Our Shared Work With Christ

The average Christian, reading his Bible in happy devotion, stumbles across this passage: Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church (Col 1:24).

The passage is particularly disturbing for a certain strain of Protestant thought that emphasizes Christ’s sufficiency for all things. Christ has accomplished all things necessary to our salvation and we are thus able to “rest” in His completed work. For many, this is at the heart of grace. God has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves. What remains is for us to trust that this is so. Christ declares, “It is finished.” There is nothing left for us but trust.

This sentiment recently came crashing into a discussion of the Russian novel, Laurus. I attended (and spoke) at the Eighth Day Symposium in Wichita, Kansas. The presenter, Jessica Hooten Wilson, had spoken on the Russian novel, Laurus, by Eugene Vodolazkin, in which the lead character enters the long, arduous life of a holy fool following the death of a woman and her child, a result of his own inaction. Wilson made mention of a review by Alan Jacobs (Baylor University) that described its spirituality as “Hindu,” and castigated its approach to Christianity. He wrote: “…though I know that Eugene Vodolazkin is a Christian, I remain uncertain about just what vision of the Christian life is being held out to me in this book…. In Laurus…long, hard spiritual labor pays for sins, as it does for the world…”

Vodolazkin nowhere characterizes Laurus’ labors as a payment for sin. Indeed, the concept is foreign to Orthodox thought. It is an absence that is so profound that a Protestant professor of literature felt the need to supply it, and with it, distort a beautifully Orthodox novel. In the discussion at the conference, a Protestant participant agreed that the novel seemed strangely unable to “rest” in Christ. Inasmuch as I am often not in dialog with Protestant Christians, I was caught off-guard by these observations. I forgot how foreign all of this is. Happily, it is also foreign to the New Testament.

Whatever one might think of grace, the work of Christ on the Cross in no way removes the work of the Cross from the lives of believers. We are baptized into the death of Christ, and continue to say throughout our lives: “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live” (Gal. 2:20). It is Christ who taught that we ourselves must take up the Cross and follow Him. There is no “resting” Christianity made available by a substitutionary work of Christ. The work of Christ is a matter of participation (koinonia) – we are baptized into it, live through its presence in us, and do not cease to share in that work, ever.

It is always difficult to listen to what is actually being said and not try to hear a conversation that is not taking place. Salvation, in Latin Christianity, was made captive, rather early on, to the language of “grace” and “works.” Within what would become a dominantly juridical framework, grace and works were easily externalized, raising questions about who was doing the “saving.”

When St. Paul says that he is filling up “that which is lacking” in Christ’s afflictions, he is either subscribing to some form of Pelagianism, or he simply has no notion of a juridical salvation. No doubt, the latter is the actual case.

When he says that he is crucified with Christ, St. Paul means precisely what he is saying. Indeed, it is the deepest cry of his heart: “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him – the power of his resurrection, and the communion of His sufferings, becoming like Him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:8-11).

This has nothing of the language of earning, much less external grace and works. It is the language of the most intimate, mystical communion.

We know a little bit about this experience, for it is common in relationships marked by intense love. The coldness of a conversation regarding who did what, or what is owed to whom, has no place in such intimacy. Love speaks in terms of union. It wants to share in the deepest manner possible the life of the beloved.

There appeared a rift in Protestantism within its first two to three centuries. That rift, to a large extent, represented a deep dissatisfaction with a cold, sterile presentation of the life of grace. Early Protestants almost universally held to a doctrine of “cessationism,” teaching that miracles ended when the New Testament was completed. What remained were the rather mechanical/intellectual doctrines that assured of salvation. Dry as dust.

The reaction to this was the birth of Pietism, in a variety of forms and places. At its worst, Pietism’s emotionalism led to extremes of belief and practice. At its best, it produced holy lives and gave heart to what would have been little more than a dry death to Western Christianity. Inasmuch as Western Christianity survives our present difficulties, it will be the heart born in Pietism that saves it (or so I think).

The transformation of the Pietist conversion experience into the doctrine of being “born-again” has tended to confuse Pietism and classical Protestantism, framing the experience of the heart in the rigid language of doctrinal necessity. Like many aspects of Protestantism(s), fragmentation in doctrine and experience has been a continuing and dominant feature.

Classical Christianity, in its Orthodox form, is very rich in its vocabulary and stories of the human experience of God. It is always “ontological” in its approach to doctrine, meaning that doctrine is always about “something-that-is” and not about a theory, or a juridical arrangement. Because “something-that-is” is capable of being experienced, it is always seen as quite natural that the work of God has a describable, experiential component.

If I am being crucified with Christ, it is inherently the case that such a thing is experienced in some manner. In the case of a holy fool, it might look a lot like the Laurus character. He must be contrasted with the middle-class American who sings happy songs on Sunday, perhaps even moved to tears, satisfied and assured that Jesus has taken care of everything such that he can safely return to the banalities of his life. Isn’t Jesus wonderful!

The simple truth is that the Kingdom of God “suffers violence, and the violent bear it away” (Matt. 11:12). The gospel engages the whole person and assumes that we will love God “with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind.” That such an engagement might be described by some as “works righteousness” is merely indicative of a bifurcated Christianity that has placed God in a second-storey doctrinal reality, while the secular party rages here below.

Thank God for the Lauruses sprinkled across the historical landscape. The unity of faith and experience exemplified in their sometimes stormy lives whispers hope that God dwells among us and loves us, willing Himself into the messiness of our crucified existence, ever-straining Himself into the depths of our being, while we strain to respond in kind, enduring “that which is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” – our own response to His love.

Father Stephen Freeman is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, serving as Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.

The image shows, “Basil the Blessed, Praying,” by Sergey Kirillov, painted in 1994.

1917 And The Pope’s Peace

“I think a curse should rest upon me – because I love this war. I know it’s smashing and shattering the lives of thousands every moment — and yet — I can’t help it — I enjoy every second of it.”

These words, spoken by Winston Churchill to Violet Asquith on February 22, 1915, suggest a soul dislodged from the fundamental attitude proper to a member of Christian civilization. This attitude towards a war that was wrecking the vestiges of Christendom is not really surprising when we consider Churchill’s well-known membership in the Order of Freemasonry (from 1895) and his also well-known, at least to historians, initiation into the Neo-Pagan Druid Order (from 1908).

The existence and influence of such men as Winston Churchill are the only explanations for the blind inhuman ferocity with which World War I was pursued by the belligerents during the years 1914-1916. The theological, philosophical, and ideological positions of Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty and chief architect of the Gallipoli landings in 1915, simply exemplify the general loss of a Christian consciousness on the part of the leaders of the great Western Powers.

This complete lack of adherence to even the most basic principles of traditional Just War doctrine, was simply incomprehensible to Pope Benedict XV. Why would a war be tolerated which, unlike all others up until that date in European history, seriously threatened to wipe out a vast percentage of the young men on the Continent? Why would not the leaders of Britain and France, chastened and awakened after suffering the loss of 624,000 men in the Battle of the Somme alone, enthusiastically take up consideration of any proposal for a reasonable peace? Why were most of the peace initiatives during the years 1917 and 1918, treated to bemused dismissal and scarcely hidden contempt?

Pope Benedict XV, during the most critical year in contemporary history 1917, found himself confronting men who, like Churchill, appeared to have jettisoned “outdated” humane and moral concerns. That this new non-Christian understanding of conflict and war was not just to characterize the conflict of 1914-1918, is shown by Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s and President Franklin Roosevelt’s drafting and signing of a version of the Morgenthau Plan at the Second Quebec conference of 1944 in which they pledged to turn the heavily urbanized and industrial nation of Germany “into a country primarily agricultural and pastoral in its character.”

What we can say with certainty is that July 1914 inaugurated a generation of political and military slaughtering which was often perpetrated for the sake of “Progress.” It was the dramatic end to an unparalleled era in European history, an era of civil and, on the whole, international peace. It is quite possible that the casualties of all European wars since the fall of Napoleon Bonaparte (1815) did not exceed in number the figure for a single day’s losses in any of the great battles of 1916.

War 1916: Stalemate , U-Boats, and Blockades

December 1916 marked a watershed in World War I. It was a moment when the increasing futility of the military stalemate on the Western Front, induced one side of the conflict – the Central Powers – to seriously consider a negotiated peace. Contrary to a certain simplistic understanding, a desire for a cessation of hostilities and negotiations does not necessarily originate from an experienced position of vulnerability and relative inferiority.

There was a definite long-range prudence and maturity revealed in the Central Powers’ (the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Turkish Ottoman Empire) efforts towards a negotiated peace late in 1916. Not all of it can be attributed to the accession of devote and eminently humane Karl I to the Austrian Imperial Throne and the Hungarian Royal Throne at the death of his great-uncle Franz Josef in November. This “maturity,” which I speak of, can be shown by the fact that these Powers were actually “winning” the war to an extent.

Their military position and advantage appeared for all to see with their knocking the Entente ally, Romania out of the war and conquering Bucharest itself in the beginning of December 1916. Seeking to compensate for the British attempt at a starvation blockade of food and supplies to the Reich, the German military had ordered submarine warfare. This new kind of warfare, which targeted both enemy and neutral shipping, was roundly condemned by Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, the Papal Secretary of State, in the autumn of 1915, speaking of it as “appalling and immoral.”

For the Germans, both during and after the war, this conflict on the open seas was only an attempt to offset the unrestricted blockade imposed by the Entente Powers, which was, also, contrary to established international law. The Great War thus became “as much a war of competing blockades, the surface and the submarine, as of competing armies.”

The German Peace Offensive

The complete stalemate in the Western trenches plus the ruthless warfare at sea, serves as the backdrop of the German Peace Note of December 1916. From the evidence, it appears that Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany believed that everyone (i.e., the leaders of all of Great European Powers) secretly desired peace but that each belligerent was reluctant to be the first to admit it openly. The content of the German Note was simple and clear enough; some commentators called its tone “arrogant.”

Whatever the tone, the Note stated that the war was one of unprecedented fury that threatened to destroy the material and spiritual progress which the 20th century had such a right to be proud of. The Central Empires had amply demonstrated their might and would continue to fight boldly if this peace initiative was ignored. They were, however, desirous of putting an end to the bloodshed. If the Entente Powers agreed to immediate peace negotiations, the Central Powers would guarantee existence, honor, and freedom of development, and would do everything possible to restore lasting peace for the nations then engaged in conflict.

To this German Peace Note, there was no papal response. Benedict XV and Cardinal Gasparri would later, on March 7, 1917, explain, in a letter to the Cardinal-Archbishop of Cologne, that the reason for the coolness of the papal response to the peace gesture on the part of the German Kaiser was that a communication had been received from the British Government, which said that any intervention on the part of the Pope would be “ill-conceived” by Britain and France.

Benedict’s view was that if he offended the Entente Powers at that time, any future efforts would be met with outright antagonism. Moreover, since the Note lacked specific mention of a proposal for the reestablishment of independence for the Kingdom of Belgium, Benedict and Gasparri were not convinced of the usefulness of the initiative. So the Kaiser’s Peace Proposal came to naught. This German peace initiative is usually forgotten by conventional accounts of World War I.

What is also forgotten is the fact that it was only after the failure of this initiative that all restrictions on submarine warfare were lifted. German strategy in this war from the beginning was characterized by a great willingness to gamble. This appeared justified for the Germans at the time on account of the fact that the numbers, both in terms of man power and in terms of production capacity, were heavily skewed against them.

For example, the Entente enjoyed an immense economic superiority over the Central Powers with a combined national income 60% greater. The combined Allies also had 4.5 times as men as great a population as compared to the Germans, Austrians, and the Turks with 28% more men mobilized for the war effort. The policy of the Germans prior to early 1917 and the failure of their peace venture was to sink, without warning, ships believed to be carrying war supplies to Britain.

The German General Staff believed that such a gamble would bring about the defeat of Britain before the United States could make an effective military contribution to the war. This strategy was tried 3 times in 1915, when the Lusitania and Arabic were sunk. It was because of such actions that the German Empire found itself confronted with the outward, rather than just the covert, animosity of the American Republic.

The Pope’s First Moves

Even though British and French disapproval had prevented Pope Benedict XV from taking up the peace proposal made by the German Emperor in 1916 and identical pressure had persuaded him to remain officially aloof, although privately supportive, from the clandestine effort by Blessed Emperor Karl of Austria to establish a back-channel connection to France via his brothers-in-law, Prince Sixtus and Xavier of Bourbon-Parma, both Entente officers, Benedict and his Secretary of State were not inactive in pursuing what they say to be the only “solution” to the conflict, immediate peace and the restoration of the European status quo ante.

In this, they were joined by a whole menagerie of political groups and individuals who were moved by various motives, ideological principles, and, likely, simple human empathy to demand an end to the suicidal European conflict.

For those on the Left, this war was simply proving to be a capitalist enterprise in which the “military-industrial complex” was benefitting and capitalist nations were attempting to ruthlessly expand their markets. For the traditionalist Right, the war was proving to be just what many had, all along, feared it would be, the catalyst of European social, economic, and political breakdown. This rightist analysis seemed to be conclusively demonstrated by the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 in which the ancient Monarchy was toppled and a provisional parliamentary government put in its place.

It would be this unhistorical, rootless Russian parliamentary regime that the Communist coup d’état would topple in the famous October Revolution in that same year. We can perhaps see the mental make-up of the man when we realize that Woodrow Wilson became ecstatic when he heard the news of the fall of the Russian Imperial Dynasty and then naively stated that, “Now Russia is fit for a league of honor.” The US president, of course, meant that now Russia, having shed its age-old Monarchy, would continue the War as one of the “enlightened” Democratic Powers.

He, also, revealed, in this outburst, that his campaign theme of 1916 “He Kept Us Out of War,” was not to be taken as final. Within a month, the United States, also, would be in this enlightened and “liberating” League. Here, contrary to the implicit beliefs of the Democratists, it was the democratic republican government of Russia in 1917 that wanted to continue fighting the war against the Germans and Austrians. It was the Emperor Nicholas II who was of the view that peace must be concluded quickly for the survival of Russia.

It was for precisely this reason that Lloyd George, the war-enthusiast “Methodist Machiavelli,” who refused to accept the Russian Imperial Family into exile in Britain since the Prime Minister viewed Nicholas as a traitor to the Entente cause. Remember, the Russian general’s phone which ought be “smashed” in order not to receive from the Emperor any order contrary to the provocative mobilization ordered by Minister of War, Sukhomlinov and General Yanushkevitch in August 1914.

What was the immediate cause of a new and final papal effort to halt the slaughter was the efforts of a man who was well-known to the Vatican. The leader of the German Catholic Center Party, Matthias Erzberger was the primary agent of the Imperial Government in its efforts of 1915 to keep Germany’s former ally Italy out of the war.

In this mission, Erzberger had worked closely with the Vatican and had meetings with Pope Benedict himself. Now, Erzberger, in the summer of 1917 after the US declaration of war against Germany but before significant involvement in the European theater of American troops, had been “converted” to a non-annexationist position, that is one which held that Germany should conclude a peace based upon the pre-war borders.

Benedict XV believed that Germany was the key to a successful peace process. Unlike the Entente Powers, Germany and Austria were in control of large areas of occupied territory, most especially Belgium, whose restitution was for the Entente the sine qua non of any settlement.

Benedict began with the premise that only the indication of willingness on Germany’s part to evacuate occupied territory would persuade the Entente to come to the negotiating table. Benedict and Cardinal Gasparri made careful preparations, in the winter and spring of 1917, for what would become their historic peace initiative. In May, in anticipation of the Peace Note, the Pope made personal contact with Blessed Emperor Karl and Empress Zita of Austria.

The Pacelli Factor

If the Germans were the key to peace, Benedict would need a trusted and skilled envoy who could fashion, in conjunction with the Germans, a plausible proposal for peace to present before the Western Allied Powers. That young cleric was Eugenio Pacelli, the priest who would occupy the Papal Throne during the 20th century’s next conflagration – a conflagration, by the way, which was almost the direct result of the failure of the Allies to accept the peace carefully crafted by Archbishop Pacelli. Msgr. Eugenio Pacelli was not a unknown factor at the Vatican in 1917. The Pacelli family had long been involved in Vatican affairs.

The two-year old Eugenio had been brought to the death bed of Blessed Pius IX who is reported to have said, “Teach this little son well so that one day he will serve the Holy See.” He had attended the elite Instituto Capranica, the seminary attended by Benedict himself, and Pacelli, like Benedict, had become a protégé of Cardinal Rampolla during the Cardinal’s years as Secretary of State under Leo XIII.

For those who understand the importance of the Fatima message, it cannot be without significance that Eugenio Pacelli was consecrated as a bishop, and then given the honor of the pallium, on May 13, 1917 (the first day of the Fatima apparitions in Portugal) in a ceremony in the Sistine Chapel by Pope Benedict XV himself. The Pope wanted to give Msgr. Pacelli as much prestige as would be necessary in the royal courts of Germany for this most important peace venture.

If it were not for the eventual contemptuous dismissal of the Pope’s Peace, Archbishop Pacelli’s mission to Germany in this critical year of the war would have been a complete success. After arriving at the royal court of Bavaria (there very much used to be such!), Archbishop Pacelli found the opportunity of making a personal overture, in the name of Benedict XV, to Kaiser Wilhelm himself.

For a man who had been trained to display a complete self-control and dignified comportment, it was indicative of the Emperor’s frustration and emotion when he, with quivering lips, angrily responded to the papal letter which asked him to redouble his efforts to hasten the advent of peace even though it should be at the expense of some of the German objectives.

Wilhelm said that he could not conceal his annoyance at the fact that his own peace efforts of December 1916 had been “snubbed by Benedict XV in so unheard of a manner as not to have merited the courtesy of some reply.” While maintaining complete composure, Archbishop Pacelli stated that certain actions of Germany, for example the deportation of Belgian workers, did not give the Pope reason to attach much confidence to the peace overtures.

According to Walter H. Peters, “The Emperor seems to have taken this argument in good part. He admitted that although the action looked bad at first sight, it had not been against international law. He could not be forced to run the security risk of allowing civilians to remain behind German lines.” Despite the friction and voiced complaints, the meeting with Nuncio Pacelli seems to have made a very positive impression on the Kaiser.

In his autobiography published in 1922, after his abdication and during his exile in Holland, Wilhelm II described his impression of the young Archbishop Pacelli at this critical meeting — critical for what would become Pope Benedict XV’s most important intervention in the World War. The Kaiser describes Pacelli as having, “an aristocratic, likeable, and distinguished appearance, with great intelligence and impeccable manners, the perfect model of a high prelate of the Catholic Church.”

This favorable impression, and the potential within the papal appeal, led the Kaiser, within two weeks, to follow up on the issues discussed at this meeting. On July 12th, the Kaiser arranged a dinner meeting at which the German Chancellor was to present the final draft of a peace resolution which was to go to the German parliament, the Reichstag.

Wilhelm was pleased with the draft since it repeated the statement that the Emperor himself had made in his Address from the Throne of August 4, 1914, in which he stated, “We are not animated by any desire for conquest.” It, also, repeated the statement that Germany had taken up arms only to preserve her independence and to keep intact her possessions.

This was the basic text passed by the Reichstag, with some slight alterations made due to the increasing influence of Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff. On July 14, 1917, the revised peace resolution was laid before the Kaiser, along with a reply that was to be sent to the letter presented by Archbishop Pacelli.

The Kaiser, seeing that the letter was dated August 13 – meaning the Chancellor had intended to significantly delay the German response to the Pope’s letter – said, “Vier Wochen, das ist unhöflich gegen den alten Pontifex!” (“Four weeks, that is discourteous towards the aged Pontiff!). Archbishop Pacelli was delighted with the German response to the Pope’s proposals.

After meeting for two days with the German Chancellor, he returned to Rome on July 25th, with an understanding that the German government was now ready to accept papal peace proposals. Pope Benedict then used this occasion to present his very specific peace proposal to the British representative at the Vatican, Count de Salis.

The Holy Father gave him several sealed envelopes. Each contained a copy of the historical Papal Peace Note of 1917. The British Government was asked to forward the note to France, Italy, and the United States whose governments were not represented at the Vatican. The die was cast.

The Papal Peace Note of August 1917

The Papal Peace Note was very straight forward and apparently non-controversial. It does not seem possible that it could have received such a negative response from several of the warring parties. In the introductory paragraph, the Pope enumerated appeals he had previously made in general terms. He said that the time had come to propose concrete and practical propositions. The task of adjusting them and completing them he would leave to the nations themselves.

The specific proposals were seven in number: 1) Substitution of Moral Force of Right for Law of Material Force; 2) A Simultaneous and Reciprocal Decrease of Armaments; 3) The Establishment of International Courts of Arbitration to Adjudicate Conflicts between Nations; 4) True Freedom and Community of the Seas; 5) Reciprocal Renunciation of War Indemnities; 6) Evacuation and Restoration of All Territories Occupied During the War; 7) Examination in a Conciliatory Spirit of Rival Territorial Claims [e.g., the question of Alsace and Lorraine].

The National Responses to the Papal Peace Proposals were as follows:

Germany: “For a long time His Majesty [Wilhelm II] with profound respect and sincere gratitude had followed the efforts of His Holiness to assuage the sufferings of war…and to hasten the end of the hostilities. The emperor sees in this most recent step of His Holiness a new proof of the noble and humanitarian sentiments, he entertains the lively hope that…success may come to the papal appeal.”

Austria-Hungary: Blessed Emperor Karl I gave an enthusiastic endorsement to the Papal Peace Note.

Bulgaria (one of the Central Powers): King Ferdinand replied to the Peace Note on September 26, 1917, in terms of reverence and loyalty.

Ottoman Empire: The Sultan of the Turkish Moslem Empire, Mehmed V, in an autographed letter on September 30, said that he was “deeply touched by the lofty thoughts of His Holiness.”

France: No direct response to the Pope’s Note. Merely a sharply worded statement issued by Foreign Minister Ribot to the British Government indicating that they (the French) did not intend to have an official statement in writing communicated to the Holy See. The British Government was asked to, “discourage any further attempt on the part of the Papal Secretary of State in the direction of an official intervention between the belligerents.”

Italy: In an address to the Italian Senate, Baron Sydney Sonnino, Italian Foreign Minister, stated that the Note was nothing but the work of Germany and that the proposals were utterly impracticable.

Britain: Arthur Balfour, the British Foreign Minister (famous for the Balfour Declaration), responded in a very non-committal way: “His Majesty’s Government, not having as yet been able to take the opinion of their Allies, cannot say whether it would serve any useful purpose to offer a reply or, if so, what form such a reply should take. Although the Central Powers have admitted their guilt in regard to Belgium, they have never definitely intimated that they intend either to restore her to her former state or entire independence or to make good the damage she has suffered at their hands.”

Papal Peace Meets American Democratic Messianism

Wilson’s Intervention “What does he want to butt in for?” Here we have the unique first response from President Woodrow Wilson upon the presentation of the Pope’s Peace Note to him at the White House in August of 1917. The relations between the Roman Pontiff and the Presbyterian minister’s son from the Shenandoah Valley who sat in the White House had always been a bit tense. Contrary to pacific statements and neutralist campaign slogans, at the Vatican it was always understood that the United States, under its Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, was not actually a neutral and impartial player in the Great European Conflict.

The United States was clearly helping the Entente and for what the Vatican believed were selfish reasons. It was held that the US was committed to France and Britain because of economic ties. Benedict XV, in particular, deplored the United States’ arms trade with France and Britain, especially when it was carried on the passenger vessels, thus providing a causa belli against Germany. In light of this, it was as early as April of 1915, a full two years before official US involvement in the war, that Benedict called upon the United States to enforce an arms embargo against both sides.

This, of course, was never done. Included in this analysis of the American attitude towards the war, must have been a recognition that the tragedy of the sinking of the British liner RMS Lusitania, had been engineered to ease the United States’ entry into the war. This joint British-American operation had been executed at the expense of 1,198 human lives. Among the dead were 128 Americans.

On April 22, 1915, a week and a half before the liner departed, an announcement was issued by the German Embassy in Washington which warned passengers that Germany was in a state of war with Great Britain and, therefore, all ships sailing under her or her allies’ flag were subject to attack and that passengers were, therefore, traveling at their own risk. For some unknown reason, newspapers did not publish the warning until the day of departure. Some 8 miles off the coast of Ireland, a German U-20 submarine fired one torpedo at the liner. After the torpedo hit there was a second explosion. Within 18 minutes the ship sank, with the passengers in general panic.

As the Germans insisted at the time, and a 1960 investigation by an American John Light confirmed, the ship had been filled to the gills with contraband munitions making it a legitimate target according to international law. Included in this stock, were some 4,200,000 rounds of Remington .303 rifle cartridges.

This was also confirmed by later British documents that came to light along with the ship’s manifest, which had been given to Woodrow Wilson and was only released at the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Allen Welsh Dulles, brother of the future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, knew well of the engineering of the tragedy.

It would still be some 2 years until the United States officially entered the conflict. Perhaps, this was to get past the presidential election of 1916 in which Wilson barely, due to a narrow margin in the State of California, beat his Republican opponent Charles Evans Hughes, on a platform of neutralism and peace, “He Kept US Out of War!” It was immediately after the election that Wilson momentarily acted as the neutral observer of the horror of the European conflict.

On December 20, 1916, when the peace efforts of the Central Powers were well underway, the United States issued an appeal that included the statement, “The President is not proposing peace; he is not even offering mediation. He is merely proposing that soundings be taken in order that we may learn, the neutral nations [here he apparently includes the United States] with belligerents, how near the haven of peace may be for which all mankind longs with an intense and increasing longing.”

When, only 4 months after the “peace appeal,” Wilson broke off relations with the German Empire, clearly in preparation for a declaration of war, the Holy See attempted to heal the breach — seemingly due to the impression at the Vatican that the United States was merely reacting to individual acts of the German military and political authorities. Therefore, we can understand the shock experienced by the Pope when he heard the news of the United States’ declaration of war against the Central Powers in April of 1917.

This was understood by Pope Benedict XV to be an unmitigated disaster. His Holiness understood, with utmost clarity, that American intervention would extend the time of the conflict since there would be absolutely no reason for the Entente Powers to consider a cease-fire or armistice.

Even though it is difficult get into the mind of another man, particularly if that man is the Vicar of Christ, it appears that the Pope did not fully appreciate the extent to which the Presbyterian President viewed the war in Europe as a “crusade” for equality and democracy.

This is the only explanation for the blind-siding of the Pope in this case and in Wilson’s final and conclusive rejection of Benedict’s great peace initiative of August 1, 1917. Wilson believed that this war was one of the “enlightened” Powers of parliamentary and democratic regimes, recently stripped of the “embarrassment” of Nicholas II, against the dark “holdovers.”

Wilson’s throwing of America’s sword onto the scale of the Entente Powers, changed the conflict from a fratricidal conflict over Alsace-Lorraine and Flanders, to a global crusade against Monarchy and, what would show itself after the war, against Papal influence in the political affairs of the world. In other words, against historical Christendom.

It would not be stretching it to say that with the rejection of Pope Benedict’s Peace Note of August 1917, Woodrow Wilson became the grave-digger of Christendom. What might not have happened had not the war continued to its tragic end – the downfall of the Russian, Austrian, and Prussia monarchies? Can we venture Communist Russia, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, World War II, the Cold War, Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine, Korea, Red China, Vietnam, the Social Revolution of the 1960s, and perhaps, Vatican II?

What we can be certain of is that these things would not have happened as they did if Wilson had not, “butted in.” It is only with this anti-monarchical and anti-papal attitude in mind that we can understand the patronizing and cool response of Woodrow Wilson, through his Secretary of State Robert Lansing, to the Papal Peace Note.

Robert Lansing prepared the world for Wilson’s fatal response by his own articulation of the fundamental principle of American foreign policy, both then and now: “No people can desire war, particularly an aggressive war. If the people can exercise their will, they will remain at peace. If a nation possesses democratic institutions, the popular will will be executed. Consequently, if the principle of democracy prevails in a nation, it can be counted upon to preserve peace and oppose wars…If this view is correct, then the effort should be made to make democracy universal.”

In a letter dated August 27, 1917, Robert Lansing, speaking for President Wilson, responded to the Pope’s Peace Note by stating the following, “No part of this program can be carried out. The object of this war is to deliver the free peoples of the world from the menace and the actual power of a vast military establishment controlled by an irresponsible government which having planned secretly to dominate the world, proceeded to carry the plan out. This power is not the German people. It is the ruthless master of the German people. It is no business of ours how that great people came under its control. But it is out business to see that the history of the rest of the world is no longer left to its handling…. They desire no reprisal upon the German people who have themselves suffered all things in this war which they did not choose. They believe that peace should rest upon the rights of the people, not the rights of governments….The word of an ambitious and intriguing government on the one hand and a group of free peoples on the other….We cannot take the word of the present rulers of Germany as a guaranty of anything that is to endure, unless explicitly supported by such conclusive evidence of the will and purpose of the German people themselves.”

Pope Benedict’s attempt to stop the war which would kill 9.4 million and open the Age of Totalitarianism ended with this rejection. The Entente Powers allowed Wilson to speak for them. As the great biographer of Pope Benedict XV, Walter Peters, states, “Wilson could not endorse Benedict’s plan because the prime premises of the two men differed so radically. Wilson was motivated by an urge to punish. In Wilson’s opinion, it was absolutely necessary that the ruling dynasties of Germany and Austria be forced to abdicate.”

Pope Benedict XV told one of his friends that it was the bitterest moment of his life when he heard of the rejection of the Note by Woodrow Wilson.

1918: Why The War Ended

When considering the failure of the peace initiatives of the Holy Father and others, we can understand why the war did not end. But why did it end? Did the Germans lose? Yes and No. According to the most recent historians of the period, it was the collapse of German morale on the Western Front, which brought about the defeat of Germany and Austria in the Great War.

Even after the failure of Ludendorff’s famous Michael Offensive in the Spring of 1918, the Germans and Austrians were still killing the Allies at a faster rate than they themselves were getting killed by the British and French (Note, the US Army was on the Western Front in substantial number only in the Autumn of 1918).

In the last 3 months of the fighting, for example, 63,500 British soldiers were killed, while 28,000 Germans were killed. It was not the Germans who elected to continue fighting who brought about the collapse of the Central Powers, it was those Germans who elected to surrender – or desert, shirk or strike – who ended the war.

This becomes clear, even by looking at the basic casualty count for the entire war 1914-1918: 9.4 million total casualties, 4 million dead from the Central Powers and 5.4 million dead from the Entente.

Most of the surrendering occurred at the end of the war, from August 1918 when General Ludendorff first started asking for an armistice and the second week of November when Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and went into exile in Holland. Probably the greatest chance Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy had of winning the struggle, was if Emperor Nicholas II had accepted, as early as 1915, a separate peace offer from the Germans and Austrians.

The Central Monarchies might well have won the war early and Russia would almost certainly have avoided Communism. When the Russians spurned these advances, the Germans went on to inflict total defeat on them, making the triumph of Communism possible. In 1919, the Versailles Conference met without the attendance of a representative of the Holy See.

Just as the Versailles Treaty was the first one since the early years of Christendom not to invoke the Holy Trinity, the Father of Christendom would have no place at the table which would profoundly rearrange the map of Europe. As Emperor Franz Josef stated at the end of his life, “Europe is dead.” It was the tragic fate of Pope Benedict XV, the man who loved Europe most, to weep at her tomb.

Peter Chojnowski is a professor, writer and currently teaches at Immaculate Conception Academy in Post Falls, Idaho.

The image shows, “Kaiser’s Got The Blues,” cover or sheet music from 1918.

The Chaco War

Paraguay, it turns out, owes much to Russia. Thanks largely to a few dozen Russian officers, the country emerged victorious in an almost unwinnable war, and doubled its territory in the process.

The Chaco War (1932-1935) between Bolivia and Paraguay was the bloodiest conflict in Latin America, in which well-over 100,000 lives were lost. It was also the first air-war fought in South America. It is a war little remembered now. A key role in the hostilities was played by Russian and German émigré officers on the two warring sides. It was, in effect, a continuation of WWI on another continent.

For decades, Paraguay and Bolivia had bickered over the vast region of Gran Chaco. Both considered it as its own, yet neither risked an open confrontation. That was until 1928, when geologists claimed that this sparsely populated, impassable territory could be a source of oil.

Asuncion and La Paz (the administrative capital of Bolivia) were soon at each other’s throats. And oil companies added literal fuel to the metaphorical fire. The sworn enemies Standard Oil (a U.S. company supporting Bolivia) and Royal-Dutch Shell (an Anglo-Dutch company backing Paraguay) saw great prospects in Gran Chaco.

The first clash occurred between a Paraguayan cavalry detachment and Bolivian police in August 1928. All-out war was prevented only through the intervention of the League of Nations. Four years later, however, the organization was powerless to do anything. On June 15, 1932, the Bolivian army launched a surprise attack on Paraguayan outposts in the disputed territory.

Tiny Paraguay seemed to have little hope against the far mightier Bolivia. Not only was the latter’s manpower 3.5 times larger, but just 60 years previously Paraguay had endured a brutal war against Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, which claimed the lives of up to 70% of its male population.

Moreover, the Bolivian armed forces had three times as much air power and an overwhelming advantage in terms of armored vehicles. The Paraguayans could not field a single armored vehicle against the Vickers Mk E light tanks and Carden Lloyd VI tankettes of Bolivia. Only in respect of artillery guns was a certain parity maintained.

In this dire situation, only a miracle could save the country, and one duly arrived in the form of several dozen Russian officers who had left their homeland after the Russian Civil War and found a new home across the ocean.

One of the émigré officers, Lieutenant General Nikolai Stogov, wrote: “There seems not to be a single area of military affairs that our Russian émigré officers in Paraguay have not contributed to in terms of know-how and experience.”

Even before the conflict began, realizing the invaluable experience of the Russian officers, Paraguay’s leadership actively engaged them in modernizing both the armed forces and the country as a whole. “Russian émigrés were a boon to Paraguay, which needed to restore its shaky economy. Bridges, roads, administrative buildings, barracks, etc. all started to be built. The country gradually came to life thanks to the help of Russian technical personnel,” said Russian architect Georges Benois, who visited Asuncion in the 1920s.

It was Russian advisers who insisted on adopting the Danish Madsen machine gun, which the Tsarist cavalry had used in WWI. It was far more effective and reliable than the Chauchat machine gun, which the French military mission gave the Paraguayans.

Thanks to the Russians, in 1932, Paraguay created its first cavalry division. In this regard, it outpaced Bolivia, where such a formation appeared only two years later. The Paraguayan cavalry was trained to carry out blitz raids on the enemy rear, and Major Nikolai Korsakov even translated Russian cavalry songs into Spanish to instill military spirit.

Meanwhile, 120 German officers had settled in Bolivia and were now serving in the national army, which had been remodeled along German lines and dressed in the uniform of the Reichswehr. WWI veteran officer Hans Kundt was appointed commander-in-chief, arrogantly asserting that he would easily deal with the Russians (meaning the Paraguayan army).

At that time, 86 Russian émigrés were serving in the ranks of the Paraguayan armed forces. Despite their small number, most were officers with invaluable combat experience, and almost all proved their considerable worth in their respective area of expertise.

Having completed 13 reconnaissance trips to Gran Chaco, General Ivan Belyaev had vast experience as both a cartographer of the region and an artilleryman. And as the head of the cartographic unit of the General Staff and adviser to the Paraguayan president, he was heavily involved in planning the offensive and defensive operations of the Paraguayan army.

Thanks to the deciphering of the Bolivian military codes at the very start of the war by the head of Paraguay’s military intelligence, Nikolai Ern, and Captain Sergei Kern, the Paraguayan military secured an invaluable advantage. They often knew about the enemy’s intentions before the Bolivian troops had even received their orders.

A major role in the organization of the Paraguayan air defenses was played by aviator Captain Sergei Schetinin. Through his efforts, Bolivian aviation became far more potent. On his advice, the Paraguayans created dummy artillery, which the Bolivian planes wastefully bombarded.

The culmination of the Bolivian-Paraguayan (as well as Russian-German) Chaco War was the second battle of Nanawa (a suburb of Asuncion) in July 1933. In this operation, Kundt concentrated 6,000 of his Bolivian men against 3,600 Paraguayans.

Under the cover of German-crewed tanks, led by a detachment of flamethrowers, the Bolivians advanced on the Paraguayan army’s positions. Thanks to the solid defenses set up by the Russian military experts (fortified areas equipped with mortars and machine guns, surrounded by minefields and barbed wire), eight enemy attacks were repelled, followed by a successful counterattack. The Bolivian army lost several tanks and around 2,000 men, against Paraguayan losses of just 448. Shortly after the failed operation, Kundt was removed from his post.

The following year, after several major victories, Paraguay finally gained the strategic upper hand. When its armed forces entered Bolivia, the latter turned to the League of Nations for assistance in concluding a peace.
Under the 1935 peace treaty, Paraguay received most of Gran Chaco, which almost doubled its territory. In an evil twist of irony, oil was discovered in the valley only 77 years later, in 2012.

The Paraguayans praised the Russian officers for their vital role in the Chaco War. The future president of Paraguay, Alfredo Stroessner, who had served under General Stepan Vysokolyan, had deep respect for both his commander and the entire Russian officer corps, calling them “people of honor.”

After the war, many of these Russian émigrés received all kinds of awards, were proclaimed national heroes, and occupied high positions in the country. To this day, six streets in Asuncion are named after the six Russian officers who were killed in the Chaco War.

How Ivan Belyaev Became Juan Belaieff (1875–1957)

Belyaev lost everything in his homeland after the Bolshevik revolution, so he moved to Latin America, chasing his childhood dreams – and became Juan Belaieff, Paraguay’s national hero.

Imagine your country just had a terrible civil war and the side you fought for lost. Your land is occupied by communists who killed your friends; you have nothing and are forced out to foreign lands. What would you do?

That’s the question all the officers and soldiers of the anti-Bolshevik White Army had to answer in the 1920s, after losing in the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922. Some settled down in Europe or the U.S., becoming successful bourgeois. Those less successful had to work as butlers or taxi drivers; some succumbed to alcoholism or committed suicide.

But General Ivan Timofeevich Belyaev (better known as Juan Belaieff), a hero of World War I and old-school Russian imperial officer, had a far more impressive and adventurous fate than any other emigre. He moved to Paraguay and tried to build a second home for Russian émigrés there, at the same time studying the South American Indians and becoming their hero. How so?

“My fate was decided by a completely minor event,” Belyaev wrote in his autobiography, Notes of a Russian Exile. “As a child, having a stroll with my aunt in St. Petersburg, I noticed a small book at a book market, with a picture of an Indian, named The Last of the Mohicans.”

After reading that adventure novel and many other, far more serious, stories, touching upon customs and civilization of American Indians, little Belyaev completely fell in love with this theme, becoming interested in Indians for the rest of his life. “Each night I was praying for my Indians,” he recalled of his childhood. Yet, it would take several decades and Russia’s national disaster to make Belyaev actually meet Indians.
He had another career ahead of him – born to a family where all men were in military service, Belyaev became an artillerist and devotedly served Russia.

By the time World War I began in 1914, Belyaev held a rank of colonel. When hearing the news that Russia had declared war on Austro-Hungary and Germany, he reacted simply: “Long live Russia, death to her enemies!” and headed to the front to fight.

“Artillery is a mother of a child who got sick,” he used to say. “We are to watch our infantry close, listen to its pulse, being always ready to help it.” Loved by his soldiers, Belyaev was a classic Russian officer of his time, conservative and brave.

At war, the colonel survived many dangers, but once – only by chance. A bullet came through his chest but didn’t reach his spine or guts. Wounded Belyaev was transferred to a hospital near Petrograd, where he met Empress Alexandra Fedorovna and was promoted to general. After recovery, Belyaev headed back to the front-line.

In his memoirs, Belyaev admitted that despite the bravery and efforts of the Russian army, by 1917, Russia was too exhausted with the war, losing its best sons. “The last of the decent drowned in a sea of blood, the last impulse to fight burned out,” he wrote. The chaos of revolutions made Russian people turn their weapons against each other – at first Belyaev refused to fight against Russians but then his monarchist views prevail.

The White Army lost the war. In the 1920s, Belyaev, as well as many other soldiers and officers, sailed away from the shores of Russia. Along with his family, he moved to Europe, but didn’t stay there either. He decided to find a new home in Latin America.

In the 1920s, Russian émigrés in Paris could find a strange Russian-language newspaper called Paraguay, published in France by Belyaev. Each issue read on the front page: “Europe failed the Russian hope. Paraguay is a country to build a future in.” The general called on his compatriots to go to Paraguay and help him to, basically, build a new small Russia there. As for him, he had already been living in Paraguay since 1924, and was known as, Juan Belaieff.

Why Paraguay? Even by Latin America’s standards, that poor and underpopulated country was hardly a popular destination – but that’s why the local authorities welcomed immigration. Ever since losing the Paraguayan War of 1864-1870 to the alliance of Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, Paraguay remained weak and lacked military force – and inviting some Russian officers was a good option for the government.

Belaieff, along with 12 other White Army officers, entered Paraguayan military service in 1924, joining the General Staff. His interests, however, lied beyond just military – in Paraguay he became a scientist.

Belaieff led 13 expeditions to the Gran Chaco, a vast area in West Paraguay populated by indigenous Maká people. “They spoke their own languages and hardly communicated with the other Paraguayans,” historian Boris Martynov, author of Russian Paraguay, notes. Belaieff, fascinated by Indians since his childhood, immediately established close ties with them, helping with supplies and clothes, studying their ancient culture, opening schools and even theaters.

Paradoxically, the Russian officer became a bridge uniting the Maká with their more-Westernized compatriots. The Indians adored Belaieff, calling him the ‘White Father’.

Even though he enjoyed his communication with the Maká, Belaieff had bigger plans. “I’d like to find a corner where everything sacred that created eternal holy Russia could be preserved, as Noah’s Ark did during the flood until better times,” he recalled. With his help, several Russian settlements were founded in Paraguay, but Russian migration to the country didn’t become widespread, and internal conflicts condemned the idea of some kind of “new Russia” in Latin America.

Though disappointed, Belaieff considered Paraguay his second home and, along with many Russian officers, gladly supported it in the Chaco war of 1932-1935, when neighboring Bolivia attacked Paraguay. Wounded and infected with malaria, Belaieff could have died a dozen times – but he survived and his side, though outnumbered, prevailed, with the help of the Maká, who were loyal to Belaieff.

He never returned to Russia, living out the rest of his long life in Paraguay. When he died, the Maká transported his body to their area and kept it in a mausoleum, worshipping the spirit of the White Father as a deity. A fellow Russian émigré officer in Paraguay said to a friend about Belaieff: “We, perhaps, will be forgotten after we die, but not him.”

Boris Egorov and Oleg Yegorov write for Russia Beyond.

The image shows a colored drawing of a military telephone depot, by Juan Belaieff, dated 1935.

The Art Of The Wanderers

The Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions was registered in 1870 and lasted until 1923. It was the first independent exhibition association of Russian artists. Its first exhibition, with 16 participating artists, was held in 1871. In the years of its existence, the society staged a total of 48 exhibitions, not just in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but also in other cities within the Russian Empire.

One of the main reasons for the founding of the society was the artists’ desire to acquire financial independence from the Academy of Arts, which essentially had a monopoly on the sale of paintings via its exhibitions. In turn, financial independence gave the artists the right not just to earn an income by “cutting out the middleman”, but also to decide on the subjects of their paintings themselves.

In the 19th century, the Russian Academy of Arts was a conservative institution which prioritized the portrayal of mythological, biblical and historical subjects. The young artists wanted to show scenes from contemporary life and preferred “realism” to myths and legends.

The precursors of the Peredvizhniki (known in English as The Wanderers or The Itinerants) were artists from the St. Petersburg Artel [“Cooperative”] of Artists. In 1863, fourteen students from the Academy of Arts had submitted a petition demanding to independently choose the subjects for their diploma works. The petition was turned down by the academy’s authorities.

Subsequently, the students refused to take part in the annual gold medal competition and left the academy. The “rebels”, led by Ivan Kramskoi, set up an art artel along commune lines. From the new artel, participants – members of the Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions – inherited a policy of independence and confrontation with the Academy of Arts.

The initiative to found the new association belonged to Grigoriy Myasoyedov. The core of the society was made up of successful and already famous artists – academicians of the Academy of Arts, including Vasily Perov, Alexei Savrasov, Ivan Kramskoi and Ivan Shishkin, as well as professors Nikolai Ge, Mikhail Clodt and Konstantin Makovsky.

With time, the ranks of the Peredvizhniki grew considerably – Vasily Surikov, Arkhip Kuindzhi, Valentin Serov, Ilya Repin, Isaac Levitan and Vasily Polenov joined the group. During the time of its existence, the society numbered over 100 members. 

Art critic Vladimir Stasov was the ideologist of the society. In 1882, he proclaimed that “nationalism and realism” were the group’s main principles. Stasov passionately opposed the provincial and imitative nature of Russian art of the first half of the 19th century and dreamed of Russian art occupying a worthy place alongside European art.

Stasov essentially formulated the ideological platform of the new school of Russian art, urging artists to turn to scenes from Russian contemporary life that often contained social criticism.

Enlightenment was another key goal pursued by the Peredvizhniki. Their exhibitions introduced the metropolitan and provincial public to the latest movements in art. According to the artist Nikolai Yaroshenko, the Peredvizhniki’s dream was “to take art out of the inaccessible palaces in which it was the domain of the few and make it the domain of all”.

One of the rules of the Peredvizhniki’s exhibitions, which to a large extent ensured their success, was the requirement that artists should exhibit only new paintings that had not been shown anywhere else before.

Essentially, the Peredvizhniki formed the first private commercial art venture, independent of state patronage. The artists’ income was determined by selling exhibitions organized in different cities. The artists considerably expanded the market for their works by also displaying them in provincial towns.

The sale of entrance tickets to exhibitions was another considerable part of their income. Each artist donated 5 percent from the sale of their work to the society’s pooled funds, which were used to cover the costs of mounting exhibitions.

Collector and philanthropist Pavel Tretyakov supported the society, not just by buying pictures for his gallery at itinerant exhibitions, but also by commissioning original work from artists.

At the Peredvizhniki’s exhibitions, landmark works of Russian art, such as The Rooks Have Come Back by Alexei Savrasov, Moscow Courtyard by Vasily Polenov, The Morning of the Streltsy Execution and Boyarina Morozova by Vasily Surikov, The Birch Grove by Arkhip Kuindzhi, The Stoker by Nikolai Yaroshenko and A Rye Field by Ivan Shishkin, were shown for the first time. 

In 1878, Ilya Repin joined the society. Exhibitions of his paintings were almost always accompanied by scandal. His work Religious Procession in Kursk Governorate was seen as a “squalid attack on all sections of Russian society”, They Did Not Expect Him was described as a “pseudo-liberal denunciation and protest” and in front of Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan ladies just fainted. The latter painting was banned from being exhibited by imperial decree – and because of Repin’s “gory” works, all art exhibitions in Russia were subject to censorship from 1885.

By 1923, the society ceased to exist. Over the years of its existence, its members were often involved in conflicts with one another. Ilya Repin, who twice left the group and then returned, accused his associates of suffering from a bureaucratic mindset. Nikolai Ge, Arkhip Kuindzhi and Viktor Vasnetsov all left the association. In 1901, 11 members left, including Valentin Serov, Mikhail Nesterov and Victor Vasnetsov.

The society’s board eventually began to pursue a conservative policy, not really encouraging young artists to get involved, and, with many leading lights of the society having left the art scene, in the end the activities of the Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions petered out.

Yelena Fedotova writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “The River Oyat,” by Vasily Polenov, painted 1883.

Clare Sheridan’s Secret Life

If Winston Churchill was a vehement opponent of Soviet Russia, his cousin Clare Sheridan, on the contrary, was one of its biggest supporters. That in Britain was unforgivable.

“I am not a Bolshevik. But I have tried to understand the spirit of Communism and it interests me overwhelmingly,” wrote Winston Churchill’s cousin Clare Sheridan in her diary, published as Russian Portraits, during a trip to Soviet Russia in 1920.

The British counterintelligence agency MI5, however, was not so sure. They believed that this relative of one of the most influential people in Britain was a Bolshevik spy.

Being the cousin of War Minister Winston Churchill was not Clare Sheridan’s only accolade. She was a famous sculptor in her own right, and it was her professional activities that took her to the capital of Soviet Russia.

Having met with representatives of a Soviet trade delegation in London in 1920, Clare admitted to having a lifelong love for Russian literature, music, dance, and art; she was promptly invited to visit Russia.

However, at the time it was very difficult for a British subject to do so. The Entente’s intervention in Russia had only just ended, and some British troops remained in Crimea, the last stronghold of the White armies. Moreover, Britain itself, despite opening trade talks, was in no hurry to officially recognize Soviet Russia.

Visiting the land of the Bolsheviks was viewed as utter madness, but Sheridan cared little for public opinion. Via Stockholm and Tallinn, “this wild cousin of mine” (as Churchill put it) set off for Moscow.

Clare was greeted in Russia as an honorary guest. For two months she lived inside the Kremlin, strolled around the streets of Moscow, visited theaters, observed the lives of ordinary people, and marveled at what she saw: “Why am I happy here, shut off from all I belong to? What is there about this country that has always made everyone fall under its spell?”

“Why are these people, who have less education, so much more cultured than we are? The galleries of London are empty. In the British Museum one meets an occasional German student. Here the galleries and museums are full of working people. London provides revues and plays of humiliating mediocrity, which the educated classes enjoy and applaud. Here the masses crowd to see Shakespeare,” she wrote in her diary.

Clare talked a lot to Muscovites, took pictures, and made notes: “Now for the first time I feel morally and mentally free… I love this place and all the people in it. I love the people I have met, and the people who pass by me in the street. I love the atmosphere laden with melancholy, with sacrifice, with tragedy. I am inspired by this Nation, purified by Fire. I admire the dignity of their suffering and the courage of their belief.”

Nevertheless, she didn’t forget why she had come to the Soviet capital in the first place. Sheridan’s sculptural portraits of Bolshevik leaders included Zinoviev, Kamenev, Dzerzhinsky, Trotsky, and, of course, Lenin.

She even got to have a private conversation with the “leader of the Russian revolution.” Vladimir Lenin jokingly reproached her for being related to “the man with all the force of the capitalists behind him.” In response, Clare remarked that her other cousin was a member of the Irish left-wing party Sinn Fein. Laughing, Lenin replied: “That must be a cheerful party when you three get together.”

At home in Britain, Clare was greeted with a coldness verging on hostility. She effectively became persona non grata in high society, and even Churchill refused to communicate with her, at least temporarily.

Despite Sheridan’s protestations that she was far removed from politics, the British were outraged by her unprecedented trip, friendship with the Bolsheviks, and support for Russia.

MI5, in particular, paid close attention to the British war minister’s cousin. The agency could not overlook Clare’s ambiguous remarks about Russia and Russians: “I should like to live among them forever, or else work for them outside, work and fight for the Peace that will heal their wounds.”

Under intense public scrutiny, Sheridan was forced to leave Britain. She set off on an incredible round-the-world trip, which included an affair with Charlie Chaplin in the US, meeting Mussolini in Switzerland, and hearing the speeches of the young Hitler in Germany. Everywhere she went, MI5 agents followed on her heels.

In 1925 field operatives discovered that Sheridan had handed over details of a conversation with Churchill (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) about foreign policy to Daily Herald editor Norman Ewer, who was believed to be a Soviet agent.

Shortly thereafter, according to MI5, Sheridan’s finances quickly improved, suspiciously so. After a decade of money trouble, she went to Algeria, having paid off all her debts. British intelligence suspected a Russian hand in it.

“In view of the facts regarding her financial position [we] are strongly of the opinion that Clare is in the pay of the Russians and that she has been sent to North Africa to get in touch with the local situation and to act either as a reporting agent or possibly as a forwarding agent,” read the MI5 report.

MI5 repeatedly shared its suspicions about Sheridan with Churchill, but he always chose to ignore them. More than that, with WW2 now in play, Clare and Winston finally reconciled their differences, letting bygones be bygones.

Clare Sheridan passed away in 1970 at the ripe old age of 84. No case was ever brought against her.

Boris Egorov writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows a portrait of Clare Sheridan by Emil Fuchs, painted in 1907.

Count Friedrich von Schulenburg

In September 1939, Count Friedrich-Werner von der Schulenburg, a 63-year-old German diplomat serving as ambassador to the Soviet Union, couldn’t have been happier. Germany and the USSR had just signed a non-aggression treaty known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Schulenburg strongly believed that peace with Russia was crucial for Germany’s well-being.

“This is a diplomatic miracle… I hope that no circumstances will ruin the situation, which is just fine now. At least, we [the diplomats] fulfilled our task… I hope something good will come out of this!” he wrote emotionally to a friend after the pact was signed.

Unfortunately, nothing good was to come out of it in the end. On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany would violate the treaty, attacking the USSR with all its might, and all of Schulenburg’s efforts to prevent such an outcome were in vain. But why did such a man serve under Hitler in the first place

Schulenburg would likely have agreed with something Joseph Stalin’s said during World War II: “’Hitlers,’ they come and they go and the German nation will remain.” Schulenburg’s diplomatic service began in 1901, long before the Nazis came to power. A descendant of an old noble family, he worked as a diplomat his entire adult life with just one break to fight in World War I, for which he received an Iron Cross for bravery. Governments changed, but Schulenburg worked professionally with all of them.

He served as ambassador to Iran from 1922-1931 and then to Romania from 1931-1934, but the real challenge for him came when he was appointed to Moscow in 1934. While Schulenburg was no Russophile, he did share Otto von Bismark’s belief that in order to preserve its strength and abundance Germany must stay at peace with Russia.

“He attached a lot of importance to German-Soviet and German-Russian ties… For him, there was no alternative to the fruitful co-existence of those two great countries at peace,” Rüdiger von Fritsch, the German ambassador to Moscow, wrote in an article for Novaya Gazeta in 2014. However, since the Nazis were in charge of German foreign policy from 1933, maintaining good relations between Moscow and Berlin proved extremely difficult.

“No one else could represent Germany in the USSR in those hard times so sophisticatedly, with such caution and dignity, as Schulenburg,” noted Gustav Hilger, a German diplomat who worked in the Soviet embassy during the 1930s. Schulenburg did his best to reduce tension between the two countries in 1938-1939, as they were teetering on the brink of war.

In 1938, he reached an agreement with Maxim Litvinov (the Soviet foreign minister from 1930 – 1939) that the two countries would refrain from lambasting one other in the press. He also helped to prolong the trade treaty of 1938. But, as with any diplomat, Schulenburg couldn’t go beyond fulfilling orders from his government, and this is why he was so supportive of Germany and the USSR signing a non-aggression pact.

The thaw between the USSR and Nazi Germany was to be short-lived. In 1941, as new tensions emerged when Moscow rhetorically supported Yugoslavia following its invasion by Germany, new rumors of war filled the air. Schulenburg tried to address Hitler directly, writing him a note on how dangerous a Soviet-German war would be.

Hilger wrote the following in his memoirs: “On April 28, 1941, while on a work trip to Berlin, Schulenburg met Hitler in person. The ambassador saw his note lying on Hitler’s table, but he couldn’t tell if Hitler had read it. However, while saying goodbye, Hitler, pointed, unrelatedly to the previous conversation: ‘One more thing, Schulenburg. I am not going to go to war with Russia!’”

He lied. Schulenburg, though a de jure member of the Nazi Party, wasn’t a true Nazi and so Hitler didn’t trust him. As Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister and Hitler’s close associate, would later write in his diary: “Our ambassador to Moscow had no idea Germany was going to attack… He insisted that the best policy would be making a friend and an ally out of Stalin… There is no doubt that not informing diplomats about our real intentions is the best policy possible.”

On June 22, 1941, Schulenburg came to the Kremlin to inform Vyacheslav Molotov, Litvinov’s successor as foreign minister, that war had begun – by this time, German troops had already stepped on Soviet soil without any declaration of war. The ambassador himself had just received the order from Berlin and felt absolutely crushed. While talking to Molotov, he “raised his hands towards the sky with an expression of powerlessness on his face,” Hilger remembered.

Schulenburg had to leave Moscow once the war broke out. He served in the foreign ministry in Berlin from 1941-1944, leading the Russia Committee, a formal post without any political influence. Not surprisingly, he was dissatisfied with Hitler and his policies.

This dissatisfaction led the old diplomat to join the ranks of the German anti-Nazi resistance. In 1944, by which time it was clear Germany was losing the war, several high-ranking officers and officials hatched a plot to assassinate Hitler. Schulenburg’s participation in the plot was minor, but he could have played an important role had it succeeded – several sources named him as possible foreign minister. The assassination attempt was not successful, however, and Schulenburg, like many other conspirators, was executed.

Although Schulenburg’s career was abruptly terminated, his wisdom and principles were praised in post-Nazi Germany. As Ambassador Fritsch writes, “If you visit Germany’s embassy in Moscow, you will meet Ambassador Schulenburg: His monument stands in the chancellery and his portrait hangs in the ambassador’s residence, next to the portrait of his great predecessor Otto von Bismark… Schulenburg’s personality and his principles serve witness: He deserves such a memory.”

Oleg Yegorov, writes for Russia Beyond.

The Gulag In Five Books

One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich

Any conversation about the Gulag would be unthinkable without Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, for he was the first in the USSR to introduce the topic to the public.

The risky publication of his short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in the literary magazine New World in 1962 became a bombshell. Previously, the topic of Stalin’s camps had not been raised in public although it had – of course – touched almost every family in the country.

In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the protagonist, a peasant, recalls how he went to fight the Germans, was captured, escaped, and was immediately sent to the camps. That was how the Stalinist regime treated anyone who had fallen into German captivity: they were viewed as spies or deserters. The book also offers vivid descriptions of the hardships of everyday life in the labor camps.

Those who want to study the topic more deeply and get a broader picture of the scale of Stalin’s camps should read Solzhenitsyn’s magnum opus The Gulag Archipelago, which he himself called an experiment in artistic research. 

Kolyma Tales

Varlam Shalamov foresaw the appearance of a large number of memoirs and non-fiction works about this terrible period of Soviet history. He believed that authenticity would become the main strength of the literature of the future. In a dry and succinct manner, as if through the eyes of a documentary filmmaker, Shalamov writes about prisoners’ backbreaking work, awful and scant food, beatings and the terrible cold of Kolyma. Behind these daily observations, there are the writer’s ruminations about human beings and the value of life. His bleak writing style penetrates deeply into readers’ consciousness and this document about the Gulag may turn out to be more affecting than any work of art.

“Backbreaking work inflicted irreparable wounds on us, and our life in old age will be a life of pain, endless and varied physical and mental pain.”

Here are some excerpts from Shalamov’s short stories…

From, “The Carpenters”

“But the cold kept up, and Potashnikov knew he couldn’t hold out any longer. Breakfast sustained his strength for no more than an hour of work, and then exhaustion ensued. Frost penetrated the body to the ‘marrow of the bone’ — the phrase was no metaphor. A man could wave his pick or shovel, jump up and down so as not to freeze — till dinner. Dinner was hot — a thin broth and two spoons of kasha that restored one’s strength only a little but nevertheless provided some warmth. And then there was strength to work for an hour, and after that Potashnikov again felt himself in the grip of the cold. The day would finally come to a close, and after supper all the workers would take their bread back to the barracks, where they would eat it, washing it down with a mug of hot water. Not a single man would eat his bread in the mess hall with his soup. After that Potashnikov would go to sleep.

He slept, of course, on one of the upper berths, because the lower ones were like an ice cellar. Everyone who had a lower berth would stand half the night at the stove, taking turns with his neighbors in embracing it; the stove retained a slight remnant of warmth. There was never enough firewood, because to go for it meant a four-kilometer walk after work and everyone avoided the task. The upper berths were warmer, but even so everyone slept in his working clothes — hats, padded coats, pea jackets, felt pants. Even with the extra warmth, by the morning a man’s hair would be frozen to the pillow.

Potashnikov felt his strength leaving him every day. A thirty-year-old man, he had difficulty in climbing on to an upper berth and even in getting down from it. His neighbor had died yesterday. The man simply didn’t wake up, and no one asked for the cause of death, as if there were only one cause that everyone knew.”

From, “In the Night”

“Are you a doctor?” asked Bagretsov, sucking the wound.

Glebov remained silent. The time when he had been a doctor seemed very far away. Had it ever existed? Too often the world beyond the mountains and seas seemed unreal, like something out of a dream. Real were the minute, the hour, the day — from reveille to the end of work. He never guessed further, nor did he have the strength to guess. Nor did anyone else.

He didn’t know the past of the people who surrounded him and didn’t want to know. But then, if tomorrow Bagretsov were to declare himself a doctor of philosophy or a marshal of aviation, Glebov would believe him without a second thought. Had he himself really been a doctor? Not only the habit of judgment was lost, but even the habit of observation. Glebov watched Bagretsov suck the blood from his finger but said nothing. The circumstance slid across his consciousness, but he couldn’t find or even seek within himself the will to answer.

From, “Quiet”

We tried to work, but our lives were too distant from anything that could be expressed in figures, wheelbarrows, or percent of plan. The figures were a mockery. But for an hour, for one moment after that night’s dinner, we got our strength back.

And suddenly I realized that that night’s dinner had given the sectarian the strength he needed for his suicide. He needed that extra portion of kasha to make up his mind to die. There are times when a man has to hurry so as not to lose his will to die.

As usual, we encircled the stove. But today there was no one to sing any hymns. And I guess I was even happy that it was finally quiet.

From, “Dry Rations”

We were all tired of barracks food. Each time they brought in the soup in large zinc tubs suspended on poles, it made us all want to cry. We were ready to cry for fear that the soup would be thin. And when a miracle occurred and the soup was thick, we couldn’t believe it and ate it as slowly as possible. But even with thick soup in a warm stomach there remained a sucking pain; we’d been hungry for too long. All human emotions — love, friendship, envy, concern for one’s fellow man, compassion, longing for fame, honesty — had left us with the flesh that had melted from our bodies during their long fasts…

“Just imagine,” said Savelev. “We’ll survive, leave for the mainland, and quickly become sick old men. We’ll have heart pains and rheumatism, and all the sleepless nights, the hunger, and long hard work of our youth will leave their mark on us even if we remain alive. We’ll be sick without knowing why, groan and drag ourselves from one dispensary to another. This unbearable work will leave us with wounds that can’t be healed, and all our later years will lead to lives of physical and psychological pain. And that pain will be endless and assume many different forms. But even among those terrible future days there will be good ones when we’ll be almost healthy and we won’t think about our sufferings. And the number of those days will be exactly equal to the number of days each of us has been able to loaf in camp.”

From, “A Child’s Drawings”

We finished the work, stacked the wood, and waited for the guards. Our guard was keeping warm in the building for which we’d been chopping wood, but we were supposed to march back in formation, breaking up in town into smaller groups.

We didn’t go to warm up, though, since we had long since noticed, next to a fence, a large heap of garbage — something we could not afford to ignore. Both my companions were soon removing one frozen layer after another with the adroitness that comes from practice. Their booty consisted of lumps of frozen bread, an icy piece of hamburger, and a torn pair of men’s socks. The socks were the most valuable item, of course, and I regretted that I hadn’t found them first. “Civvies” — socks, scarves, gloves, shirts, pants — were prized by people who for decades had nothing to wear but convict garb. The socks could be darned and exchanged for tobacco or bread.

From, “The Red Cross”

The evil acts committed by criminals in camp are innumerable. The unfortunates are those from whom the thief steals their last rags, confiscates their last coin. The working man is afraid to complain, for he sees that the criminals are stronger than the camp authorities. The thief beats the working man and forces him to work. Tens of thousands of people have been beaten to death by thieves. Hundreds of thousands of people who have been in the camps are permanently seduced by the ideology of these criminals and have ceased to be people. Something criminal has entered into their souls for ever. Thieves and their morality have left an indelible mark on the soul of each.

The camp administrator is rude and cruel; the persons responsible for propaganda lie; the doctor has no conscience. But all this is trivial in comparison with the corrupting power of the criminal world. In spite of everything, the authorities are still human beings, and the human element in them does survive. The criminals are not human.

The influence of their morality on camp life is boundless and many-sided. The camps are in every way schools of the negative. No one will ever receive anything useful or necessary from them — neither the convict himself, nor his superiors, nor the guard, nor the inadvertent witnesses (engineers, geologists, doctors), nor the camp administrators, nor their subordinates.

Every minute of camp life is a poisoned minute.

What’s a Human Being Worth?

Female authors who went through the camps are less well known. One of the more notable is Eufrosinia Kersnovskaya: she accompanied her memoirs with drawings – simple, child-like images, but for that reason even more terrifying.

Kersnovskaya possessed incredible strength, both physical and mental, and asked to be given men’s work – she even worked in a mine. Her story is amazing: she managed to escape and survived in the taiga when her only food was a frozen piece of horse-meat.

She describes, without embellishment, the most terrible things that were going on in the Gulag, the lowly position occupied by women prisoners and what many of them were prepared to do in order to survive.

The title of her book reflects her attempts to understand under what conditions a person can lose their essential humanity.

Now exhibitions of Kersnovskaya’s drawings from the camps are held all over the world. 

The Monastery

Present-day writers too turn to the topic of the Gulag. For example, one of Russia’s leading authors, Zakhar Prilepin, sent his hero to a camp on the Solovetsky Islands – the very same Gulag archipelago.

This major novel is based on thorough archival research. The author made numerous trips to the Solovetsky Islands, working in the archives there. He offers an extremely accurate depiction of the head of the camp, as well as the entire camp structure – from prison cells made out of former monastic cells and wooden bunks in churches to punishment cells set up in remote monastic retreats.

Prilepin also portrays different groups of inmates – political prisoners and ordinary criminals rubbed shoulders in these camps.

Zuleikha

This is another contemporary novel on our list, the debut novel by writer Guzel Yakhina, which became a bestseller in Russia and has already been translated into 10 languages. It tells not so much the story of the Gulag itself as of the Stalin-era repressions, namely the dispossession of Tatar peasants and their deportation to Siberia.

The book’s heroine, together with a group of prisoners, finds herself in the middle of the taiga under the escort of one officer. They have to dig their own dugout, forage for food and fend off the cold. But, strangely, in these circumstances, she feels a freer person than when she was when oppressed by her husband and mother-in-law.

Although this is a work of fiction, but Yakhina studied archive materials about deportations to Siberia in Stalin’s times. In addition, her grandmother was among those dispossessed in the 1930s, and when depicting the everyday life of her characters, the author relied on her grandmother’s recollections. 

Alexandra Guzeva writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “Magadan Hills,” by Nikolai Getman.

The Battle Of Berlin

The Battle of Berlin was the final large-scale military operation to take place in Europe during World War II. The British and American allies did not participate in this offensive, leaving the Soviet army to conquer the city alone.

The Battle of Berlin was one of the largest battles in human history. It began on April 16 in the outskirts of the city. By April 25, Soviet troops had entered the Third Reich’s capital. About 3.5 million soldiers from both sides participated in the fight with more than 50,000 weapons and 10,000 tanks.

Soviet troops stormed Berlin while the rest of the Allied army remained more than 100 kilometers outside the German capital. In 1943, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt declared that “the U.S. must obtain Berlin.”

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed that the Nazi capital must not fall into Soviet hands. However, in the spring of 1945, these Allied forces did not make any effort to take possession of the city. British historian John Fuller called it “one of the strangest decisions ever made in military history.”

However, this decision had its motives. In an interview with RBTH, Russian historian Andrei Soyustov said that there were at least two reasons for this decision.

First, according to preliminary agreements, including the accords made in Yalta, Berlin was located in the zone of Soviet military operations. The demarcation line between the USSR and the other Allied forces went along the Elbe River. “Rushing into Berlin for the sake of status, could have, at minimum, backfired and may have resulted in a USSR decision not to fight against Japan,” explains the historian.

The second reason for not storming the giant urban center was that the Allies had been fraught with casualties as the end of the war approached. In the period between the Normandy landing and April 1945 the Allies “were able to avoid storming large cities,” Soyustov notes.

Soviet casualties in the Battle of Berlin were indeed very high with 80,000 injured and at least 20,000 killed. The German side suffered just as many losses.

Berlin was captured by Soviet troops on three fronts. The most difficult task fell to the soldiers from the First Belarus Front, commanded by Georgy Zhukov, who had to charge the well-fortified German position in Seelow Heights on the outskirts of the city.

The attack began during the night of April 16 with an unprecedentedly powerful and coordinated artillery barrage. Then, without waiting for morning, tanks entered the battle supported by the infantry.

The offensive was conducted with the help of floodlights, which were set up behind the advancing troops. Even with the use of this clever this tactic, several days were needed to seize Seelow Heights.

Initially, almost one million German servicemen were concentrated around Berlin. However, they were met by a Soviet force that was 2.5 times greater. At the very beginning of the Berlin operation, Soviet troops succeeded in cutting off the majority of the German units from the city.

Due to this, the Soviet Army encountered only a few hundred thousand German soldiers in Berlin itself, including the Volkssturm (the militia) and the Hitler Youth. There were also many SS units from different European countries.

Hitler’s troops worked desperately to defend themselves with two lines of defense organized in Berlin. Many homes were equipped with bunkers and these houses, with their thick walls, became impregnable strongholds.

Of particular danger for the advancing Soviet troops were the anti-tank weapons, bazookas and hand grenades since Soviet forces were heavily reliant on the use of armored vehicles during the attack. In this environment of urban warfare, many tanks were destroyed.

Following the war, commanders of the Soviet operation were often criticized for relying so heavily on the use of armored vehicles.

However, as emphasized by Soyustov, in such conditions the use of tanks was justified: “Thanks to the heavy use of armored vehicles, the Soviet army was able to create a very mobile unit of support for the advancing troops, which helped them break through the barricades into the city center.”

The tactics used in the Battle of Berlin built on experience from the Battle of Stalingrad. The Soviet troops established special assault units, in which tanks played a critical role.

Typically, maneuvers were carried out in the following manner: The infantry moved along both sides of the street, checking the windows on both sides, to identify obstacles that were dangerous for the vehicles, such as camouflaged weapons, barricades and tanks embedded in the ground.

If the troops noticed such impediments up ahead, the Soviet infantry would wait for the arrival of their self-propelled tanks and self-propelled howitzers, known as “Stalin’s sledgehammer.”

Once this support arrived, the armored vehicles would work to destroy German fortifications at point-blank range. However, there were situations where the infantry could not keep up with the armored vehicles and consequently, the tanks were isolated from their cover and became easy prey for the German anti-tank weapons and artillery.

The culmination of the offensive on Berlin was the battle for the Reichstag, the German parliament building. At the time, it was the highest building in the city center and its capture had symbolic significance.

The first attempt to seize the Reichstag on April 27 failed and the fight continued for four more days. The turning point occurred on April 29 as Soviet troops took possession of the fortified Interior Ministry building, which occupied an entire block. The Soviets finally captured the Reichstag on the evening of April 30.

Early in the morning of May 1, the flag of the 150th Rifle division was raised over the building. This was later referred to as the Banner of Victory.

On April 30, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. Until the last moment, Hitler had been hoping that troops from other parts of Germany would come to his aid in Berlin, but this did not happen. The Berlin troops surrendered on May 2.

Calculating the losses involved in the Battle of Berlin at the end of such a bloody war, some historians doubt whether the Soviet attack of the city was necessary.

In the opinion of historian and writer Yuri Zhukov, after the Soviet and American troops met at the Elbe river, surrounding the German units in Berlin, it was possible to do without the offensive on the Nazi capital.

“Georgy Zhukov… could have just tightened the blockade circle on an hourly basis… But for an entire week, he mercilessly sacrificed thousands of Soviet soldiers… He obtained the surrender of the Berlin garrison on May 2. But if this capitulation had occurred not on May 2 but, let’s say, on the 6th or the 7th, tens of thousands of our soldiers would have been saved,” Zhukov continues.

However, there are other opinions that contradict this view. Some researchers say that if the Soviet troops had just besieged the city, they would have lost the strategic initiative to the Germans.

Nazi attempts to break the blockade from the inside and outside would have resulted in just as many losses for the Soviet Army as the attack, claims Soyustov. It is also not clear how long such a blockade would have lasted.

Soyustov also says that delaying the Berlin operation could have resulted in political problems between the Allied forces.

It is no secret that towards the end of the war the Third Reich’s representatives tried to negotiate a separate peace deal with the Americans and British forces. “In these circumstances, no one would have been able to predict how a blockade of Berlin would have developed,” Soyustov is convinced.

Alexey Timofeychev writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “The Storming of the Reichstag by the Red Army, 1945,” part of a diorama in the German-Russian Museum in Berlin-Karlshorst.

The Glory That Was Lithuania

In the Middle Ages, Moscow was by no means the only center of gravity in the Russian lands. For several centuries, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had designs on its own unified Russia.

Today, Lithuania is a small country on the north-eastern fringe of the European Union. However, 600 years ago it was one of the largest and most powerful states in Europe.

Having been destroyed by the Mongols, Russia was fertile soil for Lithuanian expansion. Through dynastic marriages, military campaigns, and outright annexation, Lithuania subjugated vast swathes of the variegated Russian principalities – so much so that it threatened Moscow’s status as the center of Russian unification.

When, in the early 13th century, the East Baltic pagan tribes suffered the horrors of the Northern Crusades, it seemed that the Lithuanians would share the sad fate of other Baltic tribes crushed by the Teutonic Knights.

Surprisingly, however, the Lithuanian tribes managed to consolidate and not only halt the German onslaught, but inflict some punishing counterattacks on the aggressors. In 1236, at the Battle of Saule, they almost completely destroyed the Livonian Brothers of the Sword, a Catholic military order operating in the territories of modern Latvia and Estonia. Interestingly, 200 soldiers from Pskov, then an ally of the order, perished along with the swordsmen.

From the west (today’s Kaliningrad Region), the Teutonic Order subdued the Prussian tribes on its way to the Lithuanian lands. The Teutons annexed the remains of the so-called Sword Brethren, forming the Livonian Order, and set about clamping the Lithuanians in a pincer movement from both sides.

The Lithuanian rulers realized that they couldn’t survive in isolation. Fortunately for them (but not for the Russians), in 1237 the Mongols invaded the Russian principalities, which largely solved Lithuania’s problems.

The Mongol invasion devastated the Russian principalities of north-eastern Rus and weakened the western Russian principalities, which Lithuania sought to exploit.

Its expansion into the Russian lands was not all through fire and sword, however. In fact, the annexation was largely peaceful, for in the powerful Lithuania the Russian rulers saw the chance of protection from the Mongols. The Lithuanians in turn received much-needed support in the struggle against the Teutonic Knights, and they too were threatened by the marauding Mongols.

The Lithuanian princes did not encroach on the rights of the local nobility, establishing relations with regional rulers under a vassalage system. In case of military exigency, they could rely on local armed contingents.

In the mid-13th century, Lithuania annexed the so-called “Black Russia,” the territory of modern western Belarus, renaming itself the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

The Grand Duchy reached its maximum extent in the 14th century under Princes Gediminas and Algirdas. The Lithuanian state included vast territories that today lie inside Belarus, Ukraine, and south-west Russia.

Now the Grand Duchy of Lithuania had to reckon not only with its old enemy the Teutons, but also the Mongols, the Poles, the Hungarians, as well as the Muscovites. Moscow and the Lithuanian territories were separated by no more than 200 kilometers.

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was only Lithuanian in name. 90% of its population was made up of the ancestors of modern Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians. Maintaining the integrity of such a patchwork state was not an easy task, and its rulers had to skillfully navigate between different groups of subjects.

A central pillar of the state was tolerance. Although officially pagan, not only did it not violate the rights of the Orthodox population, it actively supported them. In 1316, the Lithuanians even sought to set up its own metropolitan see in Novogrodok (modern Novogrudok in Belarus), and established direct contacts with the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Much later, in the 16th century, the ambassador of the Holy Roman Empire, Sigismund Herberstein, wrote about the Lithuanian capital, then called Vilna: “There are considerably more Russian churches than ones of the Catholic faith.”

The Lithuanian princes first established a protectorate, before finally annexing Kiev in the 1360s, recognizing it as the “mother of Russian cities.” Ruthenian supplanted Lithuanian as the official language, and remained so until the late 17th century.

Lithuania pulled out all the stops to demonstrate to the Russian principalities and its main rival in the east, the Grand Duchy of Moscow, that it was the political and spiritual center of unification for the Russian lands.

For a long time, the Lithuanian princes maneuvered between the Catholic and Orthodox worlds without taking sides.

For instance, Grand Duke Mindaugas was baptized into Catholicism and crowned “king of Lithuania” by Pope Innocent IV. However, after his death in 1263, Lithuania returned once more to the fold of paganism, which, incidentally, did not prevent Mindaugas’ son Vaisvilkas, who succeeded his father, from being a fanatical adherent of Orthodoxy.

However, this state of affairs could not continue indefinitely. As the last pagan state of Europe, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania could not be regarded as an equal by the Christian sovereigns of Europe. It also played into the hands of the Teutonic Order, which could legitimately wage unending holy war against Lithuanian paganism.The situation was resolved by Lithuania’s political and cultural convergence with Poland, with whom it had fought against the Teutons. In 1387, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Jogaila, who was concurrently King of Poland under the name Wladyslaw II Jagiello, converted Lithuania to Catholicism.

From that moment on, the Grand Duchy’s encouragement of Orthodoxy ceased, and the Catholic faith took root. Hence, Lithuania could no longer lay claim to the title of unifier of the Russian lands.

The union of Lithuania and Poland as one state in the 16th century exerted tremendous political, cultural, and religious pressure on the Grand Duchy’s Orthodox population, namely the Belarusian and Ukrainian people. Over the coming centuries, they would be a bone of contention between the Polish and Russian civilizations. It remains a live issue to this day.

Boris Egorov writes for Russia Beyond.

The photo shows, “The Battle of Grunwald,” by Jan Matejko, painted in 1878.

Tsar Nicholas II And Thailand

An Orthodox parish appeared in the Thai city of Hua Hin about seven years ago. Hua Hin is situated near Bangkok and it is one of the residences of the King of Thailand. When the members of the Russian Orthodox mission were discussing who to dedicate the new church to, the Orthodox community from the island of Phuket proposed that the church be dedicated to the Royal Martyrs.

When St. Nicholas II was the tsarevich (crown prince), he visited the Kingdom of Siam during his Eastern journey, which makes him the only Orthodox saint who has ever trod this country so far. The factors contributing to the dedication of the church in honor of the Royal Family were: the importance of the monarchy for the Thai people, the Russian monarch’s holiness, and the status of the city as a royal residence. Another weighty argument was the fact that the parish on Phuket suggested donating relics associated with the Royal Family to the new church, namely a medallion which belonged to Princess Tatiana Nikolaevna and the cross that she used to wear on her neck (these were bought by Sergey Yefremov, a parishioner, at an Armand Hammer Auction).

The rector of the Holy Trinity Church on Phuket painted an icon of the Holy Princess Tatiana and donated it to the new church in Hua Hin, and Sergei Yefremov sent them another present from Russia, namely a small icon of the Protection of the Holy Theotokos from the Church of the Feodorovskaya icon in Krasnoye Selo near St. Petersburg (also from the Armand Hammer collection).

Although the community is small, the church started holding interesting annual public and church meetings and concerts, along with other events with the participation of the Russian Federation’s Ambassador Extraordinary to Thailand. Last year there were also Church-wide festivities on the occasion of the centenary of the Royal Family’s martyrdom.

Pilgrims from across Thailand came in buses and their own cars, and at least half of them were Thais—most probably because the tourist season had ended long before and all who remained in Thailand were its permanent residents and a handful of tourists.

Of all the Thais who were present at the church service, one elderly couple stood out: the former commander-in-chief of the Thai Royal Navy, Admiral Varong Songcharoen, and his wife, Vorasulisi (Bhakdikun) Songcharoen, who is related to the New Martyr Nicholas Johnson. Admiral Varong and his spouse had recently returned from Russia where they had participated in an international conference dedicated to the memory of Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich and St. Nicholas Johnson.

The service was solemn, with an assembly of priests in the altar, and a male choir singing in the church which was packed. After the service Archimandrite Oleg (Cherepanin) delivered a sermon on the podvig of the last tsar and his family and on how much the monarchical system in Thailand should be valued.

After the sermon the choir performed the anthem of the Russian Empire, “God Save the Tsar”, as well as the royal anthem of Thailand, Sansoen Phra Barami [meaning, “Glorify His Prestige” in Thai.—Trans.]. Fr. Oleg spoke on the New Martyr Nicholas. Most of the parishioners knew nothing about him, and the presence of this saint’s Thai relatives in the church was both stirring and mysterious—you immediately wanted to know them better.

When all the prayers were over, the celebration continued in a freer atmosphere—during the festal meal, the choir of St. Nicholas Church sang songs, and students of Sunday schools from Pattaya and Samui Island gave performances.

The program concluded with the launch of a Thai book that was published especially for the feast. The book was composed of selected letters and diary entries of the Holy Emperor Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra. The purity of love and faith and the high standards of family relations in their correspondence demonstrates to us an example of family holiness.

The greatest impression came from the illustrations: the photographs of the Royal Family, skillfully colored by the well-known photographer Olga Shirnina (aka Klimbim). The book was launched by the project manager Xenia Bychkova who expressed her gratitude to all those who had worked on this book. The launch in Thai was prepared by a student of the Orthodox theological college in Phuket, Karl Ratchanont Teikoksung. Fr. Oleg presented each Thai who attended the service with a copy of the book.

Reflecting on the Orthodox community in Thailand, I asked myself the following questions: Do we and the Thais understand the meaning of today’s celebrations? How can residents of Thailand, a monarchical state, mark the martyrdom of a monarch of their friend-state?

Some reflections…

Hieromonk Micah (Phiasayawong), the first Laotian Orthodox priest: Today we commemorate Tsar Nicholas and his family: how much they did for the Church and the people! Both the tsar and the tsarina faithfully accepted their crosses. Apart from having the power of the State in their hands, they believed in God, and they taught us to believe in God also. This day is a sad one and a happy one at the same time. When we look at their example of a holy life, it gives us joy, but when we recall how they were killed we feel sorrow. They were the father and the mother of the entire Russian land, and now they are saints and all of us (not just Russians) love them.

People in Thailand know about St. Nicholas II as he did much to help Thailand avoid French and British colonization—he is perceived as the defender of Thailand’s independence. As for Laos, no one knows about the tsar there. Laos is a Communist state, and they have a negative attitude towards royal authority (The last King of Laos, Savang Vatthana, abdicated the throne, after which he and his family were sent to the “Re-education camp,” where all of them perished in about 1977).”

Nicholas Thanaboon Kebklang, a student of the Orthodox theological college on the Island of Phuket: “July 17 is a sad day for the Russians. Exactly 100 years ago [this article was published in Russian in 2018 for the tragedy’s centenary.—Trans.] they lost their beloved state—Russia. Tsar Nicholas II was brutally murdered together with his family. Some may perceive it as a shocking and tragic event—and it is really so. But the tragedy of that fateful day is our today’s joy. Tsar Nicholas and his family became holy martyrs for the Church, and this is a victory, a triumph in Christ. Who is our God? Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of Man’s sake. Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in Heaven… (Lk. 6:22-23).”

Archimandrite Oleg (Cherepanin), Dean of the Patriarchal Parishes in Thailand:Today in Hua Hin, apart from the exploit of the martyred Royal Family we honor Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, Many consider him the last Russian monarch, although he was never crowned. He was executed by firing squad in the city of Perm a month prior to the martyrdom of St. Nicholas II’s family. His faithful secretary, who didn’t leave the Grand Duke even in the hardest of times despite mortal danger, was martyred with him. He remained wholeheartedly faithful to Michael Alexandrovich both in the good times and during persecutions even to the point of death. This man’s name was Nicholas Johnson. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia canonized him as a new martyr. His icon lies on the analogion. It turned out that some of his relatives are Thai and reside in Thailand. Notably, one is Mrs. Vorasulisi Songcharoen, the spouse of the Thai Royal Navy Admiral Varong Songcharoen. Two months ago the couple emailed me and then came to the church on Saturday to pray at a memorial service for the repose of St. Nicholas Johnson. However, we didn’t have a memorial service because he is already ranked among the saints; instead, we held a service of intercession. It was then that the couple said that they wanted to attend the celebrations in Hua Hin.”

Vorasulisi (Bhakdikun) Songcharoen, the New Martyr Nicholas Johnson’s great-niece: “My great-uncle, Nicholas Nikolaevich Johnson, the secretary of Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, was executed with him on the night of June 13, 1918, in the city of Perm, and was recognized as a new martyr afterwards. We learned about his tragic death not long ago, and on the 140th anniversary of his birth we asked Fr. Oleg (Cherepanin) to conduct a memorial service. Fr. Oleg kindly explained that we shouldn’t pray for his repose now because he is already a saint and what we can do is ask for his blessing. Fr. Oleg helped me understand and accept this tragedy from a more spiritual point of view, even if we are very sorry and sad. Now they are saints of God, and we can no longer think of them the way we would think of all other people. Fr. Oleg helped me perceive this feeling and accept this way of thinking, and I enormously appreciate that. Earlier I had thought desperately: “What a terrible tragedy! Why did it happen?” and so on. Instead of dwelling solely on the tragic aspect of the subject, we all should take into account that it was one of the most important lessons of history we must learn.

“Three weeks ago, I attended events organized in Perm to commemorate Grand Duke Michael and my great-uncle St. Nicholas Johnson. The procession of the cross walked from the city to the chapel built on the hill where the Grand Duke and his secretary are believed to have been killed. It was explained to me that it was a procession of repentance. In my view, the penitential nature of this procession is very important. With so many people and so many priests participating, it was a religious procession of people who had the same sense of remorse for what happened 100 years ago…

“I have been to Russia on three occasions: during the first visit I tried to find my mother’s grave; the second trip was last year because my son wanted to see Moscow; and this year we travelled to Perm in connection with the centenary of my great-uncle’s martyrdom. So, we walked in a cross-procession to the chapel—the supposed place of his execution, then we were present at the ceremony of the unveiling of a plaque in the building where the Grand Duke was seen for the last time; next we took part in the planting of a tree and visited a museum dedicated to the story of Grand Duke Michael and St. Nicholas Johnson. We also participated in an international conference where the tragic events of 100 years ago were discussed in detail from different perspectives: historical, legal, archeological, social and so on. It was also mentioned that it would be more correct to call Grand Duke Michael “Tsar Michael II” because in fact he was the last Emperor of Russia.

“The remains of the Grand Duke and my great-uncle haven’t been found yet, but the search will continue using the most advanced technology and instruments. My cousin and I have provided our DNA samples so the remains could be identified once they have been found. I was happy to have a chance of offering my mite and I pray that the bodies of the Grand Duke and my great-uncle could be discovered and buried in an appropriate manner.”

The original Russian version of this article was translated by Dmitry Lapa, and appears courtesy of Orthodox Christianity.