St. John the Baptist Parish, A Parish of the Russian Orthodox Church, Canberra, Australia


of Archpriest Afanasy Beliaev

2 March 1917. Dimitry Nikolaevich Loman, church warden at the Fyodorovsky Cathedral, visited me and said that I had been invited to come to the Church of the Sign, to take the miracle-working icon of the Heavenly Tsaritsa (Mother of God) to go with her to the Aleksandrovsky Palace to hold a service in the children's section of the palace, where the Tsar's children are lying sick with measles. A car was sent, which took me to the Church of the Sign. Having entered the church, I met Father, Archpriest, and Dean Ioann F. Sperasnsky, who had already arranged for the vestments to be prepared, the icon readied, and people to be gathered together to carry her. So I immediately donned the robes, took the cross, and, as we set out for the palace, sang the festal hymn We Thy servants have thee, All-Pure Virgin, as an unbreachable wall and fountain of wonders together with the parish clergy.

Admission to the Palace was accomplished with ease, despite its being guarded by the Combined Infantry Regiment. We went through the first entrance up to the second floor to the children's section and, having walked through row of bright rooms, came into a large, half dark room where the sick children were lying down in simple, separate beds. We put the icon on the table that had been prepared for it. The room was so dark that I could hardly see those present in it. The Empress, dressed as a nurse, was standing beside the bed of the heir; not far from her stood other nurses and nannies. A few thin wax candles were lit before the icon. The service of prayer began. Oh, what a terrible, unexpected sorrow has befallen the Tsar' s family! The news came that the Sovereign, called to Tsarskoe Selo by the Empress and already hurrying from Headquarters back to his dear family, has been detained on the road and arrested, and it is even possible that he has abdicated from the throne.

Something terrible is going on in Petrograd: houses are being destroyed and burned; soldiers have betrayed the Tsar and, having joined with the popular mob of workers, are smashing police stations, removing and arresting their bosses and former representatives of the authorities, letting criminals out of prisons and declaring complete freedom for all who proclaim a republic. A fierce battle between the troops and the police has begun. Even Tsarskoe Selo is uneasy. In the Sofiisky part of town, where the troops are stationed, noise and frenzied cries can be heard; the rapid fire of arms is ongoing; soldiers are destroying and smashing wine shops and stores; police buildings are being burned down; they have set prisoners from the jail. One can imagine in what circumstances the helpless Empress finds herself, a mother, alone, with five seriously sick children.

Suppressing her womanly feebleness and all her bodily ailments, dedicating herself in a heroic, self-assured manner to looking after the sick, with full trust in the help of the Mother of God, she decided first of all to pray before the miracle-working icon of the Our Lady of the Sign, instructing that the icon be brought into the chambers of the sick children. Fervently, on her knees, with tears in her eyes, the earthly Tsaritsa asked the Heavenly Tsaritsa for help and intervention. Venerating the icon and coming to stand beneath it, she asked to bring it also to the sickbeds so that all the sick children could also touch their lips to the miracle-working icon. Holding out the cross to be kissed, I said: 'Fortify yourself and be brave, Your Majesty, for the dream is terrible, but God is merciful in all things, rely upon His divine will. Believe, trust, and don't stop praying.'

The holy icon was taken into all the children's rooms; we went downstairs and came to a separate, isolated room where Anna A. Vyrubova, sick with measles and covered with a rash, was lying down. There I only read a prayer before the icon of the Mother of God, at which time the sick person, fervently pressing her flushed head to the holy icon, did not want to let it out of her hands for a long time. The Empress, having come downstairs from the children's rooms by the direct, inner staircase, stood next to the sickbed and also prayed fervently. When we left with the icon, the palace was already cordoned off by troops, and it turned out that all those within were under arrest.

11 and 12 March, Saturday and Sunday. On 9 March, when the Sovereign arrived at Tsarskoe Selo from the headquarters, a telephone call from the Aleksandrovsky Palace summoned me to come and conduct the vigil in the palace church together with members of the court staff: archdeacon, psalm reader, and choristers (four). When we arrived at the palace, we were met by the commandant and the guard on duty.

After entering the corridor of the lower floor where Their Majesties ' chambers were located, the Sovereign's valet came up to and said: 'His Majesty asks that you come into his room. He wants to say a few words to you about the forthcoming service in the palace church.' In response to those words, the young ensign accompanying us said: 'That is not allowed,' and, addressing me, stated: 'Be so kind as to go into the church; it is forbidden to talk to him.' The astonished valet objected: 'Allow this or I will inform His Majesty.' But the stern guard was categorical: 'I don't care. I cannot allow any meeting with anyone whatsoever ? no contacts.' And thus we were led into the church without stopping and in total silence.

After a few minutes, still before the start of the service, Marshal of the Imperial Court Benkendorf came into the church hall and, in the name of the Sovereign, asked me to hold services in the palace church on Sundays and holidays. After the end of the vigil, I appealed to the palace commandant with a few questions: Were there some sort of instructions for us concerning how to conduct services and how to act, for example, how to answer the Sovereign if he were ask about something? How should he be addressed? How should he be referred to during services and so forth and, in general, how should one comport oneself with all the employees of the palace?

The commandant answered, 'There are no instructions, but of course questions on the part of the Sovereign should be answered, although the conversation must not be political and must be in the presence of the guard on duty. It's better to avoid addressing him, although I call him "Your Majesty". Decline personal meetings in his rooms, and in general the less reason for reprimands on the part of the guard, the better it will be for the arrested.' And truly, the Sovereign and his wife are so refined and gracious that they come to services when we stand at the altar already robed and leave the church after the service before anyone else. They stand apart, completely obscured by screens, taking up a rather small space in the corner with a separate entrance. The first time I had to pray for 'the Russian State and the Provisional Government' instead of the 'Devout Autocrat Sovereign Emperor' and so after the Great Entrance, I could not find the strength at first and almost began to weep. I finished the commemorations with a cracking voice, stumbling over the words. I conducted the vigil On 24 and 25 March and I gave each person one very small twig of the blessed willow branch. Even in this the disrespect and penal conditions were evident. May God bless. [?]

30 March. I walked the palace halls and was amazed at the luxury and richness. From the windows of the round hall I saw how graves were being prepared for those who died during the days of the wineshop riots in Tsarskoe Selo. The site for the graves was on an open field, opposite the palace. ('Victims in the Revolution' were buried in a ceremony on Holy Thursday, 30 March 1917 along the avenue leading to the Aleksandrovsky Palace, within sight of the windows,). The Liturgy, at which the Tsar's family fervently prayed and all took Holy Communion, was over around 12 o' clock. Those fasting approached the holy chalice modestly, and I said a few words to them that could also be heard by all those present in the Church.

After the Liturgy the footman told me that the father confessor offered via Anichkov to come to the palace for the confession of Their Majesties despite his sickly state, but was told that he need not trouble himself to come, for everything could be done without him. But nobody knew who would be invited to replace the father confessor, and there were no instructions yet issued on the matter. It appeared that everything was going smoothly and the service was to everyone's satisfaction. A small but wondrous Shroud of Christ was brought from the Fyodorovsky Cathedral together with a special table for it, a large book of the Gospels, and Paschal vestments. For the time being, the altar and the table of oblation were covered in black vestments, and black chasubles were readied for the clergy.

The vigil and the reading of the Gospels was set for 6 o'clock. I opened the window and could hear military music; the 'Marseillaise' and funeral marches are being played. Many soldiers can be seen from the window. It is impossible to make out what is being done at the graves because of the distance, although all this is taking place by the palace opposite the round hall, not far from the Church. And all this on Holy Thursday during Holy Week. Verily, they know not what they do. At 6 o' clock the service began with the twelve Holy Gospel readings. The devout are all the same, one hundred people all told, including the suite and servants, in the presence of the guard on duty.

The choristers sang beautifully ? the four soloists from the court choir ? especially The Wise Thief. The service was reverential and moving, although it was shortened considerably: the Gospels were read, and after each reading, one hymn was sung.

The whole service lasted for 1 hour and 40 minutes. Their Majesties listened to the whole service while standing. Folding lecterns on which the Gospels rested were placed before them so that they could follow along . Everyone remained to the end of the service and left through the common hall for their rooms, which they had never done before. One has to see for oneself, be near enough to understand and be convinced of how fervently the former Tsar's family pray to God, in an Orthodox manner and often upon their knees.

They stand at worship with such obedience, meekness, and humility, giving themselves up completely to the will of God. And I, a sinner and unworthy servant of the altar of the Lord, feel my heart stop beating, the tears flow; and despite the oppressive difficulty of seclusion, the Lord's abundance fills my soul, and the words of prayer flow, freely reaching and penetrating the hearing of the devout. At 8 o'clock, dinner is served: cabbage soup with mushrooms, and desert.

At 9 o'clock in the evening, I get ready for the Holy Friday. There will be the bringing out of the Shroud of Christ and I think about what to say before the grave of our innocent suffering Saviour. I read the marvellous hymns in Russian translation designated for Holy Friday and am moved by them. What will tomorrow bring? How many people are getting ready to confess?

31 March. 9 o'clock in the morning. I got up early and spent the night anxiously. The wonderful conditions and all conveniences notwithstanding ? it's clean, bright, warm, and cozy ? sleep still wouldn't come. I washed for a long time and splashed my head with cold water, prayed to God, and began to write a sermon for the bringing out of the Shroud.

At 12 o'clock, I went to the church to hear confession from those preparing for Holy Communion. There turned out to forty-two at confession, including two doctors: Botkin and Derenvenko. At 1.30, I received notification that I am expected in the children's quarters at 5.30 to hear confessions from the three sick princesses and the former heir and prepare them for communion. At 2 o'clock, Vespers began and the Shroud was carried to the middle of the Church.

A place for the shroud was adorned with cloths, and whole bushes of blooming white and red lilacs were brought, and many roses, and a wonderful, elegant flower bed of live flowers were made. The table for the Shroud from the Fyodorovsky Cathedral was put in the centre of the flower bed. Their Majesties, two princesses, and the suite appeared in deep mourning, in black dress. Vespers passed in a decorous and rather ceremonial manner. The Shroud was brought to the centre of the Church. [?]

I donned the stole, took the cross and the Gospels into my hands, and went upstairs after the footman, who showed the way to the children's room. These rooms are decorated in an amazing Christian manner. In a corner of her room, each princess has a placed a real iconostasis filled with many icons of different sizes and with depictions of the especially-venerated saints. A folding table covered with a towel stands before the iconostasis, and upon it are placed te prayer books and liturgical books, as well as the Holy Gospels and the cross. The rooms' furnishing and their entire arrangement reflect an innocent, clean, chaste childhood unaware of worldly filth.

In order to listen to the prayers before confession, all four (sick) children were in the same room, where the sick Olga Nikolaevna lay. Aleksei Nikolaevich sat in a chair dressed in a little light blue robe sewn along the edges with a patterned braid. Maria Nikolaevna was half lying down in a large chair that was on wheels, which Anastasia Nikolaevna easily moved about. After the prayers and a brief word before confession, only Olga Nikolaevna remained in the room. The heir exited by himself, and Anastasia Nikolaevna took Maria Nikolaevna away.

Then I went to another room to hear the others' confessions: Aleksei 's, Maria's, and Anastasia Nikolaevna's. I cannot say how the confessions went, But my general impression was as follows: Lord, let all children be as upright as the children of the former tsar. Such mildness, restraint, obedience to their parents' wishes, such absolute devotion to God's will, cleanliness in their lodgings, and complete ignorance of worldly filth either passionate or sinful amazed me and I was totally at loss; as a confessor, do I need to ask them of other sins of which they are unaware?

The four confessions 1 hour and 20 minutes. Saturday Matins began at 7.30. I read the so-called lamentations over the Shroud, and the procession with the Shroud took the following route: we carried it through the sanctuary and behind the altar, approaching the sanctuary by the north doors and leaving by the south, walked around the rooms near the walls of the round hall, and then returned to the church, walking as far as the royal doors and back again to the middle of the church. Prince Benkendorf and Doctors Botkin and Derevenko carried the shroud; behind them came Nicholas Aleksandrovich, Alexandra Fyodorovna, Tatiana and Anastasia Nikolaevna, the suite, and a servant with lit candles.

Matins ended at 8 o'clock in the evening, and the confession of the ladies of the suite began: Naryshkina, Dolgorukova, Gendrikova, and Buksgevden. The footman appeared and announced that Their Majesties will be waiting for confession in their bedroom at 10 o'clock. I sat in my room from 9 to 9.30. The time went by quickly. At 9:40, I went to the Church, prayed at the holy Altar, venerated the Shroud, donned my stole, took the cross and the Gospels, and followed the footman to Their Majesties' chambers. There a female servant took me through the rooms into the bedrooms, where one wide bed stood, and pointed to a small room in the corner, a chapel where Their Majesties would be confessing. No one was in the room yet.

Not two minutes had passed when the former Sovereign walked in with his wife and Tatiana Nikoaevna. The Sovereign greeted me, presented Her Majesty and, gesturing towards his daughter, said, 'This is our daughter, Tatiana, You, Father, start the prayers before confession and we will pray together.' The chapel room is very small and is filled from top to bottom with hanging or standing icons. Lamps burn before the icons. A special iconostasis with carved columns and famous icons occupies the far corner, and a folding table stands before it upon which an ancient altar Gospel book, a cross and many prayer books have been placed.

I did not know where to put the cross and Gospels that I had brought and so put them right down on the books that were already there. After the prayers, the Sovereign and his wife left and Tatiana Nikolaevna stayed for holy confession. After her, Her Majesty came in an agitated state, to confess the illnesses of her heart before the holy Cross and Gospels. His Majesty came for holy confession after her. Taking confession from all three lasted for 1 hour and 20 minutes. Oh, how unspeakably happy I am that I was favoured by God's grace to become the mediator between the Heavenly Ruler and the earthly one. Standing beside me was the one who had no superior on earth.

Until this time, this was our God-given anointed Sovereign, a Russian Orthodox Tsar who reigned for twenty-three years by the law of succession to the throne. And now Nicholas, a humble servant of God, like a meek lamb, benevolent toward all his enemies, harbouring no offence, fervently praying for Russia's prosperity on bended knee, believing deeply in her glorious future, gaze at the Cross and Gospels, and, in the presence of my unworthiness, tells the Heavenly Father the innermost secrets of his unfortunate life and, prostrating himself before the greatness of the Heavenly Tsar, tearfully asks forgiveness for his voluntary and involuntary sins. After the reading of the final prayer and the kissing of the Cross and Gospels, what clumsy words of comfort and consolation, what joy could I instil in the heart of this person who was maliciously taken away for his people and who remains to this moment completely certain of the rightness of his actions, which were directed toward the good of his beloved motherland?

When I said: 'Ah, Your Majesty, what good you would have done for Russia had you granted in your time a full Constitution, thereby fulfilling the wish of the people. Everyone would have hailed you as the angel of goodness, love and peace.'

To this he responded in amazement, 'That may be true! Yes, everyone betrayed me. I was told that there was anarchy in Petrograd and rebellion, and I decided to go: not to Petrograd, but to Tsarskoe Selo, and so from the Nikolaevsky line headed to Pskov, but the railroad was already cut off. I decided to return to the front, but that line also turned out to be cut. And so alone, without a close adviser, deprived of freedom like a captive criminal, I signed the act of abdication from the throne for myself and my son and heir. I decided that if this needed for the good of the motherland I was ready for anything. It is sad for my family!' And searing tears fell from the eyes of the weak-willed sufferer. A more general conversation followed.

Alexandra Fyodorovna asked how Father Alexander's health was and I answered that despite all his desire to be in Tsarskoe Selo and officiate, he still was unable to do this because his nerves were badly upset.

Her majesty said: 'I am very sorry. Give him our regards and best wishes for good health, as you are his close relative.' The Tsar conveyed the same wishes for good health, also asked after the health of Father Vasiliev, and added, 'We all came to love him so very much. The reason for his nerves being upset I partly attribute to the loss of his son, whom we also knew and over whose death we grieved. Please give him my kind regards.'

Then Nicholas Aleksandrovich asked me, 'You no longer officiate in the Yekaterinburg Cathedral, but what about the Fyodorovsky? I was very happy when I learned that you had agreed to officiate for us here in the Fyodorovsky Cathedral. And what is happening now, what condition is this wonderful cathedral in?' I answered that all the buildings of the Fyodorovsky settlement, together with the cathedral, are temporarily entrusted to the management of Commissar Golovin. For a few minutes the conversation continued about family life. Incidentally, Her Majesty said: 'I was misunderstood. I only wanted to do good.'

"he wood of this cross that now breaks your back first grew in the soil of your heart." (Starets Macarius of Optino )

-- Diary of Archpriest Afanasy Beliaev
Dean at the Fyodorovsky Cathedral in Tsarskoe Selo

From: The Fall of the Romanovs, by Mark D. Steinberg and Vladimir M. Khrustalev, and Russian documents translated by Elizabeth Tucker, (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1995)

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