Saturday, July 29


Yekaterinburg, July 17, 1918

The middle of July appears to be a rough time for kings and emperors. First, Bastille Day on the 14th and now, two Mondays ago marked the anniversary of the even more brutal murder of Nicholas II and his family in 1918, and whose sainthood was recently declared by the whole of the Russian Orthodox Church. Were they murdered or martyred? Either way they elicit a tragic sympathy in me. Certainly King Louis carried his Catholic faith to the grave with him, even though his brutal death was the result of a mixture of issues both deeply political and religious.

Nicholas's identity as czar, however, is so bound up in the indefinable Russianness of Russian Orthodoxy, it is even harder to know where religion stopped and politics began. The Orthodox recognize this complexity themselves, and are split on the question. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia calls him a martyr, and the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia designates him and his family something slightly different, a "Passion-Bearer." This is a Russian theological concept--a very useful and inspiring one--which describes a person who was killed violently, for whatever reason, who accepted nonetheless his death with God's grace. The martyrs Boris and Gleb (killed for an equally obscure mix of political and religious reasons, as with many of the early English kings and St. Magnus Martyr) are often reckoned as such.

Nicholas and Louis had their human failings, their sins, gullibilities and faults, and certainly the actions they undertook as head of the Russian and French states were not all perfect (and indeed a good many of them were tragically mistaken), but they accepted death, that great equalizer, as it came. And the cures undertaken in each of their states by radicalism turned out to be a thousand times worse than the disease. The same idea of "passion-bearing" is easier for me to accept in the case of that other member of this murdered royal triuvirate, the Anglican Charles I, who appears to accepted his own death at Cromwell's hands with great grace and dignity. In his case, the question of politicizing religion and making politics religious is so hopelessly bound up in the unfortunate English notion of Erastianism and state control as to be utterly unanswerable.

To some degree trying to separate out these motives is a question that is not capable of being answered. Even so, they both died as symbols of a whole sociopolitical order in which faith played a substantial, dyed-in-the-wool role--and thus, they could not be tolerated. And that life of faith, whether in a republic or a kingdom, a commonwealth or an empire, is something we can all respect and desire whatever the details of our particular politics.

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