What Russian Martyrs Elizabeth and Barbara Teach Us About Christian Engagement with the State | Sojourners

What Russian Martyrs Elizabeth and Barbara Teach Us About Christian Engagement with the State

Image via BRJ INC./Flickr

American nobility reside in posh mansions and spend their days splashed across magazine covers. British royalty have castles. But in the early twentieth century, a member of the Russian royal household did not live this way. Grand Duchess Elizabeth (1864-1918) converted to the Orthodox tradition and left her royal household to found a convent. She later died a martyr in the communist revolutions of 1917.

Her detachment from political power — one of both engagement and distance — characterizes the Christian’s paradoxical relationship with the state.

Elizabeth was royalty. Her younger sister Alexandra was Empress of Russia, and her husband Grand Duke Serge was a son of a previous emperor, Tsar Alexander II. Leveraging her social role, Elizabeth led women in workshops of charitable activities in St. Petersburg to bring medicine to the poor and sick. She lamented government policies she did not agree with but worked with the state, offering her talents where she could and admonishing where she saw fit.

In 1905, Elizabeth’s husband was killed by a bomb-tossing revolutionary. She went into a period of great grief, abandoning her social activities, but publicly forgave her husband’s killer, Ivan Kalyayev, and publicly called for his pardon. (He was unrepentant, and was executed.)

Four years later, Elizabeth was ready to leave royal life. She sold her jewels, furniture, and clothes and founded a Russian Orthodox order of nuns, who devoted themselves to prayer and to care for the orphans, poor, and sick of Moscow. They established a hospital, a pharmacy, and other institutions. While opulence held no sway for Elizabeth, she valued the citizens of Russia and their needs. Her religious life still included engagement with the populace.

The work of Elizabeth and her nuns continued until the Russian Civil War, when revolutionaries overthrew the tsar and communists established a new government. St. Elizabeth was arrested and sent into exile. St. Barbara, who had been Elizabeth’s maid while at the palace, followed Elizabeth into the convent and voluntarily accompanied Elizabeth into exile. 

Finally, in July 1918, a group of surviving members of the royal household, including Sts. Elizabeth and Barbara, were taken prisoner, beaten, and thrown down a mineshaft, followed by grenades. The Bolshevik executioner reportedly heard hymns being sung by the nuns and was unnerved enough by it to shove in a pile of brushwood and set it on fire.

In her death, the world had turned on Elizabeth. In her life, St. Elizabeth went from being a princess to Russian nobility, to nun, to prisoner and martyr. Some roles were her choice — some were not. The state can be fickle. Yet all the while, Elizabeth never stopped using her gifts to contribute to society — even when all she could do was sing God’s glory from the bottom of a mineshaft.

The church teaches that we are called to eternal realities beyond this one, but that human societies are good and necessary. Few among us are called to eremitic monasticism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “The human person needs to live in society.” And we see Elizabeth in different states of life doing just this: loving her husband, using her social status to gather support for her charitable work, mourning her husband, worshipping and working in her convent, and, finally, praying.

We gain much from society, and we owe it our gratitude — something we Americans just remembered on July 4. The Catechism adds:

“By means of society, each man is established as an ‘heir’ and receives certain ‘talents’ that enrich his identity and whose fruits he must develop. He rightly owes loyalty to the communities of which he is part and respect to those in authority who have charge of the common good.”

Like Elizabeth, we have a duty to develop our talents, to respect legitimate authority, to show gratitude for the communities that sustain us, and to contribute to the good of others.

And yet there is a line. Too often, we can look to the state for too much. We owe the state our gratitude and we rightly offer the gifts of our talents to serve the community, but the state never provides salvation. It is never the final end, and never deserves our loyalty in opposition to God.

At times, the state itself can go manifestly wrong. In such cases, our relationship to it changes. According to the Catechism,

“Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned, and if it employs morally licit mean to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience.”

Thus the precarious relationship between church and state unfolds. The church has a temporal reality, and we members live in secular society, too. But we must always remain somewhat apart from it — grateful wherever possible, but detached from outcomes and final loyalty.