Merciful Stories

A Patriarch Calls on Soldiers in the Soviet Army Not to Shed Blood

On August 19, 1991, Soviet KGB and party hard-liners returned from their dachas and summer vacations to Moscow, determined to suppress the democratic movement born when Boris Yeltsin had been elected president of the Russian Republic just two months earlier.... The junta, led by Vladimir Kryuchkov, head of the KGB, seized television and radio stations and, with the majestic music of Swan Lake as background, announced on the airwaves that it had formed a "State Emergency Committee" and was "taking supreme power in the USSR."

Earlier on the previous evening of August 18, just before 5:00 p.m., it had taken captive, in the government dacha in Yalta on the Black Sea, the president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev. His chief of staff played the Judas, accompanied by Politburo member Oleg Shenin and a small clutch of party myrmidons. They demanded he either sign a decree declaring a state of emergency or resign. Courageously, Gorbachev refused to do either. Nevertheless, the traitors confiscated the codes needed to launch the Soviet nuclear arsenal and confined him and his family to house arrest. He was now nowhere to be seen.

The KGB plotters made just one mistake: they missed taking prisoner Boris Yeltsin....

With Gorbachev safely tucked away at Yalta, the plotters wrestled with the problem of Yeltsin, now holed up in the Russian Parliament, a multistory office building called the "Russian White House." He and his staff still had access to fax and telephone, and later to radio and television. He summoned the ordinary citizens of Moscow to defend the democracy that is, his election that had just been born. He stood on one of the tanks at 1:00 p.m., August 19, audaciously defying the junta. In a few hours, a loudspeaker announced to the Muscovites forming human shields around the building that ten of the tanks had gone over to the defenders of the Russian White House.

Yeltsin used the media to make a tough speech claiming that elements of three divisions of the troops sent to storm and occupy the Parliament had crossed over and were now supporting him. Then the elite Alpha Unit, paratroopers commanded by General Alexander Lebed, a hero of Afghanistan, refused to storm the White House. Yeltsin spoke from a podium where now Major General Kobiets stood in full uniform, acknowledging Yeltsin's pronouncement that he had been appointed the new defense minister. The defection of just ten tanks had pulled the thumb out of the KGB's dike, and the momentum was sucking others up the chain of command over to Yeltsin's side.

But the outcome was still very much in doubt. Yes, the rings of human shields around the Russian Parliament were increasing by the hour. But the defenders had ten tanks, whereas the party and the KGB commanded whole armored divisions. If they attacked, thousands would die in the carnage.

Yeltsin fully expected a bloodbath and tried to get help....

Yeltisn appealed to the new patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, the former Aleksey Ridiger, who had been elected in June the previous year by a meeting of bishops. He had taken the official name of Aleksy II. Yeltsin's words went out over the national radio, defying the junta's orders to silence him:

"The tragic events that have occurred throughout the night made me turn to you, to reach the nation through you.

"There is lawlessness inside the country a group of corrupt Party members has organized an anti-constitutional revolution. Essentially, a state of emergency has been declared inside the country due to the extreme gravity of the situation, and the laws and constitution of the USSR and of the sovereign republics of the Union have been grossly violated.

"It is no coincidence that these events have taken place on the eve of the signing of a new Union Treaty, which would have paved the way to freedom, democracy, and progress and a resolution of the recent crisis.

"Our State has been violated and along with it the newly emerging democracy, and freedom of choice for the electorate. There is once again the shadow of disorder and chaos hanging over our country.

"At this moment of tragedy for our Fatherland I turn to you, calling on your authority among all religious confessions and believers. The influence of the Church in our society is too great for the Church to stand aside during these events. This duty is directly related to the Church's mission, to which you have dedicated your life: serving people, caring for their hearts and souls. The Church, which has suffered through the times of totalitarianism, may once again experience disorder and lawlessness.

"All believers, the Russian nation, and all Russia await your word!"

They did not have long to wait. Within hours of this appeal, the patriarch demonstrated that he would not remain a bystander but would throw the full weight of his position as patriarch against the coup.

On August 19, as the tanks moved ominously into their staging area in Red Square, Aleksy was physically only yards away (see figure 1.1). Inside the redbrick walls of the Kremlin, he was presiding at the liturgy of the Feast of the Transfiguration in the Cathedral of the Assumption (Uspensky Sobor), not only the oldest cathedral within the Kremlin but also the most important Orthodox church in Russia, having been begun in 1326“28 at the behest of Metropolitan Peter, whose move of the Orthodox see from Kiev to Moscow ended Kiev's status as the center of the faith. Still unfinished, it collapsed in 1472. As with other Kremin cathedrals, architects imported from Italy, in part from the Ticino (an area in northern Italy and southern Switzerland), rebuilt it in its present form.

During the service Aleksy said nothing about the outside events but made an interesting change in the closing litany. Instead of remembering the "authorities" and "the army" as was customary, he prayed "for our country protected by God and its people."

Then he took a momentous decision. On August 20, only a day after Yeltsin's appeal to him, Aleksy faxed to the country and to selected sites around the world an "announcement" (zayavlenie), which challenged the junta's legality. Aleksy had already identified this as the key weakness of the coup:

"This situation [i.e., the departure of Gorbachev from power, and his disappearance] is troubling the consciences of millions of our fellow citizens, who are concerned about the legality of the newly formed State Emergency Committee. . . . In this connection we declare that it is essential that we hear without delay the voice of President Gorbachev and learn his attitude toward the events that have just taken place."

Notably, the patriarch made no mention of Yeltsin. Instead, he referred to Gorbachev, a reformer with whom he believed the church could do business, the same attitude once expressed by Margaret Thatcher. Now Aleksy repaid the ROC's debts to Gorbachev's reforms by calling for Gorbachev to be allowed to speak to the country. But this would not be the limit of his help.

The remainder of Aleksy's "announcement" demonstrated his political savvy: "We hope that the Supreme Soviet of the USSR will give careful consideration to what has taken place and will take decisive measures to bring about the stabilization of the situation in the country." That is, he called politely for action from the top government body in the country, notably not the party apparatus.

Next, he sought to isolate the plotters from two other national institutions, the church and the army:

"We call upon all parts of the Russian Orthodox Church, the whole of our people, and particularly our army at this critical moment for our nation to show support and not to permit the shedding of fraternal blood. We raise the heartfelt prayer to our Lord and summon all true believers in our Church to join this prayer begging Him to dispense peace to the peoples of our land so that they can in future build their homeland in accordance with freedom of choice and the accepted norms of morality and law."

Again, the patriarch touched delicately on the Achilles' heel of the coup, as he alluded to the "accepted norms of morality and law." Yeltsin had begun his radio appeal to the patriarch by referring to "lawlessness." Now the patriarch was reiterating the same idea to the nation, but associating legality with a "heartfelt prayer to our Lord" studded with the familiar language of the peace campaign "peace" and "freedom" turned back on the KGB.

-- an extract from the first chapter of Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent: Faith and Power in the New Russia by John Garrard & Carol Garrard (Princeton Universoty Press)

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St. Cosmas of Aetolia, who toured occupied Greece around 1750 establishing schools, gives us the price of heaven. Starting with perfect love, he says:

"If you want to find perfect love, go sell all your belongings, give them to the poor, go where you find a master and become a slave. Can you do this and be perfect?

"You say this is too heavy? Then do something else. Don't sell yourself as a slave. Just sell your belongings and give them all to the poor. Can you do it? Or do you find this too heavy a task?"

"All right, you cannot give away all your belongings. Then give half, or a third, or a fifth. Is even this too heavy? Then give one tenth. Can you do that? Is it still too heavy?

"How about this. Don't sell yourself as slave. Don't give a penny to the poor. Only do this. Don't take your poor brother's coat, don't take his bread, don't persecute him, don't eat him alive. If you don't want to do him any good, at least do him no harm. Just leave him alone. Is this also too heavy?"

"You say you want to be saved. But how? How can we be saved if everything we are called to do is too heavy? We descend and descend until there is no place further down. God is merciful, yes, but he also has an iron rod."

-- St. Cosmas of Aetolia

The only prominent public figure to condemn the [anti-semetic] pogroms [during the civil war that followed the Bolshevik revolution] openly and unequivocally was the head of the Orthodox Church, Patriarch Tikhon.

-- Richard Pipes, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime (Harville Press, 1994)

"The Fools Theodore and Nicholas lived in Novgorod. A great bridge joined two sections of the city, Torgova and Sofia. On this bridge many horrible fights broke out between the rival families of either side of the river. The bishop often had to rush to the bridge and put a stop to the violence. Then the Holy Fools Theodore and Nicholas began to fight on the bridge, to demonstrate, as only Fools can, the stupidity of violence. Theodore would not let Nicholas cross over, and vice versa. Then a nobleman invited Theodore to cross over and visit him. And Theodore, after much begging, agreed. He crossed over, and suddenly Nicholas appeared. Nicholas chased Theodore along the bank of the Volkhov River, then Theodore ran right onto the river. Nicholas rushed into a nearby garden and grabbed a head of cabbage, and then he too ran onto the river. And Nick hurled the cabbage at Ted. Many people witnessed this event. And Blessed Nicholas was given the name 'Kochanov' meaning 'cabbage head'."

In 1944, the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko's mother took him from Siberia to Moscow. They were among those who witnessed a procession of twenty-thousand German war prisoners marching through the streets of Moscow:

The pavements swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women -- Russian women with hands roughened by hard work, lips untouched by lipstick, and with thin hunched shoulders which had borne half of the burden of the war. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans. They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the column was to appear.

At last we saw it. The generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanor meant to show superiority over their plebian victors.

"They smell of perfume, the bastards," someone in the crowd said with hatred. The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and policemen had all they could do to hold them back.

All at once something happened to them. They saw German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty blood-stained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades; the soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent -- the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches.

Then I saw an elderly women in broken-down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman's shoulder, saying, "Let me through." There must have been something about her that made him step aside. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a colored handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And now from every side women were running toward the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.

-- A Precocious Autobiography, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Collins, London