Nicholas II through Serbian Eyes
PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II and Crown Prince Alexander Karadjordjevic of Serbia
There was an interesting legend in the Serbian army between the First and Second world wars. It was said that every year, on the anniversary of the murder of the Imperial family, the Russian emperor appeared in the Orthodox Cathedral in Belgrade and prayed for the Serbian people in front of the icon of St. Sava. He then walked to the General Staff Building to check on the state of the Royal Serbian Army.
But, what relation did Nicholas II have with the Serbian army? Moreover, thse behind the legend were not Russian emigrants, but in fact Serbian officers. In order to answer this question, it is necessary to understand what role Nicholas II played in the fate of this small Balkan state.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Serbia found itself in a very difficult position. The country’s fight for liberation from Ottoman rule in 1804 was short lived for the long-suffering region. The struggle for the redistribution of borders began. Only Russia provided consistent diplomatic support to Serbia during both Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913 respectively. Nicholas II was praised and criticized for his foreign policy in the region. Lieutenant General Evgeny.Ivanovich Martynov (1864-1937), for example, wrote that Russia “sacrificed the blood and money of the Russian people in order to make it as easy as possible for the Greeks, Bulgarians, Serbs and others, our Orthodox brethren”. A certain courage was required from the emperor even then, in order not only to cast aside all possible doubts about the unity of the Slavs, but also proved himself to be a real ally of the Serbs. .
In some respects, the Balkan Wars were a pre-warning to the First World War. In the summer of 1914, Nicholas II knew firmly what position to take when the very existence of the Serbian state was under threat.
PHOTO: Emperor Nicholas II greets Serbian generals at Tsarskoye Selo
On 11th July 1914, at the same time as the Austrian ultimatum, Nicholas II received a telegram from Crown Prince Alexander Karadjordjevic of Serbia (1888-1934): “We cannot defend ourselves. Therefore, we pray Your Majesty to help us as soon as possible … We firmly hope that this appeal will find a response in your Slavic and noble heart.” The answer came three days later: “As long as there is the slightest hope of avoiding bloodshed,” wrote the emperor, “all our efforts should be directed towards this goal. If, contrary to our sincere desires, we do not succeed in this, Your Highness can be sure that in no case will Russia remain indifferent to the fate of Serbia.”
On the 15th of July, enemy artillery was already shelling Belgrade. Russia mobilized and Austria had to transfer forces to the Eastern Front. Alexander Karadjordjevic then telegraphed the Russian emperor:
“The hard times cannot but seal the bonds of deep affection that Serbia is connected with the Holy Slavic Russia, and feelings of eternal gratitude for the help and protection of Your Majesty will be sacredly kept in the hearts of all Serbs.”
In the fall of 1915, when the Serbian army, surrounded by the Austrians, Germans and Bulgarians, was forced to retreat through Albania to the Adriatic coast, Nicholas II again came to the rescure. The German command had already announced that the Serbian army no longer existed. Despite the efforts of the Russian ambassador in Rome, however, the Italians had no intention of allowing the Serbs to linger on their territory.
PHOTO: Chairman of the Ministerial Council of the Kingdom of Serbia, Nikola Pasic
Then the chairman of the ministerial council of the Kingdom of Serbia, Nikola Pasic (1845-1926), sent an appeal for help to the Russian emperor. Nicholas II received it on 18th January and on the same day sent telegrams to the King of Great Britain and the President of France. The telegrams stated that if the Serbian army is not saved, Russia has the right to consider itself free from allied obligations. The Italians had to allow the Serbs to enter Vlora. And ten days later, the French began to evacuate Serbian soldiers and officers to the island of Corfu by ships.
But during the First World War there was also a “Special Purpose Expedition”, which was engaged in “the passage and escort of military cargo to Serbia,” and the “River Mine Operations Command”, and a great deal of assistance to Serbian refugees. Not to mention the fact that the Eastern Front pulled back at least half of the troops of the Triple Alliance.
But when on 18th October 1918, the Serbian army victoriously entered Belgrade, not only did the Russian Empire no longer exist, but neither did the monarchy: Emperor Nicholas II and his family having been murdered by the Ural Soviet on 17th July in Ekaterinburg.
The Serbs are not only just grateful to Nicholas II for the assistance he provided in their struggle for freedom and independence. The very idea of the canonization of Nicholas Alexandrovich Romanov and the construction of a church in memory of the martyred emperor arose in Serbia much earlier than anywhere else – already in the 1920s.
In the minds of the Serbian people, Nicholas II is a figure as sublime and epic as the legendary Prince Lazar. Saint Lazarus of Kosovo chose the Kingdom of Heaven, giving his life and earthly crown for it. Nicholas II entered the world war to support the brotherly Serbian people. This act cost him his life, and the imperial crown, but opened the Gates of the Heavenly Kingdom for him.
How can we not recall the gift received by Nicholas II on behalf of all Serbs on the day of his coronation in May 1896. It was an old cross found in the Kosovo field. The Serbian philanthropist Draginya Petrovic who bought it, wrote to the emperor: “May the Sun of Truth shine on the Serbs, thanks to the help and participation of the Russian Monarch – the First Slav. I kneel at the throne of Your Imperial Majesty, bestowing this holy sign out of great love for the Tsar of All Russia, the defender of the Serbian people as well.”
Emperor Nicholas II did not disappoint the hopes and expectations of the Orthodox world.
Almost a quarter of a century after the start of the First World War, St. Nicholas of Serbia wrote: “The debt that Russia obliged the Serbian people in 1914 is so enormous that neither centuries nor generations can repay it. This is a debt of love, which blindfolded goes to death, saving its neighbour … Will we ever dare to forget that the Russian Tsar with his children and millions of his brothers went to death for the truth of the Serbian people? Do we dare to keep silent before Heaven and Earth that our freedom and statehood cost Russia more than we do? .. Russians in our days have repeated the Kosovo drama. If Tsar Nicholas had adhered to the earthly kingdom, the kingdom of selfish motives and petty calculations, he would, in all likelihood, still sit on his throne in Petrograd today. But he clung to the kingdom of heaven, to the Kingdom of heavenly sacrifices and gospel morality; because of this, he lost his head, and his children, and millions of his brethren. Another Lazarus and another Kosovo! This new Kosovo epic reveals a new moral wealth of the Slavs. If someone in the world is capable and should understand this, then the Serbs can and must understand it. “
And the Serbs understood.
In the twenties of the last century, the Holy Synod of the SOC began to collect facts testifying to the holiness of the murdered emperor. This decision was made after Nicholas II appeared in a dream to a Serbian woman in 1925. Two of her sons were killed during the World War, and the third went missing. The holy tsar consoled his mother, saying that her third child was in Russia. Indeed, after a few months, the soldier finally returned home.
PHOTO: frescoe depicting the image of Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II by Stepan Kolesnikov
On 11th August 1927, newspapers in Belgrade reported a miracle witnessed by the Russian artist Stepan Fedorovich Kolesnikov (1879-1955). He was invited to paint the frescoes in a new church in the ancient Serbian monastery of St. Naum. The master depicted the faces of fourteen saints, while leaving the fifteenth empty. Kolesnikov returned to the church at dusk, he unexpectedly saw that at the very place where he was supposed to draw another saint, the face of Nicholas II appeared. Kolesnikov had had several conversations with the Emperor at exhibitions and remembered his face well. But the vision was so vivid that that night Stepan Fedorovich seemed to be working from nature. Having finished the fresco, he wrote below: “All-Russian Emperor Nicholas II, who accepted the martyr’s crown for the prosperity and happiness of the Slavs.” A few days later, the commander of the Bitolsky military district, General Rostich, arrived at the monastery. For a long time he stood in silence in front of the fresco of the Russian emperor, and then quietly said to Kolesnikov: “For us, Serbs, he will be the greatest and most revered of all saints.”
In 1930, a telegram from the inhabitants of Leskovets to the Holy Synod was published, in which they asked to canonize the Russian emperor as a saint. Already in 1936, at the opening of the memorial church of the Tsar-Martyr in Brussels, long before the official canonization of the Russian monarch and his family, Metropolitan Dositei of Zagreb (the future hieromartyr) announced that the Serbian church venerated Nicholas II as a saint.
In the city of Pancevo in 1934, the construction of a monument to Nicholas II was underway, but it was never completed. A memorial plaque was erected in the Alexander Nevsky Church in Belgrade with the inscription: “To the great Slavic martyrs Tsar Nicholas II and King Alexander I”. And in the heart of the Serbian capital, Vrachara Street was dedicated to Tsar Nicholas II, but after the war, most of it was renamed Mackenzie Street.
PHOTO: the Monument to Russian Glory dedicated to Emperor Nicholas II and 2,000,000 Russian soldiers of the First World War, in the Russian Necropolis, situated at the New Cemetery in Belgrade
In 1935, the Monument to Russian Glory by the sculptor Roman Verkhovsky and architect Valery Stashevsky was established in the Russian Necropolis, situated at the New Cemetery in Belgrade. Funds for the monument were donated by Russian emigrants who lived in Yugoslavia. The monument is a monolithic column crowned with the Archangel Michael bearing a sword, and at the foot of the monument above the door of the ossuary is a statue of a wounded Russian soldier. The monument is installed on the roof of the Iver Chapel, where the remains of Russian soldiers who died on the Thessaloniki front during the First World War are interred.
The Monument to Russian Glory, which is dedicated to Emperor Nicholas II and the two million soldiers of the Russian Imperial Army who lost their lives during the Great War (1914-18), and the Iver Chapel were ceremoniously unveiled on 24th May 1935, and finally completed and consecrated on 12th January 1936. One of the inscriptions on the monument reads:
“Eternal memory to Emperor Nicholas II and 2,000,000 Russian soldiers of the Great War“
Back in 1922, Nikola Pasic opened a savings account, in which he deposited 650 thousand dinars to help fund a monument to Nicholas II. “In the event of my death, I ask you to transfer the money from this account to the chairman of the People’s Assembly, so that the Assembly would use it to erect a monument to the Russian Tsar Nikolai as a sign of gratitude from the Serbian people,” wrote the prominent politician. Nikola Pasic died in 1926, but his will was not carried out. By 1944, there were already 1.8 million dinars in the account, however, these savings were lost after the Second World War.
PHOTO: On 16th November 2014, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia conducted the rite of blessing of a monument dedicated to the Holy Tsar Nicholas, in the presence of His Holiness Patriarch Irinej of Serbia.
Nearly a century would pass before Nikola Pasic’s hopes were finally fulfilled. On 16th November 2014, a bronze monument to Nicholas II was solemnly opened and consecrated in Belgrade. It was a gift from the Russian Military Historical Society and the Russian Federation to Serbia. It was installed in Alexandrov Park, not far from where the embassy of the Russian Empire was located at the beginning of the last century.
The 7.5-meter (25 ft.) high monument – out of which 3.5 m (11 ft) the monument itself.- was created by sculptors Andrey Kovalchuk and Gennady Pravotorov. The monument weighs 40 tons. On the sides of the granite pedestal, in Russian and Serbian, the following words are inscribed from the telegram of Emperor Nicholas II to the future King of Yugoslavia Alexander I:
“All my efforts will be directed to preserving the dignity of Serbia and in any case, Russia will not be indifferent to the fate of Serbia”
Holy Tsar Martyr Nicholas II kept his word.
© Paul Gilbert. 13 October 2020
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