What makes a martyr in the eyes of the Church? You may think the definition is easy: those who died for their faith in Christ. We have hundreds of accounts of martyrs who had a simple choice, acknowledge Christ in front of those who did not and receive tortures and death. Those are counted as martyrs in the eyes of the Church at other times and circumstances often arrive at that status is less direct ways than we might think. St. Thecla is called a martyr, though she suffered multiple times and was spared. Her death, ultimately, spared her from further suffering when she cried out to God. St. Maria Skobtsova died in a concentration camp, when she stepped forward to take another woman’s place in the line for the gas chamber. The point A of faith to the point B of death and how those two are connected is a curving and twisting line for many of our glorified saints.
The Church in Russia and in the diaspora recently marked the 100th anniversary of the deaths of the Romanov family, now glorified as martyrs. This brought to mind how complex the situation surrounding their demise was and how the Church has come full circle, by God’s mercy from the situation. When I was a girl, my mother was fascinated with the Romanovs and the Russian revolution as a historical event. I read several books she owned, from secular writers, about the family. At the time, the Russian people were still Communist and the Church had not yet glorified the martyrs from that yoke. To my young mind, it was a tragic tale without any sort of redeeming value, no happy ending to satisfy my fairytale yearnings. Young princesses died without princes to save them and their bodies dumped far away so their people would forget their horrendous deaths.
The communist era for the formerly Orthodox people, as one Ukranian friend described, was like cutting a plant from its roots and expecting it to live a normal life. No matter the brutality against the people, the annihilation of buildings, the stripping of language and indoctrination of atheism, any monumental effort the state tried to eradicate the roots of faith did not ultimately prevail. Grandmothers remembered the prayers and taught their grandchildren, bringing them in secret to be baptised. A Romanian friend said her grandmother taught her that instead of crossing herself with her hand, to use her tongue inside her mouth to make the sign to bless her food, so that no one would see what she was doing. What of these anecdotes, in the face of such grand horror and the near daily martyrdom at the hands of the state? At the time, that was all they could do, to keep the faith. When Christ dwells in the heart, the mind will not forget.
The uncomfortable reflection from the wisdom of adulthood and the hindsight of history is that in the tale of the Romanovs, the ‘bad guys’ were their subjects. The people wanted their deaths, not in a fit of passion, but in a systematic cleansing of the past. They did not want a new ruler in the same manner – they wanted to forget this family and way of life existed as one in which their faith had been nestled for a millenia. Regicide is a particularly evil means of martyrdom. They sought to exterminate a family, a lineage, from the world because of their inherited power and their status as supporters of the Church. The culpability was not just with one upstart dynastic family over another; it rested with the Russian people.
St. John Maximovitch spoke in memory of the royal martyrs, in 1934:
What did Russia render to her pure-hearted Sovereign, who loved her more than life? She returned love with slander. He was of great morality, but people began to talk about his viciousness. He loved Russia, but people began to talk about his treason. Even the people close to the Sovereign repeated the slander, passing on to each other rumors and gossip. Because of the ill intention of some and the lack of discipline of others, rumors spread and love for the Tsar began to grow cool. They started to talk of the danger to Russia and discuss means of avoiding that non-existent danger, they started to say that to save Russia it would be necessary to dismiss the Sovereign. Calculated evil did its work: it separated Russia from her Tsar and in the dread moment at Pskov he was alone; no one near to him. Those faithful to him were not admitted to his presence. The dreadful loneliness of the Tsar… But he did not abandon Russia, Russia abandoned him, the one who loved Russia more than life. Thus, in the hope that his self-belittling would still the raging passions of the people, the Sovereign abdicated. But passion never stills. Having achieved what it desires it only inflames more. There was an exultation among those who desired the fall of the Sovereign. The others were silent. They succeeded in arresting the Sovereign; succeeded, and further events were almost inevitable. If someone is left in a beast’s cage he will be torn to pieces sooner or later. The Sovereign was killed, and Russia remained silent. There was no indignation, no protest when that dread, evil deed happened, and this silence is the great sin of the Russian people, and it happened on the day of Saint Andrew, the writer of the Great Canon of Repentance, which is read in churches during Great Lent.
In the 100 years since the Romanov martyrdom, with the changes politically and the resurgence of the life of the Church, an vital recognition of culpable silence is seen in how the Church has remembered the dead from the communist yoke. We saw the 100,000 people in procession which Patriarch Kirill led to the place of their martyrdom outside of Yekaterinburg. He told the faithful, “We should truly have lasting immunity against any ideas and any leaders who call on us to embrace some new, unknown happy future through the destruction of our life, our traditions and our faith.” This is the great hope, to do the work of healing through the recognition of saints, who died at the hands of one’s immediate forebears. The Church recognizes the failure as one within its house: we made our own martyrs. Similar to the turmoil surrounding the 4th and 5th centuries, when theology and politics drove away, tortured, or martyred many holy fathers, only to have them reinstated late in life or after their death, the Romanovs and the martyrs of the communist yoke are kept as a signpost of tragic transgression. The ‘Memory Eternal’ we sing for their martyrdom is also a reminder to never be silent in the face of evil.
A special thank you to Isabelle Guirguis, my Church school student, who suggested this article topic and helped find the links for this article.