This past weekend, November 4th (New Calendar)/ (October 22nd Old Calendar), Orthodox Christians in Russia celebrated the feast of the icon of the Kazanskaya Mother of God (also known as Our Lady of Kazan). The wonder-working icon of Our Lady of Sitka is patterned after the Kazanskaya.
The icon has two feast days, actually: July 8th, which commemorates the day in 1579 in the Russian city of Kazan when a young girl miraculously guided by the Blessed Mother dug the icon up after a fire that had destroyed the city. The second feast on October 22nd commemorates the deliverance of the city of Moscow from the Poles in 1612 and her protection was again invoked in 1709 in a conflict with the Swedes and in 1812 when Napoleon invaded Russia.
Three days later, on November 7th, Russians are marking the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. The Bolshevik coup d’etat in 1917 marked the beginning of seven decades of dictatorial Communist rule, first under Lenin and then under Stalin and his successors, which only came to an end in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union.
I don’t have enough room here to begin to relate the murderous violence of this regime directed against the peoples of Russia and eastern Europe during which millions perished and many more millions suffered deportation, starvation, arrest, imprisonment and exile. Suffice it to say, a world-historical human and a moral catastrophe was set in motion.
One of the most vicious aspects of Bolshevik rule was the attempt on the part of Lenin and his successors to eradicate religious belief and practice. Although Jews and Muslims were also the targets of atheistic propaganda, arrest and imprisonment by the Soviets, Russian Orthodox Christians (and during and after World War II Ukrainian, Polish and Lithuanian Catholics) experienced the worst treatment.
In the 1920’s and 30’s tens of thousands of Orthodox priests, deacons, monks and nuns were summarily executed or worked to death in slave labor camps. Most churches and monasteries were desecrated and closed. An ancient monastic complex on the Solovetsky Islands was turned into the first (but tragically not the last) slave labor camp and served as the prototype for the Gulag camp system. Others were converted into warehouses or worker’s barracks. Many were demolished.
This was the fate of the cathedral in Red Square in Moscow that had been first erected in the seventeenth century in honor of Our Lady of Kazan. A Russian architect and church restorer Pyotr Baranovsky persuaded the Bolshevik authorities in the 1920’s to allow him to restore the Kazan Cathedral as a museum, but he and his collaborators were arrested in the beginning of the 1930’s and imprisoned. In 1936, after his release from prison, Baranovsky was put in charge of the demolition of the Kazan Cathedral (Stalin had decided that the church needed to be torn down in order to create additional room in Red Square for military parades.)
Baranovsky did as he was ordered and dismantled the church piece-by-piece. On the site of the now- vanished cathedral, to show their contempt for this sacred and consecrated place, the Soviets erected a public urinal.
I knew nothing of this history when I visited Moscow in 1995, four years after the end of the Soviet Union, and entered the reborn Kazan Cathedral on Red Square as the bells summoned the faithful to prayer. It was an exact replica of the original. It was only much later that I learned the remarkable story of how it was rebuilt.
Although Baranovsky had been forced to oversee the demolition of the cathedral, he had also secretly drawn up detailed blueprints of the entire building which he kept safe and hidden for the rest of his life. Before he died in 1984 he entrusted them to one of his architectural students, Oleg Zhurin, who in 1990 used the plans to begin the rebuilding of the church, which was completed in only three years.
I’m struck by the profound fidelity and hope of Baranovsky, who had devoted much of his life to restoring the Kazan cathedral, only to have to watch it being torn down. How many times must he have been tempted to fall into hopelessness and despair as he kept those blueprints hidden for decade after decade. In the end, he passed on his secret to another, in the knowledge that he would not live to see the day, (if it ever came) that his work would bear fruit.
The blueprints, in one sense, were imprinted not simply on paper but on his heart, in the way in which the gospel message itself is imprinted on the hearts of believers. We are surrounded by so many challenges and difficulties that seem insurmountable. The temptation is always to give up hope. I’m reminded of the importance of confident perseverance in hope by these words of Pope Francis from his encyclical, “The Joy of the Gospel” where he writes:
“The joy of the gospel is such that it cannot be taken from us by anyone or anything (cf, Jn16:22) The evils of our world – and those of the Church – must not be excuses for diminishing our commitment and our fervor. Let us look upon them as challenges which can help us to grow. With the eyes of faith, we can see the light which the Holy Spirit always radiates in the midst of darkness, never forgetting that “where sin increased, grace has abounded all the more” (Rom 5:20), Our faith is challenged to discern how wine can come from water and how wheat can grow in the midst of weeds.” (Evangeli Gaudium no.84)
The blueprint of the gospel, hidden in plain sight, is available at all times and in every circumstance, to begin the rebuilding of the inner sanctuary within each of us, made ever new and ever beautiful by Christ himself.