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The Life and the Martyrdom of New Martyr Konstantin Zhdanov

From Shepherd to Martyr: the Glory of Fr. Konstantin

Fr. Konstantin Zhdanov

Today, the Holy Church venerates a multitude of new martyrs and confessors — those who, during the godless turmoil, were granted to “not only believe in Him but also suffer for Him.” The sacred memory of hierarchs, clergy, monastics, and laypeople who ascended their Golgotha during the era of persecution and bore witness to their faith in the Lord with their blood is reverently honoured throughout all dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church, in every city and village.

The martyrdom of Father Konstantin Zhdanov in 1919, has not gone unnoticed. For many years, the parishioners of the Holy Dormition Church in Sharkovshchina, where Father Konstantin served as rector, petitioned for his canonisation.

The glorification of Father Konstantin Zhdanov as a locally venerated saint took place on 3 June 2011 at the Church of the Resurrection of Christ in Disna. By God’s providence, Father Konstantin became the first new martyr of the 20th century to be canonised in the Polotsk Diocese. Henceforth, the relics of two servants of God — Venerable Euphrosyne and New Martyr Konstantin — will serve to affirm and protect the land of Polotsk.

Youth and Family

Holy Martyr Konstantin was born on 22 March 1875 in the village of Staro-Sharkovshchina in the Disna district of Vilna province.

Konstantin’s father, Priest Dimitry Zhdanov, was the son of a church reader. Dmitry Vladimirovich taught in public schools in the Tver and Kovno provinces and was ordained a priest in 1876. Two years later, Father Dimitry was appointed to the Holy Dormition parish in Staro-Sharkovshchina, where he carried out his pastoral duties until his death.

The house where Father Dimitry’s family lived stood near the church in a picturesque spot on the bank of the Disna River. The Zhdanovs maintained a small farm and had their own garden and vegetable plot. Sofia, Konstantin’s mother, took care of raising the children and sang in the church choir. The Zhdanov family had nine children. They lived modestly but harmoniously. The older children studied in Vilna: the boys attended the Theological Seminary, while the girls went to a private women’s gymnasium. According to parishioners from Staro-Sharkovshchina, Father Dimitry always sought to be close to those who needed comfort and spiritual support. At any call, regardless of weather or time of day, he hurried to the sick and dying to hear their confession and administer Holy Communion. Everyone in the vicinity revered Priest Dimitry Zhdanov as a true shepherd — unfailingly dedicated and self-sacrificing. He was merciful to the poor. It is known that near his house there was a room that served as a shelter for the destitute throughout the year.

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The personal example set by his father influenced the formation of the moral character of the future holy martyr Konstantin. From childhood, his life was inseparably linked with serving God and the people: assisting his father during services, praying in church, caring for his younger siblings, and obeying his parents...

In 1892, Konstantin entered the Lithuanian Theological Seminary in Vilna. However, only two years later, he was forced to leave his studies after his mother’s death. To help his father support their large family, Konstantin took a job with the Polesie Railway in 1895. Later, from September 1898 to April 1900, he worked at the Poltava branch of the State Bank. Despite being far from home, he frequently visited his father and siblings, always showing the utmost tender care for them.

Lithuanian Theological Seminary, Vilna, Trinity Monastery

Lithuanian Theological Seminary. Vilna, Trinity Monastery, 1900

Ordination of Father Konstantin

In 1900, Konstantin Dmitrievich married Anna Stepanovna, the daughter of a civil servant. She became his close spiritual companion and steadfast helper throughout his life. Soon after, Konstantin Zhdanov was ordained as a deacon and assigned to the church in the village of Yudishchino in Disna County. Upon receiving news of his father’s death, deacon Konstantin requested a transfer to the Holy Dormition parish in Staro-Sharkovshchina so he could care for his younger, still underage siblings. His request was granted on 1 April 1900. On 30 April of the same year, deacon Konstantin was ordained as a priest by Bishop Michael (Yermakov) of Kovno, a vicar of the Lithuanian Diocese, at the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in Kovno. Thus, Fr. Konstantin became the rector of the Holy Dormition Church in Staro-Sharkovshchina.

Bishop Michael Yermakov

Bishop Michael (Yermakov)

Matushka Anna was a pillar of support for her husband in all things. She treated Fr. Konstantin’s younger siblings with love and tenderness as if they were her own children. Anna Stepanovna sang in the church choir and actively participated in parish life. In 1902, Fr. Konstantin and Matushka Anna welcomed their son Georgiy into the world. Tragically, two years later, at the age of twenty-seven, Anna passed away. Fr. Konstantin was left with an infant son and continued to care for his underage brother Juvenaly and sisters Lyubov and Maria.

Konstantin Zhdanov with his son Georgiy

Konstantin Zhdanov with his son Georgiy. Early 20th-century photo.

After Matushka Anna’s death, Maria Leontyevna Shablovskaya, who had lived with the Zhdanov family since Fr. Dimitry’s time, helped Fr. Konstantin manage the household. The loss of his wife weighed heavily on Fr. Konstantin, but only his love for God and neighbour, along with his sincere faith in Divine Providence, helped him endure this trial. The pain of losing his mother at a young age and his own son’s orphanhood deeply affected Fr. Konstantin’s heart. There are documented accounts that Fr. Konstantin established shelters for orphaned children. He also aided the destitute and infirm, often providing for those in need without accepting payment for his services; instead, he sought to supply them with all necessities himself. Fr. Konstantin was a remarkable preacher of God’s Word, strict in matters of faith yet compassionate and merciful towards people.

Priest Konstantin Zhdanov

Priest Konstantin Zhdanov

Construction of a New Church in Staro-Sharkovshchina

Fr. Konstantin served at the Holy Dormition parish in Staro-Sharkovshchina for nineteen years. Early in his ministry, he faced the challenge of building a new church, as the old wooden one, built by Uniates in 1639, had become dilapidated by the end of the 19th century. Fr. Konstantin Zhdanov’s contemporaries described the state of the ancient Holy Dormition Church as follows: “The Staro-Sharkovskaya church is one of the most decrepit and miserable... in the diocese: the walls are half-rotted, without plaster, and the church building has leaned so much to the north that it is propped up by five oak pillars to prevent its possible collapse. In strong winds, the entire building creaks and sways…” (Sadovsky O. They Buried the Priest Alive // Church Word. 1997. No. 8. P. 6).

In 1901, Fr. Konstantin and the parishioners of Staro-Sharkovshchina submitted a written petition to Archbishop Juvenaly of Lithuania and Vilnius, requesting funds for the construction of a new church. Building the church using parish funds was impossible. Additionally, the parishioners, numbering around two and a half thousand at that time, were in extreme poverty due to crop failures. Another complicating factor in constructing an Orthodox church in the Disna district was the numerical predominance of Catholics over Orthodox Christians. However, these challenges did not deter the twenty-six-year-old priest, who placed all his hope in the Lord. Even before laying the foundations of the new church, in 1901-1902, through Fr. Konstantin’s efforts and with funds he had collected, two parish houses were built (one for the priest and another for the psalmist and parish needs), which have survived to this day.

Parish house built by Fr. Konstantin

Parish house built by Fr. Konstantin

In 1904, Archbishop Nikandr (Molchanov) succeeded Archbishop Juvenaly (Polovtsev) on the Lithuanian see. Fr. Konstantin, along with his parishioners, sent another petition to the new archbishop, seeking assistance in building the church. In 1906, they received Archbishop Nikandr’s blessing to form a construction committee chaired by Fr. Konstantin. For the initial work, each peasant was required to contribute 1 rouble 50 kopecks per desyatina of land they owned. In 1907, Tsar Nicholas II and the Lithuanian Spiritual Consistory granted permission for the construction of a new church. In March 1908, the parishioners of Staro-Sharkovshchina began dismantling the dilapidated church to commence construction on its site. On 3 July 1908, Fr. Nikolai Rafalovich, Dean of Disna, laid the foundation stone for the new Holy Dormition Church in Staro-Sharkovshchina.

Beginning of construction of the Holy Dormition Church

Beginning of construction of the Holy Dormition Church in Staro-Sharkovshchina. Early 20th-century photo

All construction work on the church was directly overseen by Fr. Konstantin Zhdanov, who diligently organised fundraising among parishioners. The peasants voluntarily transported stones from their fields to the construction site. Fr. Konstantin also collected donations from his acquaintances — factory workers and parishioners who were earning wages in the city. A significant portion of the funds needed for building the church was allocated by the decree of Tsar Nicholas II from the state treasury.

To gather donations for the iconostasis, Father Konstantin made a special trip to Moscow, where he visited the homes of merchants and other affluent individuals. The funds he raised were sufficient to create a magnificent iconostasis with gilded details, which remains preserved in the Holy Dormition Church in Sharkovshchina to this day. In addition to the monetary contributions necessary for constructing the new church, Father Konstantin brought back sacred vessels and ecclesiastical items from Moscow. Several icons were donated by Moscow merchants. Furthermore, benefactors in Moscow financed the crafting of a cypress altar and a sacrificial table. Shortly before the completion of construction, in September 1911, Moscow benefactors donated a bell. According to the design, the new church was built from logs on a high stone foundation, with a bell tower in the front section. Father Konstantin himself laid the tiled floor with his own hands. Until the construction was finished, services were held in the parish house.

On 13 November 1912, the long-awaited event took place — the consecration of the newly built Holy Dormition Church. With the blessing of Archbishop Agathangel (Preobrazhensky) of Lithuania and Vilnius, the Staro-Sharkovshchina church was consecrated by Father Nikolai Rafalovich, Dean of Disna, with Father Konstantin Zhdanov assisting.

Holy Dormition Church in Sharkovshchina
Holy Dormition Church in Sharkovshchina

Holy Dormition Church in Sharkovshchina

To commemorate the completion of construction and the efforts of its rector, Priest Konstantin, an icon of Saint Constantine Equal-to-the-Apostles remains in the church to this day. The inscription reads: “This icon was created by us, the parishioners of Staro-Sharkovshchina Church, in grateful and prayerful remembrance for us and our descendants of our Rector — Priest Father Konstantin Dmitrievich Zhdanov, who built this church through his care and labour with donations from benefactors, mainly from Moscow. The icon was put in place in 1910 on the day of the church’s consecration.”

Icon of Saint Constantine Equal-to-the-Apostles

Icon of Saint Constantine Equal-to-the-Apostles in the Holy Dormition Church in Sharkovshchina

Despite being burdened with construction responsibilities, Father Konstantin never neglected his pastoral duties: he conducted services, instructed his flock in faith, and engaged in teaching activities. In 1904, he was appointed as a teacher of the Law of God at Zhdanovsky Public School, and in 1908, he became a law teacher at Sosnovsky and Grigorovshchinsky Public Schools. For his dedicated service to the Orthodox Church, Priest Konstantin Zhdanov received several ecclesiastical awards. In 1908, “for prolonged and diligent service,” he was awarded an epigonation by Archbishop Nikandr (Molchanov), in 1912 “for pastoral labours” — a skufia, and in 1914 — a kamilavka. For his teaching activities, he was honoured with a medal “In Commemoration of the 25th Anniversary of Parish Schools.”

Arrest of Father Konstantin

Father Konstantin’s further pastoral service occurred during some of Russia’s most challenging and transformative years: World War I, the revolutions of 1917, and the establishment of Soviet power... It required immense strength of spirit to maintain one’s faith and not become a traitor under such dire circumstances.

By early 1915, the front line had drawn perilously close to the territory of the Lithuanian Diocese. In light of the swiftly unfolding military events and the mortal danger threatening the civilian population, the Holy Synod issued an appeal to all pastors of the Russian Orthodox Church. They were urged to bolster their flocks, guide their lives according to God’s commandments, and strengthen their love for the Church and the Fatherland. During these harrowing years, the Vilnius-Lithuanian Diocese was led by Archbishop Tikhon (Bellavin), the future Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.

As the front advanced ever closer to Vilnius, Archbishop Tikhon left the city on 4 September 1915. The following day, the Germans occupied Vilnius. The diocesan centre was relocated to Disna in the Vilnius Governorate for the duration of the occupation, where Archbishop Tikhon also moved. On 29 August 1916, Archbishop Tikhon visited the Staro-Sharkovshchina parish, an event documented in a report by Father Konstantin Zhdanov to the Spiritual Consistory. In Father Konstantin, Archbishop Tikhon saw a pastor capable of handling any significant responsibility. That same year, Father Konstantin was appointed by Archbishop Tikhon as head of the evacuated Berezvech Women’s Secondary School, which had been relocated to Staro-Sharkovshchina.

The year 1917 heralded severe trials for the Russian Orthodox Church. Despite the open persecution policy pursued by the godless Soviet regime against the clergy, Father Konstantin Zhdanov did not abandon his parish. Remaining steadfast with his flock, he exhorted his parishioners to intensified prayer, mutual aid, and patience amidst their tribulations. Father Konstantin understood that as a pastor, he bore the burden of human suffering and had to spiritually support his children so they would not perish in the abyss of unbelief and deceit.

On 31 January 1918, the Soviet government decided to “take measures to increase the number of places of detention,” and shortly thereafter deemed it necessary to “secure the Soviet Republic from class enemies by isolating them in concentration camps” (Buldakov V.P., Kabanov V.V. “War Communism”: Ideology and Social Development // Questions of History. 1990. No. 3. P. 51). This required no judicial proceedings — an administrative decision sufficed. Arrests could occur even on suspicion of sympathy for counter-revolutionary activities. Executions of those dissenting from Soviet policy were widespread.

In November 1918, German troops withdrew from Disna County, and by December, a county committee of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) was established there. At that time, in Staro-Sharkovshchina, a particularly notorious communist cell was wreaking havoc, infamous throughout the region for its atrocities. The chairman of this cell, along with his Bolshevik comrades, carried out executions of those unfavourable to the new regime without any trial or investigation. The clergy and monastics, labelled “enemies of the people,” faced especially severe persecution. Naturally, the communists could not overlook Father Konstantin Zhdanov, a faithful pastor of Christ’s Church who called his parishioners to adhere to the Gospel commandments.

In the spring of 1919, Father Konstantin was arrested. According to eyewitness accounts, he was returning home after performing a religious service when he was detained by the Bolsheviks. He was accused of inciting anti-Soviet sentiment among the people during the German occupation. The charges claimed that he organised a religious procession on the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God and called upon the people to resist the Bolsheviks.

Upon learning of their pastor’s arrest, the parishioners of the Staro-Sharkovshchina church submitted a petition to the Disna Extraordinary Commission, pleading for Father Zhdanov’s release. This petition bore over 1,000 signatures across 11 pages. Though the believers were driven away, they persisted in their plea. The Bolsheviks feared executing Father Konstantin in Staro-Sharkovshchina due to his high standing among the local populace. To carry out their plan, they transferred him to Disna, where he was held alongside Father Alexei Sokolov, the rector of the Yazno Transfiguration Church.

Archpriest Alexei Sokolov

Archpriest Alexei Sokolov

Father Konstantin spent a month in prison and suffered an attack of chronic angina on 21 April. The following day, he was transferred to Disna Hospital. However, despite his need for inpatient care, he was taken back to prison on 23 April.

On the night of 29 April (16 April Old Style), after enduring torture and humiliation, the prisoners were executed. Among those condemned was Father Konstantin Zhdanov. Father Alexei Sokolov suggested that Father Konstantin should escape, to which he replied, “I have not harmed anyone. I will endure whatever God sends.” Taking advantage of the guards’ negligence, Father Alexei managed to hide in the bushes.

A fuller picture of that sinister night is revealed in the testimony of Anton Grigoryevich Bobrovsky, 26 years old, assistant chief of the Disna district militia and a native of Disna, who was one of thirty individuals later interrogated about the crime.

“... I left the executive committee building, took four workers, and dug a pit two fathoms long and two and a half arshins deep. ... We arrived at the prison around 1 a. m... The prisoners were handed over to me no earlier than an hour later. ... Arranging them in pairs, we led them to the sands beyond Disenka. ... When we reached within ten steps of the pit, I ordered the team to halt. ... I did not strike any of the condemned, although I pushed them when they hesitated to line up on command. ... The Sharkovschina communists did the shooting. Although I had a rifle, I did not shoot because I was in charge and commanded. I ordered, ‘Team, fire.’ A volley rang out. Screams and groans arose. I ordered them to shoot at those lying down, but they did not listen and fired as they wished. When it came time to drag the bodies into the pit, the communists refused, so I had to do it myself. As we began to bury them, some of those executed were still groaning. I hurried because dawn was breaking. I dragged the priest by his head into the pit.”

Priest Konstantin Zhdanov in his final prayer

Priest Konstantin Zhdanov in his final prayer. Artist V. F. Kruk, 2011

The parishioners were initially unaware of the tragic events and continued to gather signatures for a new petition in defence of their beloved priest. Maria Leontyevna Shablovskaya, who assisted Father Konstantin with household chores, soon travelled to Disna with a plea, where she learned of what had transpired. Maria Leontyevna, along with Gregory Nikiforovich Vyshinsky and Ivan Markovich Sapronenok, parishioners of the Holy Dormition Church, exhumed the priest’s body. It became evident that Father Konstantin did not die immediately. After being buried alive, he regained consciousness and attempted to escape from the grave, as indicated by the position of his body. He was close to reaching the surface but lacked the strength and air to make it.

On 25 June 1919, the body of Priest Konstantin Zhdanov was dressed in new clerical vestments and interred in a crypt beneath the altar of the Holy Hodegetria Cemetery Church in Disna. There it remained for nearly ninety years.

Holy Hodegetria Cemetery Church in Disna

Holy Hodegetria Cemetery Church in Disna

Throughout this time, all Orthodox Christians in Sharkovshchina venerated Father Konstantin as a hieromartyr. They believed in his intercessory prayers and attributed the continued operation of the Holy Dormition Church during tumultuous times to his advocacy. In memory of their rector, the parishioners hung a portrait of Father Konstantin, created from a surviving photograph, on the wall of the Holy Dormition Church.

Portrait of Fr. Konstantin Zhdanov

Portrait of Fr. Konstantin Zhdanov in the Holy Dormition Church in Sharkovshchina

On 3 June, the Orthodox Church commemorates Saint Constantine the Equal-to-the-Apostles, the heavenly patron of Priest Konstantin Zhdanov. Since 1995, with the blessing of Bishop Gleb (Savin) of Polotsk and Glubokoe, a service has been held on this day in remembrance of the priest martyred for his faith.

With the blessing of Archbishop Theodosy (Bilchenko) of Polotsk and Glubokoe, on 20 August 2008, the venerable remains of Hieromartyr Konstantin were exhumed. Next to Father Konstantin’s coffin under the altar of the Holy Hodegetria Church in Disna lay the remains of Priest Nikolai Rafalovich. In his coffin was discovered a Gospel given to him by Priest Konstantin Zhdanov. This Gospel contained an inscription written by Father Nikolai: “From Priest Konstantin Zhdanov of Staro-Sharkovshchina Church to Priest Nikolai Rafalovich on 12 November 1912 for the consecration of the new wooden church.” Additionally, there was a note: “Father Konstantin Zhdanov executed by Soviet authorities on 16 April 1919 Old Style in Disna. Buried in the cemetery church under the left kliros on 25 June 1919 New Style.”

The Gospel
The Gospel

The Gospel with which Fr. Nikolai Rafalovich was buried

Canonisation of Hieromartyr Konstantin Zhdanov

Upon discovery, Father Konstantin’s venerable remains were transferred to a new coffin and placed in the Resurrection Church in Disna.

The parishioners of Sharkovshchina’s Holy Dormition Church, aware of Priest Konstantin Zhdanov’s righteous life and martyrdom, repeatedly petitioned diocesan bishops for his canonisation. Over many years, they gathered the necessary materials for this process.

On 27 December 2010, in anticipation of his canonisation, the relics of Priest Konstantin were transferred to the Polotsk Spaso-Euphrosyne Monastery for re-clothing and examination. Following ancient rites, the relics of the holy martyr were washed with rose water and dry wine, dried, and anointed with spikenard myrrh.

Transfer of the relics of Priest Konstantin Zhdanov

Transfer of the relics of Priest Konstantin Zhdanov to the Polotsk Spaso-Euphrosyne Monastery

On 3 June 2011, Priest Konstantin Zhdanov was glorified among the locally venerated new martyrs and confessors of the Belarusian Orthodox Church. On that same day, a Divine Liturgy with the rite of canonisation was celebrated in the Resurrection Church in the town of Disna. Currently, the relics of the holy martyr rest in the Resurrection Church, on the right side of the altar, in a specially crafted carved wooden reliquary.

Reliquary with the relics of Holy Martyr Konstantin Zhdanov
Reliquary with the relics of Holy Martyr Konstantin Zhdanov

Reliquary with the relics of Holy Martyr Konstantin Zhdanov

The memory of Holy Martyr Konstantin of Sharkovshchina is observed in the Synaxis of Belarusian Saints (3rd Sunday after Pentecost), on 15/28 October in the Synaxis of New Martyrs and Confessors of Belarus, as well as on 16/29 April, the day of his martyrdom.

June 01, 2024
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