Mysteries and Miracles

Catherine the Great, after she had Russia’s twenty-nine provinces in peace and on the way to prosperity, settled down in Tsarskoye Selo to enjoy the last years of her reign. Like King Solomon, she denied herself no pleasures. A plump grandmotherly woman with twinkling eyes she owned some of the world’s largest collections of art and sculpture. Around her palaces she laid out parks and pools. Several hundred servants scurried about at her command and her court became a virtual “harem” of handsome boys she picked up on her trips through the empire. Only one boy she could not stand: her homely son Paul.

Paul was short, with a pug nose and little round eyes far apart. He looked simple. But his son Aleksandr was a different story. Tall, fair-haired, open-faced, and intelligent, even if somewhat shy, he was Catherine the Great’s golden boy. She raised him in her palace and made plans for him to become tsar in her place.

Paul would not hear of it. As soon as Catherine died he assumed control and shocked everyone by leading Russia into conflict with western Europe, making plans to send an army to India, and sending all who opposed him into Siberia. Russians saw him as a bloodthirsty maniac, an Ivan the Terrible in the making, and with his son Aleksandr’s consent a group of conspirators broke into his apartment in the Mikhailovsky palace on the night of March 23, 1801. They shot Paul and crowned Aleksandr tsar the following day.

Tsar With a Guilty Conscience

Aleksandr, only twenty-three years old, was very unhappy. With his capable grandmother and his father both dead, he did not feel ready to rule Russia. Neither had the conspirators told him they would kill his father. He felt terrible about it. But now what? Should he arrest the murderers? He knew if he did they would turn on him and say, “You were part of it!”

At first Aleksandr tried to overcome his guilt by making Russia happy. He stopped the persecution of Spirit Christians and Old Believers at once. He made good laws, promoted public schools, built teachers’ colleges, and put his childhood playmate Aleksandr (Sasha) Golitsyn in charge of religious affairs.

Sasha protested. “What do I know about religion!” he cried when he heard the news. (He had been a page in Catherine the Great’s court and had lived a loose life.) But Aleksandr could not have made a better choice and Russia still lives with its effects.

Sasha, for all his worldly ways, believed in doing things thoroughly. He felt the least he could do to fit himself for his new post as Oberprokuror was to read the Bible. The more he read, the more it spoke to an unmet need in his soul. Then he began to pray. But a strange shadow had fallen over St. Petersburg.

A White Dove

Several years before his untimely death, Tsar Paul had heard of an exiled starets in Siberia who claimed to be Catherine the Great’s murdered husband, Peter. It made him curious. He would have loved to meet his “father” and called the old man to his palace.

That the starets (who believed in the transmigration of spirits) was not Peter, soon became apparent. His real name was Kondratiy Selivanov and he came from central Russia. But Paul believed him a harmless “holy man” and in spite of his sentence allowed him to live in the city.

Now Sasha discovered him.

Kondratiy Selivanov deeply impressed Sasha. Kind and soft-spoken, he shared his wisdom with humility. He healed people emotionally as well as physically and Sasha remembered his friend, young Tsar Aleksandr’s torment with guilt. “Why don’t you go see the starets?” he asked the tsar after several visits of his own. “Perhaps he can help you.”

Aleksandr took his advice. Like Sasha, he was moved by the starets’s warm humility and Kondratiy became secretly famous.

A wealthy St. Petersburg family, the Nenastyevs, took him into their home where night after night, fur-clad, carriage-driven guests came silently to sit around him--as many as three hundred at a time. Sasha kept coming. So did Tsar Aleksandr. The cheerful starets had words of advice and comfort for all. But who, exactly, was he?

Sasha felt responsible to find out.

The records showed that Kondratiy Selivanov had grown up among the “People of God,” the Khlysty, in central Russia. Then he had changed his beliefs, fallen into the hands of the authorities and come to Siberia.

The People of God Sasha discovered had roots in the Russian province of Murom where a peasant, Danilo Filipov, had been their leader two hundred years earlier. Like Sasha himself, Danilo had been a sincere seeker. He fasted and prayed until one day, standing on a bank above the Volga he sensed a change in his inner being. His heart grew warm. A tingling sensation flowed through his limbs and in a rush of emotion he cried out, “The Holy Spirit has come upon me! My sins are forgiven!”

Danilo began at once to share his experience with others. He taught people that reading the Bible helps only the unconverted. For the truly born again, in whom Christ the Word lives, it is no longer necessary. When asked which religious texts were better, those of the Old Believers or Nikon’s, Danilo said, “Neither of the two are good. There is only one good and necessary book: The Golden Book, The Living Book, The Dove’s Book--That is, the Holy Spirit Himself.” To demonstrate this he put a copy of both the Old Believers’ and Nikon’s texts along with a Slavonic Bible into a bag with heavy stones and threw it into the Volga.

Shortly after Danilo’s “conversion” another peasant from Murom, Ivan Suslov, joined him and the “Spirit of Christ” fell on him. Then a women got converted and received the “Spirit of Mary” and others received the Spirit of Peter, of John, of Timothy . . . any of the apostles and saints of the early church.

The People of God drew crowds in Murom and throughout central Russia. In their meetings (held at night for fear of the authorities) they sang and listened to powerful speakers until they fell into trances, shouted, leaped, whirled about, or spoke in unknown tongues. Whoever had the Spirit of Christ they believed was Christ, and most “ships”1 had at least one woman whom they identified as having the Spirit of Mary.2

The Spirit is light and the body a veil that hides it, the People of God believed. The less one has to do with the body, the brighter the Spirit shines. “Walking in the light” is to walk free from the works of the flesh.

With this teaching, Kondratiy Selivanov had grown up in Orel, southwest of Moscow. But he had a problem. A serious-minded youth, it distressed him that he could not overcome the desires of his flesh. The more he tried to subdue them, the stronger they seemed to become. Then he learned what a friend of his, Andrey Blokhin (who had a similar problem), had done. He had castrated himself. Was this the answer? Andrey convinced Kondratiy that it was, and when Kondratiy could not muster the courage to do it himself, Andrey did it for him.

Martin Rodyonov, another young friend learned of it and followed their example. So did Aleksandr Shilov, a boy from Tula who became a powerful promoter of this “real way to holiness.” To him, and to the other young men, the Gospel suddenly became clear. Castration was Christ’s “baptism of fire,” the only way to “flee youthful lusts.” It was what John did to Christ in the Jordan when the white dove came down and what Christ did to all his disciples except Judas who “kept the bag” and betrayed him.

Calling themselves Belye Golubi (white dove people) Kondratiy , Aleksandr and their friends found their way through Russia, converting thousands of men and women3 to their ways.

Now Kondratiy was in St. Petersburg.

Another Antichrist

To what extent Sasha Golitsyn became a follower of the Belye Golubi we may never know.4 But his life remained permanently changed. He gave away his private wealth. Even though he had much to do he visited the sick, incognito, in the evenings. Still single, he never again showed the slightest interest in marriage and became a thoughtful, serious, and active promoter of Christ--even more so after he met Yekaterina Tatarinova.

Sasha met Yekaterina, the wife of a Russian officer, in Kondratiy Selivanov’s meetings. She was from Courland (Latvia).5 Her husband had left her. Her only child had died. Her Lutheran faith had failed to meet her needs and she, like Sasha and the tsar, had become an anxious seeker for the truth. What Kondratiy Selivanov said spoke to her, but when she learned of bodily mutilations she drew back in horror. “This is of the devil!” she declared. “God did not give us bodies to destroy. The life that we now live in the flesh we may live by faith in the Son of God, and if the Spirit of Christ who raised Jesus from the dead lives in us, our bodies may also live without condemnation.”

It made sense. Sasha and the tsar stopped seeing Kondratiy and began to meet with others in Yekaterina’s house. They turned from the “Spirit teachings” of the Belye Golubi to studying the New Testament. But the time for quiet evenings at home was past.

Napoleon had crowned himself emperor of France.

The Russians feared Napoleon. He came east. He boldly planned to take over Europe--all the world perhaps--and frightful reports of his victories reached St. Petersburg.

Was Napoleon the real Antichrist? Many Russians suspected it, and by the fall of 1805 Aleksandr found himself swept with ninety thousand soldiers toward the Austrian front. They (Russians and Austrians) met Napoleon’s army on December 2, at Austerlitz in Moravia.6 Hoofbeats, smoke, the roar of cannon, terrible screams of dying horses and men--if only that day had been a dream. But it was not, and Aleksandr found no words to express the horror he came to feel for war. By the end of the day twenty-four thousand soldiers lay sprawled out dead on rye and potato fields and eleven thousand had fallen into French hands.

Fire of City and Soul

On June 24, 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with six hundred thousand men. At Borodino, a hundred kilometres (125 km) west of Moscow, they met the Russians. From six in the morning until late at night they fought under cannon fire until the Russians suddenly retreated, lit Moscow, and melted into forests north and east to Siberia.

This time they really baffled the “Antichrist.” On entering the burned out, empty city, Napoleon could do nothing but set up camp and begin looking for Russians to conquer. Winter came on. French soldiers got hungry. They shivered with coats too light for the Russian cold, wrapped their feet in rags and sat around campfires to keep from freezing. Even then, many turned sick and died while far to the north, in St. Petersburg, another fire had begun to burn.

The flames of Moscow lit my soul,” Aleksandr described it later. With Sasha Golitsyn and others who wanted to know Christ he now spent his evenings studying his Bible, and the writings of men like Nil Sorsky, Tikhon Zadonsky, and Johann Arndt, in earnest. What was God saying?

All over Russia people wanted to know. On December 6, 1812--the day Napoleon left Russia at Vilna on a horse-drawn sleigh--Aleksandr signed the charter for a Russian Bible Society. He put Sasha Golitsyn, the Oberprokuror, in charge of it and translators promptly began to work on Scriptures in modern Russian and sixteen other languages used throughout the tsar’s domain.

Admonition at Heilbronn

To sign a peace treaty and decide what to do with Napoleon after his first defeat, Aleksandr traveled to Paris and Vienna. There, in the Heilbronn palace, a woman insisted on meeting him. Her name was Juliane.

Juliane von Vietinghoff spoke Russian well. Born into a noble family in the Latvian city of Riga, she had decided to follow Christ after a shoemaker (a Moravian brother) spoke to her while measuring her feet. Loving Christ she had abandoned her worldly ways. She had sold her clothes, her jewels, and her pieces of art and given the money to the poor. Then, sensing a call from God, she determined to speak to Tsar Aleksandr and tell him to stop war.

The admonition could not have come at a more crucial time, or struck Aleksandr deeper. At Heilbronn negotiating generals coolly repeated round figures--seventy five thousand had died at Borodino alone--but Alexander cried in his heart for every young man who had lost his life in senseless combat. In his mind’s eye he could see their mothers wringing their hands and crying to God in straw-thatched houses, their fathers alone with the work, and the children whose big brothers would never come back.

Juliane did not need to tell him that war was the devil’s feast. He already knew it and joined her wholeheartedly in denouncing it to all, and calling Europe to repentance.

The generals looked at him strangely. Many said nothing to him but whispered among themselves, “Has the tsar gone mad? Is he bewitched? Who is this woman with whom he speaks so much?”

Made Equals By God

Napoleon returned. On June 18, 1815 German and British troops defeated him at Waterloo, but Aleksandr’s mind was elsewhere. Juliane, the Baroness von Krüdener, had accompanied him and his troupe back to St. Petersburg. Now, in the Christian fellowship around Sasha Golitsyn, she and the tsar discussed Russia’s future.

“The holding of private property is wrong,” Juliane firmly believed. “Among Christians there shall be no rich nor poor. Government is not Christian. Christians cannot punish others, nor go to war.”

Knowing the teaching of Christ, the tsar could only agree. But how? And where? In a flash he remembered the communities of “bread and salt” in Little Russia.

On the third week of May, in 1818, a messenger appeared at the door of the Mennonite elder David Hübert in the village of Lindenau on the Molochna. “The tsar,” the messenger said, “will come to your house for breakfast next week.”

Aleksandr arrived with nineteen carriages (the department of state would not have it otherwise). Entering Lindenau he saw that the Mennonites had swept the village street and sprinkled it with sand. Four hundred boys on horseback--boys whom he knew had never held guns--came to meet him and their plainly dressed families stood among fruit trees and plots of vegetables alongside the street to watch him pass.

At the elder’s house they asked him to sit at the end of the table, but Aleksandr refused. Taking the elder’s wife he had her sit there and took a chair on the side. “We are all just human,” he explained, “and God has made us equals.”

Besides the Mennonites Aleksandr also visited Dukhobor community farms and Molokan villages along the Molochna.

Mystery at Taganrog

After his visit to the south, Aleksandr’s struggle to know Christ and his Kingdom of Heaven intensified. How could a statesman and ruler, the tsar of Russia, live like Christ? How could he, short of forsaking his office completely, live by the Sermon on the Mount?

In 1824 Juliane von Krüdener, tired of waiting on him, left for the Crimea to found a Christian community based on the example of Acts 2 and 4. She died on arrival. A year later, Aleksandr and his German wife--the tsarina Yelizaveta--set out for Taganrog, a Russian outpost on the dismal, windy, shore of the Sea of Azov.

They spent two pleasant months together. They talked things over and drew closer one to another than they had ever been. Then Aleksandr made a short trip to the Crimea and on his return, suddenly died as well.

His coffin did not reach St. Petersburg until months later. It was sealed, and they placed it in the Petropavlovsky fortress on the Neva.

Thirty-five years later a monk at the Alekseyevich monastery at Tomsk, in Siberia, recorded the death of a strange pilgrim, Fedor Kuzmich. In a marginal note he added: “This man bore an exact resemblance to Tsar Aleksandr I of Russia.”

In 1917 when the Bolsheviks took over the Petropavlovsky fortress and opened that tsar’s coffin, they found it empty.


After Aleksandr, his younger brother Nikolai became tsar.

Things changed.

Nikolai had no use for pacifism nor Christian community. Even though he had grown up with Sasha Golitsyn, he threw him out of office and closed the Bible Society. He made all religious meetings, apart from state registered services in official buildings, illegal. Level headed, cruel, and conservative, his slogan was, “One tsar, one faith, one people.”7 That meant himself, the Orthodox church and all Russians.

By Tsar Nikolai’s time the Russian state church had sunk even deeper into corruption and legalism. Its priests lived with their wives and children in poverty. Many of them drank. Church rules called for the keeping of fast days and strict penance. Worship services lasted for hours. But many remained ignorant and lived careless lives. They could no longer understand Cyril and Methodius’ Slavonic, and the Gospel lost its meaning.

Rather than trying like his brother to end this unhappy darkness, Tsar Nikolai determined to keep Russia “Russian.” He set up official censoring of the mail, a secret police force, and harsh religious tribunals to keep people from thinking disloyal thoughts. To escape him, those left of the Spirit Christians in Central Russia (the Tambov, Voronezh, Saratov area) travelled on foot or with horse-drawn wagons down a new military road toward Persia. There, in the Caucasus, they hoped to find greater freedom around Tiflis (later Tbilisi) and the new town of Vladikavkaz. They farmed, milled grain, and once more, due to thrift and godliness, prospered by making cheese.

In southern Russia the Mennonites also prospered. But with material gain came ever greater spiritual loss. From their neighbours, some Mennonites had learned much more than just the wearing of peasant clothes, how to cook borsht, and embroider colourful flowers on their headscarves. They learned how to distill peach leaves and wild cherry stones in copper stills to make vodka. They learned how to farm on the fertile steppes and some became wealthy while others suffered miserable want. Even the Hutterites on the Desna above Chernigov gave up their community of goods and turned spiritually cold. But far away--in the Netherlands and northern Germany--the Lord Christ had set in motion events that would turn Russia’s communities of bread and salt into . . .

1 The People of God called their secret congregations “ships.”

2 To believe in the “transmigration of souls” was for many Russians not a new idea. The Khlysty of Danilo Filipov’s time based some of their beliefs on the revelations of “christ” Averyan who lived during Ivan the Terrible’s reign. Averyan, in turn referred to “christ” Yemelyan who lived in the fourteenth century. In all probability, this sect’s history dates back to early Christian (Manichean, Gnostic) heresies.

3 who mutilated their breasts

4 That other influential members of the tsar’s court, like Kamerherr Yelyansky, “went the whole way” is an established fact.

5 her name before marriage was Katherine Buxhöwden

6 the site of the first Anabaptist “Bruderhof” community

7 Pravoslaviye, Samoderzhaviye, i Narodnost (Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Peoplehood)