On 28 October, the Orthodox Christians of Belarus commemorate twenty-three saints martyrs of the Minsk Diocese, glorified in 1999 as locally venerated saints. They suffered from 1917 to 1951, sharing the struggles and trials of our Church in the 20th century, full of tragedies, wars and violence. Their courage and loyalty to Christ continue to inspire the Orthodox faithful.
They sacrificed themselves to make our Church live as the body of Christ, not as a servant of short-term political interests. In the face of mortal danger, they continued to serve their flock, despising the temporary riches of this world and surrendering their lives for the eternal glory of our Lord.
Today, we pay tribute to these brave souls.
It was 1917. A revolution had just happened, and the Bolsheviks came to power. The new authorities declared the Church to be a relic of the past, and the persecution of believers began immediately. Sacred objects were desecrated, and many churches were razed and destroyed. The new rulers were hoping that the Church would not last another decade.
In the beginning, they used fear and intimidation. They threw priests and laity into prison, sent them to labour camps and executed them. The Bolsheviks hoped that the fear of death and hardships would stop the clergy from serving their flock, and the people would cease to come to church. That strategy failed. The people were still loyal to Christ, inspired by the courage of their shepherds.
The Bolsheviks then tried a more cunning tactic: splitting the Church by launching a “renewalist” movement within it. Renewalists clamoured for the deposition of the Russian Patriarch and the subordination of the Church to the state. They dreamed of a "symphony" between Orthodoxy and Bolshevism. Many of the 23 new saints sacrificed their lives resisting the schism.
Archpriest Vasily Ismailov stood in the way of the renewalists as they attempted to take over the church where he was serving. For this act of resistance, he was arrested in 1927 and sentenced to imprisonment in a labour camp in Solovki Islands in the Russian far North. He died shortly afterwards of extreme cold and hard work.
Priest Vasily Ismailov
Priest Piotr Grudinsky accepted ordination when the persecution of the Church by the authorities was at its peak. He was a beloved pastor to his flock. He was arrested for his service to the church and was executed months later.
Priest Piotr Grudinsky
Priest Valerian Novitsky was put to death in 1930 for opposing the organisers of anti-religious clubs for collective farm workers.
The sacrifices of these martyrs were not in vain. The masses of believers continued to worship at Church and did not follow the schismatics.
The courage of the clergy and laity defeated the grand design of the Bolsheviks.
In the 1930s, political repressions intensified, and Christians faced even fiercer persecution. The anti-religious campaign was gaining strength, fomenting hatred towards the Church and stoking harshness against its servants from the authorities.
In 1930, the newspaper “Rabochy” published the following report from an anti-religious gathering on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord:
"Inside a circle of people, a bonfire is ablaze. Its flames fly high into the sky amid the darkness. The icons are burning hot! A group of participants arrives with a small coffin. A dozen more icons expelled from workers' homes go into the coffin, and the people start another fire. Fires are burning all around Liberty Square. Where the deceitful priests were once weaving their snares, we will open a club. We will cut the tongues of the church bells and make the radio speak. We will remould the bells and give them to the industry to make useful things."
Hundreds of priests and thousands of laity were being executed and sent to prison camps. Archpriest Sergius Rodakovsky had been arrested twice before being sent to a prison camp to fell trees. He survived and continued to serve after his return, gathering full churches. He was rearrested and executed in 1933.
Archpriest Sergius Rodakovsky with matushka Xenia
Priest John Vecherko was taken by the security police in 1933 and subjected to harsh interrogations. He endured his torments with courage. He did not renounce his faith or denounce any of his brethren to the authorities and was executed. Priest Vladimir Khrischanovich was put to death for asking believers to keep coming to church and hold on to their faith, and also for conducting frequent services. Priest Vladimir Talyusha was sentenced to ten years in a prison camp for trying to raise money to pay the church tax. He died in imprisonment. Archpriest Mikhail Novitsky was beaten to death by an unidentified thug when he refused to give up the treasures from his church. Father Mikhail died on the third day after Pascha. The thug was never found.
Icon of the Holy Martyr Mikhail Novitsky
The persecution continued to escalate, peaking in 1937. None of the priests arrested during that year survived. A sentence of ten years in a prison camp became equivalent to the death penalty. More priests were being sentenced to death. Archpriest Dmitry Pavsky was arrested in 1931 and sentenced to five years in a prison camp. He returned in 1937 but suffered another arrest and the death penalty. Archpriest Alexander Shalay was arrested for collecting signatures to open a new church and was put to death in 1937. Archpriest Leonid Biriukovich was executed for the same “offence”. Priest Dmitry Klyshevsky also died as a martyr in 1937. Archpriest John Voronets advised believers not to be afraid to state their religious affiliation during the 1937 census and was executed in 1937, on the day of the Transfiguration of the Lord.
Priest John Voronets
Archpriest John Pankratovich was executed in 1937 for going door to door to ask the peasants of his parish to sign a petition to reopen their village church. Deacon Nicholas Vasyukovich received a death sentence for making comments that the authorities believed were too bold. Archpriest Michail Plyshevsky suffered a spate of arrests before his execution, and Archpriest Porphyry Rubanovich was arrested on a false report and sentenced to ten years in a labour camp. He did not survive his sentence and died shortly before his release.
Priest Vladimir Zubkovich, who secretly baptised children was executed on 31 January 1938 at the age of 74.
Priest Vladimir Zubkovich
In 1938, the authorities shot Father John Matskevich, a parish priest from Borisov, along with his eight remaining parishioners. Then they closed down the city's last remaining church. The last active church in the diocese of Minsk was forced to close in 1939.
Yet, despite the closures, the authorities still could not celebrate victory. In the 1937 population census of the Soviet Union, two-thirds of rural dwellers and one-third of the urban population declared themselves believers. No amount of persecution was enough to destroy the Church. The decade of Godlessness was again a failure.
During the Nazi occupation of Belarus in 1941 - 44, the occupation authorities allowed the churches to reopen. With this policy, they were hoping to win the sympathies of the locals. But they miscalculated: believers were still praying for victory over the occupiers. Nevertheless, many priests who served in the occupied territories were unfairly suspected of collaborating with the enemy.
Archimandrite Seraphim (Shakhmut) from the Monastery of the Holy Dormition at Zhirovichy, had worked hard to reopen the churches in the occupied territories and return them to believers. He was arrested in 1944 and accused of collaborating with German counterintelligence. On 7 July 1945, the court sentenced him to five years in a prison camp. Presumably, he died a year later.
Archpriest Matvey Kritsuk was arrested in 1950 for possession of religious literature found in his residence during a police search. He was sentenced to 25 years in a labour camp, where he died less than a year later.
Archpriest Matvey Kritsuk
Again, despite all their efforts, the authorities were powerless to continue the persecution of believers on the same scale as in the pre-war years. There were still open churches, and they were not going empty. Again, the drive to destroy the Church failed.
The twenty-three new martyrs were only a small portion of those who suffered at the hands of the new Pagans. Many more faithful sacrificed their lives for Christ during those years. Christ knows all their names, but we have yet to learn them. Father Fyodor Krivonos of the Minsk diocese has been working in different archives to collect information about the other victims of persecution. After years of painstaking work, Father Fyodor has put together a commemoration book for all who suffered for the Christian Church in the Diocese of Minsk. The book already includes 330 names of the clergy and laity from central Belarus. Perhaps some of these people will be glorified by the Church someday.
Father Fyodor Krivonos
Paying tribute to the feat of the 23 new martyrs, Father Fyodor writes: “The years of persecution for the Christian faith survived by our Church will live in our memory. This memory becomes our source of strength and hope for the future. Hundreds and thousands of the clergy and laity of the Belarusian Orthodox Church have received the martyr’s crown, and we will remember their feats for years and decades to come."
The glorious feat of the new martyrs calls out to the future and gives the hope to continue our journey to salvation as members of the Orthodox Church.
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