About a month ago, on July 17, Orthodox Christians in Russia and throughout the world observed the one-hundred year anniversary of the assassination of Tsar Nicholas and his family. A procession was held, starting from the Church on the Blood in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, a church constructed at the site where the Romanovs were murdered in 1918. Over 100,000 pilgrims walked 21 kilometers to the Monastery of the Holy Imperial Passion-Bearers at Ganina Yama, the site of the ignoble graves which had held the imperial family for more than three-quarters of a century.
In the early morning hours of July 17, 1918, Tsar Nicholas, his wife Alexandra, his four daughters Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, and the thirteen year old heir Alexei, in confinement at the Ipatiev House, were led to the basement and shot. The Tsar and Tsarina died instantly. There was a lot of confusion; some of the revolutionaries may have been queasy to kill young maidens. Jewels sewn in the Grand-Duchesses’ corsets deflected the bullets, and bayonets were employed. It was a brutal, ugly execution.
Before being sent to the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, the family was under house arrest in Tobolsk, Siberia, and there the Grand-Duchess Olga relayed the words of her father the Tsar:
“… Father asks to have it passed on to all who have remained loyal
to him and to those on whom they might have influence, that they
not avenge him; he has forgiven and prays for everyone; and not
to avenge themselves, but to remember that the evil which is now in
the world will become yet more powerful, and that it is not evil
which conquers evil, but love…”
Facing their death in a Christ-like manner is what makes the Romanovs passion-bearers and saints.
From her birth, Maria had a naturally good temperament, and her great-uncle Grand-Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich nicknamed her “The Amiable Baby.” When the Bolsheviks decided to move the family from Tobolsk to Yekaterinburg, Alexei was too sick to travel. Because she was nurturing and cheerful, third-daughter Maria was chosen to accompany her parents on the long journey. She helped tend her ill mother, who often used a wheelchair. Because she was naturally cheerful, I chose the Grand-Duchess Maria as my patron saint. Complaining comes too easily to me, and I long to be one who shares joy rather than dismay. I hope to learn from her example.
There’s an expression in certain faith communities: “Be careful what you pray for.” It’s a variation of the common aphorism “Be careful what you hope for.” Because you may get it. Because it may not be what you thought.
For 78 days, the Romanov family kept vigil in the Ipatiev House, suspecting or knowing that their end drew closer. This past April, my mother fell and never recovered, a broken bone turning into a gradual decline. Eventually she stopped eating and the end became predictable. For 113 days, my sisters and I visited and attended her. Her strength failed, and she degenerated from walker to wheelchair to bed. At times the morphine couldn’t touch her pain, and she would desperately cry out, “Help me.” For her last four nights, I stayed at Mom’s bedside, recalling my patron Maria, asking for her grace and strength and joy in the midst of my somber watch.
I don’t know how the Grand-Duchess kept her optimism while enduring cruel imprisonment and the knowledge of surely inevitable death. At night I chanted Psalms to Mom and prayed with her, hoping to be an encouragement. I was at Mom’s side when the weak breathing of her death rattle took over. I was there when she breathed her last. I held her hand. I sang to her. I prayed with her. I don’t know how I endured the unendurable.
But I do know. Through the prayers of my patron, and through the prayers of my friends and spiritual father, I was able to be present with Mom at the end. The Grand-Duchess and Saint Maria Nikolaevna Romanova kept vigil beside me.
I still haven’t attained cheerfulness.
In honor of Martha Long, who entered the next life on July 25, 2018.
A variation of this article was posted at “The Sounding” blog on August 11, 2018.
Azar, Helen, ed. Madru, Amanda. “Maria Romanov: Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna of Russia.” The Romanov Family. August 16, 2015.
Rappaport, Helen. “The Legacy of the Romanovs: How is the Last Russian Royal Family Remembered in Russia?” HistoryExtra. Intermediate Media Co./BBC History Magazine and BBC World Histories Magazine. July 2018.
“Tsar-Struck Russians Mark 100th Anniversary Of Romanov Killings.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. July 17, 2018.
Walsh, Edmund. “The Last Days of the Romanovs.” The Atlantic. March 1928.
Yurovsky, Yakov. [journal]. “Between Method and Execution: Disposing of the Romanovs.” Lapham’s Quarterly. Vol. VI No. 4. Fall 2013