Russia's Golgotha

Saturday, 19 May, 2007
Another 7:30 a.m. departure had us on busses heading out of the City of Moscow to a place on the outskirts called Butovo.

God had all His creation shine at maximum ebullience that day. The sun was brilliant, the sky clear and bright blue, the air fresh and dry. Birds were in full voice, flowering bushes and trees at peak bloom.

At left is a photo I snapped as we singers made our way from the bus toward the newly built church which was about to be consecrated by Patriarch Alexei II, with ROCOR clergy.

Honestly, I have struggled with this post, because Butovo is the keystone to the bridge that has been built between the portions of the Church inside and outside of Russia. I don't feel worthy to write about the place, and fear I cannot do it justice. Yet, write about it I must!

By googling the word "Butovo," you will find masses of pages, but very little explains what is so significant about this place. At least a quarter of the stories are about some local land dispute, and a goodly number have to do with a place of the same name in Bulgaria. There are many links to a single, oft-republished article about the new church, but most of the rare and relevant references to Butovo as a place of mass-killing and martyrdom are on sites published by various Church organs.

So, few are aware that upwards of 21,000 people were killed here, many for their faith, in the space of about a year (1937-38) alone! Were it not for the efforts of Patriarch Alexei himself, I believe that this brutal fact would be even less known.
The Patriarch has made it something of a crusade, to uncover as much as possible about the Orthodox faithful who perished under Stalin's terror on the "Butovsky poligon" (literally -- shooting range of Butovo). Under his
watch, many of those killed here have been canonized as new martyrs, with an insistence that as much information about each victim be gathered (from archives, from family members, etc.) as possible. "Never forget" is a mantra of the victims of another holocaust, and it seems that the Patriarch is taking up a similar devotion to ensure that the world recognize, at last, the atrocities that were committed by the Soviet regime.

It makes sense to me that the ecclesiastical leaders of we "Russians abroad" recognized a shared commitment to prayer and service, a mutual horror of and sorrow over the crimes of the 20th century. I believe that the Patriarch's commitment to glorifying the new martyrs -- even those of whom we didn't know! -- is the burning flame that finally melted the ice that had sustained the cold war between "us" and "them." Those who witnessed it first-hand were able to finally overcome the fears, the prejudices, and the doubts with which we all were bred.

So a beautiful new temple was built on this now-peaceful spot -- a place where, I heard, there was so much blood flowing from the mass graves into which victims (including children!) were thrown, that the well water turned red. Now we were there to take part in its consecration -- together as the faithful of one Church. What a totally fitting exclamation point to the headline of the week.
We were singing in tandem with the wonderful male choir from Sretensky Monastery -- in my opinion the best choir with which we had the honor of singing (and they were all excellent). They did all the singing during the great consecration, from up in the choir loft. Our choir was positioned on the right side of the church, on the main floor, in front of the right altar (there are three altars in the main church). The photo above is of the Patriarch exiting the right altar, having just censed it ... I wasn't the only one taking a picture of his Holiness!

If you have never witnessed the consecration of an Orthodox church -- it is a sight to see and a joyful noise to hear! The bishops don white aprons and take up rocks which they use as hammers to literally build the altar tables.

As the choir above sang hymn after hymn, the temple resounded with the bang Bang BANG BANGing of those rocks! There is plenty of censing, and the walls of the church are rather dramatically anointed with myrrh, using a pole that must be 10 feet long.

In all, it took a good long while before Divine Liturgy proper got underway.

Here I have to confess that, again, my weakness nearly got the better of me. In a patriarchal liturgy, there is a special commemoration made of each Orthodox leader, and it is done in a manner that is absolutely cacophonic! The Archdeacon intones each leader's name and title, and what he says is quickly sung by the clergy and then by the choir in rapid-fire style. Our choir was not singing this "great laudation," but, as I stood there, in the midst of all this swirling sound, I began to notice all the little floaters that inhabit my eyeballs. They seemed to be swimming to the beat, in circles, and my head began to spin. The air was pretty thick with incense and somebody's bad breath; I thought I would fall down! I stepped out of a side door and sat down on the steps, with the help of some acquaintances from amongst the ROCOR pilgrims. Someone brought me something to drink, and I felt better soon enough.

Going outside gave me a chance to witness the people milling around. Here, for the first time, I saw something I really did not like: nationalists standing around, wearing black cossack outfits, bearing enormous flags. These men looked menacing and merciless. I regretted their presence, and wondered about it. I do not like when political groups exploit faith!

We sang the Cherubic Hymn again: this time, a setting by my grandfather in which the treble voices begin without the men, splitting four ways. I so wanted us to do this beautiful piece justice! I'm told by one of my Mom's friends -- Anna Mitrofanovna Znosko Shohova, who sang with my grandfather back in the day -- that we did. We probably didn't sing it badly, but I wished that we could have practiced a little bit, and that we'd worked on blending the exposed treble voices a little more. Of course, it was impossible for Peter to predict the acoustic factors we faced there: all standing on one level, surrounded by faithful milling about, so it probably would have been impossible to rehearse for this situation anyway. Given the circumstances, we did well indeed.
In his sermon, the Patriarch called Butovo "Russia's Golgotha" -- Golgotha being the place of Jesus Christ's crucifixion. He also emphasized that the main altar of the church was dedicated to Christ's Resurrection, "because those people who suffered here believed in that." What a beautiful reminder that, in spite of all the concentrated efforts of the Bolsheviks to stamp out faith, they failed.
"O death, where is thy sting? O death, where is thy victory?"

After Liturgy, there was another Patriarchal banquet. This time, the choir and the clergy were invited; it seemed to me a fairly intimate affair, under a large tent, all of us seated in one big rectangle. We were served lots of fish, which was decorated with ... pink and baby blue cake icing?!

That's Father Roman (Krassovsky) checking it out with Irina Mozyleva. Maybe it was left over from a baby shower?
Everyone was in a pretty upbeat mood, feeling that something good had been done, that Good had triumphed over Evil that day. There were many toasts to the Patriarch, and for each one, we were obliged to stand up and sing "Many Years". This made it easy to drink, but not too easy to complete a meal. The Patriarch, in his turn, spoke. The second time he did so, he got quite emotional and actually choked up; we all witnessed how much this day meant to him personally.
Each of us received a bag of gifts at that banquet, including icons and a book about Butovo. This book has been on my nightstand, but I can stand to look at it only a little bit at a time. It is not easy to read of a 13-year old boy being shot for some sort of trumped up crime, nor to see the photograph of his face -- still more a little boy than a man.
During the Liturgy, Peter had asked the singers if they would be willing to sing an extra service. We had been invited by a conductor at Danilov Monastery to sing at Vigil, if we felt up to it. Peter agreed that we would, if enough volunteers from each voice part could be rallied. After some polling of the singers, it was decided: of course we could do it! So, directly from Butovo, it was off to Danilov Monastery for more church...


Meg said...

I bet Father Roman had something to say about that fish -- I can see his mind cooking in the picture.

"...the main altar of the church was dedicated to Christ's Resurrection, "because those people who suffered here believed in that." What a beautiful reminder that, in spite of all the concentrated efforts of the Bolsheviks to stamp out faith, they failed."

YES! YES!! Last week, after reading Father John Whiteford's comments on Butovo, I headed directly to the nearest ROCOR parish, which is 50 miles away from my home. I had planned to do that anyway, it being the Feast of All the Saints of Russia, but it took on such extra meaning when I considered that this also included the Martyrs of Butovo. I am so grateful to you, and to Father, for having blogged about this, difficult though I can see it was for you -- otherwise, people like me, who couldn't go, wouldn't know about it at all.

Boulia said...
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