Orthodoxy Today: God Save the Tsar

The surprising announcement in Moscow a few months ago that the Russian Orthodox Church will not canonize the last Russian tsar and his immediate family is yet another sign of the spiritual confusion that reigns, if you will pardon the pun, in Moscow.

At a November 12 conference at the Danilovsky Monastery in Moscow, representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate, including Metropolitan Kirill of the Department of External Relations, joined Russian scientists, military officers, and politicians in a ringing endorsement of the erstwhile Soviet regime’s “struggle for peace” and nuclear arsenal. More than five years after the collapse of the Communist dictatorship, the Russian bishops still seem incapable of breaking free from their Soviet shackles.

In Washington, D.C., on January 14 of this year, Lawrence Uzzell briefed the Helsinki Commission on the threats posed by provincial political officials and by leaders of the Moscow Patriarchate to the free exercise of religion guaranteed to all religious minorities by the 1993 Russian Constitution. Uzzell, the Moscow correspondent of the London-based Keston Research Institute reported that the most egregious violators of religious freedom—and, ironically, its most stalwart advocates—may be found in the Russian Orthodox Church. “I see a tendency,” he opined, “toward a Russian version of Japanese Shintoism.”

Suddenly, like a deus ex Romanova, the memory of Tsar Nicholas II was marshaled, in part, perhaps, to reinvigorate the Russian Orthodox Church and to remind the economically strapped Russian people of their glorious imperial past. Last autumn the Synodal Canonization Commission recommended that the martyred royal family be proclaimed saints of the Church. Only a few procedural hurdles remained, or so it seemed, before this decision was a done deal.

I must confess that I balked some eighteen years ago, when the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (headquartered in New York) canonized the last of the royal family. The tsar’s overt anti-Semitism, or at least his pronounced lack of courage and weak character in general, appeared to be moral impediments to his sainthood.

But these historical facts are quite irrelevant to his case. Nicholas et al. are saints not because of their benighted reign but in spite of it. As readers of Robert K. Massie’s excellent biography, Nicholas and Alexandra, (and viewers of the Hollywood screenplay of that book) know well, Tsar Nicholas, after his forced abdication of the throne, rose from mensch to magister, from despot to devoted family man. Disgrace and humiliation swept away his artificial pride, ill-founded arrogance, and cavalier attitude toward his subjects, giving birth instead to genuine compassion and selfless service to everyone around him. Nicholas at last became a man of honor and nobility, a model for rulers everywhere.

Beyond this personal transfiguration, there was one crucial circumstance of the death of Tsar Nicholas, Tsarina Alexandra, and their four daughters and only son. The Bolsheviks brutally murdered them on July 17, 1918, and not because any one of them posed a potential political threat to the new regime. Rather, the royal family, in some mystical way that the hard-edged Lenin and his minions intuited, represented God. To destroy Nicholas—Tsar of All the Russias and Little Father to his Orthodox people—and his progeny was one way of ensuring that religion would be obliterated in the new order. The tsar and his family died, therefore, as martyrs for Christ.

If the Moscow Patriarchate had decided to add its considerable moral weight to the holy cause of the last of the tsars, the benefits of that long overdue act would have surely accrued to the bishops of a Church still adrift in a sea of self-doubt and without a moral compass. Many Russians are still enthralled by the Camelot days of Holy Russia. Many Russians still dream of the restoration of the monarchy as a way of leading Russia out of its current spiritual, political, and economic malaise.

On this side of the Atlantic, I hope and pray for the return of the tsars—a monarchy more constitutional than despotic, to be sure, but an Orthodox imperium nonetheless. In the present intraconservative wars, I would eschew both the “neo-con” and “paleo-con” labels in favor of the neologism “pre-paleo-con”—that is, the traditional conservatism that predates even the highly esteemed Edmund Burke. I am still looking for a suitable emperor for an Orthodox commonwealth.

Especially in light of the current products of our secular democracies in the West, it would be at once refreshing and comforting to be able to proclaim once again, “God save our gracious tsar!


  • Rev. Alexander Webster

    Father Alexander F.C. Webster, an archpriest in the Orthodox Church in America, retired in June 2010 as an Army Reserve chaplain at the rank of colonel after more than 24 years of military service. He is the author or co-author of four books on topics of social ethics.

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