The Story of the Port Arthur Icon
Port Arthur was a city named for the captain of the English vessel Algerino, founded in Manchuria in 1858 on the site of a former Chinese settlement, Lao Shun. Forty years later China leased this city (along with its nearby territories) to Russia because of the Japanese threat. Russia thus became the protector and defender of these Far East territories. In 1902, the St. Nicholas Orthodox garrison church was built there.
The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 was fought on account of competing claims to dominion in northeast China and Korea. In February of 1904, Japan initiated the war by attacking Port Arthur, the defense of which lasted into the beginning of 1905. The Japanese defeated the Russian Army at the Battle of Mukden, and the Russian Navy at the Battle of Tsushima Strait. The war marked the first modern defeat of a great European power by an Asian nation.
The Story of the Icon
In December 1903, an aged sailor, who was one of the last defenders of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, came to the city of Kiev to pray before the holy relics of the Lavra of the Caves. One night, a strange noise woke the old man, and he saw the Mother of God surrounded by angels, among whom were the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. The Theotokos stood upon two discarded and broken swords on the shore of a bay, her back to the water. She also held a white cloth with blue fringes, upon which was an Image of the Savior, “Not-Made-By-Hands.” Angels in clouds of blinding light bore a crown above her head, while the Lord of Sabaoth sat higher still on a throne of glory, compassed about by the brilliant radiance.
The old man was astonished and seized with great fear, but the Mother of God calmed him and said, “Russia will soon be involved in a very difficult war on the shores of a far sea; many woes await her. Paint an icon showing my appearance as you see it now, and send it to Port Arthur. If the icon is in that city, Orthodoxy will triumph over paganism, and Russian warriors will attain my help, my patronage, and their victory.” The blinding light filled his room, and then the vision disappeared.
Upon hearing the old sailor’s story, the people of Kiev took heed, and just two months after the appearance of the Theotokos, it was spoken of throughout all the lands of Russia. The appearance was the first revelation of its kind in Russia during 20th century, the time of the Russian Golgotha. Yet this period has also been called the age of the Glory and Triumph of the Most Holy Theotokos, for in it, the Mother of God also manifested many miracles, signs, and revelations. The Most Pure Mother was always present with her Son during His crucifixion, and she likewise did not forsake the Russian people when they were on the Cross in that sorrowful time.
Port Arthur from Gold Hill
In the beginning of 1904, the Russo-Japanese war broke out with the attack of Japanese torpedo boats on the Russian fleet in Port Arthur. Russians remembered the admonition of the Mother of God, and began to raise money. Myriads of people donated, giving penny by penny, and the icon was executed exactingly according to the description of the old sailor. It was blessed during Holy Week and sent to St. Petersburg, where it was left in the care of a certain Admiral Verkhovsky.
The people of Kiev expressed their hope that the admiral would make every possible effort, losing no time to deliver the icon safely and swiftly to the fortress of Port Arthur. But though the icon was in the admiral’s house by Pascha, he did not hurry to send it to the Far East. For several days, his home became like an artist’s salon. Generals, senators, and representatives of the local authorities dropped by to catch a glimpse of the icon. Metropolitan Anthony of St. Petersburg also paid a visit, and reminded the admiral that the icon ought to be delivered to Port Arthur, and that he should have made haste to fulfill the bidding of Our Lady.
On March 31st (O.S.), the Russian war effort suffered a grievous blow. The commander of the Russian Navy, charismatic Vice Admiral Stepan Makarov, perished in an attempt to break through the Japanese blockade of Port Arthur. During those grim days the Emperor Nicholas II wrote in his journal, “All the day long I could not come to myself because of this heartbreaking woe. Let God’s will abide in everything, but we shall ask for His mercy towards us who are sinful.” Yet Admiral Verkhovsky apparently did not see the tragedy of Makarov’s death as sufficient cause to deliver the icon of the Triumph of the Theotokos. It thus continued to be merely a decorative piece in his apartment.
Overlooking Port Arthur
Soon afterwards, Admiral Nikolai Skrydlov was appointed to the position of the fallen Makarov. When he was preparing to set out for the battlefield of Port Arthur, the Dowager Empress Maria (mother of Nicholas II) decided to take responsibility for the icon. After a short moleben, the icon was delivered to the carriage-wagon of Admiral Skrydlov. He promised personally to bring the icon right to the cathedral of Port Arthur. But the admiral’s train did not go immediately to the Far East, as he himself was busy sorting out domestic and family affairs. By the end of April of 1904, Port Arthur was under siege by Japanese land forces, and as a result, Skrydlov came to Vladivostok instead of Port Arthur.
One of his contemporaries commented in a written account of what came to pass: “The miraculous icon the Triumph of the Theotokos was temporarily placed in the Cathedral of Vladivostok on August 2, 1904.” This indicates that it was not placed in the Church for public veneration until ninety days after Admiral Skrydlov’s arrival. Occupied with affairs, he simply forgot about the icon. It was only after a decree of Empress Maria that the icon was finally taken from the admiral’s house to the Dormition Cathedral. An eyewitness wrote:
Kneeling people in tears and with deep faith were praying before the icon. Those from the navy and the infantry, from soldiers to the admiral and general, fell down before the icon and were asking in their zealous prayers for the consolation, encouragement, and intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos.
Bishop Evsevy of Vladivostok spoke these words August 6th before serving the first moleben before this miraculously revealed icon:
Though the icon has not reached Port Arthur, let not the heart of the old sailor who was made worthy of this vision, nor the hearts of those who raised money for the icon be troubled. The Lord is Almerciful and Almighty, and though the icon of His Most Pure Mother is in Vladivostok she is able to help the warriors of Port Arthur, and all Russian warriors. Let us, citizens of Vladivostok, leap for joy to have such a holy thing.
But almost everyone felt that some wrong had been done. The publishing house of the Orthodox News and the military authorities received scores of letters daily. This one summarizes the people’s opinions:
As the icon has not come to the point of its final destination, it cannot give the grace-filled help and protection of the Mother of God. Now, it is high time we asked for heavenly intercession, and if this help was promised upon the fulfillment of certain conditions, we ought not to leave things half done. Let every means of delivering the icon be attempted, however hazardous; it being the will of the Mother of God, her icon is sure to get to Port Arthur. Even if it does not happen, we will submit our will to the Mother of God, and our conscience will not reproach us for our negligence concerning that which the Heavenly Queen has told us through the old sailor.
A group of young Orthodox officers tried several times, but failed to deliver copies of the icon to Port Arthur, which was blockaded and beleaguered by Japanese forces. In the Dormition Cathedral, molebens before the icon did not cease. An eyewitness wrote that there were always many people weeping and praying, and one could hear the oft-repeated question: “Why did they not send the icon to Port Arthur, after all? Why was there no one who out of sheer love for the Motherland could take on the perilous but noble quest of delivering the icon of the Theotokos?”
It was then that a person appeared who would attempt such a noble deed—retired officer, Nikolai Fyodorov. He was in his fifties, and suffered from rheumatism and stomach disease, and surely never thought of any daring feats, living as he did in Gatchina (near St. Petersburg), such a long way from the Far East. But then he came across a newspaper article expressing the view that nobody was able to fulfill the mission of taking the icon to its destination.
Nikolai Fyodorov told his wife about his intent to make a dangerous journey to the Far East, and immediately made for the city of Kronstadt to ask the blessing of the great pastor of the Russian land, St. John of Kronstadt. Later, he recounted that during his travels, many small miracles occurred, and any difficult problems were somehow easily solved. He said that this was not surprising, since he had St. John’s blessing.
On October 7th, Nikolai arrived in Vladivostok. That same day, Admiral Skryidlov received from Copenhagen a telegram from the Dowager Empress, which said that he should let Mr. Fyodorov take further care of the icon. Delivering the icon by land was out of question, due to the ongoing Japanese siege, so Nikolai decided to take it first to the city of Shanghai, China. The Norwegian steamer Eric was to take the icon on November 22nd. The Diocese News wrote that during the entire time before the appointed date, Fyodorov fasted, made confession, and took Holy Communion. The steamer left, and the believers waited hopefully for some news, but it did not come. On December 20th, Port Arthur fell.
At last on January 11th, a letter came to Vladivostok, wherein Fyodorov related that there had been no sail wind for some time, and he had had to stop at Chifu. At that point four torpedo boats had returned from Port Arthur with the most grievous news—Port Arthur had surrendered. But the ways of God are unfathomable, and so it was not God’s will for Fyodorov to reach the city.
Yet his effort remains nonetheless praiseworthy. As the head of the Russian Orthodox mission in Korea, Archimandrite Pavel, said:
Glory to God that there was a man in Russia who manifested the Christian courage and faith that we lack. Alas! The history of the icon of the Triumph of the Theotokos was a test for our faith, and the fact of its having been painted in Kiev is as unusual as the lesson which Port Arthur taught us.
All of these events left a sorrowful memory, and a painful wound in the Russian heart. And though we find ourselves in the 21st century, far removed from them in time, we should not forget the desire of our Immaculate Lady revealed to us a century ago, and how it was left undone because some military officials lacked faith in her intercession.
St. John of Kronstadt used to say that Russia was defeated precisely because of the indifference towards the holy icon, which was symptomatic of the general spiritual decline occurring in Russia at that time:
Let us consider: is it not because Russian people have left their religious unity, and forsaken the ancient holy things and testaments of their forefathers, that woes and disasters now torment Russia? The Lord bestowed upon our nation the role of keeper and protector of holy things. These holy things are the religious and moral foundations for establishing one’s personal, family, and social life so as to draw away the evil and give an ample space for the good.
History itself bears out the truth of St. John’s words. At the end of the war, Japan’s military resources were running short, while Russia was only just beginning her military deployment. Nevertheless, the Portsmouth Peace Treaty left Port Arthur and half of Sakhalin island to Japan, brought Korea under Japanese influence, and completely liquidated the Russian Pacific Navy. In 1925, American historian Tyler Dennett wrote:
Now very few suppose that Japan was deprived of the fruits of its forthcoming victories by concluding the Portsmouth peace treaty. The contrary opinion predominates: Japan had already been exhausted by the end of May, and only that very treaty saved it from complete defeat in its collision with Russia.
God’s inscrutable providence thus allowed a humiliating defeat to befall Russia, in spite of her material advantage over Japan, because of the negligence shown with regard to the bidding of the Mother of God.
The Subsequent Fate of the Icon
After the war, Nikolai Fyodorov gave back the icon to his military commanders. Having stayed for a time in the itinerant church of the commander-in-chief, it then returned to Vladivostok in May 1905. Following the Revolution of 1917, the Dormition Cathedral was closed and demolished, and the icon of Port Arthur was lost in the storm of tragic events that befell Russia in the 20th century. There was great deal of speculation as to where the icon might be, but for many years its whereabouts remained unknown.
Then, in due time, the Lord was pleased to reveal another of His miracles. Though many attempted to erase the memories of the past, a command of the Mother of God cannot be rescinded. So it is that on February 18th, 1998, pilgrims from Vladivostok came across the icon of Port Arthur in an antique shop in Jerusalem!
On May 6th, 1998, the Port Arthur icon of the “Triumph of the Theotokos” returned to Vladivostok. The joyful believers welcomed it with a Cross Procession and triumphant bell ringing. At present, the original icon resides in the Cathedral of the Protection, the main church of the Vladivostok diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church. On Pascha of 2003, the doors of a new church in honor of this icon opened in Vladivostok. The church began holding services in the year of the 100th anniversary of the Mother of God’s appearance.
At that time, a public movement began called “Blessing the Far East.” Thanks to their efforts, at last, in 2004, the frigate Pallada delivered the icon to the city of Port Arthur (now known as Lushun, China). A triumphant service was celebrated in the Russian cemetery of Port Arthur, with penitential prayers for those who had denied the will of the Mother of God. Thus, the Russian warriors who perished there received the icon after one-hundred years of waiting.
In January 2004, two visitors from the St. John Orthodox Community in Alaska, Dan Kendall and Gale Armstrong, visited the Church of the Port Arthur Icon in Vladivostok, and became acquainted with the history of the icon. A copy, with inscriptions in English, was given to them after the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of the Nativity. Thus began the triumphant glorification of the icon within North America.
In September 2006, the St. Innocent Orthodox Missionary Society of Toronto delivered a miracle-working copy of the icon to Canada, which had been made exclusively for the Orthodox Christians of North America. The Bishop of Anchorage, Sitka, and Alaska was the first to welcome the icon on its way to Canada, in his blessed land which is the spiritual kin of Russia. The akathist for the icon was also translated into English by St. John’s Cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska at this time. From there, the Port Arthur Icon of the Triumph of the Theotokos began its triumphal tour across North America. Today, this miracle-working copy has found a permanent home at Holy Cross Monastery in Wayne, WV, where in 2014 a complete church service was composed in honor of the icon and published with the blessing of His Grace, Bishop George (Schaefer).