Patriarch Kirill of Moscow

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow

Something very strange is happening in Russia – stranger than Putin’s fawning female devotees or half nude, Siberian hunting excursions.

Byzantium II is resurrecting – or attempting to – deep in historic Rus.

Drifting ever further into secularism, the West is too busy nailing the doors of the church shut with endless lawsuits and harassments to even notice. Meanwhile back at the Kremlin, Russia looks back longingly to a pre-revolutionary pattern of government … and church.

Evidence abounds in old-world style military expansionism, Russian media, church announcements and even the arts. Not contemporary art, which is still allied closely with European liberalism, but church art, especially icons, which are becoming decidedly martial. What are we to make of it?

Flocks of the faithful venerate even copies of a “miraculous” icon of Tsar Nicholas II. The original in the U.S. is reputed to exude the scent of myrrh. In 1998 the icon was sent by air to circle Russia to call back “the resurgence of Russia” to faith.

"Miraculous" myrrh-emitting icon of Nicholas II

“Miraculous” myrrh-emitting icon of Nicholas II

Nicholas II and his family are now all considered religious martyrs, murdered only for their faith. This has been a quiet belief ever since their deaths in 1918. Historically there is just enough truth in this to make it plausible. The reds who murdered them were devoutly, God-hating atheists, while the Tsar was utterly pious and partisan. Also the Russian Supreme Court legally exonerated the Romanovs in 2008.

Exclusively and devotedly Russian Orthodox, the tsar wasn’t particularly tolerant with Protestants, Roman Catholics or others. Keeping up tradition, he also continued the anti-Semitism of his fathers, pushing a vast number of Jews from Russia.

In spite of Nicholas’ failures, his mythology and grandeur continue to grow long after death. Shrouded in secrecy, the veneration of the tsars never entirely died – even after seven decades of Marxism – and is mushrooming in popularity now.

Nicholas has taken on a beatific glow of sanctity and holiness unmatched by real life, although he wasn’t particularly awful compared to other czars. Some honorifics surrounding him reveal Orthodox spiritual identity with the last tsar, who is seen as a Christ-like sacrifice for Russia.

The tsar was “anointed with Holy Chrism” and “in the eyes of believers and atheists alike, more than a man.” He is “Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer,” the Russian Orthodox Church declares.

Since the regent’s death, he and his family were canonized along with a throng of assorted Russian saints and soldiers.

By killing him the “Bolsheviks were consciously striking at the heart of Russia or, more accurately, at its head,” claims writers of “The Mystical Meaning of the Tsar’s Martyrdom.” Another makes the astonishing claim, “The Tsar has taken the guilt of the Russian people upon himself, and the Russian people is forgiven.”

Tsarist believers advance Nicholas as the “Defender of the Church.” His devotees also attribute the curse of Soviet oppression at the feet of the unjust slaughter of the Romanov family alone. Unlike most Westerners, Orthodox see any attacks on the monarchy as attacks on the church.

Some still believe that Nicholas II was the last representative of lawful, Christian authority in this world, that he personally restrained “the mystery of iniquity” (2 Thess. 2:27).

Visions of Nicholas come such as this from a sailor (Silaev, with the cruiser “Almaz”): “The Tsar-Martyr in royal purple and a crown, holding a cup filled to the brim with blood. Beside him on the right was a handsome youth – the Tsarevich – in a dress uniform, also with a cup of blood in his hands. Behind them, on their knees, was the whole martyred Royal Family in white garments, and each of them held a cup of blood in their hands.”

There are several paintings and icons with this theme.

Biblical prophecies, as well as historic events and Bible verses, are reinterpreted in this manner. “Touch Not Mine Anointed One ” warns the Alaska Brotherhood with dire descriptions of the wrath to come. And it did come – too late, of course.

"The Opening of the Fifth Seal," (with Nicholas II in intercession)

“The Opening of the Fifth Seal,” (with Nicholas II in intercession)

Some icons even place Nicholas at the Judgment Seat of God or the right hand of Jesus. A modern icon from the Sretensky Monastery in Moscow, “The Opening of the Fifth Seal,” features Nicholas interceding for Christian martyrs in hard times ahead.

Taking a look at the tsars’ titles reveals the scope of Russian power or desire, which seems to be rekindled lately. The full name of Nicholas II from the 1906 Constitution is mighty impressive and ambitious. Remember that the Russian Empire was one of the largest in history, surpassed only by the British and Mongol empires. Perhaps the Finns and others should take note.

Here are a few excerpts from Nicholas’ full name:

  • “Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias'”
  • “Titular King of Poland”
  • “The Grand Principality of Finland (as an inseparable part of the Russian state of course)
  • “Prince of Estonia, Livonia, Courland and Semigalia” (likewise for Georgia being played out now)
  • “Heir of Norway, Duke of Schleswig-Holstein” etc, etc.

Big hunks o’ earth were claimed subject to Nicholas II and considered part of a divine plan to reinstate the Byzantine Empire in Russia. This is quietly encouraged again in some Russian circles, although not highly publicized for obvious reasons.

Statements flying around in recent years confirm this, such as from a website edited by Bishop Alexander of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad: “[Nicholas] was an earthly symbol of the Heavenly King, the protector and upholder of the Orthodox Church in Russia, and the heir of Byzantium. … And, like his father, he too was the head of Russia’s Eastern Orthodox Church. Under Nicholas II, Moscow was still seen as the new City of Constantine, the ‘Third Rome’ (since the 15th century).”

We hear more about the Byzantine Empire, which may be forgotten by the West but not the East. This is very old stuff. Catherine the Great groomed her grandson (Constantine – what else would he be named?) to become the first emperor of a restored Byzantium. That didn’t happen.

Catherine was also concerned over the fate of Orthodox Christians under Ottoman rule, which was generally not good. Today many of these same lands are in Islamic turmoil. Russians aiding Christians in Syria makes them the “good guys,” and the U.S. is reflected on poorly, as we have not helped.

Western conservative Christians cheer when Putin stands up for Christian rights in Syria and other ex-Ottoman territories – and so do I. But if his motives are altruistic, we’ll have to wait and see. Putin’s interest in religious rights is confined to the Russian empire and those of Orthodox faith. It is not planetary.

But this may become a resurrected war of worldviews from antiquity: Byzantium, led (so far) by Russia, against the Ottomans, which have generally fallen to terrorists. If this is our future, it will be difficult to not cheer for the bear-wrestling one.

Patriarch Kirill and Vladimir Putin are almost attached at the hip, espousing a very strong state/church relationship. The Theotokos (icons of “Our Lady of Kazan”) go on before them.

"Our Lady of Kazan" icon

“Our Lady of Kazan” icon

Russia’s national icon is making a comeback in popularity after decades in hiding. The Kazan Lady was “found in a garden” in 1597 and after many centuries embodies Russian nationalism and militarism. This Madonna is a Russian girl to the core. Is this a religious revival, a new imperialist crusade or both? Either way the icons have great significance, as they did long ago. They are not merely ornaments.

Christians have always prayed for peace, protection of their nations and troops, sending priests and chaplains out for this office. We understand this. But Russia’s icons have also been portents of war to come as well as promises of peace.

Russia’s palladium, the “Kazan Mother of God” icon, is their most famed religious icon, but it has a secondary mission: She has been borne into battle for centuries by Russian generals and Emperors. The “Kazan” icon is considered imbued with miraculous power to help in military matters – but only for Russia. Her aid is attributed to fending off (generally successfully) Napoleon and the Turks, Persians, Swedes, Poles and Germans.

So precious is the Mother of Kazan (or Black Virgin) to Russians and belief runs so deep that even Stalin appeared to have used the icon for military purposes. Or perhaps that was just propaganda – who knows? From deep banishment, Mother Kazan’s icon was sent to Stalingrad in 1943 by Stalin for divine help against the Germans – apparently a true story.

Russia’s Lady of Kazan is beginning to see duty again.

In February Putin quietly sent the Kazan icon on a trip to the Crimea. At the time it was assumed it was for a blessing over the Winter Olympics – but far from it. The events in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea soon followed. All this is according to ancient custom of bringing in the icons to bless a military venture.

The important icon “She Who Reigns” was also sent on a highly politicized journey across the world by the Orthodox Church and endorsed by Vladimir Putin. The 2007 venture was highly publicized as a call to “celebrate reconciliation among Russians at home and abroad (since the 1917 revolution).”

Russia’s joint church/state venture receives little fanfare from the Western press, who have no concept of the depth of religious feeling of the mass of humanity. Still, in the U.S., the solid unity, almost theocracy, Putin and Kirill seek for Russia makes both left and right cringe. It is very politically aligned and conveniently supportive of Putin. One wonders, will they need a new Emperor to do this?

Not all Russian Christians are dancing with joy either. After Putin declared a Day of National Unity between the Orthodox Church and the state, many felt alienated. Complaints ranged from the Russian Union of Evangelical Baptists to the leaders of the Communist Party, who called it a “provocation” that would only lead to division. Tatar nationalists detest the Kazan icon, labeling it as symbolic of “the colonial yoke.”

Russian Orthodox consider icons “an entire world that unite our peoples … a consolidating principle.” There are not many important, original icons, and they really aren’t very interesting to look at – especially after you’ve seen them 1,000 times. The art is formulaic and plain, faces unlikely or cadaverous. But their antiquity, purported powers, history and often secret meaning to millions of Orthodox make these little, gilded plaques perhaps the most powerful pieces of art on earth.

Sources: R. Monk Zachariah (Liebmann) / The East-West Church & Ministry Report / / / / “The Miracles of the Royal Martyr” / “Eastern America and New York First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad” /

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