The New Martyrs

No doubt you have come across the opinion that Vladimir Putin is resurrecting the cult of Josef Stalin. An example is this recent comment in the Ottawa Citizen:

In Putin’s world, Stalin was the hero who liberated Europe and under whose leadership, the occupied Baltic States, Ukraine, Belarus and other Soviet satellites, prospered thanks to Soviet benevolence. Putin has crafted himself as Stalin’s heir, and as such, there’s little room for the ‘truth’ about the 30 million who were murdered by Stalin’s regime, let alone any other inconvenient fact about Soviet occupation or mass repression.

Last week, a few colleagues and I had the opportunity to assess how true this may be. On Sunday morning we visited the Sretenskii Monastery in downtown Moscow. Like many other institutions of the Orthodox Church, it was destroyed during the Soviet era. In November 2013, a decision was made to rebuild it, and just a little over three years later, in May 2017, the new church in the centre of the monastery was consecrated.

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Sretenskii Monastery, Moscow

When we tried to go into the main church building, we found that only the basement chapel was open; the bulk of the church was closed as they were still working on the marble and one of the staircases. Fortunately, one of my colleagues was able to persuade somebody to let us in anyway and give us a guided tour. What we heard was quite remarkable.

The land on which the Sretenskii monastery stands used to belong to the Soviet secret services (known successively as the Cheka, OGPU, NKVD, MGB, and KGB), whose headquarters, the Lubyanka, is not far away. During the Great Terror, executions took place on the monastery grounds, our guide told us. Even today, all the buildings around the monastery remain in the possession of the post-Soviet security service, the FSB. The monastery is, therefore, surrounded by the organization which in a previous guise once tried to destroy Christianity in Russia.

The resurrected Sretenskii monastery is devoted to the New Martyrs – those thousands of Christians murdered by communists following the 1917 revolution. The new church’s decoration reflects this. Around the dome, for instance, are depictions of key saints of the Russian Orthodox Church, among whom are Emperor Nicholas II and his family, symbols of suffering at the hands of Bolshevism.

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Saints of the Orthodox Church, including Tsar Nicholas II

Behind and above the altar, one can see a depiction of Christ’s crucifixion. But around the cross are not merely the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, but also some more of the New Martyrs. On the far right are a man and his two sons who initially supported the revolution and joined the Red Guards, but who then refused to renounce their Christian faith and were shot. On the left is, among others, Grand Duchess Elizabeth, who became a nun after the assassination of her husband Grand Duke Sergei, and who was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. And on the far left is a woman who during the Great Terror brought food and clothes to those detained by the NKVD, until she in turn was arrested and shot.

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Fresco of crucifixion in presence of New Martyrs

There are no candles burning in the main church. Normally, there are two types – those lit for prayers for the dead, and those lit for prayers for the living. But the entire building is a prayer for the dead, and so, we were told, no candles are needed. During Orthodox services, the altar is covered with an ‘antimin’ – an altar cloth into which a relic of a martyr is sown. The entire church at Sretenskii is an antimin, our guide said – as it is built on an NKVD execution ground, the new martyrs are an integral part of it.

In May of this year, Vladimir Putin attended the service at which the church was consecrated. Our guide spoke of Putin as the former head of the FSB, the successor organization to the Soviet secret services who executed the New Martyrs. Our guide implied that by coming to the service, Putin in effect repented on behalf of those secret services and asked for forgiveness. There is little doubt in my mind that Putin understood perfectly what his presence symbolized and what message he was sending.

Sretensky monastery is a massive and striking monument to those murdered not just by Stalin’s regime, but also by Lenin’s. With the full personal backing of the Russian president, it repudiates those regimes’s crimes in the most forceful manner.

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16 thoughts on “The New Martyrs”

  1. there’s little room for the ‘truth’ about the 30 million who were murdered by Stalin’s regime

    Confusing. Doesn’t ‘truth’ in quotation marks indicate that it’s not the real truth, but sorta like a social construct sort of ‘truth’? “There’s little room for the ‘truth’” – it sounds like a compliment.

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    1. Why not one hundred million? Why not two hundred?

      It was one thing for Herodotus to be innumerate – he had the excuse of being a senile pederast – but these modern historians have no business treating data like playdough.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a weird comment, Igor, especially given that the wikipedia link you provide says the following: ‘On 25 July 1998, Yeltsin appointed Putin as Director of the Federal Security Service (FSB). … He held that position until 9 August 1999.’

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  2. Paul: So happy to see this great essay, and also the pictures from the Sretensky church’s interior. Walking through the Sretenskii monastery and church with you and the others was definitely one of the highlights of my recent trip to Moscow.

    I should add that it was not at all difficult to persuade the church to organize a tour for us — it was enough just to show interest, and for them to see I was disappointed that it was closed. Their extreme hospitality followed naturally, because they were such lovely people.

    Am not sure I remember exactly, but I believe that the absence of candles pertained only to the special candle box typically stationed in an Orthodox church in front of the crucifix, where one prays for the dead. But the whole theme of this church is that of life — the eternal life of the resurrected. That is why that particular candle box is absent, and also why the color scheme of the church is specifically focused on the hues associated with Easter (Pascha, in the east).

    Paul Grenier

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    1. I believe you are right about the candles, Paul. Your Russian is much better than mine, so you no doubt picked up some things I missed. Thanks again for arranging the tour. It was fascinating.

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  3. “The monastery is, therefore, surrounded by the organization which in a previous guise once tried to destroy Christianity in Russia.”

    Dear Professor Robinson! Up to this phrase your blogpost was an example of moderation in reporting, a fresh breath of nonpartisan expression of the factual truth.

    After this phrase I’m obliged to ask you, professor Poul Robinson: can you provide irrefutable evidence of the NKVD/OGP(u)/MGB/KGB/FSB indeed had one of its objectives the destruction of the “Christianity in Russia” (c)?

    Thank you in advance.

    “The resurrected Sretenskii monastery is devoted to the New Martyrs – those thousands of Christians murdered by communists following the 1917 revolution.”

    Professor, Sir! Once again, I implore unto you. I want to know you opinion on the following cases:

    – Do you consider people arrested by the authorities to be “kidnapped”?

    – Do you view the search warrant of the authorities as another instance of “breaking and entering”?

    – Is, for you, taxation an act of theft?

    For the time being – I’d just fine if you find time in your busy schedule answering just these questions of mine. Hope, you will be disposed favorably to answer them.

    “On the far right are a man and his two sons who initially supported the revolution and joined the Red Guards, but who then refused to renounce their Christian faith and were shot.”

    And once again, Professor, I have to ask you.

    – Who were these NeoMartyrs? You know of those two early Christians singled out for a sacrifice in the time just before Vladimir I baptism? We can’t really deduce their names. But these events happened relatively recently. So – who were they? Why were they executed?

    – Do you believe in God, Professor? In which one?

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    1. Yes – “Red terror”. Russian civil war and foreign intervention. And?

      Oh, btw – why userperson curri does not mention that the so-called Red Terror was a reaction to the White Terror, that happened earlier?

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  4. Guys like Marcus Kolga are an embarrassment. I expected more of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Paranoid fantasies about Russia and its leaders went out of style with the end of the Cold War, yet I’m still having to apologize to my Eastern European friends for the ignorance that can still be found among the Canadian intelligentsia — or maybe I should say the ignorantsia (forgive me, Virginia Woolf).

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  5. Putin is not a Stalinphile or Marxist-Leninist of any stripe if he was why would appoint an Orthodox Nationalist as a education minister, call the Bolsheviks traitors, and praise Stolypin, Ilyin, and Berdayev. Finally, why would Solzhenitsyn like Putin if Putin was a Neo-Soviet?

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