John Archbishop And Hieromartyr Of Riga 2 of 3

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"The people well recognized and felt that in their prayers and petitions to the Lord, Vladkya would not forget those dreams of freedom from the yoke and violence by which crucified Russia had lived and meditated, and those righteous sons of hers who by their sufferings and blood had atoned the guilt of the evil-doers who did not know what they were doing. This spiritual sympathy was the basis for that huge moral force which bound you, your Eminence, with the people by bonds of unseen but powerful kinship and closeness.

"Therefore, wherever you may be, the people of Penza will always nourish towards you a feeling of great gratitude and the deepest devotion and attachment...

"No dark powers can cast a shadow over your exceptionally profitable and beneficial activities, which always remain in the memory of a people grateful to you... If there are people for whom your radiant life is harmful, and they wish to discredit you in the eyes of the people, even if it is for political reasons, then they are terribly wrong in thinking that they can attain their end by slander. The work of your slanderers and political adversaries has always produced the opposite effect: the more they have striven to slander and offend you, the higher and nearer and dearer the devoted and loving people has valued you."

Archbishop of Riga

On August 23, 1920, a council of the Latvian Orthodox Church elected Archbishop John to the see of Riga. Patriarch Tikhon could not find anyone to take his place in Penza for the time being. On April 14, 1921, after a second petition from the Latvian Orthodox Church, the Patriarch blessed Archbishop John to go to Latvia. But on May 23 he had to rescind his decision at the request of the clergy and laity of Penza. It was only on July 6/19, 1921 that, "in view of the persistent request of the Latvian Church", he gave his final consent to Archbishop John's departure for Latvia, bestowing on him a gramota expressing his gratitude for his self-sacrifical and fruitful labours in various places in Russia.

Before his departure, Patriarch Tikhon, in agreement with the Holy Synod and the Higher Church Council, gave Archbishop John the widest canonical autonomy in administering the Latvian Orthodox Church. This act was the expression of the high degree of trust which they had for the archbishop, both as a man and as a church server. The further life and activities of Archbishop John showed that he was completely worthy of this trust: by his martyric end he witnessed to his faithfulness to the behests of the confessor Patriarch.

Finally, on July 24, 1921, Archbishop John arrived in Riga and began to adminster the Orthodox Church of Latvia. He was met at the railway station and conducted to the cathedral church by the Orthodox clergy and people, with crosses and sacred objects from all the Orthodox churches. Even while he was serving his his service in the cathedral (where an Orthodox hierarch had not celebrated since 1917), the local Orthodox leaders had no idea where he was going to live, since the bishop's residence had just been seized by the government. But at the conclusion of the service, after giving his blessing to the people, Archbishop John, to the astonishment of everyone present, went to the basement of the cathedral and said:

"I will live here."

In this way he testified to the persecution of the Latvian Church and made the cathedral the centre of his struggle to restore the rights of the Orthodox Church in Latvia. And the fact that he lived there was a decisive factor that prevented the realization of the campaign conducted by the Latvian government and in the Latvian press to have the cathedral demolished.

His arrival marked the beginning of a new era in the life of the Latvian Church. Vladyka succeeded in getting a law on the position of the Orthodox Church passed. This regulated the relations between the Church and the State and provided the Church with a series of rights - in particular, substantial subsidies from the State. Finally, an end was put to the transfer of the property of the Orthodox Church to the heterodox, in particular the Catholics, who had already seized the Alexeyev monastery.

The cathedral, too, had already been torn away from the Church. During the German occupation it had been made into a garrison church, and the cliroses, iconstases and icons had been removed from the church, and rows of pews had been installed.

With Vladyka's arrival the senseless destruction of the Orthodox holy things - for example, the removal of the chapel in front of the main railway station in Riga - was halted. In general, the situation of the Church was piteous: churches had been sacked in part during the First World War and in part during the Civil War. They needed repairs, objects used in Divine services and church-servers: most of the parishes were widowed, and there were no candidates for the priesthood. Besides, in everything that concerned the Orthodox Church arbitrariness reigned; she was seen as doomed to extinction. The first leaders of the Latvian Church were not admitted into Latvia since it was considered expedient to keep the Orthodox Church without a head.

Even after the arrival of Archbishop John the situation in Latvia was such that support from outside was not to be expected; the existence of the Church depended, in general, on the solidarity and organization of all her inner resources. This was the immediate aim that the archpastor set in front of him. It was necessary to liquidate the dissension between the Orthodox Russians and Latvians. In spite of opposition from various quarters, Vladyka succeeded in this, the decisive factor being the fact that both the Russians and the Latvians considered him to be their own. Already by the council of 1923 there was complete unanimity between the Russian and Latvian parishes. A set of regulations worked out by Vladyka was accepted by all. This guaranteed the children of the Church the rights stipulated by the canons without regard for nationality. The enemies of the Church made attempts to hinder the union of all the Orthodox, but without success. The Church felt united in herself and began to get stronger.

In 1926 (according to another source, 1925), Vladyka became the representative of the Russians in the Seim, the Latvian Parliament. From this moment his activity took on enormous dimensions. He managed to obtain the return from the Soviet Union of Church holy objects and property for great sums of money. Orthodox Latvians, who before Archbishop John's arrival had largely concealed themselves "for fear of the Jews", now stepped out boldly behind their fearless pastor, and the Latvian Church experienced the best years of her brief existence. The Russian department of the ministry of education witnessed to his heroic efforts, often at great risk to his personal safety, to defend the Church and Russian culture from the attacks of its enemies, to provide Russian schools and subsidies for them, and to broaden the political, national, cultural and economic rights of the Russian population in Latvia. The churches destroyed in the war were repaired, and the unfinished buildings were completed. The theological seminary was re-established, and there began a flow of candidates for the priesthood. In a few years, according to official statistics, the Orthodox population increased by twenty per cent; thirteen new churches were built and consecrated, and four others were under construction, with still others planned, when the archbishop was martyred.

Vladyka served triumphantly and majestically. His powerful voice became softer when he pronounced the humble litanies. The prayers were said with great feeling which produced an ineradicable impression on those praying, filled as they were with a deep spirit of prayer.

There were few Russian families in the country whom Vladyka did not benefit in one way or another. He also helped foreigners. He was truly the father and defender of his flock. Most of the "state people" of Latvia were his colleagues from the seminary - the wise Tsarist government used to give free education in the seminaries, which was the stepping-stone to entrance into higher educational institutions, and many ministers and directors of departments in Latvia did not forget their old friendship and carried out Vladyka's requests.

In 1927 Metropolitan Sergius issued his notorious declaration, which placed the Russian Church in submission to the God-hating atheists. Archbishop John was one of the first to react negatively to this declaration. He explained his reasons for rejecting the declaration in a letter to Archbishop Eleutherius of Lithuania dated November 2, 1927. Archbishop John continued to have good relations with the Russian Church Abroad, who also opposed Metropolitan Sergius. In 1931, on the tenth anniversary of Vladyka's episcopate in Riga, Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), first hierarch of the Russian Church Abroad, called him "a courageous defender of Orthodoxy".

Neo-Silvester writes: "Numerous enemies, mainly political ones, energetically worked to weave a thick net of intrigues around him, spreading disgusting slanders against him round the city and defiling his good name, not only as a pastor of the Church, but also as a man. It is difficult to say who precisely occupied himself with this disgusting work. At that time Riga was teeming with Soviet spies, international adventurers and in general seekers of adventures who were ready to commit any abomination for dollars." Intrigues were woven even in the cathedral, a question arose about a shortfall of money in the cathedral cash-box, and there were other attacks. However, "when these and other unconfirmed denunciations failed to shake the trust and respect of the parishioners for the archpastor, the secret enemies turned from complicated intrigues to helping hired thieves and robbers."

Certain secret forces cleverly and systematically led the persecution against Vladyka: breaking off from one form of attack, they quickly turned to another. They must have employed no small amount of energy and money on blackening the great archpastor, and, alas, they had some success.

In the last years of his life, the persecution against Vladyka was conducted mainly through the so-called Russian Christian Student Union or Movement. Vladyka himself, who very much loved children and young people, gladly received the representatives of the young, so groups and even whole classes of students (there were more than a dozen Russian elementary schools and several gymnasia in Riga at that time) often visited him. At the beginning Vladyka was very sympathetic to the newly formed Union. However, as time went on and the essence of this organization with its international links became clear, he left it. The members of the Union resorted to persecution (without being its leaders). Things reached such a pass that at one of the twelve main feasts it was decided, on going up for Holy Unction, not to kiss his hand in a demonstrative way. This plot did not succeed only because Vladyka had been warned and went away into the altar, entrusting the unction to the senior priest.

This persecution became particularly intense after Archimandite John (Shahovskoy), the future archbishop of San Francisco for the schismatic "Orthodox Church of America", stayed in Riga. Vladyka did not allow him to serve in Riga, evidently because he rightly judged that such a disobedient clergyman must not be encouraged. It seems that the archimandrite went away in a rage. Perhaps this was the first time he had been affronted in such a way in his life. And his pride made the blow still more painful. Although he left, his numerous supporters (mainly female admirers), who constituted the majority of the Union, applied all their efforts to poison Vladyka's life.

His political enemies went so far as to set hooligans on him as he was returning to his dacha one evening. He was walking, as was his wont, the several kilometres from the last tram stop when the hooligans attacked him. However, they had not reckoned with the physical strength of their adversary. Having knocked their heads together so that they saw sparks, he so talked with them that they repented and became his friends. And this was not the only incident of this kind.

A certain Snegiver bought an evening newspaper in Riga and immediately set about using it to attack Vladyka. He wrote an article attacking Vladyka's candidature to the Seim and brought it to the maker-up. But the maker-up brought it to others who reworked it in such a way that it became a hymn of praise to the archbishop's pastoral and social activity. On reading the article, Snegiver went red in the face, beat his fist on the table and shouted that as the publisher he had editorial rights. Vladyka said about Snegiver with his innate wit:

"Snegiver is a greyish bird, but its breast is red..."

Again, a certain hysterical young woman brought an action against Vladyka in court saying that he had raped her. The procurator asked her under what circumstances this had taken place. She replied that she had been invited to Vladyka together with a group of young people, and while the other young people had been in the next room he had raped her. The procurator drily explained that this was not called rape. But the slander continued to go the rounds in the city, and someone sent Vladyka postcards written in a woman's handwriting and containing indecent and, of course, completely false details of their "meetings".

Of course, all this could not fail to have an adverse effect on Vladyka's health. His hair began to go grey, deep wrinkles appeared, he became thinner, and his eyes lost their previous glitter. But he patiently bore his cross, following Christ. He probably suffered in soul for the fate of his slanderers and those "little ones" deceived by them.

One of Vladyka's most vivid speeches in the Seim was "In defence of pensions for the clergy". The communist fraction in the Seim had put forward the suggestion that the clergy be deprived of their pensions (the Orthodox Church, like the other Churches, was a State Church, and the priests were usually teachers of the Law of God in schools). The local communists naturally spoke under the slogan: "Why feed these idlers in vain?" Vladyka objected and delivered a brilliant speech. As a result the arguments degenerated into personal attacks against the archbishop, and someone cast aspersions on his past. Vladyka replied that his activities, like those of the whole Latvian clergy, were well-known to all: he organized the Latvian Church, and the priests served it. Then he in his turn posed a question: what does this deputy who has raised this question do? At this point he pulled out a newspaper, in which was printed the order to shoot several Latvians during the Civil War under the signature of this same communist deputy. Vladyka ended his speech approximately as follows:

"I have tried, as far as I have been able, to be of use to the Church and the country, while you have been shooting honourable Latvian patriots!"

What an uproar there was then! The communist fraction showered blows on Vladyka, while he, following the Gospel commandment (Luke 6.29), accepted the blows without defending himself. Finally, one of the Russian deputies came to his aid. The session was adjourned. As a result the law on the pensions of the clergy was passed, and Vladyka's prestige only increased.

Neo-Silvester describes an incident which probably hastened Vladyka's end. It took place once again in the Seim, and Vladyka had "delivered a thunderous speech against the leaders of the extreme left parties, unmasking their treachery in favour of the Bolsheviks. Again he waved a sheaf of papers, indicating that they contained deadly documents revealing the base work of the Latvian Marxists and their supporters, even on the right.

"The day will come when these documents here will become public knowledge and the people will know those who are guilty of its woes, will be horrified and will be filled with wrath."

An extraordinary scandal broke out: the Social-Democrats jumped from their seats, shouting: "Out! Out!", while some of them, shaking their fists, hurled themselves menacingly at the orator.

The archbishop stayed calmly in his place, waiting for the passions on the leftist benches to die down. When the president of the Seim had finally introduced order, the orator continued with a smile:

"This whistling, noise and whooping remind me of an incident which took place a very long time ago in one of the villages in the south of Russia. One night a young peasant came for me - I was then a young priest still - and took me to his dying mother. On entering one of these villages, the dogs fell on us with ferocious barks and howls, evidently wanting to throw themselves on me and tear me to pieces.

"'Fear not, father,' said my driver, 'they're welcoming you in their doggy language.'

It was impossible to make out what else the orator said because of the extraordinary noise, which drowned even the tinkling of the president's bell...

Martyrdom

In the life of Archbishop John there were some circumstances which for a while seemed enigmatic. For a long time his slanderers reproached him for the fact that he lived alone, without a cell-attendant.

"He is afraid of witnesses," they said.

But when his well-wishers asked him about this, he replied that it was better for him to live alone. Various people came to him, and, besides, he did not want to subject anyone to danger. The meaning of these words became clear only after his martyric death.

And indeed, people of the most various sorts would come to see the archbishop. Famous foreign prelates would come, and poor people and some suspicious-looking ragged creatures. To the end he maintained some sort of underground ties with Russia, and he received information from there by ways known to him alone. No matter how hard the communists tried to seal Russia hermetically, still people would go there and back, and Archbishop John was some kind of transfer point. But he knew how to keep quiet, and hardly anyone knew the details of this aspect of his activities.

Archbishop John was dangerous to the Bolsheviks not only because of his outspoken attacks on them in the Seim and in his sermons, but also because of these "catacomb" activities. And they considered him so dangerous that they killed him. The generally accepted version of his death, which comes from his brother, Anton Pommer:-

Archbishop John was living in his archiepiscopal dacha on Kish lake, where he used to go to recover from the rheumatism he suffered from living in the damp cathedral cellar. Sobinov, a famous singer and a friend of the archbishop's, was passing through Riga. He called on the archbishop, and when the archbishop let him in - his murderers also pushed their way in. Sobinov died the same day in his hotel in mysterious circumstances.

Firemen were called at two o'clock in the morning, and found the archbishop's residence in frightful disorder: cupboards and drawers had been thrown out, the desk had been rummaged, and furniture had been overturned. The archbishop had evidently been wounded in the hall, had been carried on the leaf of a door to the attic, had been tied down on the carpenter's bench (Vladyka liked to do carpentry in his free time), had been tortured and then set alight with kerosene. An examination of his lungs revealed that he had still been alive at this time, for there was smoke in his lungs. Both stoves in the hall were burning, and in them some papers (probably papers incriminating the Latvian communists in treasonable activity) had been burned. The dacha itself was greatly damaged by fire.


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