Monday, May 13, 2019

The Land of Sixty Million Saints

St Nicholas II, Tsar


(guest post by John Lakehurst)

I was driving up Geary Boulevard the other day with my nineteen-year-old daughter Sarah on our way to the art museum. We were chatting idly when the huge gold onion dome of the Holy Virgin Cathedral came into view on the right. We both remarked on it. I wondered aloud whether the dome was plated with real gold.

As we drove past the corner of 26th Avenue where the cathedral is, Sarah noted that there was a bookstore inside: A blank wooden door at the corner of the building by a sign that read The Holy Virgin Cathedral Bookstore.

I like obscure little bookshops. But in this case, there was likely to be something inside that that I was curious to see. “Hey, if there’s a place to park, let’s go in,” I said.

It was fine with Sarah. She enjoys shops like that too.

As chance would have it, a vacant diagonal parking spot appeared a few yards past the street corner, so I pulled in. We fed quarters to the meter, walked back to the corner and opened the bookstore’s door.

Inside was a small dim lobby, with a hallway off to the right. A sign directed us to the bookstore at the top of a short flight of stairs. We walked up to it.

The door was open, and the place was illuminated with light streaming in through the windows. It was a tiny place, barely twelve feet by twelve. Shelves ran along the walls, with two shelves in the middle of the room breaking the interior space into a pair of short corridors. The counter was in front of the windows, and a man was standing behind it by the cash register. He greeted us affably as we came in. I told him we just wanted to look around. Sarah and I were the only customers there.

Sarah and I split up. There seemed to be only two kinds of books: children’s books about Russia, and adult books printed in the Cyrillic alphabet. There were also some framed icons on the walls, and icons were the reason I had come into the store.

I walked over to the shelf on the wall at the back of the shop, opposite the counter. There were a number of icons on display: of the Holy Mother, of Christ, and several depicting various saints, all presented in that medieval fashion: flat images, elaborate halos; golden borders framed the images, many with Cyrillic writing worked into the design. There was a timeless calm about these icons that conveyed certainty and faith.

I went up to the counterman. He was small man of about sixty with black framed glasses and a white ponytail. He was wearing a monk’s robe. I hadn’t seen an actual monk since I’d been to Italy, and I was a bit intrigued.

I asked him, “Do you have any icons of Nicholas?”

“You mean St. Nicholas?” he asked.

“No. Nicholas II, the last Tsar. I understand he was canonized.”

He nodded. “Yes, he was, in 1981. Along with his family. They’re all saints now.”

“Really? All of them? Alexis, Anastasia?”

“Yes, they were canonized as martyrs of Russia. As were all sixty million victims of the Bolsheviks,” he added. “They were canonized too.”

“Sixty million saints?” I asked.

He nodded again. “Oh, yes.”

“I wonder if they know they’re saints,” I mused.

“Oh, I think they know,” he said with a tight smile.

He walked over to the back shelf and showed me the icons of Nicholas and his family. The icons were in various sizes. They were printed on wood with some kind of glossy plastic finish. There was a postcard-sized one that depicted the Tsar with his family, all holding crosses, all dressed in stylized medieval garb, the women in robes, Nicholas and his son in cloaks and tunics. They looked sorrowful, almost distressed, and all had golden halos behind their heads. But the icon was too small to detail their faces. In the end I chose an 8-1/2 by 11 inch icon of the Tsar alone that appealed to me.

It’s a nice image. There’s a filigreed silver and gold border with a silver background. The Tsar looks out calmly with sad brown eyes. The face is stylized, but the mustache and beard are familiar from his photos. He wears a Russian fur-lined pointed gold cap studded with jewels; a silver and gold filigreed halo frames his head, little gold rays radiate from Nicholas’s head to the halo’s border. A red cloak is draped over his left shoulder; beneath it he’s wearing a forest green tunic bordered in gold. The Tsar holds an Orthodox cross in his right hand. In his left is an open parchment scroll with some Cyrillic words on it.

The icon cost twelve dollars. I bought it, wondering why I was doing so, because I have no place to display it, and because the symbology is completely alien to my own cultural traditions. I suspect the major reason for my purchase was because I had pestered the counterman with my questions, and the least I could do was to purchase something from his shop.

Back in the car Sarah gave me the same college-kid-to-dad look that I used to use on my own father and asked, “What did you buy that for? Didn’t you once tell me that the Tsar ran your grandparents out of Russia?”

“Yeah, that’s true,” I admitted as I started the car and backed cautiously out onto Geary Boulevard.

“And didn’t he hate the Jews?”

I nodded. “So I’ve read. But then again, pretty much all Russians back then hated the Jews. There was nothing remarkable about him in that respect.”

“Then why do you like him so much?” asked Sarah, looking annoyed. “You’ve talked about him before. You’ve got a real thing for the Tsar.”

I slipped the car into the stream of traffic. “I dunno. I know my grandparents hated him; my mother always said bad things about him when I was growing up. She said he instigated pogroms. But…my friend Nick’s mother Anastasia reveres him. She’s from minor Russian nobility and when she was a kid in England she knew the Tsar’s sister Xenia. Xenia was a kind of mentor aunt to her or something. Anastasia insisted that Nicholas was a good man, “a family man,” as she called him, a man who meant well, but who was in over his head. She told me I should read Nicholas and Alexandra, this sympathetic biography of them by Robert Massie. I saw the movie when it came out, and in 1975 I read Massie’s book, and ever since then I’ve been partial to the guy. I kind of relate to him in a way. Like Anastasia said, he was in over his head—-just like me.”

Sarah chuckled.

When I got home I reprimanded myself for making the dumbest kind of impulse purchase.

There was no place to put my icon without removing something that I liked better. I put it away and decided that I’d give it to Anastasia the next time I saw her. She’s in her mid-nineties, but she’s sharp as a tack. She might appreciate the gift.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about those “sixty million saints.” Did the Russian Orthodox Church really conduct a ceremony canonizing sixty million people? I could find no reference to it online. It seemed sort of strange, and I wondered who would have been included. Just Russian victims of the Bolsheviks, or other nationalities as well? Ukrainians? Lithuanians? Jews? And what miracles did these people do to warrant sainthood, or was simply being a martyr of the Bolsheviks sufficient?

And finally, as I asked the monk, do those sixty million dead know that they’re saints? I suppose that would depend on your conception of the afterlife. One thing’s for sure: if they’re saints they can’t be in hell, which most Christian sects concur is the destination of the vast majority of mankind. Most of those martyrs were probably not particularly saintly in life. But somehow by having the luck to die at the right time in the right place, they got a free pass into heaven. A pretty good deal, if you ask me.

“Oh, I think they know.”

John Lakehurst is a retired teacher with a deep interest in history. He's been writing historical or historically-minded fiction for twenty years, and is the author of The Gift of Sleep trilogy, set in a fictional Balkan nation during World War II, and of Tritium, an espionage novel involving stolen nuclear fuel, set partly in China during the Cultural Revolution, and partly in San Francisco during the Summer of Love. John has also written many short stories, mostly with a historical setting. He lives in the East Bay with his wife and daughter.

Canonized Romanov Family


Anonymous said...

Too much info, Nick.
Peter K

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