Christian Martyrdom in Russia/Chapter IV

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As has been stated, the recent persecutions of Spirit-Wrestlers commenced in 1895, immediately on the revival among them of ancient principles and practice.

The first to suffer were Matthew Lebedeff and eleven other soldiers, who had given way after the universal conscription in 1887, and for a time outwardly submitted to enter the military service. When conviction wrought upon them, and they openly renounced the position into which they had reluctantly, in time of weakness, been dragged, the persecution which fell upon them was more severe than that which came upon those who were called out for the first time.

They were judged by court-martial, and condemned to confinement in the Ekaterinograd penal battalion, where, according to the regulations, they were expected every day and hour to comply with the demands of military discipline, whereas not having accepted the military service they could not with a clear conscience conform to this. On the other hand, the prison authorities had not the right to desist from enforcing these demands; and the consequence was that the Spirit-Wrestlers were subjected to an incessant series of punishments, consisting of flogging, confinement in a cold, dark cell on a diet of bread and water, prolongation of their sentence, etc., which converted their imprisonment into a slow martyrdom,—until, in the autumn of '96, there was issued an order from the Government that those who refused the military service upon religious grounds were not to be imprisoned in military places of detention.

We find in letters many allusions to them and the sufferings they have passed through in the battalion. One Spirit-Wrestler from Signak writes, 4th March 1896—

"They are so wasted in body that one can hardly recognise them."

Others from the district of Gory write—

"We visited Lebedeff and comrades who are in the Ekaterinograd penal battalion; beside these there are eleven other men who have been enlisted recently. We saw them by permission of the colonel, who asked us, 'Where are you from, and what did you come here for?' We answered, 'We came from the province of Tiflis to visit our brethren.' He said, 'Only relatives are allowed to see the prisoners, and that only for a short time, not more than an hour.' And the meeting was under restraint, but still, thank God, we were able to know about their cruel and unmerciful punishments. Their persecutors cut thorny rods, five or six in one bundle. The men were laid down, and on each side of them were placed drunken men, who began to flay them like ferocious wild beasts which tear asunder meek gentle sheep. Each received thirty strokes.[1] After this they were placed in a solitary and cold cell for a day, and the next day they were taken out and guns were given to them, and they were led out for drill. They said, like Christians, 'We cannot fulfil what is against God's commandment.' But, in spite of their answer, they were again beaten and abused. After this drilling came dinner-time for all the prisoners; other prisoners were fed well, but our brethren did not receive even sufficient bread, and yet they were asked, 'Are you satisfied, or do you wish more?' They, in their innocence, said, 'Give us more bread.' But they received instead—blows, such blows that they could hardly stand on their feet."[2]

These tortures were repeated several times and under great physical exhaustion. Of the twelve, three had not the power to remain steadfast. The fortitude they manifested at the beginning of their imprisonment temporarily gave way, and when guns were given to them, they consented to hold them—also, while faint and weak they took meat which was contrary to their principles. For this they sorely reproached themselves, the more so because when some of their brethren in prison with them were transferred from the prison to Siberia, these three who thus gave way in weakness were left behind and treated as soldiers. They still remain in the Ekaterinograd penal battalion. They feel their position keenly, but endure with patience, though very weak and ill, and manifest much tenderness of spirit. A visit paid to them in December '96 is thus described by a correspondent:—

"January 1897.

"Anthony Fofanoff from Elisavetpol went to see the brethren who were left behind in the penal battalion—Matthew Lebedeff, Nicholas Fofanoff, and Kalmikoff. He went there on the 25th December 1896. He visited them, and talked with Lebedeff, who, in reply to Anthony's question, why he stayed there in that murderous place, said that he had been the object of a severe attack on the part of the authorities.

" His story was as follows:—'They sent letters addressed to me from the brethren, the purport of which was to beg me to fortify the brethren who were in the battalion. The colonel was furious with me, and had me repeatedly flogged for it, for such letters always pass through his hands.'

"He begged me to give this message to all the brethren and his mother.:—

" 'Please God, I shall recover. My heart is very sore that I could not hold out against the whole of the punishment'; and again, 'I shall get over it, I am very grieved myself about it.'

"When Anthony gave them bread and provisions, Lebedeff was much touched, and exclaimed, with tears in his eyes, 'I thought you had forgotten all about us, and that we had forfeited your affection by our want of fortitude.' "

Previous to this, in November 1896, Leo Tolstoy wrote a letter to the colonel of the penal battalion, and near the same time V. Tchertkoff also wrote to him.[3] These letters appear to have somewhat softened the heart of the colonel, to judge by the following account from a friend in Tiflis:—

"Tiflis, December 1896.

"An old Spirit-Wrestler, Tcheveldayeff, has just returned to Tiflis from the Ekaterinograd penal battalion. He had gone to visit his son for the second time. The first time he had been there in the spring of 1895. The commander of the battalion had a little time before received letters from some friends of ours which acquainted him with the real nature of the Spirit-Wrestlers' teaching, with the reason why they were punished, and which asked him to treat them as kindly as possible. This is what Tcheveldayeff related to me about his interview with the commander:—

"Upon receiving me the commander said, 'Ah, old man! you came in spring, and now here you are again!'

" 'Yes,' said I, 'I have come again; I feel for my children.'

" 'Why do you say your children? You have only one son here, have you not?'

" 'Yes, but I regard them all as my children.'

"When I was there in spring he was hard-hearted, but this time he was much kinder. I used to go and see him every day, and when I did not come he sent a soldier for me. We used to sit down on a bench outside his house and chat.

" 'Now, if they were to submit themselves to our law, I should let them go home to see their friends,' says he.

" 'One should serve one Master only,' says I.

" 'And what master?'

" 'We have one Master—the Lord—Him do we serve.'

" 'Why did you not accept the guns?'

" 'How can we kill our friends?'

" 'And an enemy?'

" 'If one were to kill an enemy, one would become an enemy oneself. The Lord has created all in the same image.'

" 'But if someone were to meet you and take your horse?'

" 'I would earnestly ask him not to take it. But if I should not persuade him; then let him take it. I will not take sin upon me. As I was coming here with a young friend of mine, we met an Ocetin [one of the native tribes of the Caucasus] who untied my cape and took it; we prayed him earnestly to return it. He did not, but rode away with it. He will be uneasy. The cape will cause his soul much trouble.'

"The commander asked me, 'What is this command of yours, "Love thy neighbour as thyself"? You have no books, where then did you find it?'

" 'We received it from our Father and Friend. It is in our "Book of Life," which contains all our commandments.'

" He made me repeat them to him. Then he asked me to repeat to him one of our psalms.

" 'Where do you learn all this?' he asked. " 'From our parents.'

" 'And thus you teach your children?'

" 'Yes.'

"And so we went on chatting together. At last he said, 'Yes, all this is correct; and one should live so.' "

Of those Spirit-Wrestlers who were transferred from the penal battalion and other prisons to Siberia, several became ill and died, from the hardships they endured in prison and on the way. The following is a short account, from a friend of ours, of one of them who died in the Moscow prison:—

"At the present moment there lies in the Moscow Prison Hospital a Spirit-Wrestler, one of the recalcitrant soldiers. He was in confinement about a year, and was deported with others to the Yakutsk district, but left behind at Moscow owing to illness. I have been to see him twice. He has consumption, and looks very bad, and will not long hold out against the fever, the perspirations, and the cough. In mind he is quite at rest, and says he is satisfied with everything, and only complains of his disease, though he bears even that with complete equanimity.

"March 1897."

  1. Others write: "The blood splattered in all directions; the prickles entered into the flesh, and when they were pulled out, bits of flesh fell down."
  2. Being vegetarians they could not take the soup which was given to the other prisoners.—(Ed.)
  3. Both these letters are given in the Appendix.—(Ed.)