09 February 2019

The accidental apostle to Angara

Saint Innocent (Kulchitskiy), First Bishop of Irkutsk

When the name of Saint Innocent is mentioned in an Orthodox Church in North America, the first and most famous person who comes to mind is Saint Innocent (Veniaminov) of Alaska. There is good reason for this. The ‘North American’ Saint Innocent was one of the great apostles of Orthodoxy in the Americas, and brought many people of the Yakut and Aleut nations into the Church through his gentle monastic witness. But the holy witness of our Saint Innocent, the younger of that name, was learnt and shaped and honed in Irkutsk, and his model was that of the elder Saint Innocent (Kulchitskiy), from whom he took his monastic name. The peaceful, egalitarian, culturally-respectful but metamorphosing model of evangelism that the younger Saint Innocent used in Alaska was directly taken from the model of evangelism that Saint Innocent of Irkutsk used among the Buryats and Evenkil. It is this elder Saint Innocent of Irkutsk whose glorification and the translation of whose relics we celebrate today.

Ioann Kulchitskiy was born around 1680 in Chernigov – his parents were Ruthenians of some means from Volyn’. He was educated at the Spiritual Academy in Kiev, and received the monastic tonsure at the age of thirty, with the name of Innocent. Being of an academic turn of mind and having a talent for languages (including Church Slavonic, Greek and Latin), he became a prefect and a professor of theology in Moscow. He later served as the naval chaplain in Saint Petersburg and a brother-monk at the Lavra of Saint Aleksandr Nevskiy. In 1720 he was appointed prior of the Lavra.

The following year, 1721, he was consecrated as Bishop of Pereyaslavl and appointed head of the Russian Mission in Beijing (which served the descendants of the relocated Albazinian Cossacks, among whom later would number Saint Mitrofan (Chang) and many of his fellow-martyrs of the 1899 Boxer Rebellion). Unfortunately, a number of misunderstandings arose largely from the diplomatic incompetence of the Saint Petersburg bureaucracy, which had offended the Qing government by misrepresenting Saint Innocent as a ‘spiritual personage and great lord’, and Saint Innocent was not allowed to enter the country. He languished for three years in Siberia, on the Russian-Chinese border, in the town of Selenginsk on Lake Baikal – he faced many difficulties during this time owing to the poor state of the civil government. On account of a bureaucratic oversight, he received no money either from the Synod or from the government until his death. Instead, he supported himself and his retinue of twelve monks and priests, by the toil of his own hands: painting icons, giving lessons, making and selling shoes. He was ultimately overlooked for another monastic as head of the Chinese mission, and ordered to make way for Archimandrite Antoniy (Platovsky) in that rôle in 1727.

Saint Innocent was, however, appointed by the Holy Synod to head the newly-formed Bishopric of Irkutsk and Nerchinsk. By bureaucratic blunder, therefore, Saint Innocent was placed as a missionary instead among the peoples of Siberia. His proximity to the Chinese border, the sheer expanse of his responsibility, the number of different peoples he served (Buryats, Khalkhas and Evenkil) and the ill-equipment of his diocæse to handle these challenges made his first years as bishop remarkably difficult. Despite these challenges and adverse conditions, he managed to open parish schools serving young boys of all social classes – one which taught in Mongolian and Chinese, and one which taught in Slavonic – and directed most of his attention to these schools, equipping them with books and competent tutors. During his five-year tenure as Bishop of Irkutsk, he established the first Orthodox missions to the Buryat, the Evenkil and the Yakut people in the Russian Far East. He also commissioned the start of a stone church to replace the wooden one that the monks of the Monastery of the Ascension used.

In 1728, Buryatia was struck by a grave drought, and an entire crop had been lost the previous year. Saint Innocent had added a moleben for the end of the drought, and blessed all the churches of Irkutsk to say this prayer at each Liturgy, from the beginning of May until the 20th of June – the Feast of the Prophet Elijah, whom Russians still venerate as Gromovik, ‘the Thunderer’ (a holdover of Slavic dvoeverie). Be that as it may, miraculously, on the very day of the Feast of Elijah, a storm broke over Buryatia and Irkutsk and ended the flood with welcome rains, such that in the streets of Irkutsk the people stood up to their knees in rainwater.

The physical and mental demands of the Bishopric, particularly under the extremes of deprivation Bishop Saint Innocent had to endure, meant an early end to his labours and his earthly life. He reposed in the Lord at the age of fifty-one, in 1731 on the morning of the 27th of November. Thirty-three years later, as renovations were being done on the monastery’s Tikhvin church, his relics were uncovered and discovered to be incorrupt – and many miracles in Irkutsk followed the uncovering of his relics. This prompted the Holy Synod to investigate, and they glorified Saint Innocent of Irkutsk on the 9th of February, 1800.

Bishop Saint Innocent is particularly important, however, in terms of the form his monastic, educational and missionary work took. This work had an outsized impact, not just on the continued missionary work among the Buryats and the Evenkil, but on the edification of an entire generation of Orthodox missionaries who studied his example – in Alaska as well as in China. Saint Innocent of Irkutsk, who – as noted before – had a particular talent for acquiring languages, made it a point to study the Buryats’ own language, Mongolian, and then to translate the Gospel and offer education in that language. His method of missionary work, as it was, often consisted of merely working, humbly and without complaint, alongside his Russian, Buryat and Evenki neighbours. He certainly did not attempt to ‘Russianise’ them let alone ‘modernise’ them, nor did he belittle or attack in any way their cultural beliefs and traditions. As we have seen, he was lenient even to the Russians in his flock in this respect – and did not discourage their beliefs about the Prophet Elijah! His faith was such that it could sanctify and transform, not replace or uproot or destroy, the pre-Christian cultures of the people that faith touched.

It was this ‘Irkutsk model’ – one in which personal humility, the example of Christ and the love and respect of neighbour are central – that was copied by later missionaries to North America, including the later Saint Innocent (Veniaminov), himself a native of Irkutsk, Saint Herman the Wonderworker and Saint Jacob (Netsvetov). Under the tutelage of the ‘Irkutsk model’ of Saint Innocent, the Russian Orthodox Church in America served, rather admirably, as a focal point for cultural, œconomic and humanitarian action and advocacy of the Aleut, Athabaskan, Inuit, Yup’ik and Tlingit peoples: first against their own Russian government and their promyshlennik countrymen, and later after the purchase of Alaska in 1867, against the aggressive assimilation and land exploitation policies of the United States government against the Alaska Natives.

The ‘Irkutsk model’ of Saint Innocent was also followed, in a modified form, by the Orthodox missionaries in China. We can observe the difference between the attitude of the officials associated with the Russian Mission in Beijing before and after the establishment of the Irkutsk and Nerchinsk bishopric and the training of Russian clergymen in the Chinese language. The rôles of Archimandrite Hyacinth (Bichurin) and Archimandrite Peter (Kamenskiy) in deflating both the early Jesuit romanticism about China and the later Sinophobia of Western Europe, stemmed not only from their close contact or affinity with Turkic, Finnic and Tungusic peoples, but also from the seriousness with which they each took their mission.

Despite having been located so close to the seats of Russian imperial power for much of his early life (oh, irony), the legacy of Bishop Saint Innocent of Irkutsk has thus left behind it a significant trace in anti-colonialist politics and practice on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Holy Innocent, apostle to the Buryat, Evenk and Yakut nations, pray to Christ our God for us sinners!
Radiant light of the church,
You illumined the earth by your deeds.
Those who drew near to you in faith,
You healed and so glorified God.
Therefore, O holy Father Innocent, we beseech you,
Encompass this land with your prayers,
And protect us from all harm and misdeed!


  1. I shall encourage people in various missiological forums to read this.

  2. Thank you, Matthew! Very enlightening! I was always confused about the two Saint Innocents(