Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Some ‘New Martyrs’ Worked for the NKVD and Don’t Deserve Sainthood

Paul Goble

Vienna, February 18 – At least some of those venerated by the Russian Orthodox Church as “the new martyrs” because they died at the hands of the Soviet regime do not deserve to be canonized because they either agreed to act as informers for the secret police or denounced their own faith in the hope of leniency, according to a priest now involved in researching these cases.
Speaking to a church conference this week, Father Superior Damaskin said that “far from every individual who suffered for the faith in Soviet times can be elevated to the rank of the saints” because canonization requires an examination of an individual’s entire life rather than only one moment of it (
And unfortunately, he continued, many who were tortured or even were killed because of their faith or position in the Church had agreed to act as informers or promised to do so or even denied the Church and its teachings as a whole in the hopes, sometimes realized, of being spared at least for a time.
Thus, Archimandrite Pavel of Yaroslavl, after being arrested in 1929, “agreed to become an informer and was freed,” Damaskin said. “But in 1938, the NKVD all the same arrested and shot him.” And others were quite prepared to deny their faith if that would save their lives, a strategy that was not successful in most cases.
Unfortunately, the priest continued, sorting out such cases is becoming ever more difficult. In the 1990s, the Church had access to some of the archives it needed, but more recently, the authorities have put these files beyond the reach of the church, an action that among other things raises questions about who was a saint and who was a police informer.
Damaskin’s position represents the rise of a much tougher standard that many in the Church have used before. Not only do many of the faithful accept that people including churchmen did many unfortunate things because of torture, as any number of memoirs from the 1930s attest, but there is another reason this complicated relationship was not discussed.
As many in the Church and the human rights communities have long been aware, some of the most senior hierarchs in the Moscow Patriarchate have had close ties with or have even been officers in the secret police. Consequently, to talk about this even as Damaskin does calls attention to something many in the hierarchy would prefer not to have discussed.
But at least some in the hierarchy feel they have no choice, given the importance of the status of saint in Orthodoxy. Metropolitan Yuvenaly of Krutitsky and Kolomna, who heads the Synod’s commission on canonization, seconded Damaskin’s argument, although he tried to put a more optimistic gloss on it (
The Metropolitan said that “it is of course hard for us now: for us, state archives are being closed, but we believe that the new martyrs will be accepted by the people, and despite all these difficulties,” the Church and its followers will gain the intercessors with God that everyone requires.
He added that on April 11th, his commission would mark its 20th anniversary, and he promised that it would continue its work. But in addition to the problems it faces with access to the necessary archives, the commission also faces difficulties from Orthodox nationalist activists who want to see Rasputin or even Stalin canonized.
The Church is unlikely to agree – the recent case of the priest who hung an icon in his church is instructive on this point ( – but the muddying of the waters that the issues Damaskin and Yuvenaly raise will undoubtedly be exploited by such people.
Moreover, these reports will complicate the Moscow Patriarchate’s relations with independent Orthodox groups both within Russia and abroad and cause many of them to take an even firmer position against cooperating with those they suspect have more than a little to hide both now and in the past.
Thus, in yet another way, the closure of the archives under Vladimir Putin is preventing closure over the tragedies of Soviet times. Worse, it ensures that the dark shadow that period cast on Russia and Russian believers even as Moscow now says it wants to support them in every possible way.

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