PHOTO: Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin, Tobolsk. 1910
During their eight month stay in Tobolsk [August 1917-April 1918], Nicholas II and his family were held under house arrest in the former Governor’s Mansion [renamed the “House of Freedom” by the Bolsheviks]. Their movements were restricted, as they had been at Tsarskoye Selo from March 1917 to the end of July 1917. Several weeks after their arrival in Tobolsk, they were permitted to worship in the nearby Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin up until January 1918, after which services were restricted to the confines of the “House of Freedom”.
The brick church was built between 1735-1758. A two-story quadrangle, completed with an octagon, on which five decorative domes were placed, with a two-aisled refectory and a three-tiered bell tower. The refectory included the chapels of Procopius and Ioann of Ustyug and the Great Martyr Catherine.
Pierre Gilliard recalls: “Finally, on September 21st, the festival of the Nativity of the Virgin, the prisoners were allowed for the first time to go to the church. This pleased them greatly, but the consolation was only to be repeated very rarely. On these occasions we rose very early and, when everyone had collected in the yard, went out through a little gate leading on to the public garden; which we crossed between two lines of soldiers. We always attended the first Mass of the morning, and were almost alone in the church, which was dimly lighted by a few candles; the public was rigorously excluded. While going and returning I have often seen people cross themselves or fall on their knees as Their Majesties passed. On the whole, the inhabitants of Tobolsk were still very attached to the Imperial family, and our guards had repeatedly to intervene to prevent them standing under the windows or removing their hats and crossing themselves as they passed the house.”
Empress Alexandra Feodorovna wrote in her diary: “During the services, officers, the commandant and the commissar stand beside us so that we do not dare to speak”.
On 8th September 1917, the Empress wrote in her diary: “We went to the service in the Cathedral of the Annunciation on foot, I was in my [wheel]chair, through the city garden, the soldiers were stationed all the way, the crowd stood where we had to cross the street. It is very unpleasant, but, nevertheless, I am grateful for being in a real church for [for the first time] in 6 months ”.
PHOTO: View of Tobolsk and the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin
Commissar Vasily Pankratov described this event as follows: “Nicholas Alexandrovich was informed that tomorrow a Liturgy would be performed in the church, and that it was necessary to be ready by 8 o’clock in the morning. The prisoners were so pleased with this news that they got up very early and were ready by 7 o’clock. When I arrived at 7:30, they were already waiting. About 20 minutes later, the duty officer informed me that everything was ready. It turned out that Alexandra Feodorovna decided not to walk, but to ride in a chair, as her legs hurt. Her personal valet quickly wheeled the chair out to the porch. The whole family went out, accompanied by their retinue and servants, and we proceeded to the church. Nicholas II and his children, walking in the garden, looked around in all directions and talked in French about the weather, about the garden, as if they had never seen it. In fact, this garden was located just opposite their balcony, from where they could observe it every day. But it is one thing to see an object from a distance and, as it were, from behind a lattice, and another to walk through it freely. Every tree, every twig, bush, bench acquires charm … From the expressions on their faces, from their movements, one could assume that they were experiencing some special euphoria. As she was walking through the garden and not watching where she was going, Anastasia even fell. Her sisters laughed, even Nicholas himself was amused with this awkwardness of his daughter. Alexandra Feodorovna’s face remained motionless. She sat majestically in her chair and was silent. On leaving the garden, she got up from the chair, from where we crossed the street to enter the church. Outside stood a double line of soldiers, [a chain of riflemen was also placed in the garden along the entire route] and behind them stood curious onlookers. Upon entering the church, Nicholas and his family took their place on the right, their retinue closer to the middle. Alexandra Feodorovna knelt down, Nicholas and the four grand duchesses followed her example. After the service, the whole family received a prosphora [a small loaf of leavened bread used in Orthodox liturgies], which for some reason they always passed to their servants”.
The prisoners were allowed to visit the church again – on 14th September, the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. On 18th September, Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna wrote to her aunt Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna: “We were twice in church. You can imagine what a joy it was for us after 6 months, because do you remember how uncomfortable our camp church in Tsarskoye Selo was? The church here is good. One large summer room in the middle, where they serve for the parish, and two winter ones on the sides [referring to the side-chapels]. The right side-chapel is reserved for us”.
The family managed to visit the church for a third time on 1st October – on the feast of the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos. Then again on 22nd October, the day marking the anniversary of the accession of Nicholas II to the throne and the feast of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God. The entire family received communion on this day of the Holy Mysteries of Christ. “What a spiritual consolation in the time we are going through!” – the Emperor wrote in his diary that day. In addition, the Imperial family were allowed to attend church on 26th November, 3rd and 10th December, and 19th January.
Pierre Gilliard again writes: “The next day, Christmas Day, we went to church. By the orders of the priest the deacon [Fr Vasiliev] intoned the Mnogoletie [the prayer for the long life of the Imperial family] This was an imprudence which was bound to bring reprisals. The soldiers, with threats of death, demanded that the prayer should be revoked. This incident marred the pleasant memories which this day should have left in our minds. It also brought us fresh annoyances and the supervision became still stricter.”
Following the incident involving Fr Vasiliev, the Imperial family were no longer permitted to attend church. Instead, an improvised chapel was set up in the ballroom of the mansion, which consisted of a folding iconostasis and an altar, decorated with the Empress’s bed-spread, which served as an altar cloth. The local priest was invited to perform services for the Imperial family and their retinue up until April 1918, when they were transferred to the Ipatiev House [renamed the “House of Special Purpose”] in Ekaterinburg, where they were subsequently murdered by members of the Ural Soviet on 17th July.
The Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin was closed by the Soviets in 1930, the building demolished in 1956 – the same year that the author of this article was born.
© Paul Gilbert. 8 January 2021
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