Orthodox Thought for the Day


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Martyrdom by crucifixion in 1918



The Martyric Death and Posthumous Miracles of
Archpriest Constantine Podgorsky (1918)
By Nikolai Kolchurinsky 

(Translated from the Russian-language journal
Pravoslavnaya Beseda [Moscow], no. 6, 2004)

The Transvolgan land is a land of varied peoples and varied speech:
Mordvinians, Chuvash and Russians; and, like peas in a field, Tartar
villages are scattered everywhere. But all are of one house—all are
under the protection of the Most Pure One, and the Grace of God
is everywhere, especially where there is faith in God
and faithfulness to Him to the end.…

Ever so quietly and brightly shines the August morning, but it does not seem so much like a summer day. All around is the broad, free expanse of the forested Mordvinian steppe.1 And amidst the meadows, amidst the fields and groves, is a village, in which there stands a wooden church. I enter and hear the singing of the Liturgy—it is our Slavonic Liturgy, but the melody is unusual. It’s similar to Mordvinian folk music, but so beautiful that it seems marvelous, even to one who is familiar with it.… Three elderly women are singing, but their voices sound so heartfelt, so pure. Inside the church it’s quiet—there is only a barely audible, soft conversation in Mordvinian between some elderly women parishioners by the candle-box.

1 The Mordvinian Republic is located approximately 220 miles southeast of Moscow.—Ed.

This is the village of Bolshoye Ignatovo, and the Church of Archangel Michael. What has brought me to this remote settlement at the junction of the Mordvinia, Chuvash and Gorky (Nizhni Novgorod) provinces, where it seems as though the din and the nervous race of the twenty-first century cannot be felt; where it seems as though you’re living in another time; where in the whole large village (even though it’s the regional center) there is only one two-storied house, and the rest are single-storied, simple, rural homes?

In this place, far away from large cities, amazing events have occurred and continue to occur, which at the present time are attracting masses of pilgrims from the neighboring Transvolgan provinces. Why are so many striving to get to this village, to this small wooden church?

Here are the relics of a New Martyr. At the beginning of the twentieth century Archpriest Constantine Podgorsky lived and served as a pastor in the neighboring village of Kirzhemany.  He was a zealous shepherd and benefactor: though he possessed agricultural lands and income, the benefits from them did not go to his family, despite the fact that he had ten children. With this money he built schools in the neighboring villages, where he himself taught reading and writing to the children.

His matushka likewise taught school, and in addition they both headed the Temperance Society. Fr. Constantine and his matushka were respected and loved by the local residents, and it has come down to us that Batiushka possessed the special gift of being able to see a person’s secret sins and, revealing them, to skillfully bring him to repentance.…

The revolution came to Transvolga. The straightforward and honest Fr. Constantine remained the same man under the new authorities, and when the terrible news of the death of the Royal Family reached him, he, “without respect of persons,” began to serve Pannikhidas (memorial services) for them. The “comrades” quickly took notice of him: such a man obviously hindered those who wanted to “level the churches and prisons to the ground” (though, as we know, things turned out quite the opposite as far as prisons were concerned).

The last drop that overflowed the cup of patience of the new authority’s representatives was the Liturgy served by Fr. Constantine on November 7, 1918.1 This was the day on which the revolutionaries, who had come to Kirzhemany to conduct the requisitioning of farm produce (the “delegates,” as they were later called in the village), were trying to organize a festive meeting in honor of the first anniversary of the October revolution. But for some reason the anniversary of the new authority did not call forth the anticipated enthusiasm from the local residents. The “delegates,” having finished the agricultural requisitioning, came for the grain and cleared away everything, including what belonged to those whose sons were fighting in the Red Army.

For the most part, the people did not go to the meeting, but went to church and celebrated the feast of Great-martyr Demetrius of Thessalonika. Also on that day in the village, according to a customary old pious tradition, the people shared grain with those who had had a poor harvest. They shared voluntarily: He that had gathered much had nothing over; and he that had gathered little had no lack (II Cor. 8:15).

The next day the militant proletariat burst into the church during services and, tearing the priestly vestments from Fr. Constantine, dragged him out into the street in his underwear and began to beat him cruelly. They beat him for several hours, as the old residents of Kirzhemany later told their children and grandchildren. Fr. Constantine, who was fairly strong, could perhaps have put up some resistance—if not to save his life then at least to save himself from terrible sufferings—but he resolved to endure everything to the end.… Later, after the beating, they harnessed the priest to a light carriage and drove him through the whole village. The villagers, stricken with fear, locked themselves in their homes and did not dare show themselves on the street. When the sufferer had no more strength to pull the carriage, they put a horse-collar on his neck and led him throughout the village, not ceasing to beat him with a whip and with whatever else came to hand. (Fr. Constantine’s body showed signs of the beating: a fractured skull, a broken-off finger, and the marks of the whipping.) At the end, they dragged the now weakened priest by the hair to the high church porch and crucified him on the church doors.…
1 October 25 according to the Julian Calendar, which was still in effect in Russia in 1917.—Ed.

The next morning the church warden and the guard took Fr. Constantine’s body down and, dressing him in priestly vestments, laid him in a pine coffin into which they placed, along with the Gospel, the nails with which Fr. Constantine had been affixed. The “delegates” did not permit them to bury the priest in the cemetery, and Fr. Constantine was buried in a vacant plot of land. God’s punishment did not wait long: on the return trip to the city both “delegates” died when they fell through the ice along with the cart on which they were traveling.…

With time this horrible story was almost erased from the people’s memory. The majority of the witnesses were afraid even to hint at what had happened. But all the same, some passed on the truth about the crucified sufferer to their children and grandchildren, and showed them his burial site where, as local inhabitants affirmed, several healings had taken place during the Soviet years. At the place of his burial people had placed Orthodox crosses, but each time the authorities removed them, and in the end the spot was forgotten.

In 1992, Fr. Alexander Nikitin, the superior of the Archangel Michael Church in Bolshoye Ignatovo, situated a few miles from Kirzhemany, wanted to locate the grave site of Fr.  Constantine, about whose sufferings the local residents had informed him. But he only succeeded in finding the site in 2001, when the niece of one of Fr. Constantine’s spiritual daughters pointed out the approximate location of the grave.

Despite the fact that Fr. Constantine’s grave site was only approximately known, on the morning of June 13 Fr. Alexander along with several local inhabitants decided to carry out the transfer of the martyr’s remains. As amazing as it might seem, when they began to dig after serving a Pannikhida, they immediately discovered the grave and became witnesses to something extraordinary. “I was bewildered in soul; there was a panic within me”—this is how Fr. Alexander subsequently described his feelings, and with good reason. Barely had they removed the turf from the surface of the ground when everyone present immediately began to sense an amazing fragrance. At a depth of about six feet they found the coffin, entirely whole, with straw beneath it, which was also intact. (It was a local custom to spread grass or straw in a grave and then place the coffin on top of it.) When they opened the coffin they saw within it the priest’s body, dressed in incorrupt gold vestments, and a Gospel with a bookmark in it. The Gospel could be leafed through and read. The body itself, from which proceeded the amazing fragrance, was likewise incorrupt and light-colored. There were signs of the terrible beatings on his body, and on his hands were the wounds from the nails. In the coffin were four large forged nails, obviously the ones with which Fr. Constantine had been affixed. The body was so well preserved that a forensic expert who was present at the disinterment of the body was even able to determine the cause of death (after eighty-three years!), which was loss of blood. When the relics were brought up to the surface, several springs of pure water began to flow in the grave, where the coffin had been. 

After the body had been placed on the ground it continued to emit the fragrance and, despite all apprehensions, was not subject to any corruption whatever for a significant length of time; it only quickly began to darken, and soon became a dark brown color, which is often the case with holy relics. Soon afterwards, with the bishop’s blessing, Fr. Constantine’s body was re-buried in the altar of the Archangel Michael Church in Bolshoye Ignatovo. (There had been a large wooden church in Kirzhemany, but it had been totally destroyed in the 1970s, and the remains had been carried off for firewood. However, to this day pious residents have preserved pieces of the doors on which the martyr had been crucified.) The broken-off finger, which became separated when Fr. Constantine’s body was exhumed, was permitted to be preserved separately. It was placed in a special small shrine which is carefully kept in the altar of the Archangel Michael Church in Ignatovo.

Fr. Alexander brought the finger out of the altar for me. Seeing it, I fell to my knees. “What are you doing? He hasn’t been glorified yet,” I heard from Fr. Alexander. Such is the unalterable norm of Church discipline: if he has not been glorified, then this is not a holy relic, and only Pannikhidas can be served. But all the same I bowed down and kissed that holy object, feeling with my lips that the finger was soft, like that of a living man, and sensing the wondrous fragrance that proceeded from it. (According to Fr. Alexander, neither the strength nor the nature of the fragrance has changed since the day the relics were exhumed.)

But even all of these soul-shaking facts do not exhaust the astounding and glorious events connected with Fr. Constantine Podgorsky. After the uncovering of the relics healings began to take place, and from such illnesses before which medicine is powerless: childhood cerebral palsy, epilepsy and cancer.… Fr. Alexander related something that took place before everyone’s eyes: a child suffering from cerebral palsy was brought to the coffin so he could kiss the relics. After this the wheelchair was rolled back, but the child got on his feet and went over to the coffin himself to kiss the relics a second time.… And the two singers, whose voices sounded so beautiful in the church, turned out also to have been healed after both had been told they needed surgery.

The body of the Hieromartyr is hidden beneath the earth, but people come and ask for simple Pannikhidas to be served. They leave, and then send letters of gratitude to Fr. Alexander—letters in which they inform him of their healings. Fr. Alexander is a thorough man. “The truth has no need of embellishment; it speaks for itself,” is his thought. He asks all those who have received healings through prayer at the relics of the New Martyr to send him medical statements testifying to the veracity of the healing.

“How many of these statements have you received, Fr. Alexander, over the past three years,” I asked him, thinking to myself that he would probably say several dozen. “Well, as it turns out just yesterday Fr. Andrew and I counted them—there are 1,024. And there is a whole pile of letters without certification—but those are, for the most part, letters about healings from demonic possession, and doctors don’t issue medical statements for those.” The truth speaks for itself.

The only thing holding back the canonization of Fr. Constantine is the absence of documentation witnessing to the fact that he had actually been a victim of repression in 1918. Information on the tragedy that took place on November 8, 1918, in Kirzhemany has as its source only the oral tradition of the local inhabitants. The times were such that a scrupulous system of shadowing and monitoring was still a long way off for the NKVD, and everything was decided “situationally,” without trial or investigation, according to the principle: “Silence, you orators! You have the floor, Comrade Mauser!”
1 One couldn’t say it more accurately than did the poet (Mayakovsky).

But Fr. Alexander is at peace: “How long did it take before St. Seraphim was glorified? When it’s pleasing to God, it will all work out.…”  The truth speaks for itself.… If we recall the Lives of the ancient Martyrs, we will find an abundance of instances of the incorruption of their relics and a great multitude of striking miracles connected with them. As regards the Russian New Martyrs of the twentieth century, incorrupt relics are rarely encountered (the holy relics of Nun-Martyr Elizabeth being one of the few exceptions). Likewise, one does not hear about a multitude of remarkable miracles from their holy relics, as is the case with the relics of the martyrs of the first centuries. And perhaps the thought will slither into the heads of some: “Were they really martyrs?” But the events at Kirzhemany and Ignatovo put the dot on the “I,” and it remains for the most faultfinding of skeptics to agree. 

Yes, we live in the twenty-first century but, as it turns out, events have taken place now that are similar to those that took place in the first centuries of Christianity. When I left Ignatovo, I thought, “Is there another place like this anywhere else on earth?”  I don’t know.…
1 From the poem “Left March” by Vladimir V. Mayakovsky (1918).—Ed.

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