17 July 2015 is the 97th anniversary of the murder of Nicholas II, Emperor of all the Russias, with his wife, Alexandra Feodorovna, who began life as Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine, a Lutheran, and their children in 1918 in Yekaterinburg, Russia. They are now saints of the Russian Orthodox Church. And there's Lutherans in Russia, then and now. Here's the story.
The Chilling Legacy of These Murders.
The brutality of these murders would in time to come be visited upon millions of Russians, as the regime which ordered and carried them out blossomed into a world power. While we hear much about the six million victims of one group specifically targeted by Nazi Germany, that was only roughly half of the total number of the victims of Nazi Germany. And if relatively little is said about the other half, even less is said about the total number of Nazi victims, and even less yet about the great number murdered under our ally against Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia under Stalin.
By the most conservative estimates, that number would be 4 million from direct repression and 6 million from the results of enforced economic theory, namely, collectivisation, for a total of 10 million. That is roughly equal to total estimates of Nazi victims, and nearly twice the number of the specifically targeted group. However more recently available material generally indicates a total of around 20 million, nearly twice by our ally of what Nazi Germany managed to attain in toto, and over three times the 6 million of their specifically targeted group.
The Soviet Union itself passed into history on 26 December 1991. On 17 July 1998, the 80th anniversary of their murders, the bodies of Tsar Nicholas and Tsaritsa Alexandra and the three of their children then found were buried with state honours in the Cathedral of Sts Peter and Paul in St Petersburg. Why there? The city was founded 27 May 1703 by Tsar Peter the Great and named by him after his patron saint St Peter. It was the capital of Russia until the Communist revolution, then known as Leningrad under the Soviet regime, and its name was restored in 1991. All Russian Emperors since Peter the Great are now buried there.
At the burial, the then-president of post Communist Russia, Boris Yeltsin of the Russian Federation, attended along with members of the House of Romanov, the Russian royal family. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia had declared them saints and martyrs in 1981. On 14 August 2000 the Russian Orthodox Church itself declared them saints, of a type called Passion Bearers. These are people who were killed but not specifically for their faith, and who met their deaths with Christian humility and dignity. This is not a judgement on his rule, rather universally regarded as weak and incompetent at best, but rather on the why and the manner of his death.
On 16 June 2003 Russian bishops consecrated the "Church on the Blood" in Yekaterinburg, the city in which the Tsar and family were murdered in the Ipatiev House, on whose site the "Church on the Blood", whose full name is Church on Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land, now stands. Seeing "Catherine" in the city's name? It's there, named at its founding 18 November 1723 after St Catherine, name saint of Catherine I (Yekaterina), Tsarina and wife of then ruling Tsar Peter I the Great, who died 8 February 1725, after which she became ruler like the next Peter and Catherine duo (III and II/the Great). That's right, Catherine the Great, who also began life as a German Lutheran princess. Lots of stuff comes full circle in the cycle that includes Nicholas and Alexandra.
The regime which killed them has passed into history, but, there is still a Russian Orthodox Church, there is still a House of Romanov, and there is still a Russia -- The Russian Federation.
About 70% of Russians count themselves Orthodox Christians, though few regularly participate in church. Of Orthodox churches, 95% are Russian Orthodox, the traditional Russian religion overall. There are Lutherans in Russia, in large part due to the open immigration policies of Catherine the Great, the first German Lutheran princess to end up Empress of Russia.
Yeah, the Empress of Russia is actually a German Lutheran princess in origin. Happened twice actually, both times pretty big deals with effects that endure now. Here's the story.
How a German Lutheran Princess Ends Up Empress of Russia. The Second Time.
Alexandra was born 6 June 1872 in Darmstadt in Das Großherzogtum Hessen und bei Rhein. Don't freak, I'll translate, it's The Grand Duchy of Hesse and by Rhine. OK but where izzat? In west central modern Germany, that's where. Its biggest and probably best known city is Frankfurt, on more correctly Frankfurt am Main (that's pronounced like "mine" in English) which means Frankfurt on the Main. OK but what is the Main? It's a river, a major tributary of the Rhine (Rhein). Darmstadt was the seat of the grand dukes of the Grand Duchy, which is why Alexandra, as the daughter of the then-current ruling one, was born there. The current capital of the current German state of Hesse is Wiesbaden.
Anyway, the baby girl was given her mother's name. So her mom's name was Alix? Well actually it was Alice, as in Princess Alice of the United Kingdom, a daughter of Queen Victoria. That's right, Queen Victoria was Alix' grandma. This we'll shortly see influenced both the beginning of her life and the end of it. Her childhood nickname was Alicky, which would become a favourite term of endearment with her husband Nicholas too. Alice was a remarkable woman, a huge fan of Florence Nightingale and worked to involve women in health care. Ironically she died pretty young, at age 35 in 1878 in Darmstadt, of diphtheria which was overtaking the whole ducal house.
Alix died relatively young too, at 46, but her career as a noblewoman was not to be like her mother's. Alice was much loved in both her native and her married lands -- hell, they lovingly put a Union Jack over her coffin at her funeral in Darmstadt -- but Alix was never accepted as really Russian by nearly everyone from peasants to royalty alike. The whole Russian thing with this German Lutheran princess, which would alter all subsequent history, started with her attraction to the heir to the Russian throne, Nicholas, and his to her.
So how would they even meet, you know, German, Russian? You gotta understand that European nobility and royalty are mishpocha (don't freak, that's Yiddish for "extended family"). Nicholas and Alexandra are second cousins, and also third cousins, depending on which ancestral line you go through. They met in 1884 and it was mutual from the start, and when they met again in 1889 there was no denying it. Neither family wanted the match. Grandma (Queen Vic) wanted someone else for Alix, and Nicholas' dad Tsar Alexander III, was dead set against any German or Lutheran marrying into the royal family. But Alix stood up to Grandma, who actually kind of liked it that she did, and as Alexander's health declined he eventually gave in.
They got engaged in Germany (Coburg, to be exact) in April 1894 and Alexander died on 1 November 1894. The Russians first saw their new empress-to-be (he became emperor on his father's death, she would become empress consort on marriage to him) as she came to St Petersburg with the family for the funeral. "She comes behind a coffin" was heard everywhere. Things were off to a bad start. She and Nicholas were married right after, on 26 November 1894. Alix at first was not too sure about having to become Russian Orthodox, but she eventually became an enthusiastic convert, and got a new name in the process, Alexandra Feodorovna. Then things went right straight to hell.
During the coronation ceremonies a riot broke out when it seemed there wouldn't be enough to go around of the food provided for the public, and several thousand were killed in the stampede. The French had a gala ball scheduled in honour of the coronation. Nicholas and Alexandra were reluctant to attend given what had happened, but they were persuaded by court advisers to go through with it so as not to offend the French. Which ended up offending their own people, who took it as a sign that their royalty cared nothing about what happened to them. Then there's the matter of producing an heir. Alexandra was having daughters, and under court protocol of the time the heir must be male. Then when she finally had a son, he was born with haemophilia, a deadly disease for which there was no treatment at the time.
And, haemophilia was known to be passed on in, guess what, Grandma's (that's Queen Vic) line, so she was further thought a disaster for having brought the "English disease" as some called it to the Russian line. Neither all her works of prayer and devotion, nor any available medical treatment, helped, and Alexandra became pretty much a recluse making sure her son had no injury. In time she turned to this itinerant Russian Orthodox "holy man" and healer, Rasputin, and guess what, her son got better, and Rasputin gained influence at the court.
Rasputin was a supposed mystic, a type of religious lunacy. Yes, her son got better, but as usual a little science clears up all the "mystical" bullroar. The doctors attending her son were using a new drug widely thought at the time to be a new wonder drug. Aspirin. Yeah, aspirin. It actually is a pretty good mild analgesic (pain reliever) but it also, and this was not known at the time, is an anti-coagulant. Now, retarding the coagulation of the blood is exactly what you don't want to do in treating a haemophiliac! So of course when she turned away from medical treatment and followed Rasputin's advice her son got better -- she quit giving him an anti-coagulant, nothing mystical or spiritual about it.
Rasputin's advice unfortunately began to extend to other matters too, and he supposedly had a revelation that Nicholas should go to the front -- the Great War, the War To End All Wars, which it didn't and is now just the first of "world wars" -- and personally take command of the military. This left Alexandra to run the internal affairs of state, for which she was completely unsuited by both training and temperament. So, all sorts of incompetent officials further made a mess of things. Between the shortages due to the war effort and the Russian Winter everyone was miserable and many thought Alexandra was actually sabotaging things, being German and all.
Riots ensued, and the soldiers who were supposed to put down the rebellion joined it, and the next day, 13 March 1917, they established a provisional government called the Petrograd Soviet. No, not communists or the Soviet Union. Petrograd because this happened in St Petersburg, the capital of the Russian Empire, and soviet because that's the word for council in Russian. This is known as the February Revolution. Huh, you just said it was in March! Yeah, in our calendar now but in what is now called the Old Style calendar used there and then, it was February. The Tsar was told he must abdicate, and he did, first being kept with his family in the palace, then, for their safety the provisional government sent them to Siberia.
Things changed. The provisional government was itself overthrown by the communists called Bolshevik (the word means "majority") under Vladimir Lenin on 7 November 1917 in the October Revolution (same deal about the calendars, it was 26 October in the Old Style calendar). Their promises of "peace, land and bread" attracted many. Alexander Kerensky, the major figure in the provisional government, was exiled and ended up living out his life in New York City. The royal family did not fare so well, and at 0215 on 17 July, Bolsheviks, having disarmed their guard, shot the entire royal family to death, then smashed the rib cages of the tsar and tsarina with bayonets, stripped the bodies, burned the clothes, and threw the bodies in a mine shaft 12 miles away, then the bodies were pulled out, their faces smashed, dismembered, burned with sulphuric acid, and reburied. There they remained until after the fall of the Soviet Union decades later.
(A personal aside -- my French teacher as a kid in the 1950s was an old Russian woman who was a young woman in a family at court through all of this. They were among the exiles, and French being the language of the court, she earned a living as a translator in embassies and ended up in an apartment in her daughter's home. French lessons came with tea and all the decorum of her youth.)
How a German Lutheran Princess Ends Up Empress of Russia. The First Time.
Now there's a story too. Tsarina Alexandra wasn't the first German Lutheran noblewoman to end up Tsarina. Catherine the Great was originally the noble-born raised-Lutheran Sophie Friederike Auguste, nicknamed Figchen, or Little Frederica. Her father was the devout Lutheran Prince Christian August of Anhalt-Zerbst, who as a Prussian general was governor of Stettin, Pomerania, then part of Prussia, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. Her birth city (Stettin) is in a part of Pomerania that in now part of Poland and called Szczecin.
Huh? How does Figchen end up Empress of Russia? Because her mother, Johanna, loved court intrigue and wanted it for her daughter, but she really ticked off Tsarina Elisabeth who threw her out of the country for spying for Prussia. The Big E liked Figchen though, and apparently liked the family, hell, she was going to marry Johanna's brother Karl but he died from smallpox before it could happen. Figchen ended up married to E's nephew and heir, Peter III, who was also Figchen's second cousin. But first she learned Russian, and on 28 June 1744 she converted to the Russian Orthodox Church -- against her father's orders, who went ballistic over it -- and was given the name Catherine. Then she marries Peter on 21 August 1745, and after Elisabeth died on 5 January 1762, Peter takes the throne.
He didn't last long. He pulled Russia out of the Seven Years War -- remember that, left Mother England in huge debt, to pay for which they taxed the hell out of the American colonies who ended up revolting and becoming the United States -- got friendly with Prussia, admired the Western Europeans, tried to make the Russian Orthodox Church more Lutheran, and had a mistress for whom Catherine was afraid he would divorce her. So he pissed off everybody, and when he went to his paternal ancestral Schleswig-Holstein (the area from which my ancestors the Angles left for Mother England, but hey), Catherine with her lover (fair is fair I guess) staged a military coup and Peter was arrested 14 July 1762. He wasn't too upset really, he just asked for an estate and his mistress, also named Elisabeth.
But three days later he was killed by one of the conspirators while in custody, though Figchen/Catherine does not seem to have been behind that part of things. So after Peter being Tsar for six months, his wife succeeds him. Some say she should have been Regent until her son, Paul, was old enough to become Tsar, but what the hell, the first Tsarina Catherine (Catherine the Great is technically Catherine II) succeeded her husband Peter I (aka the Great) in 1725, and anyway Catherine no longer Figchen ruled until she died, which was 17 November 1796, at which time George Washington was in his second term as President of the United States. Got all that? No wonder George didn't want anything resembling royalty here.
Why Eating Runzas Is a Spiritual and World-Historical Experience.
And a damn good eating experience too.
In 1762, the year she came to power, Catherine issued a manifesto inviting non-Jewish Europeans to settle in Russia and farm using more modern European methods. It got few results, French and English preferred to emigrate to America, and another manifesto with more benefits was issued in 1763, attracting Germans since they were allowed to maintain their language, religions and culture, and were exempt from military service. This last was particularly attractive to Mennonites, but many German Lutherans, Catholics and Reformed also came, settling along the Volga River, hence the name Volga Germans, or Wolgadeutsche.
However these benefits, particularly the exemption from military service, were eroded and many Wolgadeutsche, especially the pacifist Mennonites, left for the midwestern United States, Canada, and South American places of German emigration. The midwestern US immigrants have given us people as different as US Senator Tom Daschle and and big-band leader Lawrence Welk. But most importantly, it has given us the Runza, a magnificent pocket sandwich of beef, onion and cabbage -- thank you Catherine!!
In 1949 Alex Brening and his sister Sally Everett opened a drive-in in Lincoln NE offering food of Wolgadeutsche derivation, which has since expanded to a regional chain, including one close to Concordia-Seward (NE) as every grad of there knows. Besides the fantastic runza (get the cheese runza, Combo #1) they have the best burgers, fries and OR in the whole "fast food" industry. Hell yes. You can have a great meal, be a part of history back to Catherine the Great, proclaim your solidarity with ethnic self-determination and praise God for religious freedom as a Lutheran (or anything else) all at the same time! Makes me wanna go to the one a few blocks from me right now!
Lutherans In Russia Now.
Anyway, in this heavily Russian Orthodox land with notable German-born raised-Lutheran Tsarinas, there are Lutherans. Not a lot, but even so, not all in the same group (just like here). There is the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia, which is a member of the International Lutheran Council (founded 1993), as are we ("we" being LCMS). There's the Evangelical Lutheran Church - "Concord", a member of the Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Conference (founded 1996), whose American members are WELS and ELS. And there's the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia and Other States, a member of the thoroughly heterodox Lutheran-in-name-only Lutheran World Federation (founded 1947),whose American member is the similarly characterised ELCA, and to which the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia also belongs.
Also there's the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church. It began with a Siberian named Vsevolod Lytkin, who converted from Soviet era atheism to Lutheranism in Estonia, then part of the Soviet Union, at age 20 in 1987. In 1991 as the Soviet Union was passing into history Estonia became independent and Lytkin began missionary work back in Siberian, with support from our beloved synod (that's LCMS). In 2003 the result of his efforts, the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church, became independent of the more liberal WLF-affiliated Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church. Pastor Lytkin now serves as the bishop of the SELC. While it is not affiliated with larger Lutheran bodies, in 2010 full recognition and fellowship was established between the SELC and LCMS.
Kind of all comes full circle, huh? That's what's cool about history. It makes the circle clearer, sometimes even gives one a clue there is a circle, an interrelation, at all, amid all this stuff of life that otherwise seems like so much dust from the past. And it makes where we are now clearer, which is why I get into all this stuff.
2014 was the 100th year since the start of the world war whose aftermath saw the end of the Russian Empire and rise of the Soviet Union (not to mention the end of the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and pretty much the world as it had been known). 2014 is also the year in which the Crimea, which Catherine the Great had won back from the Ottoman Empire in 1783, was restored to Russia itself 60 years after the Soviet Union under Khrushchev made it part of the Ukraine in 1954.
You wonder what a different world would be now had Alicky listened to Grandma or Nicholas listened to dad. Or, if Alicky had decided confessing Lutheran faith was more important than literally anything else.
Nicholas' and Alexandra's feast day, following the church's longstanding custom of using the date of earthly death as the feast day of the person, being the date of birth to eternity, is 17 July.
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