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It is a hundred years ago this morning that the captive Russian Royal family was brutally murdered by Bolshevik troops probably under the direct instruction of Lenin. The bodies of Nicholas II, his wife and five young children were then driven out into the Siberian forest by drunken soldiers and doused with sulfuric acid so as to destroy the evidence. In 2003, a magnificent Orthodox church was consecrated directly on top of where the Romanovs were murdered. It is called: The Church on the Blood in Honour of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land. And it is anticipated that up to 200,000 people will attend the commemorations.
According to the Russian Orthodox Church the Romanovs are close to sainthood. According to others, they are a family that ruled over Russia for 300 years with astonishing cruelty and unbelievable decadence. Behind all the razzmatazz of a successful World Cup, Russia remains a country haunted by the unresolved trauma of a revolution that created many millions of victims, an unknown number of whom also ended up in unmarked graves out in the vast Siberian forest, that great repository of secrets.
Many Russians would prefer this past to stay buried - such is the horror of that period in which fellow countrymen turned on one other. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church in particular appealed to memory as a way of re-establishing itself. For on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution the Russian Orthodox Church had 50,000 parishes and a thousand monasteries. By the early 1940s, pretty much all of that had gone. During the purges of 1937 and 1938 alone, it is reported that 168,000 clergy were arrested and over 100,000 of them were shot.
It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that in taking the lead in remembering the victims of the Communist revolution, the Russian church has told a story about Christian martyrdom and the importance of Holy Mother Russia in ways that those of us who have not experienced their trauma may not entirely understand. I share the widespread anxiety about resurgent Russian nationalism and President Putin’s authoritarian tendencies. And many critics of the Russian Orthodox Church believe their unqualified support for Christian nationalism is a form of theological forgetfulness about their higher calling. Nonetheless, it would be foolish to dismiss the depth of feeling that gets built up in a church throughout years of persecution and martyrdom. And this feeling has been a powerful dynamo for the remarkable resurgence of the Russian church after its near obliteration.
During the cold war, it used to be the case that Americans would dismiss the Russians as Godless commies. Now the Godless charge is increasingly being leveled by the Russians against the West itself. And those who fail to understand the history of violent persecution in Russia, and thus the emotional energy that is behind this astonishing religious revival, will also fail to understand a great deal of what motivates modern Russia today.