While Joseph Stalin frequently appears in modern Russian Orthodox hagiography, he is almost always portrayed in the role of persecutor. In fact, Stalin acts as a sort of twentieth century version of the anti-Christian Roman emperors of old: a tyrant bent on eradicating the followers of Jesus through terror and death. Yet, we find a rather striking exception to such a portrayal of the Soviet leader in the life of the Russian holy woman St Matrona of Moscow (1881-1952).
During Stalin’s time at the helm of the USSR, Matrona Dmitrievna Nikonova was the most famous staritsa (eldress) in Moscow—and perhaps all of Russia. Born without eyes to peasants parents, Matrona would become paralyzed in her legs at the young age of 17. Despite the setbacks life handed her, Matrona, who is said to have demonstrated spiritual “gifts” from her childhood, would become known as a sort of Orthodox “oracle” while living in her dilapidated apartment in Moscow. In fact, thousands of people, some of whom were not even Orthodox believers, would come to visit the future saint, seeking counsel, healings, and exorcisms. As it happens, according to her main biographer and close friend, Zinaida Zhdanova, Matrona would one day receive a powerful, as well as a rather unlikely, guest.
In the fall of 1941, Adolf Hitler launched the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union—breaking the former neutrality pact between the two countries. As the Germans advanced towards Moscow, great numbers of civilians began to flee the endangered city. While Stalin ordered the Communist Party to evacuate the Russian capital, he himself was torn as to whether or not to stay in Moscow and risk, if the city were to fall, capture by the Germans, or to seek refuge elsewhere. According to Zhdanova’s compilation of memoirs, the conflicted leader sought the blessing and advice of none other than St Matrona herself. However, the author does not provide much detail of the event. Instead, Zhdanova simply writes that Stalin visited Matrona at her apartment, where he was told by the saint that if he stayed put in Moscow, the city would not be taken by the Germans. The reader, of course, is led to believe that Stalin based his decision to remain in Moscow on Matrona’s advice, where he would oversee the Red Army’s successful defense of the city.
Zhdanova’s work on the life of St Matrona—the episode with Stalin included—was published in 1993 by Holy Trinity Novo-Golutvin Monastery in Moscow. While the book was so widely read in Russia that it became a key catalyst for Matrona’s canonization, the Russian Orthodox Church decided to censor subsequent editions of it, forcing the monastery to remove any mention of Stalin’s visit to the saint. However, while official Church presses may not be able to write about the alleged event, those not under the direct control of religious officials continue to disseminate, as well as expand upon, the tale via the internet, pamphlets, books, and so forth. For instance, a more telling variant of the story was published later in Russia in a work entitled Help of the saints: Matrona of Moscow by Inessa Serova. The author writers:
I cannot say whether this story is fact or fiction. But they say that Stalin himself visited Matrona in her room in Arbat in the fall of 1941. He was told that there is a blessed clairvoyant staritsa, Matrona, who protects the city with her prayers from capture by the enemies. Stalin came to her to ask for advice on whether he should surrender Moscow, as Kutozov once did, or not. According to the legend, Matronushka blessed him to pluck up his spirits. (The same way St Sergius of Radonezh blessed [St] Dmitry Donskoy for the Battle of Kulikovo.) She hit him on the forehead with her small fist and said: ‘Do not surrender Moscow, think well, and when Alexander Nevsky comes he will lead everybody… The entirety of our heavenly host helps you.
While the second version of the story is, of course, more detailed than the first, it is also quite overt in its attempt to create continuity between the various epochs of Russian history. It does this by drawing a direct parallel between Stalin’s meeting with Matrona and that of Grand Prince Dmitry’s visit to the holy monk Sergius. It also tries to further remove any doubt about the unity of Russian history by portraying St Alexander Nevsky as no less willing to fight for the Soviet Union than he was for the medieval Rus. Thus, a Russian Orthodox reader can draw a great deal of national pride from the story of Stalin and Matrona, while also avoiding any feelings of cognitive dissonance, since the synergy between Russia and heaven has clearly remained intact over the centuries, despite much political upheaval.
Naturally, the peculiar story of Stalin’s visit to Matrona has also given birth to a number of controversial icons. One icon that particularly caused a stir, and also helped to spread the hagiographical tale through the attention it drew from the Russian media, was commissioned by Fr Yevstafy Zhakov. The icon itself, which depicts a seated Matrona welcoming a rather aloof looking Stalin, was able to gain most of its notoriety due to Fr Yevstafy’s decision to display it publicly at St Olga Equal-to-the-Apostles Orthodox Church, just outside of St Petersburg. While the priest believes Stalin to be a saint who had risen to power with the hidden intention of saving the Orthodox Church from Bolshevik destruction, it seems that some of his parishioners, and more importantly for him, the Church hierarchy, felt otherwise. After an outcry from a few members of the faithful, the Moscow Patriarchate ordered the icon to be expunged from St Olga’s, and for Fr Yevstafy himself to be removed from his position as rector of the parish.
Yet, despite the tale’s relative prominence among certain Orthodox circles, particularly nationalistic ones, there is no evidence to support the belief that a seemingly desperate Stalin decided to turn to a famous holy woman for direction. In truth, there is every reason to believe that Stalin, a staunch atheist, would have found the idea of doing such a thing to be utterly foolish. However, while the story is almost certainly apocryphal, it does still raise some potential issues for the Russian Orthodox Church. For one, Stalin is a rather popular figure in contemporary Russia, and there is even a small, but vocal, movement among Russian Orthodox Christians to cast him in a saintly light. While many may disregard the opinions of such individuals as “ridiculous,” the Eastern Orthodox Church, and particularly the Russian portion of it, has a long history of canonizing rulers, some of whom—e.g. Theodosius, Justinian, or Andrey Bogolyubsky—at times appear to be less than “ideal” in their Christian lives. Moreover, it is a fact of history that in 1941—the same year of the alleged visit—Stalin did begin to end the persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church, and even began to use the Church in the same manner that the tsars had, i.e. as a political tool. This has no doubt contributed somewhat to Stalin’s popularity among an increasingly Orthodox Russia.
Further, there is also somewhat of a consistency issue with rejecting a story recorded by a person—Zinaida Zhdanova—whose work is also the main biographical source for a canonized saint of the Church. While Zhdanova does not claim to have personally witnessed Stalin’s visit, she does present the story unquestioningly. One would think that if Zhdanova, who knew Matrona personally, was writing her work in good faith that she would not have accepted the authenticity of a story as shocking as the one about Stalin, if it had not been confirmed to her at some point by Matrona herself. Of course, Zhdanova may not have attempted to be fully honest in her writings, or may have simply lacked discernment at times. In fact, Deacon Andrey Kuraev, a former professor at the Moscow Theology Academy, has refused to recognize the canonization of St Matrona in no small part due to what he believes to be the unreliable, and even “heretical,” nature of her biographers—particularly Zhdanova. However, the deacon’s views on the subject are certainly not held by most members of the Russian Orthodox Church, since Matrona is arguably one of the most popular saints in present-day Russia.
Nonetheless, while the story of Stalin seeking out guidance from a saint—in what was arguably the Russian people’s most profound hour of need—is probably no more than an invention of modern hagiography, it is unlikely to be going away anytime soon. In truth, the hearts of religious believers are often less moved by historical facts, then by a desire for meaning. Thus, for certain Russian Orthodox Christians, the importance of connecting their nation’s destiny to God’s will—like Matrona’s words to Stalin so effectively do—will no doubt cause this controversial story to remain a part, even if only on the fringes, of the Church’s tradition.