Christian Martyrdom in Russia/Appendix III

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From Vladimir Tchertkoff's Letter to the Commander of the Ekaterinograd Penal Battalion


. . . From the enclosed pamphlet,[1] if you will read it, you will learn the object of the present letter. Notwithstanding the complete dillerence of our relations to this question, I think you cannot but agree with the chief considerations contained in this paper.

At the present time there is, in the penal battalion under your command, a whole group of "Spirit-Wrestleis," who, on account of their religious convictions, are unable to take part in militiiry service, and therefore find themselves in this military place of confinement, in an exactly similar position to those individuals concerning whom I have given information in that paper. Even although one were to regard the convictions of these men as erroneous, as you naturally cannot fail to do, yet one cannot but admit that, in connection with their views, they manifest remarkable conscientiousness and true courage, in striving not to deviate from that which they for themselves regard as the will of God, notwithstanding the dreadful sufferings, and in some cases even death, to which they are subjected in consequence. Therefore no honest man, whatever his relation to the military service, can fail to regard, at all events with respect and compassion, these martyrs for conscience' sake, and desire, as far as it lies in his power, to alleviate their sufferings.

I implore you, sir, carefully to investigate the conduct of these men, and to enter into the motive which prompts them to act as they do. If you will only do this, you will immediately see for yourself that they radically differ from all the other prisoners under your command, and that it would therefore be too unjust and cruel to make the same demands upon them as upon the other prisoners, and to submit them to the same punishments for the non-accomplishment of these demands. If an ordinary prisoner evades the fulfilment of the official demands made upon him, he does so in accordance with quite another kind of impulse, having no connection with the demands of conscience; whereas these men are in your battalion, placed in such a position that many of the demands of the authorities, which in the eyes of the other prisoners have nothing objectionable, are for them contrary to the will of God, as they understand it in relation to themselves. And just as no true Christian will regard it as admissible to attempt to convert a heathen from faith in idols to the true God by means of flogging, imprisonment and threats, so also those who do not share the convictions of these men cannot conscientiously regard as admissible the use of compulsory measures with a view to forcing them to act contrary to their faith, before they are inwardly convinced of the falsehood of that faith.

We all know what a dreadful responsibility is incurred, before God, by him who, for whatever purpose, endeavours to force a man to act contrary to his conscience. May God help us to avoid that responsibility. "We all walk under God,"[2] and very soon—much sooner than we generally suppose—will come for each one of us the day of reckoning before Him. And we all know that before that highest tribunal, not human but divine, we have to answer, not for any digression from this or that official instruction, nor for the violation of the conventional demands of human public opinion, but for every deviation from the demands of the inner voice of God, which are known and comprehensible to ourselves alone—of that God from whom we have emanated and to whom we shall return when we leave this life.

And in what light, before that court of eternal love and truth, do those men appear, who are unable to go against their consciences in taking part in military service, and whose earthly lot is at the present time in your hands? To the God of love these men naturally appear as His most faithful and obedient servants. They have believed with simplicity and whole-heartedness in the truth and immutability of those demands of love which He has Himself implanted in their hearts, and disclosed to them in the life and teaching of Jesus. These men differ from others only in having placed the divine love towards man higher than everything else, and having become so penetrated with its spirit and obligations that they can in no way consent either to kill, or to learn to kill their fellow-beings. The will of God has become more binding to them than anything else in the world, and they have gone to prison, to martyrdom, to death—solely that they may not transgress the demands of this divine love, by which they live. They cannot enter the military service for the simple reason that already they are in the service of Him who teaches them to love their enemies, and who taught humanity that "no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him" (Matt. v. 44; 1 John iii. 15).

And what is our position before this Supreme Court of God in relation to these men? We can only, in the presence of God, while humbly acknowledging the purity and saintliness of the motives of these His children, thank them for the light with which they illumine the darkness around us, for the true love with which they warm our frozen hearts. In the eyes of God these men manifestly suffer for us; they undergo torture for love of their neighbour, i.e. of me, of you, of all who are dear to us. How then can we fail to recognise our sacred duty before God, to do all in our power to afford them that support which they, as men, cannot at times but need, and to alleviate their sufferings, the weight of which must sometimes be almost beyond their strength?

That movement towards universal brotherhood in which these men are taking part, is daily developing in breadth and depth. From all sides—as from Russia so also from other countries—joyous tidings keep reaching us of fresh cases of similar refusals to perform military service, in consequence of its incompatibility with the ripening demands of the human conscience. Of the ultimate triumph of the Christian ideal of love and goodwill between men I cannot doubt, and I feel certain that, if not we ourselves, our posterity, is destined to take part in the establishment of this new era in the life of mankind. Those first intimations of the approaching dawn at which we, with you, have the joy to be present, bear witness to the inevitable coming of the perfect day. And succeeding generations, while enjoying the welfare of general disarmament and peace, will bless the memory of the martyrs, who are at this moment sacrificing themselves before our eyes, in order to help forward the coming of that time. Let us then be worthy of that which is taking place around us—let us do the utmost in our power to mitigate the martyrdom of these men who are announcing to us the approaching amelioration of mutual human relations. And above all, let us try to understand and accomplish that which is, in the present case, demanded of us by God.

Pardon me, sir, for having, in appealing to you on behalf of these men who, on account of their aspirations and their position, have become infinitely dear to me, given free expression to that which fills my heart at the thought of their condition. Knowing that at the present time their lot lies directly in your hands, I could not refrain from writing this letter, which I request you to accept in the same spirit of sincere goodwill in which I write it.. . .

November 1st, 1896.

  1. A pamphlet entitled "Unnecessary Cruelty," by V. Tchertkoff, in which the author shows that, even from the point of view of the State, it is neither necessary nor advantageous to make martyrs of those who, owing to their religious convictions, cannot take part in the military service.—(Ed.)
  2. A Russian proverb implying that we are all responsible to and dependent on Him.—(Ed.)