January 25, 2009 – This afternoon, I attended a presentation at St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Washington, D.C., which was given by Dr. Michael Coble of the U.S. Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory. He spoke about the work of his laboratory in testing the remains of the Russian imperial family located in two discoveries over the past few decades near Yekaterinburg, Russia. I was fortunate enough to sit at the table with Dr. Coble and also Dr. Marshall Nirenberg, a winner of the Nobel Prize for interpretation of the genetic code.
On the evening of July 16-17, 1918, Tsar Nicholas, Alexandra, Olga, Tatiana, Marie, Anastasia, and Alexis, along with four faithful assistants, were brutally murdered in the basement of the house in Yekaterinburg where they had been held captive. Since that night in 1918, the mystery of the lack of any bodies of the imperial family gave hope to some of their survival, and also gave rise to pretenders. More than this, it denied some part of closure for those so scarred by the events that were to follow. Even the Communists could not at first admit to the world what they had done. As a result, some have needed convincing that the newly-found remains really are those of the family. There is no reason now to doubt.
From my youth, the story of Nicholas, Alexandra, Olga, Tatiana, Marie, Anastasia, and Alexis, troubled me greatly. The beautiful, sometimes melancholy faces that have stared back at us through the decades haunt us because we know the rest of the story. Photographs taken in days of peace, or at least familial love and simplicity, belie the fact that a few short years after their taking the entire world would be turned upside down. The precipitous fall from reverence for the monarch to the murder of him and his innocent children at the hands of a government proclaiming “Brotherhood” was, and remains, unthinkable to me. I was learning these stories during the Cold War where one could see first hand that Communist ideology had imprisoned and brutalized a large section of the world.
This story I was later to learn is not, however, about politics. It is about love and faith. The murder of the imperial family, this murder of innocents, triggered the unimaginable. The murder of a man, his wife, their four daughters and one son, began the most horrendous period of Christian martyrdom the world has yet seen. The number of Orthodox Christian hierarchs, priests, monks, nuns, and laypeople that were imprisoned, tortured, or murdered is impossible to know, but is estimated between the hundreds of thousands and millions. So many lives and churches were desecrated and destroyed. Families were torn apart or set against one another. The sacred was defiled. A large part of the world would come to run red with the blood of the faithful or those who simply refused to submit.
Faith filled their lives. Love bound them to one another. But a modern ideology founded on the notion of the supremacy of man was filled with hate for anything that believed in another way. If a family, or a man, or a child stood in the way of their vision because of what they represented, then brutality to the extent of gruesome murder or widespread slaughter was justified. Those that kept the faith and stayed true to themselves no matter what the cost are the true victors. And today, we see the resurgence of the Russian Orthodox Church with the restoration and rebuilding of churches and monasteries, and the public rehabilitation of the Tsar and his family in the Russian Federation.
It is those who committed these heinous acts not so many years ago who are to be pitied. Brutality harms the villain because with each act of inhumanity he becomes less of a human, his personhood is defiled with each lash of the whip. And the equivalent acts done by a government in our name harm us collectively, for we are not islands unto ourselves. Never should we permit such things to be done in our name. These wounds against dignity, against humanity, and most importantly against love, will take years to heal. More than time, though, it will take effort, remembrance, prayer, and repentance. Yet, there is only one true salve for such wounds: forgiveness. Forgiveness.
Eight days after the murders, White forces loyal to the Tsar moved into Yekaterinburg, and at the house where the family had been imprisoned found the following poem in Olga’s handwriting that had been written in dedication to her and Tatiana, and sent by a friend:
Give patience, Lord, to us Thy children
In these dark, stormy days to bear
The persecution of our people,
The tortures falling to our share.
Give strength, Just God, to us who need it,
The persecutors to forgive,
Our heavy, painful cross to carry
And Thy great meekness to achieve.
When we are plundered and insulted
In days of mutinous unrest
We turn for help to Thee, Christ-Savior,
That we may stand the bitter test.
Lord of the world, God of Creation,
Give us Thy blessing through our prayer
Give peace of heart to us, O Master,
This hour of utmost dread to bear.
And on the threshold of the grave
Breathe power divine into our clay
That we, Thy children, may find strength
In meekness for our foes to pray.