On April 7, 1925, Annunciation Day, Patriarch Tikhon (Belavin) of Moscow and All Russia passed away in the Monastery of the Don Mother of God. Tikhon had been elected patriarch after an almost 200-year gap in the history of the Russian patriarchate: the institution of patriarch was abolished in 1721 by a “Bolshevik-style” decree of Tsar Peter I. Tikhon, the 11th Patriarch of Moscow, ascended to the throne in the wake of the 1917 February Revolution, at the very time when the Bolsheviks were coming to power.
Anathematizing the Bolsheviks was Patriarch Tikhon’s first act in 1918. “Come to your senses, madmen! You are perpetrating a satanic deed!” he said. In his first Pastoral Message he urged the believers “to have nothing to do with these monsters of the human race.” Addressing the Council of People’s Commissars on October 26, 1918, Tikhon blamed the government for acute food and fuel shortages and other manmade disasters. The patriarch maintained relations with and blessed Hetman Skoropadsky and the mutinous White Army generals. Tikhon ordered the creation of “parish councils to protect the Orthodox Church’s property and rights” and launched a vigorous campaign against the desecration of holy relics, a common practice of the government to mock “the opium of the people.” He warned that collaboration with the new government would result in excommunication for lay people and defrocking of clergymen.
In 1923 Patriarch Tikhon was arrested and placed under pretrial investigation. (Investigation documents, resolutions, and orders of Yaroslavsky, Trotsky, and other Bolsheviks are a shocking example of their fantastic indifference to a noted figure and cynical infringement of elementary human rights).
The patriarch’s detention did not go unnoticed in Europe. Protests and demands for his release came pouring in. The Pope, the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other well-known European figures appealed to the Moscow government. For instance, arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen asked “dear Mr. Trotsky to use his personal influence to save the life of Patriarch Tikhon... I am afraid that if Patriarch Tikhon is executed, this will seriously compromise the activity of the organizations now working for the rehabilitation of Russia” (in other words, Soviet famine relief effort was conditional on the patriarch’s fate).
Meanwhile, Yemelyan Yaroslavsky “worked” with the detainee. He soon told Trotsky that “under duress and with some promises, Tikhon will accept our proposals. His public statements will be of great political importance: his liaison with the GPU (secret police. — Ed.) will compromise him, while his confessions will make him a ‘heretic’ in the eyes of true Orthodox believers.”
On June 16, 1923, Tikhon filed a petition to Soviet Russia’s Supreme Court, which stated, among other things, “Having been raised in a monarchial society and influenced by anti-Soviet individuals until the time of my arrest, I was indeed hostile toward the Soviet government. Moreover, this enmity sometimes went from a passive state to active actions... I sincerely repent of my misdeeds against the state system and beg the Supreme Court to change my pretrial treatment, i.e., release me from custody. I am hereby declaring to the Supreme Court that from now on I am not the enemy of the Soviet government.” The patriarch was freed and sent to the Monastery of the Don Mother of God.
In April 1925 Patriarch Tikhon died from an attack of angina pectoris. Shortly before his demise, the patriarch wrote an “Appeal,” the last document that graphically illustrates his doubts, pain, and anguish. Here are a few quotations from this document: “From the civic angle, we should adopt a sincere attitude to the Soviet government and condemn any collusion with the enemies of the Soviet government as well as overt or covert sedition against it. Archpastors and pastors who persist in their misjudgments and refuse to repent of them to the Soviet government should be tried by the Orthodox Synod. We urge that evildoers be prevented from any anti-governmental activities; they should entertain no hopes for a restoration of the monarchial system and firmly believe that the Soviet government is truly strong and unshakable.
“Our enemies are spreading false rumors that We are not free in our patriarchal office to dispose of Our word and even conscience, that We have been deprived of the possibility to communicate with the flock that We are leading. We hereby say that all allegations about Our non-freedom are lies and wishful thinking because there is no power on earth than could inhibit Our Holy conscience and Our patriarchal word.
“Calling on God to bestow His grace on archpastors, pastors, and Our loyal sons, We pray that you obey the Soviet government with a clear conscience, without fear of sinning against the Holy Faith.
“At the same time, We are firmly convinced that the establishment of sinless and sincere relations will encourage Our government to treat us with full respect and enable us to teach our children the Divine Law, have theological schools to train pastors, and publish books and journals in defense of Orthodoxy.”
Patriarch Tikhon headed the church for 8 terrible years, which were characterized by revolutionary arbitrariness, the overthrow of not only the monarchy but also the old lifestyle of all strata of society, execution of the tsar, the war, the famine of millions of Russians, and — the most tragic thing for the patriarch — the unprecedented persecution of the church. Trying to achieve a balance between his duty and the authorities, between life and death, he constantly exposed himself to danger. In the last years of his life he ceased publicly censuring the government for even the cruelest misdeeds. Yet, the patriarch was always haunted by the question, “Have I given up too much?” He continuously reflected on the “catacombs” but stopped short of calling on the church to go there.
Tikhon began his patriarchal service by anathematizing the new government but ended up urging the Orthodox to cooperate with it. Reading about those years, one can clearly see that a colossus, like Russian Orthodoxy, with its influence on and deep roots in the entire former empire, had a historic chance to change the course of events and create Orthodox resistance to the godless government. However, for this were needed men of faith and heroes, a scarce commodity outside the church. Orthodoxy’s tragic surrender began with the church “not noticing and hushing up” the brutal murder of Tsar Nicholas II.
On September 21, 1991, the Hierarchical Council of the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Patriarch Tikhon, in a bid to promote him for local church sainthood.