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The Canonization of Serafim of Sarov: Piety, Prophecy and Politics in Late Imperial Russia*

  • Richard Price (a1)

St Serafim of Sarov (1754–1833), though not widely known among western Christians, is one of the most popular saints in Russia and among Russians abroad. A discussion of his canonization in 1903 cannot avoid mention of some less than savoury aspects and conjuncts of his cult, but let it be said at the outset that nothing which follows changes the fact that he is both a hugely venerable and very attractive figure. Though a monk in a large monastery, he lived for years as a hermit in a neighbouring forest, loving to be unknown; but in the last years of his life, back in his monastery, he welcomed visitors, who queued in their hundreds outside his cell, day after day. A favourite greeting of his to address his visitors was moia radost (my joy). In the words of the synodal decree approving his canonization, ‘Spiritual joy had penetrated the starets so much that he was never seen to be sad or depressed, and this joyful mood of the soul he endeavoured to communicate to others.’ Equally impressive are such episodes in his life as the occasion when robbers beat him up, leaving him half-dead and with a permanent spinal injury: he not only forgave them but insisted they were not prosecuted, threatening that, if they were, he would leave the Sarov region for ever. Nothing I shall say can besmirch Serafim himself or the devotion to his memory of those who see him as a model of piety and an intercessor in time of need. But this does not alter the strange circumstances of his canonization, and it is these, not his sanctity, that are the subject of this paper.

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I was much helped in writing this essay by information and materials generously provided by Dr Stella Rock.

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1 I am informed by Dr Michael Hagemeister that recent archival research has established 9 July 1754 as the probable date of his birth; see Stepashkin, V. A., Prepodobnyi Serafim Sarovskii: predaniia i fakty (Sarov, 2002), 610.

2 Tserkovnye vedomosti, 1903, no. 29, repr. in Serafimovskii Diveevskii pravoslavnyi kalendar-sbornik (Diveyevo, 2003), 20.

3 For the canonization ceremonies, see Nichols, R. L., ‘The Friends of God: Nicholas II and Alexandra at the Canonization of Serafim of Sarov, July 1903’, in Timberlake, C. E., ed., Religious and Secular Forces in Late Tsarist Russia (Seattle, WA, 1992), 20629 ; Kontzevitch, Helen, St Serafim, Wonderworker of Sarov (Wildwood, CA, 2004), 193200 ; Serafimovskii … sbornik, 112–25.

4 Maylunas, Andrei and Mironenko, Sergei, eds, A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra: Their own Story (London, 1996), 22930.

5 Ibid. 230.

6 Nichols, ‘Friends of God’, 206.

7 Freeze, G. L.Subversive Piety: Religion and the Political Crisis in Late Imperial Russia’, Journal of Modern History 68 (1996), 30850 , at 324–8, tries to persuade us that the ceremonies, witnessed by only some of the pilgrims, accentuated rather than minimized divisions, and goes so far as to call them ‘misstaged’. But even a hostile observer such as the writer Korolenko noted the crowd’s ‘fanaticism’ and ‘special devotion to the tsar’: Firsov, Sergei Tserkov v Imperii: Ocherki iz tserkovnoi istorii epokhi Imperatora Nikolaia II (St Petersburg, 2007), 111 .

8 Freeze, ‘Subversive Piety’, 314–19. Freezes article brings out the tensions in the relationship between Nicholas II and the Russian Church, which resented his arbitrary initiatives.

9 Vitte, S. Yu. [Count Witte], Vospominaniia: Tsarstvovanie Nikolaia II, 2 vols (Berlin, 1922), 1: 2423 .

10 Freeze, ‘Subversive Piety’, 318—19; Serafimovskii … sbornik, 21.

11 Freeze, ‘Subversive Piety’, 320–4. The nearest railway station (Arzamas) was sixty kilometres away.

12 See Rudi, T. R.Le prime “Vite” di San Serafim di Sarov. Problemi di critica testuale’, in Mainardi, Adalberto, ed., San Serafim da Sarov a Diveevo. Atti del IV Convegno ecumenico internazionale di spiritualità russa (Magnano, 1998), 14:156.

13 For details of the first publication in instalments in a daily newspaper, see Hagemeister, MichaelIl problema della genesi del “Colloquio con Motovilov”’, in Mainardi, , ed., San Serafim da Sarov a Diveevo, 15774 , at 160 n. 17. I have used the 1905 reprint (for which see n. 18 below).

14 Roshko, Vsevolod Prepodobnyi Serafim: Sarov i Diveevo (Moscow, 2001), 16, 35 . Roshko dates the suppression of these pages to the edition of 1911, but they were already excised from the 1905 reprint. These pages (which I have not seen), on the creation and early history of the world, were unorthodox in their treatment of the animal creation, and have been argued to reflect the philosophy of Schelling and Schubert, as transmitted by Feofan Avsenev in the Kievan Spiritual Academy in the mid-nineteenth century: see Roshko, , Prepodobnyi Serafim, 36 .

15 The most familiar English translation is that by Dobbie-Bateman, A. F. which was reprinted in Fedotov, G. P. ed., A Treasury of Russian Spirituality (London, 1950), 26579 . This is, however, a much abbreviated version.

16 On Nilus, see Shukman, Ann“The Conversation between St Seraphim and Motovilov”; The Author, the Texts and the Publishers’, Sobornost 27.1 (2005), 4757 . at 52. On the problem of the origin and authenticity of the text, see Hagemeister, ‘Problema’.

17 Nilus, Velikoe v malom (see following note), 203.

18 Nilus, S. Velikoe v malom i antikhrist, kak blizkaia politicheskata vozmozhnost. Zapiski pravoslavnago [‘Great in small, and Antichrist as an imminent political possibility; the notes of an Orthodox’] (Tsarskoe Selo, 1905). This was an expanded edition of the work of the same title that had come out in 1903 and contained the first publication of the Conversation in book form; it was published by the Committee of the Red Cross.

19 Roshko, , Prepodobnyi Serafim, 37 .

20 Shukman, ‘Conversation’, and Hagemeister, ‘Problema’, 169. It is ironic that one of these versions concludes: ‘On the subject of the canonization of the great starets I [Motovilov] have made, and make, no request to anyone; for he himself during his life said to me by word of mouth, and his words are impressed on my heart, “The Lord raises up his saints, making his Church canonize them, only when she is suffering grievously in her members from whatever impiety.” May the Lord deliver our Russian Church from such a misfortune!’: Sarovskoe chudo: O tseli khristianskoi zhizni (repr. Moscow, 1999), 63. It is understandable that this version was not published at the time of the canonization!

21 The length in English translation of the Nilus recension of 1905 is around thirteen thousand words. Since the text presents a single, coherent argument, there is little attraction in suggestions that it may have been based on a series of conversations.

22 Nilus, , Velikoe v malom, 141 .

23 I am informed of this fact by Ann Shukman. The library survives in a state archive.

24 Nilus, , Velikoe v malom, 299 .

25 Vyrubova, Anna Freilina ee Velichestva (Minsk, 2002), 157 .

26 Maylunas, and Mironenko, , Lifelong Passion, 2068, 21819 . Nicholas, Alexandra and all their children were canonized by the Moscow Patriarchate in 2000, not undeservedly in view of their dignity in captivity and their final martyrdom, but as a result there has been a reluctance to acknowledge that the piety of the last tsarist court was not a model of Orthodoxy.

27 Ibid. 228–9.

28 Roshko, , Prepodobnyi Serafim, 15, 257 .

29 As one of the martyrs of the Soviet period, he was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1997.

30 Hagemeister, ‘Problema’, 171. Compare the judgement of Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow in a letter to the Over-Procurator of the Russian Church in 1861, ‘Some details in the notes from Motovilov do not inspire confidence, because they show signs of a restless spirit’: Letopis Serafimo-Diveevskogo monastyria (Moscow, 2005), 508.

31 That the emperor’s interest in Serafim was due to Chichagov’s influence was claimed by Pobedonostsev, in a letter discovered by Freeze: ‘Subversive piety’, 318 n.33.

32 What is needed today is a critical analysis of Chichagov’s material. The only attempt at this to date has been Roshko, Prepodobnyi Serafim, first published in French as Rochcau, V. Saint Séraphim: Sarov et Diveyevo. Études et documents (Bégrolles-en-Mauges, 1987), a short study that only begins the good work.

33 Letopis, ‘Prilozhenie’ (ed. A. N. Strizhev), 677–83. For details of the 1992 publication, see Hagemeister, M.Apokalipsis nashego vremeni: Prorochestva sv. Serafima Sarovskogo o prikhode Antikhrista i kontse sveta’, Stranitsy 4 (1999), 396414 , at 409 n. 54. There is a German edition of this important article: ‘Eine Apocalypse unserer Zeit: Die Prophezeiungen des heiligen Serafim von Sarov über das Kommen des Antichrist und das Ende der Welt’, in Hösier, J. and Kessler, W., eds, Finis Mundi (Stuttgart, 1998), 4160 .

34 The saint’s relics were rediscovered and translated to Diveyevo in 1991, not directly from Sarov, however, but from the State Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism in Leningrad, where, unbeknownst, they had been housed for over sixty years. The Sarov Monastery is now within the enclosure of a large state establishment engaged in nuclear research and closed to all visitors.

35 Letopis, 681. Other references to Antichrist were not suppressed by the censorship, e.g. ‘You [the nuns of Diveyevo] will not live before the Antichrist, but you will live through the times of the Antichrist’ (ibid. 367).

36 Nilus, , Velikoe v malom, 299304 . That this part of the work was already contained in the 1903 edition (which I have not seen) is stated by Nilus in his introduction to the 1905 edition. The prophecy I summarize here precedes a story of Serafim learning of the Decembrist revolt of 1825 by no natural means (ibid. 301–2), which confirms that Motovilov understood all these prophecies to relate to Nicholas I.

37 The letter was printed in Russkii Vestnik 37–9 (1995), 4.

38 Its first publication was in the posthumous edition of a work by Nilus, (d. 1929) — Na beregu Bozh’ei reki, 2 vols (San Francisco, CA, 1969), 2: 1923 .

39 This is a reminiscence of the legend of the seven youths who entered a cave near Ephesus during the Decian persecution and emerged almost two hundred years later, in the reign of Theodosius II.

40 Nilus, S. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Moscow, 2002), 4: 7567 .

41 For this text I am dependent on Hagemeister, ‘Apokalipsis’, 400–1, and A. Strizhev, ‘Chevo ne izrekal prepobodnyi Serafim’, <>, accessed 19 August 2009 on a site that has now disappeared.

42 Strizhev, ‘Chevo ne izrekal’, points out that the Pan-Slavism of this prophecy, with its vision of all the Slavic nations united under Russia, points unmistakably to a date not earlier than the mid-nineteenth century.

43 The hostility towards Austria expressed in ‘The Antichrist and Russia’ in its final redaction seems, however, to reflect the worsening relations with Austria in the early years of the twentieth century.

44 Hagemeister, ‘Apokalipsis’, 408.

45 Hagemeister, ‘Problema’, 166; Strizhev, ‘Chevo ne izrekal’. Strizhev has found evidence that this prophecy, reported by Motovilov, was discovered in the government archives and sent to the Empress Alexandra in 1906, but an oral report via Nilus could have reached the imperial family earlier.

46 Anon., Diveevskie predaniia (Moscow, 1996), as excerpted in Serafimovskii … sbornik, 125; Hagemeister, ‘Apokalipsis’, 407.

47 Maylunas and Mironenko, Lifelong Passion, 230. I myself have bathed in this spring, and it is the coldest water I have ever encountered.

48 Judge, E. H. Plehve: Repression and Reform in Imperial Russia, 1902—4 (Syracuse, NY, 1983), 166 .

49 Nichols, ‘Friends of God’, 223–5.

50 Badmaev, P. A. Rossiia i Kitai (St Petersburg, 1900), summarized in Nichols, ‘Friends of God’, 2257 .

51 Witte, , Tsarstvovanie Nikokia II, 1: 243, 345 .

52 For the weighty voices within the Russian Church in this period deploring its domination by the state, see Firsov, Tserkou v Imperii, 10—97.

53 This accounts for the mounting tempo of canonizations in the last, desperate years of the regime — four between 1911 and 1916.

54 Mosolov, A. A. Pri dvore poslednego imperatora (St Petersburg, 1992), 175 .

55 Firsov, Tserkov v Imperii, 133–44.

56 This point is made by Freeze, ‘Subversive Piety’, 327—9. In a smaller country, with a more developed sense of nationhood and common citizenship, much more could be achieved, as is shown by the successful promotion of the cult of St Joan of Arc in France in this same period.

57 Rossiia pravoslavnaia 2 (October 2003), 1.

* I was much helped in writing this essay by information and materials generously provided by Dr Stella Rock.

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Studies in Church History
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