06 November 2015

Blessed Martyr Elias (Fondaminsky)


Four Martyrs: UL, S. Maria (Skobtsova); UR, S. Demetrius (Klepenin);
LL, S. Elias (Fondaminsky); LR, S. George (Skobtsov)

Blessed Martyr Elias (Fondaminsky), honoured on the New Calendar today, also known under the nom de guerre of Bunakov, was a close associate and co-martyr of Righteous Martyr Maria (Skobtsova) of Paris, her family and the Paris circle through which she operated the Orthodox Action social charity. A Jew by birth, he was drawn by his ill-fated elder brother Matthew into the same vein of revolutionary politics that Mother Maria was, and felt the same attachment to the narodnichestvo of the Social Revolutionary Party that Mother Maria had, soon becoming one of its leaders. Elias wed his childhood friend, Emily Gavronskiy, in 1903, whose inclinations toward Orthodox Christianity almost certainly influenced him later in his life. In 1906, however, he found himself fleeing - as many left-wing intellectuals of that era did - to France, where he joined the circle of Orthodox activists, clerics and philosophers that included Archimandrite Lev (Gillet), Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, Nicolas Berdyaev and the notorious terrorist-turned-counter-revolutionary Boris Savinkov. He returned to Russia in 1917, barely escaped capture by the Bolsheviks, and took part in the conference at Iași to overthrow the Bolsheviks.

However, in spite of his disillusionment with revolutionary politics, Elias never gave up his commitment to radical politics nor his social service to the poor and disenfranchised. He saw a hope for Russia’s national salvation in what Constantine Skorkin calls, in his brief essay The saintly Eser, an ‘original synthesis of Christianity, socialism and autocracy’. (God bless all such syntheses! Solzhenitsyn’s was just another such, as was that of Saint John of Kronstadt, as was that, albeit in a more amorphous form, of the Slavophils he followed. And not for nothing was Official Nationality founded on a similar three-legged stool!) Maria Skobtsova came to Paris in 1923 with her husband and children and soon immersed herself in charitable work and in the Paris community of Russian émigrés and exiles; she soon befriended Elias Fondaminsky, who shared her politics and religious convictions. Of them their mutual friend Theodore Pianov said: ‘It is difficult to say who had the greater influence on whom, Mother Maria on him or him on Mother Maria.’ He played an active role in the founding of Maria Skobtsova’s Orthodox Action, though the declining health of his wife toward the end of the 1920’s, and her death in 1935, prevented him from doing much active social work.

Given the opportunity to flee for a third time, this time from the advance of the Nazis in 1941, he chose to stay and share the fate of his fellow Jews. This choice meant a life of poverty and eventually his death. Lay theologian George Fedotov remarked about this choice: ‘In his last days he wished to live with the Christians and die with the Jews’; Mother Maria, herself within three years to be arrested and sent to a saint’s reward together with her son and her spiritual father Demetrius Klepenin, said of him: ‘It is out of dough like this that saints are made’. Elias was arrested and sent to the concentration camp at Compiègne, where he accepted Orthodox baptism among the prisoners; after this he was sent to Auschwitz and there martyred at the hands of the Nazis.

Blessed Elias, witness for Christ Our Lord amongst the poor and the downtrodden, pray to God for us!

Many thanks to Jim Forest of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship and to Constantine Skorkin!

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