12 October 2017

New Hieromartyr John of Riga

Father and New Hieromartyr Saint John of Riga

Our father among the saints, the Holy New Hieromartyr John (Pommers) of Riga, was martyred by fire at the hands of unknown assassins widely believed to be working for the Bolshevik government, on this day eighty-three years ago, as I was informed not long ago by a gentle reader and friend of this blog, Mr. S—. Saint John seems to have been something of an activist priest, and head of an Orthodox Party focussed on organising and aiding landless peasants, whose unique blend of agrarian-socialist and monarchist politics seems on first blush to be somewhat similar to my own. He was also acquainted with Father Saint John of Kronstadt and a close friend and compatriot of Patriarch Saint Tikhon of Moscow, with whose blessing the Latvian Orthodox Church was granted autonomy. One of Saint John’s appointees, Bishop John (Garklavs) of Riga, fled to the United States and became the OCA bishop of Chicago and Minneapolis, my current diocese. Also – another small fact: unbeknownst to me, the relics of Saint John of Riga were present in the very altar of the Russian Orthodox mission church at which I was chrismated.

Saint John was born to the Pommers family, whose ancestors had adopted Orthodoxy while Latvia was still under Teutonic rule. The (at that time Lutheran) Dukes of Courland persecuted Orthodox believers mercilessly, and refused one of the Pommers men a Christian burial. The local peasantry gave him a grave of his own and erected a double cross over it, but this grave was desecrated by the Germans under the orders of the Duke.

Saint John himself grew up tending flocks of sheep for his parents, but soon developed an aptitude for reading and writing which landed him in a seminary, complete with a scholarship. Ever the filial child, he worked for his parents each summer while he was at school, and was careful not to burden them financially. When he moved to Kiev, he supported himself by taking on jobs as a teacher. With a recommendation from Saint John of Kronstadt, he was tonsured a monk and continued to teach, instilling in his students a love for Scripture and the Church. He was also politically active at this time, adding to his teaching mission various forms of charitable and activist work – aiding the unemployed and advocating for sobriety among the peasantry.

He held various sees in his tenure as a comparatively young bishop in the Russian Empire: Slutsk, Odessa, Priazovsk-Taganrog. In each place he proved both his pastoral ability and his deep compassion for the people under his care. As bishop of Taganrog he provided shelter to many war refugees from the (then-enemy) territories of Austria-Hungary: Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians alike, and encouraged his Russian parishioners to do the same. Having grown up in poverty himself, he was a strong and tireless advocate for the rights of labour against the claims of capital, and he came to occupy positions as representative for the fledgling labour unions in his sees as a result.

He was not, however, a friend to the new government after 1917, and neither was the Bolshevik government a friend to him. Seeking excuses to remove him from office, they brought several phoney charges against him which were easily disproved by the Metropolitan. The workingmen of Taganrog, supportive of their bishop and comrade, sent an armed escort with Saint John as he went to and from Divine Liturgy. Seeing that their strategy had failed, the Bolsheviks then began transferring Saint John to different bishoprics: Tver, then Moscow, then Penza. At Penza, the authorities used every excuse they could find to harass the Latvian bishop, and several attempts were even made on his life – suspected to be instigated by the secret police. However, Saint John survived all of these attempts, and he was popular enough even with the people of Penza that no harm came to him. The persecution came to an end when the Cheka issued an order in 1920 proclaiming Saint John innocent of all the charges that were arraigned against him and allowed him to carry out his religious duties unmolested.

In 1921, Patriarch Saint Tikhon of Moscow acknowledged a request from Riga to appoint Bishop Saint John to the head of that see in the Latvian Church. During the same year, the Patriarch granted the Latvian Church autonomy, with Saint John as its first Archbishop. As Archbishop of the Orthodox Church in Latvia, John worked as tirelessly for the preservation and recognition of the rights of Orthodox people in the newly-independent country as he had for the workingmen under his care in Russia. He lived in the basement of the Cathedral, in protest of the Cathedral’s planned demolition by the government. His protest was successful and the demolition was cancelled. But his activism on behalf of the Orthodox faithful in Latvia ended up having political ramifications: he wound up as the leader in the Sæima (the Latvian Parliament) of the Party of the Orthodox.

The Party of the Orthodox was at once a minority-rights party, a confessional party and an agrarian populist party. Like the modern Latvian Russian Union under Tatyana Ždanoka, the Party of the Orthodox stood for the civil rights of ethnic Russians in independent Latvia. It also stood for the religious rights of Orthodox Churches – Saint John was able, through political actions, to have many of the historical properties of the Orthodox Church in Latvia restored to Orthodox control, and also to secure funding for church repairs and education. And lastly and chiefly: it was a party for the landless peasantry. The Party of the Orthodox championed the radical land reforms that broke up big estates and transferred them to the dispossessed, and worked to see that Orthodox and ethnic Russian peasants in particular got a fair shake under the terms of the reform. Saint John’s service in the Sæima, unusual and irregular for a bishop, was as selfless as his ecclesiastical life. A Latvian himself, he gave his full efforts to fighting for the rights of the ethnic minorities in his flock. Still: the hard left in the Sæima did not trust him because he was considered a ‘monarchist’, and the right did not trust him because he supported land reform.

Unfortunately, even in Latvia proper, and even as a representative of a sort of left politics, the saintly Archbishop could not escape Bolshevik persecution. (Like the Socialist-Revolutionaries in Russia, Saint John’s was considered the wrong kind of leftism: too rural, too religious.) He got involved with the Russian Christian Student Union – a left-wing youth movement with an educational focus – but he left it when it became clear that it belonged to a Marxist-Leninist tendency. Saint John was thereupon subject to attacks by hooligans and partizan zealots, and was subject to false allegations of sexual abuse. He even came into possession of papers claimed to prove the disloyalty and treasonous activities of the Marxist-Leninist faction in the Sæima, and it’s thought that these papers were what caused him to be marked for death.

In the end the Soviet secret police caught up with him. Several unidentified hooligans, thought to be under their employ, found him at his dacha, tied him to his carpentry bench, tortured him, soaked his robes in kerosene and set him on fire – sending him to a martyrdom very much like that of Great-Martyr Nikitas at the hands of the heathen Goths. They also trashed his dacha and burned his papers, which were their true objective.

Saint John was mourned by the entire city of Riga, and a hundred thousand people – nearly a quarter of the city – turned out for his funeral. One Russian student saw a vision of the martyred Archbishop standing in prayer beside his body, along with a number of other saints and martyrs with shining faces. He was glorified in the Latvian Orthodox Church in 2001, though he had been recognised as a martyr for some time before that in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

Holy Father and New Hieromartyr John of Riga, pray to God for us sinners!

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