Orthodox America


  Archpriest Michael Chel’tsov – Russian New Martyr


      One of the most notorious episodes during the frightful persecutions that assailed the Church after the coming to power of the godless authorities was the public trial, in 1922, of Metropolitan Benjamin of Petrograd and a group of clergy and laity -- nearly 100 persons -- associated with him, among whom was Archpriest Michael Chel'tsov. Sentenced with ten others to death, he was at that time pardoned, and received his martyr's crown later: he was executed before dawn on the Feast of Nativity, 1931.

      Pr. Michael was born in Ryazan, the son of a village priest, in 1870. After graduating from the Kazan Theological Academy, he taught briefly in Kaluga before moving with his family, in 1898, to the capital in order to defend his dissertation: "The Church of the Serbian Monarchy." He worked for three years as a diocesan missionary and another three years in the office of the Synod's chief procurator. In the fall of 1903, Fr. Michael was assigned to the church at the Institute of Civil Engineers, where he also taught theology, a popular course thanks to his lively and persuasive presentation. He was a frequent speaker at church conferences and the author of various articles, brochures and books.

      In 1920, Fr Michael was reassigned to the Trinity Izmailovsky cathedral, where he was rector for five years, at the same time lecturing on theology. In 1919 he was chosen as a representative of the Diocesan Council, a position he retained until his last arrest. It was on account of this position that he was arrested, one of many implicated as a "counter-revolutionary" for resisting the confiscation of church valuables in a case deliberately fabricated by the Bolsheviks in order to frighten the faithful and suppress the Russian clergy. After the trial, Fr. Michael was taken with others to a "correctional facility'' (read "prison"), where he was placed in a cell with another death row inmate, Archimandrite Sergius Shein. A few days later they were transferred to a prison on Shpalerna Street, where they were placed in solitary confinement, pending directives from Moscow, where appeals on their behalf were being reviewed.

      For forty days Fr. Michael lived, as it were, under the Sword of Damocles. His reminiscences of this ordeal are a frightful historical document. They stand out from many revelations and descriptions of the Red terror in their unsparing frankness They are more like a confession -- the confession of a priest spiritually preparing himself for execution Fr. Michael makes no pretenses to cast himself as a courageous or virtuous martyr. On the contrary. He writes about losing heart, about being afraid, about hoping that he would be spared this dreadful fate. In the face of death, he found it impossible to keep silent about his doubts. These also had to be washed away from his conscience so that he could take up his cross and stand upon the path of martyrdom with an enlightened soul and a changed attitude towards all his trials. 

    About three in the afternoon, after we had had something to eat, the door of our cell suddenly opened and in walked one of the prison administrators. Directing his remarks at Fr. Sergius and me, he said, "Collect your belongings. In half an hour you're being transferred to DPZ on Shpalerna." How's that? Why? For what reason? No answers suggested themselves. We were completely bewildered. But just as a person in desperate circumstances wants to find a positive explanation for everything, a hopeful sign, so we began consoling ourselves with various conjectures. That means, we decided, that the executions have been postponed. Otherwise, why would they transfer us out of here? From here prisoners are taken only to the shooting range. Then again, the thought came, maybe this talk about a transfer to Shpalema is simply a ruse to quiet us down; maybe we are in fact already being taken for execution? But the time spoke against such a conclusion: it was the middle of the day; prisoners were taken for execution at night.

      We hurriedly gathered our things. What extra food we had we gave to be distributed to those prisoners in need, and we began to wait. Then, quite unexpectedly, Fr. Sergius turned to me: "Still, we really don't know where they're taking us. Nor do we know what's in store, what is going to happen to us. Therefore, would you confess me." I took off my priest's cross from around my neck and laid it on the windowsill, as if on an analogion. I put a towel around my neck, its two ends hanging down on my chest, serving as an epitrachilion, and I began the confession, reciting from memory the appointed prayers. Fr. Sergius confessed, sincerely, fervently, and tearfully. It was his last confession on earth. Afterwards I asked him to confess me. We confessed and both wept openly and unabashedly.

      Soon the same prison administrator came and told us to follow him. In the corridor we met Fr. L. Bogoyavlensky, who was also being transferred. We were led out the back entrance where we were handed over to two soldiers who were to take us. Crossing the yard, we squeezed into a limousine [there were eight of us]; it was so cramped that Fr. L. had to crouch on his heels, leaning on our bundles for support. One of the accompanying soldiers sat next to the driver; the other sat with us, opposite me.

      The entire way I kept my eyes peeled to the window in vain hopes of seeing a familiar face, but I saw no one. Fr. Sergius treated us all, including our guard, to some fresh strawberries, which he had received that day. It sparked a veiled conversation with the guard. When he initially declined the berries, Fr. Sergius remarked that they were not poisonous; after all, we weren't thinking of dying yet either. He answered that in Moscow we would be pardoned, although, he added, this was merely his opinion. When we asked why we were being transferred to Shpalerna, he replied somewhat cagily, though reassuringly, that facility #1 was very crowded and some "robbers" were being brought to trial and, in view of the possible death sentences, room had to be made. There in the Shpalerna, he added, we would find it more peaceful. Here he was certainly correct: in the Shpalerna it couldn't have been quieter; it was like a grave. Along the way I was occupied by the suspicious thought that perhaps we were not being taken to Shpalerna... And I was relieved when we stopped at our appointed destination.

      Following the usual prison procedure, at Shpalerna we were taken first to the office. Then we were led through a long basement corridor. Well, I thought, they're going to put us somewhere below. It was said that in such dark, damp cells they shut away undesirable human refuse. We walked in silence. It was morbidly quiet, save only for the hollow sounds of our footsteps. Not a human face to be seen; even the guards had hidden away somewhere.

       We reached a wall and began to ascend a narrow winding staircase with frequent small landings, climbing higher and higher. That meant I wouldn't be rotting away in a damp cellar. We climbed to the fourth floor. Again a distressing thought crawled into my head: here, no doubt, cells are assigned to prisoners according to the severity of their crime -at least that appeared to be the system in facility #3: the worst criminals are sent to the upper floors. And we death row inmates should, after all, be closer to the heavens, where we'll soon be going (about which we should be thinking more often). In prisons I always liked the upper stories; there was more air and light, one could see the sky better, one felt somehow less confined.

       The eight of us who had come from facility #1 were dispersed on different floors, in separate cells, not even close to neighboring, so that we would find no means of communicating. Except, by some oversight, no doubt, or physical constraints, Yelachich and Ognev were placed in adjoining cells. But they learned of this only at the end and never took advantage of it. Yelachich, Ognev, Kevsharer and I were left on the fourth floor, Fr. Sergius, Bogoyavlensky and Chukov were taken to the third, while Novitsky was sent to the second floor, where there were already two bishops. Of course, at that time we knew nothing about this arrangement, and learned about it only later, when we arrived at facility#2.

      I was led to a cell; I didn't notice what number it was. It was a cell like any other: about seven feet wide and twice as long. To the left of the door, bolted to the wall, was an iron bed with a tattered sack, which at one time contained straw, but now held only some insignificant reminders of that fact.... Opposite the cot, against the other wall, was a small square metal table with a chair of the same manufacture, also bolted to the wall. Beyond the table, m the corner by the window was a toilet and washstand with a water tank above. Beside the entrance door on the wall were two hooks and a small shelf.

      The first days we were subject to frequent surveillance. Suddenly the metal plate over the glass peep-hole would swing aside and you wouldn't have time to reach the door before the eye disappeared and the plate fell back into place. Why this spying was necessary -- was it the usual policy, wary lest we attempt to commit suicide or to communicate with our neighbor or even to escape, or were we given special treatment -- I can't say. At first the frequent clacking of the peep-hole cover strained my nerves terribly, making me apprehensive of everything, but I then became accustomed to it and scarcely noticed it. Besides, what information could this surveillance provide the authorities: All they do is pray and walk around their cells.

       I will never forget Saint Sergius day (July 5 OS). The night before, I lay down at the usual time. For a long time I couldn't fall asleep; for some reason my heart was heavy. Suddenly I heard a bell toll: once, twice ... What did it mean? Where did it come from? And why at such a late hour (it was already eleven or twelve o'clock)? Then I remembered. Tomorrow was the feast day of Saint Sergius of Radonezh, and they were ringing at the nearby St Sergius cathedral, which was celebrating its patronal feast. The bells were calling the faithful to a night service. I felt dejected: there, in freedom, a feast day was being celebrated, the faithful were going to church to pray, while here I was -- locked up, deprived of corporate worship, of Holy Communion. I remembered that before my imprisonment I had thought of going on this day to St Sergius Hermitage, and I had an overwhelming desire to pray. I got up and, half-dressed, served a moleben to Saint 'Sergius. Afterwards I lay down and quickly fell asleep.

       The morning passed in the usual fashion, according to the prison routine. But then, about half past twelve, the hatch of my door opened and the guard on duty, a woman, passed me a small bundle in a red handkerchief, and whispered agitatedly: "Quick, take it. It appears to be Holy Communion. Careful, don't spill it." I took it reverently and with trepidation unwrapped it. In the handkerchief was a small gold-plated box, and in it the Holy Gifts; they had just been consecrated at the Liturgy in the cathedral The Saviour's Body and Blood. I separated out for myself what appeared to be the next portion, wrapped the box up again, and waited for someone to come and take it.

       In haft an hour, two unfamiliar women came accompanied by the well-disposed inspector, who several days earlier had been reassigned to another floor. The women wanted to take the box, but the inspector, reminding them that women are not supposed to touch the Holy Gifts, took it himself, and I watched as they descended the stairs. (My cell, #182, was located almost directly opposite the staircase.)

       I was left with the Holy Gifts. But what to do? Should I consume them right away? But I wasn't prepared; and I had had lunch. I decided to wait until the next day. But would I still be alive? I decided to put the Holy Gifts, wrapped m a clean piece of paper, in a secrete hiding place, and if they came at night to take me to the firing squad, I would straightway consume Then, If not, the portion I had was sufficient for four to six days.

      I was overjoyed by the unexpected gift. Until that day I had been very concerned and distressed that I might be shot without being able to partake beforehand of the Holy Mysteries. I had had confession with Father Sergius in the correctional facility the day we were transferred to Shpalerna, but it had been nearly two months, when I was still in freedom, since I had last communed. And suddenly I had been sent the Holy Mysteries. I was overjoyed and in a very festive mood. It was an evident gift from Saint Sergius.

      Soon, however, other, contradictory thoughts began to arise, which were far from joyous. I began to think: Why did they send the Holy Gifts now? (I did not then know, of course, that they had been sent at the request of Metropolitan Benjamin, with the consent of the prison authorities.) Perhaps those outside had learned of the tragic outcome of our case in Moscow and had sent the Gifts as a viaticum. After all, it was now exactly two weeks since the conclusions of the trial. But if this were so, why were the Gifts sent to everyone? Surely not everyone was to be executed? This would be more severe than the Moscow case, where out of eleven men sentenced only five were shot. The prosecutor himself, Stairnov, had said that ours was a less serious case than Moscow's And now it turns out that the outcome of ours is more tragic? It couldn't be! That means that the Holy Gifts were not sent to prepare us for execution. But perhaps that is precisely why they were sent? I couldn't know everything. There began an inner struggle between two contrary inclinations, two conflicting lines of reasoning, two varying dispositions.

      I awaited that night with anxiety, and I passed it in the same state, anticipating that at any moment the door would open and I would be taken somewhere far away. The next night passed with similar thoughts and emotions. The anxiety came not from a fear of death, but rather from a grave realization of death by execution, with the concomitant humiliations and taunts. There was so much of it at the trial; it was only to be expected, and in no lesser degree, before the execution. But partaking of the Holy Gifts had greatly strengthened me and had even peacefully reconciled me to death. I would die, but I would die with Christ, having partaken of His Body and Blood.

      For the next five days I communed daily, which gave me no little comfort and joy.

      A normal day in Shpalerna passed under the following routine. At seven or eight o'clock I would get up and slowly read through all the morning prayers and the canon to the saint of the day according to the weekly cycle. This took about an hour. Afterwards I would pace the cell, lie down, read the Gospel or Saint John Chrysostom. At noon there was lunch and tea. Then I would again lie down, walk about, read the canon to Sweetest Jesus, and, after a short interval, the akathist to the Mother of God. At five o'clock I had supper and tea, then I read the penitential canon to the Saviour, the canon of intercession to the Mother of God, and, after a brief rest, evening prayers. On the eve of a feast, I would serve a vigil before evening prayers, and in the morning, Liturgy. Sometimes, pacing my cell, I would sing all those hymns that I knew from memory.

      Usually after a time of concentrated prayer, I enjoyed a period of spiritual tranquility and often experienced prolonged periods of religious exaltation, when I was entirely removed from everything earthly, everything worldly, and felt entirely disposed to God's will.

    It seems that I have given a fairly exhaustive description of the external aspects of life in Shpalerna. It remains to touch upon what is most important: the state of the soul, the inner life. It was dominated by one thing I which was like a nail sticking in the head or a constant pain in the heart -- the question: will I be executed or not? This question was excruciatingly persistent. No matter what I did, no matter how I tried to occupy myself, it tormented me incessantly. And I mean tormented. I would begin reading the Gospel and it would trouble me such that I couldn't understand what I was reading. Chrysostom I couldn't read at all for a long time. Only his letters to Olympiada were able to absorb my attention and distracted me somewhat. Even then, I'd read two or three lines, and again, without realizing it, I would give in to the same relentless thoughts, and I would read without comprehending.

      Only when I was praying -- and even then not at once, not readily -- was I able to forget myself. It happened that you would feel downcast, overcome by an unaccountable melancholy that you could not explain. You'd begin to pray -- and you'd feel as though some unknown force was pushing you away from it, and you'd be seized by an acute unwillingness to pray; you'd pronounce the words but your head would pound with the same maddening question and there would be no peace in your heart. You read and don't understand: you read the same words of prayer a second, a third time, and -- compelling yourself in this way -- finally you are freed of your tormentor, peace descends into your soul, and you finish the prayer with a calm, even joyous disposition, having found, as it were, a resolution to this question, and ready, even at that very moment, to meet death. It was only in prison that I felt and experienced true satisfaction, true peace and joy in prayer and from prayer. 

Excerpted, adapted and translated from Vospominaniye Smertnika o Perezhitom, Moscow 1995.


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