Orthodox America

New Martyr Archbishop Mitrofan of Astrakhan

      Archbishop Mitrofan (in the world Ivan Vasilievitch Krasnopolsky) was already well known in Russia when, in July 1916, he was transferred from Minsk to the diocese of Astrakhan: he was distinguished as a superb preacher, an able administrator, an energetic laborer in the vineyard of the Church, and a man of prayer, He was also known as a member of the State Duma where his impassioned speeches were a subject of marked attention.

     The Archbishop had barely acquainted himself with the affairs of his new diocese before he embraced two very important and difficult undertakings: preparing for tge glorification of Hieromartyr Joseph of Astrakhan, and arranging for the restoration of the patriarchate--accomplishments which earned him a place of glory in the history of the Russian Church. He also won a deserved place in the hearts of men.

    Outwardly the Archbishop gave the impression of being rather severe. Perhaps this was an innate characteristic, or perhaps it was the result of his concentration which was joined to a tremendous willpower and the fact that he was very demanding of himself and others. The cathedral sacristan Fr. Dimitri Stefanovsky, told the author:

    "I was afraid of him at first--he seemed so stern. But after having come to know him better, I was persuaded that Vladika was gentle and kind .... And another thing I discovered: he prayed a lot. Everyday he served or attended Liturgy in the Church of the Cross. He arose very early and even before Liturgy he managed to attend to some business ."

     The well-known opera singer of Astrakhan, I.I. Velikanov, recalled: "I had to present myself to Vladika on account of having been elected a member of the All-Russian Council. I went with trepidation: how would Vladika receive me; he was so severe. I was delighted when my opinion of him proved false. Vladika greeted me warmly, sat me in an armchair and, having blessed me, he embraced me, repeating several times: "Wonderful, wonderful, you're among the elect!" I had occasion to go a second time to see Vladika a few days before leaving for a session of the Council. This time I had no fear. Vladika conversed with me and with the other delegate to the Council--Dr. Romanov--concerning our anticipated duties at the Council; he inquired about our expenses, how much money each of us had been given for the journey, did we have acquaintances in Moscow, were we taking along umbrellas and galoshes in case of rain. In a word, he questioned us about everything, even the particulars."


A Painful Youth

    Once Fr. Dimitri committed some transgression and was reprimanded rather harshly by Vladika. "I was hurt," said Fr. Dimtri. "Vladika understood this and, changing his tone, took me by the hand, sat me down in an armchair, himself sat next to me, and spoke to me with tender sorrow:

    "I myself know that I appear strict to people, and I often think--what is this negative trait? But I always console myself with the thought that this is not severity but rather seriousness, pensiveness. If only you knew how harsh and joyless were the years of my childhood and youth! How much human malice came my way, how often I was hurt, humiliated, how much grief I had to bear. And so it was that from an early age my face was stamped with a serious mien, and I cannot seem to change it."

     The story of Vladika's childhood interested the author, and at length he learned of the particulars from a former warden of the cathedral who had heard the story from the Archbishop's own mother. He had written it down in her own words:

    "I was the daughter of a village chanter, poor but pious. I was not the only child and for lack of funds my studies were cut short. I finished the village school, and that was the extent of my education. I was needed to help my mother with the housework and in looking after the other children. I was still young when they decided to marry me off. They would have liked to see me marry a priest, and I myself, when the time came, thought that if I were to marry, my husband ought definitely to be a priest--after all, there would be fewer financial worries than with someone of my father's rank. But no candidate for the priesthood proposed to me; who needs an impoverished bride! My dream did not come true, and I married a common laborer. In our area there was a small brick factory; there my husband worked. I, too, learned the trade and turned out bricks no worse than my husband's.

    I was grieved by our poverty and begged God for a son. Oh, if I had a son, he would certainly become a clergyman. I would dedicate him to God. Once I was in our town cathedral. There I fell down before an icon of the Mother of God, asking her to give me a son. I was so moved by the prayer that I felt sure it would be answered. And indeed, God gave me a son--Vanya, Never could I have possibly imagined that my son, the son of a poor brick-maker, would become a famous hierarch, and that the enmity of men would lead him to such a frightful death.

    "Years passed, the boy grew and the time came to send him to school. He studied in our village at the local school. He applied himself and finished at the top of his class. His father took him to the city to enroll him in the diocesan preparatory school, but this wasn't an easy matter. The school was for children of clergy; it was difficult for a village boy to get in--the son of a brick-maker. And furthermore, someone in the city would have to be found with whom one could arrange board and lodging for the boy, and on what funds? Unexpectedly for Vanya, a benefactor was found in his village teacher who was very fond of the boy On account of his industriousness in school. He offered to enroll him and provide for this support. His father and I rejoiced that our son would become someone in the Church.

     'Vanya came home on holidays, and I occasionally went to see him when I especially missed him. And I began to notice a change in him. He was pensive, uncommunicative; he avoided his fellow students. When I asked him about this he was silent and sometimes waved his hand in a gesture of hopelessness. I thought to myself that perhaps the boy was lonesome living among strangers. Only later did I learn from his comrades that his peers in the school teased him cruelly; they called him "peasant," hit him, wouldn't talk to him. Vanya felt himself an outcast and naturally grew withdrawn.

     "Once, in his last year at the school, he was made the object of a cruel prank. In the school courtyard the boys made an ice slide, During one of the recesses they dragged Vanya onto the slide and shoved him down. He slid head over heels and flew in to the window of the school inspector's study. The panes shattered, creating an awful commotion in the study. The wicked boys managed to lay all the blame on Vanya; he was charged with troublemaking and was to be expelled. Unfortunately his benefactor had just died and there was no one to intercede for him. So I, bowing low before the headmaster, begged him not to expel the boy. He was saved from expulsion by the fact that he was the best student and that there were only a few months left in the last term.

     "Afterwards Vanya entered seminary and there he was already able to support himself with earnings from private lessons. It was my good fortune to see at last the happy day --the day I had dreamed about and which his deceased father had so anxiously awaited-the day my son became a priest. It was an altogether extraordinary happiness of a dream come true.

    "A few years later he became a widower; then came the academy, monasticism, and the Lord elevated him to the highest rank--he became archbishop. Before his consecration he asked me to bring him our ancient family icon of the Mother of God "Of Compunction." He loved it very much and prayed before this icon daily."

    In conclusion the mother added a final request: "If the time should come and you have the possibility of transferring the remains of my son to another place, I beg you to place them next to the grave of St. Ioasaph and to bury me nearby."

    Very likely, the source of Vladika' s seeming severity can be found in the painful circumstances of his early years which left a mark that was alien to his true nature. In his personal life he was simple and undemanding. Sub-deacon John Pupov, or as everyone knew him--Vaniusha, recalled how Vladika often sent him to take money to poor families.


A Gifted Hierarch

    When the All-Russian Council opened in August 1917, Vladika Mitrofan was elected to virtually every commission. He delivered speeches, made recommendations and submitted proposals on those resolutions that passed. His energy and determination were extraordinary. Dr. Romanov recalled: "We were constantly amazed by the man' s capacity for work--and he was always well-informed concerning the business at hand. He could go without sleep for days, and keep working and working."

      The Archbishop was the principal speaker on the issue of restoring the Patriarchate. His impassioned defense provoked a hot debate which lasted 26 days, During this time the Archbishop had to endure bitter criticism from the opposition. When, at length the issue was favorably settled, he was so overjoyed that he kissed each of the Astrakhan delegates.

     In the months that followed, Vladika Mitrofan made several more prolonged trips to Moscow to attend continuing sessions of the Council. On his return to Astrakhan at the beginning of Great Lent, 1918, he found that civil war had reached the city. The Bolsheviks had occupied the Kremlin; many of the entrances were blocked and believers needed special passes to enter the Kremlin for services in the cathedral. Despite the difficult conditions, Vladika continued to serve regularly.

     Tension mounted with the approach of the White Army and British forces. After Liturgy on the Feast of St. Vladimir (July 15) Vladika announced that there was to be a church procession around the Kremlin, that "with one mouth and one heart" all the believers in the city would together entreat God to spare the city from bloodshed. It was an unforgettable event, one of great spiritual and moral impact. When the procession had circled the Kremlin, Vladika raised an icon of the Theotokos above his head and cried out: "Most Holy Mother of God, save us!" And in fact, the one-day uprising in the city the following month took place without bloodshed,

     It was a time of turbulence even within Church circles. In an effort to weaken the influence of the Church, the new regime instigated a move for its 'democratization.' Sadly, Vladika Mitrofan's new Vicar Bishop Leonty (Tsarevsky) became prey to this idea and went so far as to try and turn the people against the Archbishop who stood firmly against such an injurious innovation.

     As the war progressed and Astrakhan came to occupy a strategic position, the Bolsheviks took over more and more of the Kremlin, gradually taking over the ecclesiastical quarters. The clergy were evicted and the Archbishop was left virtually alone. The faithful tried to persuade him to leave, knowing that it was dangerous for him to remain among those who bore him ill will. A secretary overheard the commandant of the Kremlin, Mazakov, remark in reference to the Archbishop' s quarters: "Why are we standing on ceremony with the archbishop? He's a declared monarchist, a member of the Tsarist Duma. He organized a mass demonstration in July under cover of a church procession. This was a show of counterrevolutionary strength and we, like fools, turned a blind eye! He should have been lined up against the wall long ago."

    When Vladika learned that he was about to be evicted by force, he agreed to leave and took up residence in one of the monasteries in the city.

    The arrival of Kirov in January, 1919, brought increased tension as he sought to 'cleanse' the city of all counterrevolutionary forces. The executions began. Vladika had up to then remained at least outwardly calm. But after some of those in the rank s of the Church were victimized, he began to exhibit signs of agitation: "If this keeps up, they'll destroy the entire clergy! Nevertheless, he flatly refused to leave the city himself and became angry at those who suggested such a thing: "I'll not leave my flock: on my breast I wear the cross of the Saviour, and it will reproach me for my faintheartedness. I should like to ask you--why is it you are not running away? That means you value your honor more than I am to value my arch-episcopal rank? Know that I am innocent before my country and the people." 

His Golgotha

     The hour that ail anticipated with suck dread came on May 25, the eve of the Feast of the Holy Trinity. Vladika was preparing a sermon for the following day when, just after midnight they came to arrest him. That night Bishop Leonty was also arrested.

     The two hierarchs were imprisoned in the local Cheka building. Through one of the guards, the subdeacon Pupov was able to get some food and bedding to the prisoners. The faithful were all convinced of their innocence and tried to find a way to obtain their release. But it was obvious that the authorities were not interested in proving the guilt of their victims. Under the circumstances they were concerned to eliminate their presence from among the people. The examining magistrate Dokturov kept the believer3 informed of the prisoners' condition, and the subdeacon came daily with food for the prisoners.

     One morning Pupov's parcel was refused. It was June 23, the feast of the Vladimir Icon of the Mother of God. The guard silently took Pupov by the arm and took him to the window in the guardroom. Looking out, the subdeacon saw a wagon piled with corpses, and understood. Within an hour the whole city knew of the execution of the two hierarchs.

     In tears and in shock at the news of the execution, a group of cathedral' parishioners rushed to the Cheka to petition for the remains of the two archpastors. One woman later wrote:

     "Vladika Mitrofan's mother threw herself hysterically at the feet of the sentry, begging to be admitted to Atarbakov [the commissar], but we were mercilessly turned away. The only thing we saw was the wagon piled high with bodies and standing in the sun. We left overcome by grief, convinced that the archpastors would be taken with the rest to a dump and buried there like dogs."

    The poor women met with an unexpected consolation. Fr. Dimitri was able to locate the men whose sorrowful job it was to transport the dead bodies. In great secrecy and for a large sum of money, they agreed to deliver the remains of the martyrs to a prearranged spot, under the strict condition that they be buried before dawn.

    About one o'clock at night, when the city was a sleep, the drivers went to work, pulling the wagons to the outskirts of the city. Near the Red Bridge one wagon stopped momentarily while the bodies of the two martyrs were quickly transferred to a waiting cart.

    Near the Protection Monastery a crowd stood by a freshly-dug grave. Both of the deceased were in undergarments. Now, by the light of some veiled lanterns, it was possible to take a good look at them. Vladika Mitrofan's shirt was bloodstained on the chest and on the sleeves; his right temple was smashed, the left part of his beard was pulled out, the mouth was torn and the joints of the right hand were badly bruised. The women cut out the bloodied part of the shirt. Bishop Leonty, judging from the three wounds in his heart and chest, had been killed by a volley of gunfire,

They were both clothed in new undergarments which had been prepared for them. Vladika Mitrofan was vested in priestly apparel; the sacrastan took off his own cross to give to Vladika Mitrofan; attached to its chain was a metal box containing a written statement detailing the circumstances of the death and burial. An epitrachelion was found for Bishop Leonty (in view of the haste, it was not possible to obtain either coffins or proper vestments).

     Fr. Dimitri began the requiem service. All those gathered sang the funeral chants, wept and with tender emotion parted with the newly deceased. The first rays of dawn were just visible when they chanted a final 'Memory Eternal'. Vladika Leonty was placed first in the grave, and on top-Vladika Mitrofan. They were both wrapped in sheets and given over to the earth:

     Later, a small brick memorial was erected over the grave; on it was written: "Archbishop Mitrofan and Bishop Leonty: killed June 23, 1919." Twice in 1935 the author visited the grave with Archbishop Thaddeus for a memorial service. In 1930 the brick marker was destroyed on account of the stream of pilgrims to the grave. The author saw fragments of the memorial, carefully arranged in a pile by some pious hands. Now, even these fragments have disappeared and no outward sign remains. Only beneath the earth, at a depth of 4-5 feet, lie bottles containing written statements attesting to the dreadful tragedy.

     Concerning the actual execution, the following account was written by the sacristan:

     "At last I was able to meet with an eyewitness of the execution of the two hierarchs. This was a man of middle age by the name of Terekhov. He told me that on the night of their execution, he, Terekhov, was on guard duty outside the prisoners' chambers. About 3 o'clock at night there came to the cell where the hierarchs were being held, commandant Volkov of the Cheka and the duty officer. The commandant entered the cell, and Terekhov saw him nudge the sleeping Archbishop with his boot. He heard a voice: "Get up!" Terekhov saw the prisoner get up and begin to put on his cassock, but the commandant seized him by the collar and shouted "Move it, in that other world you can manage in your..." (here he mentioned an article of underwear). The commandant proceeded to grab the prisoner by the arm and pulled him towards the door. Once in the courtyard he increased his pace, dragging his victim along behind.

    Archbishop Mitrofan was barefoot and in his night clothes. He took several steps, stumbled and fell. Terekhov ran up to him, lifted him up and together with Volkov led him to the alley where the executions took place. Here stood three men with rifles, On seeing them, the Archbishop blessed them with both hands in the manner of a hierarch, for which Volkov struck him on the right hand with his revolver handle and grabbed him by the left part of his beard, sharply forcing down the head of the archpastor. And in this position he shot him in the left temple.

    The faithful did not believe the false charges of the bolsheviks who claimed that the hierarchs were involved in a counterrevolutionary plot. They mourned the martyrs and the Church prays for them even now. This is the best evidence of historical truth. Evil tongues spoke against them (Ps. 108:2), but "many are the tribulations of the righteous'' (Ps. 33:20), and because of this "the righteous shall inherit the earth" (Ps. 36:30). 

(Translated and condensed from a 1964 samizdat manuscript by A. Ilyichev)

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