I remember the first time I saw a portrait of Tsar Nicholas II in a church. As a recent American convert to Orthodoxy, it seemed strange to me, and something within me bristled. Not surprisingly, most Americans are uneasy with the concept of monarchy. Our nation was born in casting off the rule of a monarch and the founding a democratic republic. We have always defined ourselves in opposition to the antiquated ways and entrenched hierarchies of the Old World. And now, the Church sets before us the last living representatives of that order for our pious admiration and veneration.
What are we to make of this as Americans? For us, the words “czar” and “autocrat” have the negative connotations of someone who wields power in an arbitrary or oppressive manner. They are practically synonymous with “tyrant” and “despot”. The voice of the inner cynic suggests that the canonization of the last Tsar and his family is just an expression of Russian chauvinism and reactionary nostalgia for a time when the Orthodox Church enjoyed the patronage of the State. Why should a repressive Russian tyrant command the affection and devotion of an American heart reared on the ideals of liberty and democracy? Perhaps your inner cynic has never had such thoughts, but mine has, and others like them—Were the Royal Martyrs really deserving of sainthood? They did not perform any miracles in their lifetime. Were they even truly martyrs? For unlike the martyrs of the early Church, they were not killed by state-sanctioned persecutors simply for confessing Christ; rather, they were killed precisely because they represented and embodied the very conjunction of State power and the Christian faith.
The presence of their relics here in our little chapel tells us that the last Royal Family of Russia is not meant for Russia alone, but for Christians of all peoples and nations. First, though, we may have to set aside the objections of the cynic, the distortions of history, and our American political prejudices, and simply encounter this holy family as fellow human beings and fellow Christians. If we are willing to do so, then no sensitive heart can fail to be moved by their lives, to be drawn by the beauty of their virtues, to be struck by the horror of their slaughter, and to be in awe of their ultimate sacrifice.
On this human level, there is indeed much to admire about Tsar Nicholas II. He was a deeply and sincerely pious man, a patriot in the truest sense of the word, a devoted husband, and a loving father. Born on the feast-day of Righteous Job the much-suffering, he had a clear sense of the historic tragedy that was his providential lot to live through. He understood his role as Tsar to be a charge from God, and he accepted it self-sacrificially, ready to bear any suffering in order to fulfill his sacred calling.
Secular historians often judge him to be a weak and ineffective ruler. Instead, it is the modernizing and Westernizing rulers Peter I and Catherine II whom they remember as “the Great”. And from the point of view of their earthly accomplishments, they were indeed great. But things appear differently from the Church’s point of view. During the reign of “the Greats” the Moscow Patriarchate was abolished, and the Russian Church was reorganized as a department of state, on the model of certain Protestant Churches in Western Europe; monasteries were closed, their lands taken; obstacles were created to prevent young men and women from entering monastic life; the eremitical life was outlawed.
The pious Tsar Nicholas had a much different attitude to the Church. During his reign the first steps were taken to restore the Patriarchate, culminating in the All-Russian Council of 1917-18. The Tsar also had a great devotion to the saints. It was thanks to his encouragement and insistence that St. Seraphim of Sarov was officially canonized, and he took part personally in the solemnities of his glorification. He was a great patron of church building, and had an exquisite taste for traditional Russian church art and architecture. Even today, you can go to Russia and see with your own eyes the concrete legacy of the Tsar in all of the magnificent churches he commissioned and funded. In these places of sacred beauty—monuments of craftsmanship, artistry, and imagination that surpass anything to be found in the New World—it becomes tangibly clear just what it meant for there to be an Orthodox Tsar in Russia, to protect, defend, nurture and support the life of the Church. The imposing majesty and celestial beauty of these temples needs no explanation or apology; it is its own justification for an Orthodox regime and a Christian civilization.
On my pilgrimage to Russia with Fr. David and Nicholas two years ago, we visited a number of these churches associated with Tsar Nicholas II. The one that had the deepest stamp of his personality was the Fyodorovskiy Cathedral in Tsarkoe Selo. It was built for the Royal Family to worship together with the soldiers who were garrisoned the town, where the Tsar lived for much of the year. The first floor of the church was covered in darkly stained hardwood, which gave the spacious nave a sense of inviting warmth, a very down-to-earth quality. Standing there during the Divine Liturgy, halfway across the world, I had the uncanny sense of being of right at home—home in my parish where I first saw the Tsar’s portrait and found myself skeptical of the Royal Family’s veneration. Now it felt as though they were welcoming me here, and the grace of their presence was overwhelming. There was no more room for skepticism, only inexplicable tears of recognition and devotion.
Fyodorovskiy Cathedral - Main Iconostasis
After the Liturgy, we were given a tour of the basement church in the cathedral, which was dedicated to St. Seraphim and was the Royal Family’s private chapel, only open to others by their invitation. In that dark and low-ceilinged chapel, the Family worshipped together, knelt together, fasted and prayed together. I saw the plain wooden chair in which the Emperor sat during church; the narrow alcove looking in on the altar for the Empress to observe the services; the side-room built for the Emperor to address urgent state affairs; a pillow embroidered by the Empress’ own hands. Beneath the outward splendor, their life here was so unassuming, so disarmingly homely. It all pointed to something deeper about their character—to a goodness and spiritual nobility that inspired loyalty, fidelity, and love.
St. Seraphim Basement Chapel
Empress Alexandra's Viewing Alcove
By all accounts, this is how they were in life, too. Nicholas and his family, and everything they stood for, were hated and reviled by certain segments of Russian society. The Russian press spread the most vile slanders about the Tsar and his family. They did not shrink from inventing and printing total fabrications in order to stir up public opinion against them, so intense was the animosity directed against them. During the days of their final imprisonment, their guards, having been fed on this propaganda, were often hostile to them at first. But the godly family would win them over eventually with patience, charity, and their noble simplicity. New guards, even more violent, crude, and full of revolutionary fervor, had to be found who would not deal with them so humanely. At last, after months of increasingly restrictive and deprived confinement, they and a handful of loyal servants were hauled into a basement cellar, and shot in cold blood by a band of committed revolutionaries. Their bodies were violated, disfigured and maimed, then disposed of like animals.
Yet after seventy long years, full of suffering for the Russian land, they were recovered; and even more improbably, fragments of them now have a permanent home in our holler. What does this mean for us as 21st century Americans? We don’t have to become avid Russophiles or staunch monarchists to appreciate the fact that their death represents the end of a world—that of Christendom. The era of Christian monarchs that began with Constantine the Great and lasted for 1600 years, came to an end with Tsar Nicholas. Some, of course, greet this as a welcome development, or at least an ambivalent one. After all, the Christian Gospel cannot be exclusively identified with one particular regime, or one particular people. But true as that may be, it is nonetheless possible for a regime or for a people to identify themselves with the Gospel. That is the meaning of Holy Rus’. The Royal Martyrs were the last representatives of this union of Church and State, and were killed because of it. But like their forebears Boris and Gleb, they died ultimately because of their personal fidelity to Christ. They could have fled Russia and lived, but they chose to remain and suffer together with the people whom God had entrusted to them, to undergo their sorrowful fate together with them. They died for the ideal of a Christian Russia, a holy Russia. And they modelled this holiness in their lives, as they walked the path to their own Golgotha with patience, with kindness to their persecutors, with grace and nobility, with total forgiveness for their enemies, and with pure Christian love. Their lives and deaths indeed bear witness to the truth of the Christian Faith. They are justly called saints and martyrs.
As we gaze upon their icon and venerate their relics, we can scarcely begin to fathom all that was lost in the fire and bloodshed of Revolution. Although we may have some inkling of the goodness that was irretrievably spoiled, and of the evil that took its place, we should not feel nostalgic for a lost past. There is no sense in us as Americans pining for the days of Holy Rus’ and the benevolent reign of a pious Tsar. We must live out our Christian struggle in the time and the place to which God has called us. And there is so much about the lives of the Royal Martyrs that can help us find our way through our own time in America, where more and more people are abandoning the Christian faith, where Christian morals are in retreat from the law and the public sphere. Their personal example shows us how to remain steadfast in even the most difficult circumstances. In our time, when most marriages end in divorce, the Royal Martyrs present us with a perfect icon of Christian marriage and family life. Now, when children are exposed to images of sex and violence at younger and younger ages, the Royal Martyrs show us an image of youthful innocence, chastity, and purity. In our time of indifference and cynicism, they show us that it is possible to live self-sacrificially in service to a lofty spiritual ideal. In short, they manifest the fulness of Christian life on the level of the individual and the family, as well as the nation. Whatever our age or whatever our calling, we can draw great strength in our struggle by prayerfully turning to them for support.
No matter how far our own country may turn from Christ, when we look upon the Royal Martyrs, we should be reminded that every triumph of evil in this world is only temporary. Their contemporaries and their historians have all made their judgments, but God’s judgment is the one that prevails in the end. And Christ has glorified them. So let us also glorify them, and turn to them in prayer, asking that we too might remain faithful to Christ amidst the darkness of this world. So may we find a place together with them in Christ’s heavenly kingdom. Amen.