Archbishop John, in the world Janis Andreyevich Pommer, was born on January 6, 1876 in Latvia, in Venden (Tsesis) uyezd, Praulenskaya volost, Lazdonsky parish, into a Latvian Orthodox peasant family. He had no Russian blood. The peasants of that region had begun to show an interest in Orthodoxy in the middle of the nineteenth century, thanks to the preaching of the faith in their native language; and Janis' great-grandfather had been one of the first to accept Orthodoxy in the region, for which he was subjected to persecution by the local German landowners. When he died he was buried outside the bounds of the local Lutheran cemetery (there were no Orthodox cemeteries at that time) as the leader of the "rebels". The native peasants raised a mound over the place of his burial and put an eight-pointed star on top of it, but both the mound and the cross were removed by the Lutheran authorities.
During his childhood the future archbishop helped his parents in the fields, and his first "obedience" was to look after the sheep. He was taught to read and write by his father, and was so outstanding in his studies that he skipped primary school and went straight into the state upper school. From his first year of study he so distinguished himself that the teachers fervently recommended that his parents send him either to the gymnasium or to a seminary school. On the advice of a local priest, the latter course was adopted. Having passed the entrance examination, the future bishop joined the seminary school in 1887. In 1891 he went to the Riga theological seminary. Owing to his success in his studies and his exemplary behaviour he was granted a scholarship, so that his parents did not have to pay anything for his education. He unfailingly spent his summer holidays at home, helping his parents in their work.
In 1897 he finished his seminary education brilliantly, but owing to the disturbances taking place in the educational system at that time he was not able to continue his higher education immediately. So for the next three years he worked as a teacher among the Latvian people, and in 1898 and 1899 was given awards for his labours. In 1899 he was a reader in the city of Libav in Lithuania.
In 1899 (according to another source, 1900), having passed the entrance examinations brilliantly, he became a student at the Kiev Theological Academy, where he was popular both for his academic achievements and for his prowess at sport. However, he never tried to use his physical abilities for his own ends, but only in order to support the weak.
Those who knew well were not surprised when, in 1903, he was tonsured as a monk in the Archangel Michael monastery in Kiev on the advice of St. John of Kronstadt. Even before his tonsure his friends had called him "monk" because of his great sobriety and abstinence. He was ordained to the diaconate in the same year.
In 1904 he was ordained to the priesthood and graduated from the Kiev Acadmey with such brilliance that he was given a choice between a career as a scholar and practical work as a teacher. He chose the latter, working as a teacher of Holy Scripture in the Chernigov theological seminary. Here he had such success in motivating and interesting his students in the subject that several of them later devoted their whole lives to the study of Holy Scripture (for example, Uspensky and Bessarabov).
In 1906 he was transferred to the post of inspector of the Vologda theological seminary. Here he continued to teach Holy Scripture, and among his pupils was the noted scriptural expert and Hebraist Prakhov. But he was also given administrative work in the seminary, and his success in rapidly introducing order into the large and ill-disciplined Vologda seminary was such that in the next academic year, in spite of his young age, he was entrusted with the post of rector of the Lithuanian theological seminary and superior of the Vilnius Holy Trinity monastery with the rank of archimandrite.
Already in his previous posts in Chernigov and Vologda, the future bishop had been given responsible assignments in diocesan government. And the same took place in Vilnius. He was made president of the educational council administering the people's schools throughout the extensive north-western region, and he was elected president of almost all the church-educational and charitable institutions of the region. He also administered local societies fighting alcoholism and helping the neediest acquire work.
First Episcopal Service
On March 11, 1912 (according to another source, in 1911) he was consecrated Bishop of Slutsk, a vicariate of the Minks diocese in the Trinity cathedral of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra by Metropolitan Vladimir of Moscow, the future hieromartyr. Later that year he moved to Minsk, and on the way there he participated in the canonization of St. Joasaph of Belgorod. When Archbishop Michael of Minsk died, the clergy and laity unanimously petitioned that Bishop John be made diocesan bishop in his stead. However, the petition was refused on the grounds that the diocese was considered one of the oldest in Russia, while Bishop John was at that time the youngest bishop in Russia.
Instead, Bishop John was sent to Odessa as a vicar of Archbishop Demetrius of Odessa, who had been rector of the Kiev Academy when John was studying there. On the death of Archbishop Demetrius in 1913, Bishop John was sent to establish good order in the newly opened diocese of Priazovsk. His place of residence was Taganrog. According to one source, he was made Bishop of Taganrog on April 4, 1913, and was then, on October 5, 1916, was renamed Bishop of Priazovsk and Taganrog, a vicariate of the Ekaterinoslav diocese. The best evidence of the good relationship between the archpastor and his flock here was the fact that Priazovsk was the only see in Russia whose upkeep - the salaries of the bishop and clergy - the local Christians took upon themselves. Bishop John took part not only in all the spiritual institutions of the diocese, but also in all its educational and charitable institutions. Here, too, his labours were crowned with success. In the four years of his rule there (from April 4/17, 1913 to September 7/20, 1917) he visited every corner of his diocese, paying attention not only to his flock's spiritual needs but also to their social and economic needs, which became especially pressing because of the war. There were cases when the bishop was chosen as mediator in conflicts between employers and workers, and his decisions were always accepted without a murmur by both sides. In gratitude the workers elected him to honorary posts in their organizations and looked on him as the best defender of their interests, resorting to his mediation before both the local and the central authorities.
A wave of refugees from the war came right up to "the quiet Don". Thousands of refugees from Galicia and what is now Czechoslovakia settled on the Don, and these people found in Bishop John one who cared for their needs. Under his immediate supervision schools and shelters for the refugees were established. Hundreds of grateful Galicians and Czechoslovaks gratefully converted to Orthodoxy, including many intelligentsy.
When the revolution broke out in February, 1917, the revolutionaries wasted no time in attempting to dispose of Bishop John. They stirred up complaints against him, and Bishop John demanded a trial. When Metropolitan Plato came to investigate the complaints, he found in favour of Bishop John. However, open and secret revolutionary agents followed the bishop everywhere, led by Commissar Pelikh. But they could find nothing to accuse him of.
Then volunteers from among the workers and soldiers organized watches to guard the bishop day and night. On his way to and from services he was accompanied by vast crowds of people ready to defend their pastor by force. This created a delicate situation for the authorities, from which they devised the following escape: Bishop John's transfer to the Tver diocese. However, this device also failed; for after a farewell service in the cathedral the people surrounded him in such a way as to prevent his departure or removal. All the authorities could do was to beseech the bishop, for the sake of preserving their own authority, to depart for a time to Moscow. They guaranteed him a safe and honourable return to his flock. Then Bishop John persuaded his guard to let him go to Moscow to sort the matter out in the centre.
He departed, but the conflict between the local authorities and the people did not end there. Representatives from the clergy, laity, soldiers and Cossacks went with Bishop John to Moscow so as to protest against the behaviour of the local revolutionary authorities, and in Priazovsk it was decided to make a protest in the form of daily gatherings in the churches to pray for the successful return of the bishop to Taganrog. Meanwhile, the delegation in Moscow obtained a favourable response from both the spiritual and the secular authorities.
However, this favourable response coincided with the October revolution, and Bishop John's return to Taganrog became impractical. On September 7/20, 1917 he was made Bishop of Staritsa, a vicariate of the Tver diocese. Then, on April 22, 1918 he was appointed Bishop of Perm and Saransk with authority also in the Vitebsk diocese, that is, in an area conquered by the Reds. His former flock was in an area occupied by the Whites, who expelled the Priazovsk revolutionary committee.
Persecution in Penza
Bishop John officially entered upon his duties in Penza on April 9/22, 1918, and the believing masses received him with exceptional love, surrounding him with signs of the most touching attention. While the local authorities, stirred up by the rebel apostate "Archbishop" Vladimir (Putyata-Grinstein), were extremely hostile to the newly arrived archpastor, the people showed their love for him by organizing guards to defend him from his enemies. Immediately after his arrival, the local cheka searched and interrogated him. But no reasons for repressing him were found.
Irritated by his popularity with the people, the authorities decided to mark Pascha, 1918 by killing him. One evening the former officer Rudakov and the worker Dubovkin appeared at his residence in the Transfiguration monastery armed to the teeth, and began to demand that they be allowed to see him. The guard composed of believers sounded the alarm, and at the sound of the alarm the chekist Dubovnik took to his heels. But Rudakov broke down the door of the archbishop's cell and fired several times. Fortunately, he missed, and was disarmed by the archbishop himself. Then the people ran up, making it clear that they wanted to lynch the chekist. He was saved only by the vigorous intervention of the archbishop. At this point - wonder to behold! - Rudakov fell on the neck of the archbishop, crying "Christ is risen!" He then claimed that his attempt on the life of the archbishop had been instigated by the authorities. The authorities denied this, but Rudakov had proof of the truth of his words in the form of a mandate signed by them. Rudakov was arrested and put on trial, but the trial did not take place because Rudakov, overcome by his experiences, fell ill and died in prison.
This incident served to unite the flock of Penza diocese still more tightly round their archpastor, and the authorities, taking note, abstained from open demonstrations against the archbishop for the time being, which gave him the opportunity to organize the believers in parishes and other church organizations. The liberal intelligentsia, which had previously been indifferent to the Church, began to return to the Church. Among them was the lawyer V.A. Bezsonov, who became the archbishop's subdeacon and as his legal adviser was of great service to him. The workers, led by Z.Z. Pozdnyakov and A.S. Baikov, who had been among the best known fighters against alcoholism in Petrograd, attached themselves to the archbishop. As for the clergy, they gave an excellent example everywhere, and church life began to revive and get stronger throughout the diocese. Church feasts and meetings began to be carried out with exceptional exaltation of spirit.
In May, 1918, a regiment of Czechoslovaks who were on their way from the Don to Siberia passed through Penza. During a battle with the Bolsheviks, the latter's artillery suddenly for no reason began to fire on the Transfiguration monastery where the archbishop was living. Several shells fell on buildings adjoining the bishop's cell. The Bolsheviks tried to explain this incident by reference to a misunderstanding, but the people interpreted it as an attempt on the life of the archbishop, and registered a strong protest with the authorities.
On September 7, 1918, the Cheka carried out an extensive search in the cell and offices of the archbishop. They found nothing incriminating, but after the search they took him for a confrontation with one of the prisoners who had been condemned to death. This meant that the archbishop could not arrive on time for the All-Night Vigil for the feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God; and when the people arriving for the service learned that the archbishop had been taken away "to the house of no return", and, moreover, on the day when executions were carried out, they decided that he had been shot together with the others condemned to death. An expedition was quickly organized, which confirmed the theory about his execution. Thus when Archbishop John arrived very late for the service, he found, not an All-Night Vigil in progress, but a pannikhida for "the newly departed Archbishop John".
On September 14, 1918, the archbishop was serving in the Peter and Paul church in Penza in the presence of a huge crowd of people. During the service "Archbishop" Vladimir Putyata arrived and tried to enter the church together with his supporters. The people forcibly prevented him doing this, and there were disturbances around the church. As a result of this, the archbishop was put in prison for a whole month. His innocence was obvious to everyone, even to the Cheka, but evidently it had been decided to conduct an experiment to see how the people would react to the removal of the archbishop. They reacted by besieging the Cheka headquarters with delegations of believers demanding the archbishop's release. The local German consul noted that among those under arrest was a native of the Baltic region, which was then under German occupation, and demanded an explanation from the Cheka. All these circumstances compelled the cheka to stop their case against Archbishop John and free him.
On October 14 at midnight the chekists began to summon the prisoners one by one into the hall where the tribunal was sitting in order to listen to and sign the tribunal's sentence. It was a Saturday, the day on which executions were usually carried out, and those who were called out on the list went away and did not return. This meant that after the explanation of the sentence they had been handed over to the executioners for the carrying out of the sentence. On the long list of the doomed, Archbishop John's name was the last. Evidently they were forcing him to go through everything that the prisoners about to be executed went through. At about one o'clock in the morning Archbishop John was told that he was free.
On leaving the Cheka headquarters, Archbishop John learned that all the diocesan organs of administration had been dissolved by the authorities. This meant that he had to take the whole administration of the huge diocese upon himself. Only on February 19, 1919 did he succeed in securing the restoration of the diocesan council and the other organs of diocesan administration.
On July 28, 1919, Archbishop John was summoned to the military commissariat and subjected to a medical examination, after which he was pronounced fit for military service. He was appointed to a regiment in the rear. However, a collective appeal by the parishes of the diocese delayed his enlistment for two months. At the end of this period the parishes had to repeat their appeal, a procedure which had to be repeated regularly.
It was characteristic that while the archbishop was registered on all military documents as "John, Archbishop of Penza and Saransk", when he was given a mandate to visit the parishes of his diocese, he was called "citizen John Andreyevich Pommer".
Towards the end of 1919, the Whites began to approach the borders of the Penza district from the south. At this point the authorities began to get very nervous, which was reflected in the first place in blows directed against the Church. Prominent church workers were arrested and kept in the Cheka prison. At the invitation of the parishes, the archbishop set out on a long journey round the diocese. Everywhere a heightened religious mood was observed. The people flowed in huge masses to the archbishop's services with striking fervour. Meanwhile, the authorities were quiet.
But when the archbishop returned to Penza on November 11, he found the way into his cell barred by the chekists, who subjected him to a body search and then searched his cell which had been searched so many times already. Although the search, as before, produced no results, the archbishop was arrested and taken to the Cheka headquarters. There it turned out that a certain mythical counter-revolutionary organization had been uncovered, tens of members of which had already been shot (including Vladyka's subdeacon and legal adviser, V.A. Bezsonov). Evidently, the same fate now awaited the archbishop.
The archbishop categorically protested against both the accusation and the sentence, and demanded that his case be reviewed in Moscow - which it was, by the famous Latsis, the president of the secret operations department of the Cheka. Latsis immediately broadened the scope of the accusation to include everything that might be hurled at the archbishop in the course of his whole life. The gathering of this material took three months, the whole of which period the archbishop spent in the Cheka prison. On February 11, 1920, Archbishop John gave explanations concerning the whole of this material to the terrible Latsis himself. The accusation that he belonged to a counter-revolutionary organization was not supported, for the Cheka could provide no proofs. The material gathered from the places where the archbishop had previously served were so trivial that even the conscience of the chekist was forced to renounce their use as evidence against him. Even the press, which was not noted for its squeamishness in the use of material that could be used against the clergy recognized its inferiority and did not begin to use it. (Later, these accusations were seized on and published by the Social-Democrats in Latvia.)
On March 11, 1920, the cheka pronounced the archbishop innocent on all counts and gave him a certificate allowing him to carry out his archpastoral service without hindrance.
Thus the future martyr's service in Penza immediately after the October revolution turned out to be one of the most trying periods of his life. Some years later, on the tenth anniversary of his episcopate in Riga, his former parishioners in Penza recorded the following reminiscences of his life and and work in Penza: "Your stay in Penza coincided with the moment when the furious attacks of the forces inimical to the Church were turned into open warfare against her servants and representatives which threatened violence in all its forms and from all sides. In opposition to this you displayed the greatest strength of spirit and power of will. These powerful foundations of your strong character enabled you to survive and overcome all those extraordinarily burdensome conditions of life which fell to your lot in recent years. Following every step of your thorny path in life, we can only marvel at your spiritual firmness and the unusual restraint with which you encountered the trials and sufferings sent you by destiny. We clearly and vividly remember all the physical and moral torments which you endured in Penza in the years of savagery and, at the same time, the spiritual solidarity and unity of the people of Penza which served as a support for you in your terrible struggle legality and righteousness and which placed you at an unattainable spiritual height before the face of the whole population. Those who attended services in the Penza Pokrov church between 1918 and 1920 know what spiritual authority and loved from all was enjoyed by our adored Archbishop John. They also will not forget you, your Eminence, who took part in the cross procession at the Penza cemetery of the holy myrrh-bearing women, which symbolized that way of the cross which the physically exhausted, spiritually suffering and morally tormented people had to tread. At that holy and heavy hour all eyes and hopes were trained directed on the man who in the name of the Lord called the people to obedient patience and expectation of the resurrection of a Russia cleansed from the sins of the past, for which she had to pay so dearly and cruelly.
"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...
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.
The crime was never properly investigated or explained. But the people knew the truth. At the funeral the whole city was in mourning; 100,000 people - about a quarter of the population of Riga - were in the streets, and over one hundred Orthodox priests together with several representatives of other faiths were present.
A Russian student, M.I. Dobrotvorsky, saw the archbishop, vested and surrounded by unknown worshippers with shining faces, praying beside his body. The body of the archbishop was accompanied by a vast crowd from the cathedral to the Holy Protection Cemetery, where a small chapel was later raised over the grave. Archbishop John died for Christ and the Orthodox Faith on October 12, 1934.
(Sources: Lyudmilla Koeller, Sv. Ioann (Pommer), Arkhiepiskop Rizhskij i Latvijskij, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, 1984; Koeller, "Archbishop John of Latvia", The Orthodox Word, vol. 10, no. 1 (54), pp. 10-18; "Kopiya pis'ma Arkhiepiskopa Rizhskago Ioanna na imya Arkhiepiskopa Litovskago i Vilyenskago Elevferiya, 2 noyabrya 1927 g.", Pravoslavnaya Zhizn', nos. 3-4, May-June-July-August, 1992, pp. 52-53; M.E. Gubonin, Akty Svyateishego Patriarkha Tikhona, St. Tikhon's Theological Institute, 1994, p. 975; Za Khrista Postradavshiye, Moscow: St. Tikhon's Theological Institute, 1997, p. 507)
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