Reflections on Political Martyrdom

The Romanov Family

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.


Queen Tamar of Georgia and Leadership

Queen Tamar of Georgia

Our culture exalts the potential of every person: the self-made man, the rags-to-riches stories, the underdog heroes are our foundational mythology. While those stories are based on some true-to-life examples, what we blinded to in our glittering wealth is our creatureliness. God formed us and placed us in families, in tribes, and in countries. He gave us innate skills in our minds and bodies, so individually and precisely, to love and serve our neighbors. Our strengths bear the weaknesses of others and, in humility, we allow others to care for us as unto Christ.

Do we not have choices? Of course we do! Queen Tamar knew what she would become from the earliest age – but how she would be known to her people was up to her. The Parable of Talents illustrates just how the balance of human free will and divine providence works in the Kingdom of God. (Matthew 25)  Throughout the ages, Orthodox Christians with great wealth knew they were handed a five or two talent deal when they were born. Some could make the choice of giving away the physical treasure to gain spiritual life, such as St. Marcella or Abba Anthony. Others, like royalty, knew their lot was cast with their people.

When Queen Tamar took the throne at age 17 after her father’s death, she convened a Georgian church council to address the clergy. She said, “Judge according to righteousness, affirming good and condemning evil. Begin with meif I sin I should be censured, for the royal crown is sent down from above as a sign of divine service. Allow neither the wealth of the nobles nor the poverty of the masses to hinder your work. You by word and I by deed, you by preaching and I by the law, you by upbringing and I by education will care for those souls whom God has entrusted to us, and together we will abide by the law of God, in order to escape eternal condemnation…. You as priests and I as ruler, you as stewards of good and I as the watchman of that good.”

Her speech is an excellent summation of what leadership for an Orthodox Christian looks like. What comes with the package deal, whether you lead a scout troop or a nation, you are a man or woman, young or old? There are three primary duties incumbent on leaders which Queen Tamar exemplified: service, generosity, and intercession. We heard of her valiant military command and shrewd political dealings with the Turks, which are rightly heroic, however, with any leader, what happens in the heat of life’s battle is the result of years of training towards unflinching, habitual response. Wisdom is knowledge wearing worn, muddy boots.

King George III knew that for his daughter to succeed as a full monarch of their people, she needed intense and lengthy training, which is why he made her co-regent at age twelve. For five years, she saw the daily choices her father made, learned who were the powerful people in the land and what their motivations were, which enemies could be trusted or not, and how to set the tone of piety for the court. She learned her role as a servant for the people. Though the power was hers to decide the fate of men, she knew the decisions were for everyone’s benefit or detriment, not for her personal schemes. For example, her first husband was the pick of the court and the Church. While George Rusi was a brave soldier, he lived a flagrantly immoral life, which brought shame to Queen Tamar. The court sent him away and the Church granted a divorce. George Rusi tried twice to overthrow the Queen’s rule but he was foiled each time. She would have been quite happy to remain unmarried but the pressure resumed for her to continued the royal line. Tamar asked her aunt, her king father’s sister, to choose her next spouse. Prince Davit-Soslan Bagrationi became a trusted co-ruler and military commander for Tamar, and father to her son and daughter. (While we use the term ‘queen’ for Tamar, in Georgian, the term is mep’e, which is best translated as ‘sovereign’, not a gender specific title. She would remain styled as mep’et’a mep’e, or ‘king of kings’ after her marriage.)

Service in leadership is also personal. Queen Tamar would wear her golden array to govern her people during the day and at night she would pray and sew. One evening, in exhaustion, she fell asleep and had a vision of richly decorated throne. She approached it, assuming it was hers, but an angel stopped her. “Who is more worthy than I to receive such a glorious throne?” The angel replied, “This throne is intended for your maidservant, who sewed vestments for twelve priests with her own hands. You are already the possessor of great treasure in this world.” And he took her away. When she awoke, the Queen set about to sew the twelve vestments as repentance for assuming an honor was hers.

The Queen learned that vanity and pride are always at the door, like hungry beasts, to eat away at humility. She was preparing to attend a festal liturgy and was fastening precious rubies to her belt. A beggar came to the monastery door and was told to wait for the Queen’s entourage. When the Queen was finely dressed, she found the beggar had gone away. She became greatly saddened at her vanity which prevented her from denying Christ in the disguise of a beggar and offered the ruby belt to the Gelati Icon of the Theotokos.

Throughout her life, Queen Tamar undertook ascetical labors in secret. During military battles, she would pray continuously until she received word of the outcomes, leading her troops to the city gates barefoot. Through prayer, the Queen recognized she is one under authority and one entrusted with authority, like the Centurion. When Queen Tamar was nearing the end of her earthly life, she is recorded as saying her final prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ! Omnipotent Master of heaven and earth! To Thee I deliver the nation and people that were entrusted to my care and purchased by Thy Precious Blood, the children whom Thou didst bestow upon me, and to The I surrender my soul, O Lord!”

Queen Tamar is an extraordinary example of a woman in leadership – for her own time and for all of Christian history. With studying the saints, it is easy to think they are outliers to regular human experience, and think what they accomplish in their lifetimes is not possible for the rest of us. True, I was not born into a royal family and a kingdom was dependent upon my wise choices. My responsibilities are miniscule in that regard. Yet, the gifts I have now, of communication, easy travel, potential influence, monetary wealth and physical comfort, all of these are astronomically above what Queen Tamar could comprehend. The model our ‘king of kings’ upholds for us is to wear our golden robes lightly, with humility, knowing in our final breath we surrender our multiplied talents back to God.

Read more about the life of Queen Tamar of Georgia.