With the feast days of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II and his family approaching, I thought it would be appropriate to share some thoughts about the New Martyrs of Russia.
As many of us learned in school, the word “martyr” is a Greek word that means witness. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Hebrews about “a great cloud of witnesses.” These witnesses are not only those who laid down their lives for the Faith, but also all of the other saints commemorated by the Church. No matter if they were sawn in two, beheaded, drowned or died from tuberculosis, all of the saints commemorated by the Church have been martyred in some way and not always physically. Therefore, the Church makes a distinction between those martyrs who gave their blood for the Faith and others who were “dry martyrs.”
The New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia fall into both of these categories. Many were killed for their faith in the most horrible manner possible by the Communists. Hieromartyr Andronicus of Perm, for example, dug his own grave and was buried alive. When the executioners noticed that he wasn’t dying fast enough, they took out their pistols and shot the ground in which he was buried in order to make sure that he was dead. Thus died one of the strongest defenders of Orthodox Christianity and a most zealous missionary who spent many years in Japan.
New Martyr Elizabeth Fyodorovna, wife of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich and sister of Tsaritsa Alexandra, was murdered by being thrown down a mine shaft in Alapaevsk with some grenades thrown after her. She was left there to die of her injuries with several other members of the royal fmaily including Count Vladimir Paley, a young man who was also a wonderful lyric poet in his own tongue. According to witnesses, Grand Duchess Elizabeth was the last to die after she tended the wounds of the others. It is said that she died with the words of Our Lord on her lips, “Lord forgive them for they know not what they do.”
There is yet another story of an archbishop, whose name currently escapes me, and his executioners. When brought before them to be shot, he said some prayers and blessed them. The men were so moved that they could not kill him. The authorities sent in another group of executioners and the same thing happened. Finally, they dressed the archbishop in civilian clothes and led him before some Chinese executioners. Before the holy man could raise his hand in blessing, he was already lying on the gorund.
There are also stories of countless others who were worked to death in the Gulag or spent years in exile in special settlements. Archimandrite Sebastian of Optina and Karaganda is one example of this dry martyrdom. Following the closure of Optina Monastery in 1928, Archimandrite Sebastian was exiled to Central Asia and eventually was forced to settle in Karaganda. At that time, Karaganda was one of the largest concentration camps under the Soviet system. Thousands of people including children were sent there to die in the mines. Yet Archimandrite Sebastian ministered to all. He secretly baptized their children, he held services in his log cabin, and he brought Communion to the dying. For his love of others, Archimandrite Sebastian was glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church. One should not forget, however, that he was also a dry martyr.
What is it then that the New Martyrs of Russia can teach us living in the 21st century? First of all, we must realize that we are called like them to witness to our faith. Many years ago, I was told that Catholicism was not a spectator sport. God does not ask us for passive participation. Rather, what He wants from us is to give Him absolutely everything and to take His love to others living in the world.
Secondly, the lives of the New Martyrs clearly illustrate that we msut continue to be steadfast no matter how hard the going gets. Even if we are called to die for what we believe, we cannot waver. We must continue to be strong to the end of the race no matter how grisly the consequences of that stand are. Indeed, suffering is a part of our lives here on ear and God will not see our suffering is vain if it is for Him.
Our Lady of Vladimir, pray for us!
All ye Holy New Martyrs of Russia, pray for us!