Negative Press about Missionaries in the Late 19th–Early 20th Centuries

The first slanderer was the devil. The word “devil” itself comes from the Greek word meaning slanderer.[1] The Lord Jesus Christ said of him, When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it (Jn. 8:44). The God-Man, Jesus Christ was once crucified, and his disciples were treated in like manner as their Teacher, especially if they preached their faith.

Out of all the twelve apostles, only St. John the Theologian did not die a violent death. If we look at history, we can see that almost all those who spread the Gospels had to endure slander.

St. Philaret (Drozdov) notes: “The path of a missionary is not an easy one.”[2] The wise hierarch gave his advice to the missionary to the Altai, Archimandrite Macarius (Glukharev), that he should view the missionary work he has taken up with “a cautious eye. This is an evil age, it does not readily trust pure goodness; it greedily snatches any opportunity for complaint and slander. The sting of mockery, even if it’s unfounded, can sometimes wound and cause harm to the achievements of good endeavors”[3] This advice was given in the early nineteenth century, but we have to say that never was the degree of hatred and slander so strong in Russian history as in the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries.

Up until 1905, thanks to the censors, it was very hard if not impossible to slander openly. Therefore, authors took the alternative route of writing literary works which portrayed one or another missionary under the guise of negative characters.

Thus, for example, the outstanding head of the Russian Orthodox mission in Jerusalem Archimandrite Antonin (Kapustin) was jeered at and vilified in the novelette, Sidelocks Pasha and his consorts. Mosaics, cameos, and miniatures from curious excavations in the slums of the Holy Land”. This novelette was published in 1881 in St. Petersburg,and the author hid behind a pseudonym.

The reason for the appearance of the novelette, as Archimandrite Cyprian (Kern) considers, was the struggle between the Russian consuls in Jerusalem with the Russian Orthodox Mission. “Taught by our synodal organization to view the Church as something subject to its authority, our bureaucrats dreamed of the mission’s speedy liquidation along with its indefatigable and independent head.”[4] Having exhausted all political efforts to remove the absolutely irreproachable character of Fr. Antonin, they turned to slander.

To the Archimandrite, who in the words of Professor Dimitrievsky combed his hair in a way that made it look like Jewish sidelocks and therefore could easily be identified with the character Sidelocks Pasha, was attributed such despicable and base deeds that they lowered the entire novel to the level of a tabloid. But unfortunately even that type of “literature” has its readers. The novelette quickly circulated in both Russia and the Holy Land. Although the government censors finally pulled the book from the shelves, the dirty work of slander had been accomplished—rumors were spread.

The slander did not affect the Synodal authorities’ relationship to Fr. Antonin. Although Archimandrite Antonin outwardly viewed such “creativity” with contempt, it must have had an unpleasant effect on him. “The book brought disturbance into the quiet and bright course of my life, and this has many times surprised the people I have contact with,” he wrote to V. H. Khitrovo on March 24, 1881. “The shameless attacks on me from this human devil do not allow me to completely be at peace. Until my death, I will feel like answering that madman according to his madness…”[5]

As the contemporary researcher O. L. Tserpitskaya writes, Fr. Antonin stopped leaving the mission without particular official need. But people began to come to him for counsel and consolation.[6] In Russia, interest in the Holy Land grew ever stronger, and this was a consolation to the head of the mission.

Toward the second half of the nineteenth century, missionary efforts began to be aimed not only at the spiritual enlightenment of non-Christian peoples as much as it was at the enlightenment of the long-Orthodox population of the Russian Empire, a movement which later received the name, “internal mission”.

One of the most outstanding of these internal missionaries of that time was St. John of Kronstadt. The majority of his biographers write that during his studies he wanted to become a missionary in Alaska, Africa, or China.,[7],[8] but when he saw the loose life of the capital city, he came to the conclusion that Russia “has enough of its own pagans.”

Russia knew no few ascetics of piety at that time, but there was no one more well-known than St. John of Kronstadt. In the opinion of the famous Russian writer Boris Shergin, this is precisely what led to cruel slander against the righteous priest. Shergin wrote in his diary, “They knew Fr. John of Kronstadt, but if the liberal intelligentsia did not wish to notice Ambrose of Optina, “they” slandered John of Kronstadt and slung mud at him. Here the axiom, “The world lieth in evil” (1 Jn. 5:19) is proven true. When it hears of a saint, and if that saint is placed on a candlestand, our generation not only does not lovingly appreciate or honor him—they will take pains to trample his name into the dirt.[9]

The first noticeable composition aimed against the growing acclaim of Fr. John was the short story by N. Leskov, “The Midnighters”.[10] First published in the liberal magazine, Vestnik Evropy, (“News of Europe”) at the end of 1891, the story mocks the official Church and Fr. John in particular, portraying him as cunning, hypocritical, highly educated capital city priest, contrasting him with the “saintly” followers of Leo Tolstoy’s teachings.

It must be said that during that period N. Leskov underwent a change in his views. According to Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), he had been drawn into the sectarian “mysticism of Pashkov, and after a period of desperate dabbling in spiritualism he joined in with the views of Count Leo Tolstoy.”[11]

To characterize the motives driving Leskov to write that story, his correspondence with Count Leo Tolstoy is very telling. In his letter of December 1890 he writes of Fr. John, “His glory and the stupidity of society continue to grow, just like the column beneath the outhouse of a two story pub in a provincial town. In the winter frost it even glitters, and no one knows what it is—one can perceive it as something entirely other than what it is. But it is a sure measure of stupefaction.”[12]

“I have gone and continue to go throughout my life, but I love to check and fortify myself with your judgments.” The letter is signed, “Your loving Nicholas Leskov.” In another letter he writes, “Forgive me for importuning you, and do not deprive me of your moral support. Your dedicated Nicholas Leskov.”[13] Leo Tolstoy likewise supported Leskov’s creative development in that direction. For instance, he wrote to Leskov, “Your story about J[ohn] is wonderful, I laughed the whole time I read it out loud. What 900 years of Christianity has done to the Russian people is terrible”[14] However, Leskov’s feelings for the Count were entirely opposite. We see in the same letter:

Commenting on “The Midnighters”, Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), who had a deep respect for Fr. John wrote: “In this story … there was a resounding slap in the face of the Orthodox Church…. One only has to open any sermon of this pastor in order to understand how far from the truth these accusations are of his lack of understanding of the Christian Sacraments, and in part about new grace-filled life, and rebirth…. The Orthodox pastor, of course, has nothing to lose from Leskov’s slander; it would be too strange if such a well-known figure were not blackened by anyone, when it is written even of the Savior Himself: Some said, He is a good man: others said, Nay but He decieveth the people (Jn. 7:12).[15]

Time has put everything in its place. The Tolstoy societies have long ceased to exist, while Fr. John of Kronstadt has been canonized a saint.

But at the time, after the manifesto of October 17, 1905 concerning freedom of speech, the attacks on Fr. John of Kronstadt increased. In a play by V. P. Protopopov called, “Black Ravens” created during the 1905 revolution, “The pastor was portrayed as a charlatan healer, and his supporters as sectarians.”[16] The play was performed for the public in many theatres of the empire in December 1907.

The clergy came to the defense of Fr. John. Bishop Hermogenes (Dolganov; 1858–1918) of Saratov (who would later become a martyr) did much to have this play removed from the theaters.[17] On December 11, 1907, during an audience with Emperor Nicholas II, the future hieromartyrs Hermogenes, Seraphim (Ostroumov) and John Vostorgov related in detail how the pastor was being harassed. “The Tsar gave orders to Stolypin to remove the play from the repertoire.”[18]

For Fr. John Vostorgov who participated in the meeting, Fr. John of Kronstadt was a living witness to the grace of God that abides in the Church, a confirmation and consolation to all Her children. “Here is the manifestation of the power of the Lord,” exclaimed Fr. John Vostorgov in one of his sermons (after someone related how a seriously ill woman was healed by Fr. John of Kronstadt’s prayers). “One of the many miracles wrought in the presence of the wondrous faith, meekness and piety of this pastor of all Russia. Have they written about it in the newspapers?... We will ask all the right newspapers to print this news. It is sinful to be silent about the works of God.”[19]

To characterize the spiritual and moral state of society during the period just before the revolution, Fr. John’s remarks from 1911 are very telling: “One thoughtful observer said of modern Russian life that it is ‘penetrated through and through with hatred’. That is not a consoling characterization! But if it is true with respect to political parties, social strata and day-to-day groups of Russian society and their interrelationships, then it is even truer with respect to the feelings currently harbored against the Church.”[20]

Fr. John Vostorgov noted that on the pages of “progressive” newspapers, every religion is supported and respected. Only with regard to Orthodox bishops, priests, and monks have unbelievably vile insults and deliberately false accusations been allowed, undermining any authority the Church may have.[21]

Attacks against the Church from the revolutionary forces in Russia were, in Fr. John’s words, “even more vicious than those against the autocracy.”[22] In Fr. John’s opinion, this was because it was precisely the Orthodox Christianity living in people’s souls that caused the revolution’s failures.

“An onerous anxiety creeps into one’s heart at the sight of this yawning abyss of hatred that is surrounding the Church and those truly religious people…. Seeing that the Church’s power has decreased and no longer enjoys its former “popularity”, the government, using the modern vulgar expressions, readily refuses to protect the Church, thinking to curry favor with progressive movements and—a vain hope!—win them over to its side. The secret enemy of the Church thus immediately succeeds in achieving two goals: undermining the Church, and undermining the government…. In society, amongst the simple-hearted people who read the newspapers and believe it all indiscriminately, mistrust and antagonism toward the Church increase more and more with each passing year. Among the faithful confusion, perplexity, and complete misunderstanding grows, not knowing who or what to believe. From year to year a mistrust of and alienation from the Church is growing amongst the younger generation. Especially amongst the simple people, the authority of the Church is everywhere in decline, the ground is being prepared for indifference, churchlessness, and the acceptance of all sorts of sectarianism or even a particular kind of “peasant nihilism”, which with its manifestations and consequences is the most terrible kind.”[23]

It is an interesting thing, but slander has sometimes had a “curative effect”. For example, slander in the “progressive” and far right newspapers about the pastoral courses in Moscow organized by Fr. John Vostorgov provided the attendees of those courses an opportunity to be “cured” of their trust of the press. The papers wrote that the attendees had all dispersed and that the courses were closed. Meanwhile, not a single participant had left the course, and they continued on without interruption.[24]

As a missionary preacher in Moscow and mouthpiece of the Church’s official position, the holy hieromartyr John Vostorgov like no one else was subjected to all kinds of slander and harassment. This was evoked by the fact that Fr. John tried as hard as he could to guard his flock from revolutionary ideas. That is why the revolutionaries hated and persecuted him—he stood, in his own words, “blocking their path”.[25] On the other hand, reasonableness and care for the Church irritated the far right as well.

Harassment of the pastor had begun even during the period of his service in the Caucasus. After being transferred to Moscow in 1908, an entire volume of slander was published, entitled “Archpriest J. I. Vostorgov and his political activities”, compiled by N. N. Durnovo. The book was widely distributed. It was given away for free throughout Russia—it was handed out to all the members of the State Council and State Duma, ministers, and all major leaders, reprinted in all the left-wing newspapers; and when Fr. John made his trip through Siberia, he was met in every city by the revolutionaries’ reprints of this lampoon.

The slander was so powerful that even quite sensible people were perplexed when they met the man who had been so viciously attacked. Thus, for example, in his memoirs Metropolitan Evlogy (Giorgievsky) writes of his meeting with Fr. John, “Archpriest John Vostorgov was a man of outstanding intellect and great energy. There were many rumors circulating about him during his lifetime, but apparently they were unfounded.[26]

To all the slander in force against him, Fr. John only answered once, in his book, The Slander of N. Durnovo. The answer of Archpriest Vostorgov, which was published in 1909, and in which he systematically, point by point, citing official documents, revealed the falsity of Durnovo’s compilation. Nevertheless, slanderous books continued to be released.[27]

Fr. John himself would say to his friends, “I often have to walk over the yawning abyss of human hatred. It is terrible to look into it, and it wrenches my heart with pain and natural fear.”[28]

Later, when Fr. John became a widower, the slander halted the decision of the Holy Synod that had been proposed by Metropolitan Macarius (Nevsky) of Moscow and Kolomna to tonsure Fr. John a monk and consecrate him a bishop to the vicariate of the Moscow diocese with the aim of uniting all the missionary activity in the metropolia.[29] Some time later, after a fabricated sentence by the Cheka, the holy hieromartyr John was executed on September 5, 1918 in Khodinsky field.

In the modern world of information technology, society continues to use particular methods of manipulating information and special technology to control people’s consciousness. Under such circumstances, the destructive weapon of slander becomes even more accessible and effective. This requires of us particular caution with respect to various information, especially if it is about people who are conducting vast religious educational and missionary work.

These words of Patriarch Kirill sound extraordinarily relevant in this regard: “Today the mass opinions of people are determined not by God’s truth, but by information technology… It is very important that we, the inheritors of great Russia, who have gone through the terrible trials of the twentieth century, would today be capable of learning from the past and not repeat the mistakes our fathers made on the eve of 1917.[30]

Priest Alexei Yakovlev
Translation by

24 августа 2012 г.


All citations are from Russian language sources.

[1] The Orthodox Theological Encyclopedia, ed. A. P. Lopukhin, vol. 4 (St. Petersburg, 1903).

[2] Letter of Met. Philaret to Abbess Maria (Tuchkova) of the Borodino Monastery of the Savior (Moscow, 1868), 18. Cited from Spiritual Alphabet. Selected counsels and instructions of St. Philaret of Moscow, Prof. K. E. Skurat (Moscow, 2010).

[3] Met. Philaret of Moscow and Kolomna. Letters to noble persons and various others, collected and published by Archbishop Savva of Tver and Kashin (Tver, 1888),130.

Regardless of the warning, Fr. Macarius was proclaimed by Met. Seraphim (Glagolevsky) of Saint Petersburg to be a “crazy fanatic” who needed to be sent to a monastery with a hospital for the emotionally disturbed, but the Synod only gave him a light penance. See History of the Russian Church, I. K. Smolich (Moscow 1997), 8:12.

[4] Father Antonin (Kapustin), Archimandrite and head of the Russian Spiritual Mission in Jerusalem, Archimandrite Cyprian (Kern) (Belgrad, 1934), 146–148).

[5] Imperial Orthodo Palestinian Society and its activity, A. A. Dimitrievsky (St. Petersburg, 1907), 170.

[6] “Archimandrite Antonin (Kapustin) and Russian shrines in the Holy Land”, O. L. Tserpitskaya, //

[7] Fr. John of Kronstadt. Complete biography with illustrations, Hieromonk michael (Semenov) (St. Petersburg, 1903), 26; Source of living water. The life and activity of Fr. John of Kronstadt, N. Ya. Bolskakov (St. Petersburg, 1910; reprinted St. Petersburg, 1995), 38–40.

[8] Fr. John of Kronstadt, I. K. Sursky, 1:22.

[9] Righteous Sun. Dairies from various years, B. Shergin (St. Petersburg, 2009), 37.

[10] “The Midnighters”, Vestnik Evropy, 1891, No. 11­–12:92–137, 537–576.

[11] “Signs of the times”, Archimandrite Anthony (Khrapovitsky) (“The Midnighters”. The story by N. Leskov), Bogoslovsky Vestnik, 1892, v. 1, No. 2:418.

[12] Letter from December 6, 1890. See: “Correspondence”, N. S. Leskov, L. N. Tolstoy, Collected Works in 6 Volumes, v. 3 (Moscow, 1993).

[13] Ibid., Letter from October 7, 1874.

[14] Complete collected works, L. N. Tolstoy (Moscow, 1953), 65:135. Cited from: A saint of our times: Fr. John of Kronstadt and the Russian people, N. Kitsenko (Moscow, 2006), 229.

[15] “Signs of the Times”, Archimandrite Anthony (Krapovitsky) (“The Midnighters”. The story by N. Leskov), 415.

[16] Priest F. Ilyashenko, S. L. Fursov, “St. John of Kronstadt”, Orthodox Encyclopedia, v. 24.

[17] See: A. I. Mramornov, “Battle with a disgrace. How Bishop Hermogenes warred with “Black ravens”, NG-Religion, 2004, November 3.

[18] See: John of Kronstadt, Priest F. Ilyashenko, S. L. Firsov.

[19] The Truth of Faith and Life. The life and works of Hieromartyr John Vostorgov “In Kronstadt with Fr. John”,Archpriest J. I. Vostorgov, (Moscow, 2004), 186–187.

[20] Complete collected works, Archpriest J. I. Vostorgov, “New Year thoughts”, (January 1, 1912) (St. Petersburg, 1995), 4:613.

[21] Ibid., “On the occasion of the publication of the newspaper, The Patriot, 507.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “New Year thoughts”, Archpriest J. I. Vostorgov, (January 1, 1912), 612.

[24] Complete collected works, Archpriest J. I. Vostorgov, “Pastoral courses in Moscow”, 4:479.

[25] The slander of N. Durnovo. An answer from Archpriest J. Il. Vostorgov. Archpriest J. I. Vostorgov (Moscow, 1909), 24.

[26] The path of my life, Met. Evlogy (Giorgievsky) (Moscow, 1994), 185.

[27] A few words to the “Vostorgites”, (Moscow, 1908); New feats of Archpriest J. I. Vostorgov (Moscow, 1909); The truth about Archpriest J. I. Vostorgov,N. N. Durnovo (Moscow, 1910).

[28] Return of the gifts of love. J. I. Vostorgov, Complete works, Archpriest J. I. Vostorgov, 4:617.

[29] “The life of Archpriest John Ioannovich Vostorgov (1864–1918)”, Priest A. Gumerov, //

[30] Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia, sermon at Divine Liturgy in the Christ the Savior Cathedral, December 17m 2011,

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