Hiero-Martyr Alexander (Petrovsky),
Archbishop of Kharkov
Translated from the Russian by Maria Ashot
Commemorations: 11/24 May, translation of the holy relics on October 30/12 November
This vision had such an effect on the young man, that he made an abrupt change in his ways, and soon thereafter, in 1900, was in fact tonsured at Moscow’s celebrated monastery of the Don Ikon of the Mother of God, and ordained a hieromonk. From 1903, he was the treasurer and household administrator of the residence of the Archbishop of Turkestan, a member of the Turkestan Council of Educators, of the Diocesan Court (Consistory), and of the Imperial Palestine Society.
In 1906, Archimandrite Aleksandr accepted an appointment of Treasurer of the Monastery of the Dormition in the city of Zhirovtsy, and in 1910 that of presiding Abbot [Dean] of the Monastery of Lubensk. In 1911, after the canonization of Saint Ioasaf of Belgorod, he undertook to organize a Procession of the Cross from the Monastery of Lubensk to the city of Belgorod, in which some hundreds of the faithful took part. From 1917, for a period of two years, he was presiding Abbott [Dean] of the celebrated Pskov-Caves Monastery; then, in 1919, he became Dean of the skete church of the Kozelshchansk women’s convent on the Psyol River in the province of Poltava. This skete community came into being when all the other local churches, chapels and shrines – and the Kozelshchansk Monastery itself – had all been closed [in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution – Tr. Note]. Twelve priests who had come together from the various area parishes that had been forcibly closed down and outlawed jointly celebrated the liturgical offices in this skete where they had taken refuge. There were extraordinary clerics among them – great ascetics, gifted vocalists and experts in church chant, eloquent preachers.
The church maintained its own printing facility and studio of iconography. During these times of persecution of the faith, enormous crowds of worshippers would descend upon the community seeking pastoral care, making it very difficult for the starosta (warden) to defend the community from the revolutionary commissars who were determined to shut it down. Services were beautifully celebrated, with great attention to all the canonical rules, with fervour and exaltation of the spirit, so that Vespers would typically last a minimum of four hours. Father Aleksandr was particularly dedicated to the idea of improving the ability of all worshippers to participate fully in the chanted and sung parts of the service. "Everyone sing!" he would exhort them, and all the faithful would obey, joining in with the choir during the familiar prayers of the Vespers Service or Holy Liturgy. God had endowed Father Archimandrite himself with an excellent tenor; he loved music, knew it thoroughly and was able to inspire the people who heard him. A witness writes with feeling of the unforgettably moving akathist service celebrated at the skete in honour of the Lord’s Life-Giving Tomb. A mighty chorus intoned the resounding refrain: "Rejoice, O Life-giving Tomb, whence Christ Resurrected!"
In 1932, after this church was also forced shut, Father Aleksandr relocated to Kiev, where he was
Consecrated Bishop of Umansk, vicar to the Archdiocese of Kiev. Then, on 25 August 1933, he was named Bishop of Vinnitsk. In 1934, he was a member of the Patriarch’s Temporary Holy Synod convened by the Deputy to the Acting Patriarch, Metropolitan Sergius (Stragorodsky). On
20 May 1937, Metropolitan Konstantin (Diakov) entrusted the archdiocese of Kharkov [a major city in the south of Russia – Tr. Note] into his pastoral and administrative care. Here, Bishop Aleksandr rapidly gained the devoted love of all who came to know him.
By nature, as a person he was very lively, affectionate and sociable, engaging and attentive to others. He also knew how to maintain his utter steadfastness to principle in all things without ever compromising his exemplary, perfect composure. As just one example, consider how he addressed his concerns over the routine, superficial habits he found ingrained in the Kharkov diocese. He was dissatisfied by what he found, being accustomed to beautifully elaborate services that he invariably led with insipiring and inspired solemnity, yet he chose not to confront anyone, nor to mandate changes. Instead, he decided to teach by example. One Easter, he allowed the services to go according to the established routine on the first and second day of Pascha. It was the custom in this diocese to omit the services prescribed for the third day, being as the new order of things meant everyone had to show up at work. Vladika appealed to his faithful and choir not to abandon the holy tradition established by the Church, of celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord with the required services for three full days: "Let us rejoice in the Lord!" And so, on the third day, once again the church was filled with worshippers. The Easter service began, but once again the choir began their routine, rushed, abbreviated version of the Paschal Matins and Hours, without repeating or including every prayer. Vladika turned to the faithful with his exhortation: "Everyone sing!" And everyone present began to chant the Paschal canon. At first, the choir was at a loss, but then quickly picked up the lead, taking the congregation through the full liturgy. The services that day were full of an uplifting, prayerful joy as never before. At their conclusion, Vladika publicly lavished praise and thanks on the choir, so that later the singers would be moved to comment (some of them having more than 30 years of experience) that they had never before experienced any bishop commenting with such touching warmth on their efforts.
…One by one, the authorities began shutting down the churches in Kharkov. Finally, in all of Kharkov and its outlying districts, only a single church remained open, the parish of St. Nicholas on Kholodnaya Gora ("Cold Mountain"). It stood at the very edge of the city, and the faithful would converge upon it without any particular dread of consequences. Vladika came by cab, from the other end of town, a good 5 km away. Then the day came, when the local authorities decreed that Bishop Aleksandr must share the use of this church with another bishop, one of those who had accepted the so-called obnovlenchestvo edicts. [The obnovlenchestvo movement was an affliction which assailed the Russian Church in the years immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution, when the theomachist and militantly atheist authorities used terrifying threats and inducements to force radical changes in Church governance, nominally for the sake of modernization, but in fact with the sole purpose of eviscerating Orthodox Christianity by subverting its canonical foundations, as a prelude to driving it into extinction. These efforts came to nought, through God’s mercy and grace; however, for a time, the rancour, divisions and chaos inflicted by the obnovlentsy bishops and priests were indeed destructive. – Tr. Note.] The authorities dictated that the Orthodox Bishop, his clergy and his flock would be allowed to use this last available church only on alternate Sundays – the other Sundays, it was to be surrendered to the obnovlentsy for their services. The congregation was unanimous in its complete opposition to this demand. Finally, it was decided that one of the auxiliary chapels of the main church would be relinquished to the obnovlentsy, through the addition of a wall to separate the two congregations from each other. A fortnight later, the solid partition was in place, in spite of the violent objections of the local authorities. A mere 40 people at most chose to attend the services of the so-called Living Church [a term used by the obnovlentsy to differentiate themselves from the Orthodox – Tr. Note], having constituted themselves into a parish meant to supplant the true Orthodox, with the authorities providing handsome salary packages for the compliant clergy and full-time choir. Meanwhile, in the main church of St. Nicholas, there were so many worshippers that the Communion rite alone would last for several hours, and there would be a multitude of Baptisms to perform before every Vigil service (up to 120 on a single date). People travelled great distances to attend these services, standing patiently for the many hours of their long duration. Vladika would often exhort the people to sing, particularly during the Litany of Petitions. He would say: "Is that how you would be asking a mere mortal to grant you help, with such coldness? Is that how we make our pleas? Everyone, sing! ‘Grant it, O Lord!’" That would be when a multitude of thousands would begin to sing out to God, with one mouth and one mind and one heart, and such a force of prayer would pour forth as few today have even a capacity to comprehend. The gregarious, sociable personality, quick and lively character, and kind heart of the saint were joined to profound wisdom, a gift for easily resolving conflicts and overcoming difficulties, for reconciling and inspiring other human beings.
Inevitably, the fate shared by all who zealously defended the True Church befell Vladika Aleksandr as well. He saw this inevitability coming, and continuously exhorted his faithful to remain strong, never despairing in the face of adversity: "Whatever might come, stay strong, stay faithful and steadfast." To his closest friends, he confided that he was the last faithful bishop remaining in the south of Russia. On 20 June 1938, Archbishop Aleksandr was arrested by the UNKVD [one of the many acronyms used at various stages of the Soviet era by the internal state police assigned to persecute and destroy "enemies" of the totalitarian regime – Tr. Note], on charges of counter-revolutionary propaganda and agitation. On 17 July 1939, a military tribunal of the Kharkov Military District convicted him, sentencing him to 10 years of incarceration in the prison of Kholodnaya Gora. The day he was brought to that prison became a momentous event for its inmates. The tall, imposing, saintly presence of this venerable holy father created a great stir; he was met with reverence by all the prisoners. His stay, however, was destined to be brief: on 24 May 1940, aged 89, he left this life. How? God alone knows. Some of the prison staff said he was strangled. The documentary evidence is stark: the record indicates that in May of 1940, the Kharkov morgue received "from the NKVD facility for the terminally ill at Kachenevka, the corpse of an elderly male, with a numbered tag on the foot, and papers indicating the surname ‘Petrovsky,’ with instructions for interment." An individual working at the morgue, formerly a subdeacon of the Archbishop, together with a gatekeeper of his who subsequently became an ordained priest (archpriest Ioakim Orekhov), immediately recognized
Archbishop Aleksandr. He had been shaved and shorn, but his majestic and imposing presence, even in death, instantly set him apart from the hundreds of other ordinary corpses in their pitiful nakedness. Then, suddenly, a counter-order arrived from the prison: immediately return the corpse of Petrovsky, that had been transferred to the morgue in error. Quickly, they transferred the numbered tag from the remains of their archbishop onto the extremity of another, unknown and unclaimed deceased male, and returned that body to the prison with the papers designating it as "Petrovsky" that had accompanied the body of the reposed hieromartyr. That night, a group of monastics, faithful friends and devout followers of the hieromartyr, vested his mortal remains in his archbishop’s robes, and held the solemn funeral rites exactly as ordained by the Church. The coffin left in procession for its final resting place very early in the morning, but the streets turned out to be filled with mourners; the white headkerchiefs adopted by the sisters of the Kozelshchansk women’s Monastery were particularly ubiquitous, brightly lit by the sun. Weeping, crossing themselves, the faithful knelt, greeting the carriage that bore their beloved Archbishop’s coffin in a final farewell. Seeing the crowds, the man at the reins drove the horses at full speed…
They interred Vladika at a short distance beyond Kholodnaya Gora, in the cemetery of a small town called Zelyutino. For many years, this grave site was the object of fervent prayers and pilgrimage. At this writing, the holy relics of Archbishop Aleksandr have been found and transferred to the Cathedral of the Annuciation in Kharkov, where they rest, abiding in the veneration of the faithful.
For a time after Archbishop Aleksandr’s arrest and death, the services he had presided over continued. The last services were held on Palm Sunday, 1941. By the time of that Great Lent, the authorities had instituted a tax of 125 thousand rubles for the privilege of allowing the church to remain open. The congregation paid the fee. But then, the Council of Fifty [an administrative body mandated by the Soviet authorities which was required to control all the religious observances of every active community of believers in the USSR, and reported back to the civil and police authorities – Tr. Note] which had been designated to run the congregation was infiltrated by thieves and enemies of the Church. This group announced that there would be no services due to the priest’s illness. There were other priests available to serve, but the same authorities forbade them to hold services – only the one clergyman assigned to the specific congregation could legally do so. Another 120 thousand rubles were collected just to pay for permission to serve during Holy Week. But evidently the money was being intercepted, not paid into the proper channels. And so, there were no Holy Week services being held – only a notice that there would be the service commemorating the Passions of the Lord on Holy Thursday.
An enormous crowd of worshippers gathered – some eight thousand. The militia [police authorities] arrived; yet everyone kept the peace. Order reigned. The church remained locked.
Next door, at the so-called "Living Church," services were in progress, but with only the usual 40 regulars in attendance. None of the faithful elected to desert their own parish.
And there, out in the open square, the faithful held their own Passion services – in secrecy. A large host of clergymen stood in the front, in civilian clothes, unvested. A dense crowd of worshippers praying fervently surrounded them from all sides. The priests silently read the prescribed Gospels according to their proper order, following them with the corresponding prayer: "Glory to Thy Passions, O Lord!" The people then sang all the prescribed prayers that form part of the Holy Thursday rites. The priests made their responses softly, inaudibly, giving their benedictions in secret. The people stood holding lit candles they had brought from home. The weather was unforgettably sublime…
"Go home," they told the faithful after the service was concluded. Then and there, they promised them Easter services. And once again, the church remained locked. An even greater crowd assembled for the Feast of the Resurrection, and once again they held the service outside, exactly as before. There were no more services until Trinity Week. By then, the congregation leadership had succeeded in driving out their enemies from the Council of 50, exposing them publicly at a meeting held with the local Soviet authorities in attendance. The old priest disappeared without a trace. A different priest was found, who held a job as an accountant. The parish was made to wait a long time while the authorities dragged their heels on the necessary paperwork. On the third day of Pentecost, the next services were finally held. Even though it was a working day, the church was once again overflowing with crowds of worshippers. Then, that priest was drafted into the army to fight the Germans. There were no more church services held in Kharkov until the period of the German occupation. Then, for a time, many churches were reopened and life changed again.
The Church commemorates St. Alexander Archbishop of Kharkov on 11/24 May, and the Translation and Deposition of his Relics on 30 October/12 November. His Relics repose in the Cathedral of the Annunciation, in a special raka [raised shrine-like tomb] where the people may venerate them.
Missionary Leaflet # EA18
Copyright © 2004 Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission
466 Foothill Blvd, Box 397, La Canada, Ca 91011
Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant)
( .doc, 01-03-2004)
Missionary Text No. 18
Holy Trinity Orthodox Mission
466 Foothill Boulevard, Box 397, La Canada, CA 91011 USA
Editor: Bishop Alexander (Mileant)