose heroism is documented, and those who are known only to God. Among them were bishops and ordinary priests and monastics. There were also a great many lay people who did not renounce Christ even under torture.
The heroism of the holy new martyrs and confessors is a spiritual treasure to be carefully preserved and revered by our Church. We do not know what times await us ahead. It is wrong to believe that the Church will now and forever enjoy prosperity, peace, and the good will of the powers that be, because times may change as often happens in history. Our Orthodox Church has lived under very different circumstance and there always were those who were ready to follow the path of Golgotha to the end together with Christ. We pray today that the grace of God may never abandon our people, as it happened after a great many of them rejected the faith, Christ and the Church. We pray that this rejection may never be repeated in our history. We pray that we may hand down to posterity the Orthodox faith we have inherited at such a high price.