NINETY YEARS ON: 1918-2008
17 July 2008 is the 90th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Russian Imperial Family. A month ago, on 17 June 2008, His Eminence Archbishop Vikenty of Ekaterinburg and Verkhoturye, one of today’s most distinguished Russian Orthodox bishops, gave an interview to the newspaper Ekaterinburg Initiative about the proper understanding of the legacy and heritage of Nicholas II in the Church and in society. This interview is translated below.
I: Your Eminence, what can you say about Nicholas II as a Christian politician?
Archbishop Vikenty: Tsar Nicholas II was a model for the politicians of his time, and in my view he can serve as a model for contemporary politicians. He had the desire to influence the world in such a way that there would be peace on earth and harmony, so that arms could be cut back to a reasonable level…Brought up in the Orthodox faith, his soul exemplified such moral values as conscientiousness, love for our neighbours and the desire to find agreement. He hoped that he could influence others to bring about the ideals of unity, brotherhood and mutual respect, including respect between politicians, between statesmen, between peoples and between states. When we study his activities as a ruler, we see him as a man who based his rule upon the Christian values that his parents had taught him. He tried to spread these values among all the heads of state with whom he associated.
The Tsar’s intent in organising the Hague International Court of Justice was to prevent conflicts between states and peoples and it became a radiant legacy of his spirit. He did not want people to fight, but rather to solve their disputes and problems peacefully. Many countries of the world now follow his wise counsels, and in later years many other international institutions have developed on the basis of his ideas, for example the United Nations. It is evident from this that Tsar Nicholas II has enormous stature as a political figure in the world, especially in his role as a theoretician of world peace.
I: For many years, there were those who called pre-revolutionary Russia ‘the prison of the nations’… At that time, what was Russian policy towards resident foreigners and Non-Orthodox?
Archbishop Vikenty: As far as relations with other religious confessions were concerned, Tsar Nicholas II treated them all with respect. When he went to the parts of his empire that were predominately Muslim, he went to the mosque to show his respect for their faith, he read books about Islam to learn more about it and he greeted his Muslim subjects on their religious holidays. On the whole, his interaction with them was very good and his Muslim subjects repaid him with love, respect, esteem, and honour. This is an example of the atmosphere of the brotherhood and good relations that existed between the religious confessions in Russia. We did not have religious conflicts.
I: How did the Tsar do as regards the Church?
Archbishop Vikenty: During his reign approximately 7,000 churches and some 19 monasteries were built. Churches abroad were built using money from his private purse. The Tsar really loved to go on pilgrimages to holy places and he tried to instil in the people a similar love for this. In fact, whenever and wherever the Tsar went on pilgrimage, a great host of people would follow. As a whole, the influence of Tsar Nicholas on Church life was enormous. He approved of the canonisation of many holy righteous men of God. Indeed, he canonised more saints in his reign than were glorified in previous centuries. Of course, we know that he added to the Menaion saints such as St Seraphim of Sarov, St John of Tobolsk (a relative of St John of Shanghai) and a great many other righteous people, as well.
I: Vladyka, many people today believe that the Imperial Family is an excellent role model. What do you think about this?
Archbishop Vikenty: Oh yes, I quite agree. At the time, and today as well, the Imperial Family was an example of high morals and spirituality, it was an exemplar of a real Christian family. Firstly, the mutual love of the spouses shone forth, and, secondly, it was a large and harmonious family, where the children were very well brought up. Despite the fact that the Tsar ruled a vast empire and had many government responsibilities, he did not forget his family, and he played an active role in raising his children. Since he valued them very much, he found the time to sit with them, read edifying spiritual literature to them and he told them stories from the lives of the Orthodox saints. Together, they walked to the church to attend liturgy, the Tsar would help his children with their devotions, they had a living connection with God, and they received solace and comfort from God through their prayers. All too frequently, Tsarevich Aleksei was ill, and of course the entire family fervently entreated God on his behalf, they felt that the Lord heard their prayers, that he helped and eased the sufferings of their brother and son.
In another instance, it would be instructive to note the depth of their prayer while they were imprisoned in Ekaterinburg and Tobolsk. In their letters we feel their coming before God in prayer, their hope in the Lord, and their profound faith. Undoubtedly, all these things were the fruit of their upbringing, which the parents instilled in their children from infancy onwards. Of course, the Tsar’s great patience and generous humility were the evidence of a patient Christian soul, and although he proved this throughout the entire course of his life, they particularly manifested themselves precisely during the months of the family’s imprisonment.
Another testimony to the authentic faith of the Tsar was the genuine conversion to Orthodoxy of his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra. In order to convince such a person as Alexandra, a woman who already had very deep beliefs, with roots in another religion and another faith, it was necessary to know Orthodoxy very well, to know the difference between Orthodoxy and Protestantism. He could show the beauty of Orthodoxy in his words and in his behaviour. The Tsarina saw his genuine love, because she was an honest and straightforward person who hated falsehood. Therefore, when she saw that Nicholas not only said good words about Orthodoxy, but, when she also saw his deep faith, then she saw in her heart the beauty of Orthodoxy and she fell deeply in love with it, with all her heart and all her soul. Of course, she tried to pass on to her children the spiritual fruit that she gained from her husband, Tsar Nicholas.
At that time, it is not surprising that Russia was not only very well ruled, but the population was growing by leaps and bounds. This generation of children was very large, many families had 10, 15 or even 18 children, and such numbers were not considered remarkable. Now, in looking for solutions to our demographic problem, unfortunately we look at a family’s income and their living conditions. However, in those days, they did not take such things into consideration, and they lived a simple and natural life that they saw as God’s divine gift to mankind, and they carried out the Will of God expressed in the commandment, Increase, and multiply, and fill the earth. The population increase during the reign of Tsar Nicholas was more than 3 million per year. This was how the power of Russia increased steadily. If we had continued this rate of growth up to the present, there would be over 600 million people living in Russia today.
I: What is the significance of the glorification of the Holy Royal Martyrs for Russia?
Archbishop Vikenty: For Russia, the glorification of the Holy Royal Martyrs has a very great significance, not least because Tsar Nicholas was accused of every sort of grave error that could exist and he was blamed for everything that was wrong in the country. For a long time it used to be said that the Revolution came about due to his misrule, because he was a pathetic, incompetent man. In fact, there are many other reasons why this catastrophe befell us.
Because of the canonisation we know more about him since we have more attentively studied the period of Russian history when he reigned and we have been able to clear away many accumulated lies. Increasingly, we better understand his ability to govern the country and his achievements, that he made our Russian motherland majestic and powerful. We see what enormous labour he put into the development of our state, so that it would not only be rich materially, but, also rich spiritually, so that everyone would possess a deep and conscious faith, and just as the coat of arms of Russia has two wings, our Russian motherland would have two curving wings, i.e., it would have a strong and powerful material prosperity and it would also have a vigorous spirit. Now, it is very important for us to study the life and endeavours of Tsar Nicholas II, so that our statesmen today can use this accumulated experience.
I: Has the attitude of the people changed with regard to the memory of the Tsar in recent years? If so, what are its dynamics?
Archbishop Vikenty: At present in Ekaterinburg and in the surrounding region, I note that the attitude of the people to Tsar Nicholas II has changed greatly and for the better. If in previous years, especially in the Soviet period, people were at times proud of the fact that here, in Ekaterinburg, in the Ipatiev House, ‘we killed the Tsar’, now, on the contrary, people realise that this was an appalling tragedy. In the past, we considered that this was not a crime, but a good deed, a deliverance from an oppressor and tyrant. However, now we realise that this was a tragedy, a crime and an unspeakable barbarity.
This is how everyone now speaks, who come to the Church of the Saviour-on-the-Blood and to the monastery at Ganina Yama, they look about these places and realise the full import of what was done here. Coming here, they pray and feel the blessings of God and they feel aid from the Royal Martyrs. The Royal Martyrs have given a great deal of help to the families of believers; their intercessions have helped to rid many of the habits of smoking and alcoholism.
The myths about the Tsar that are deeply rooted in the consciousness of our society, the constantly repeated deceitful and incorrect historical fables about his epoch still hold many of our people captive. So we must greatly increase our efforts to describe and document these events so that the people will understand the situation correctly. Now we hold many conferences and exhibitions in order to show the achievements of the Tsar in all their variety. Thus far, unfortunately, our society does not properly esteem Tsar Nicholas as a moral, highly spiritual and religious man and an effective politician. These exhibitions and conferences help people to realise the importance of the last Tsar for Russia. Last year, when we prepared an exhibition in St Petersburg, the staff at the Public Archives said that there are about 23,000 documents concerning the Imperial Family. As they have become acquainted with these documents, they have completely changed their attitude to the Tsar. Previously they had understood it as they had been taught in Soviet years, i.e., that he was a pathetic, weak-willed person. But, now, after acquainting themselves with documents from the archives, these specialists se a strong, powerful and moral politician.
We should deepen our study of the historical evidence and present it to society so that the truth about the reign of Nicholas II reaches as many people as possible. Then, of course, our mission and task will be complete.