If you ever find yourself on the Holy Mountain or in other old churches, you will notice that many of them are painted red. If you ask the monks, they will tell you that the colour symbolizes the blood of Christ and His saints. It wants to remind us that, whereas the various religions or ideologies spread via propaganda, violence or oppression, the Church of Christ won people’s hearts through weakness, the blood of Christ and the saints, martyrdom and witness. There is not a single Orthodox Church that has not experienced its own martyrdom. And nor is there a saint that has not passed through his or her furnace of sorrows, temptations or martyrdom.
In the 20th century, the Russian Church underwent its own harsh martyrdom. For seven decades an untold number of martyrs and confessors gave their blood in their own witness on the cross.
One such moving witness on the cross is the figure of Archbishop Luke, Professor of Topographic Anatomy and Surgery. A man of rare talents and gifts, he served others as shepherd and doctor with remarkable love and self-denial, continuing the tradition of the great Unmercenary Saints of our Church. His astonishing personality and his magnanimity are cause for amazement, admiration and also divine consolation.
At today’s event we shall try to make a brief approach to this figure and a sketch of his life. But first let us travel together to the holy land of Russia to see the natural, social and spiritual environment in which Saint Luke lived. We are back in the 19th century, a difficult and turbulent time. The standard of living among the Russian people is very low. The living conditions dreadful. It is understandable that the new, nihilistic ideas that were gradually to influence a large part of the Russian population would find fertile ground. At that difficult time, a counterweight to the spiritual degeneration of the Russian people would be played by some monasteries and the figures of the great startsi (elders) Let us first visit the monasteries of Sarov and Divyeyevo, dominated by the figure of Saint Serafim Sarovskij. Countless numbers of people eagerly hastened to meet him. He welcomed them all with love and with the sweet greeting: “My joy, Christ has risen”. The convent of Divyeyevo, which the saint assisted greatly, was built close to the monastery of Sarov. Not long before his repose, he foresaw and foretold all the terrible events that would take place. He said that there would be so much sorrow and so many martyrs that the angels would be hard put to it to collect all the souls. But he also foretold that, after seventy years, the Church would flourish again. In 1990, his relics and some of his personal effects were found in Saint Petersburg and translated to Divyeyevo. There are 250 nuns living at Divyeyevo who, on the orders of Saint Serafim, observe sleepless prayer (i.e. one or more of them is always at prayer).
Another famous monastery is Valaam, which stands on the verdant islands of Lake Ladoga. Monastic life began there in the 12th century. The central monastery was built first, then the many surrounding sketes. It is a quiet and very beautiful location. Also very important is the Monastery of Optina, which played a most influential role in the spiritual life of Russia in the 19th century. In a hundred years it produced 15 saints. These were the famous startsi. Thousands of ordinary people flocked to see them, as did the intellectuals and academics of the time. In Eastern Ukraine, the dominant foundation is the Monastery of Pochaev, a hallowed place where the Mother of God appeared and where there is a rock with the imprint of her foot. This monastery was the rampart of the Orthodox against the Uniates.
We now find ourselves in 1877. It was on April 14 of that year that Saint Luke was born as Valentin Voino Yasenetskij. His home on earth was the town of Kerch, the ancient Greek Pontikapaio (Ponticapaeum) in the Crimea. In the 9th century the Greeks built the wonderful Church of Saint John the Forerunner at this site, one of the most important monuments of the whole Crimea. Today, in front of the church there is a bust of Saint Luke.
The saint’s father was a pharmacist. But the shop did not do well and he decided to close it. Thereafter he worked as a public employee. The saint’s mother was Maria Kudrim, who was well-known for her charitable works. Apart from Saint Luke, the Voino Yasenetskijs also had another four children, all told three boys and two girls. Since the financial circumstances of the family became more embarrassed, the parents decided to move to Kiev, the cradle of Russian Christianity. This is an extremely beautiful and very green city, which is split by the River Dnieper. In this river, the first Christian Russian prince, Saint Vladimir, baptized his people in 988 and established the Orthodox faith on Russian soil. The Voino Yasenetskijs lived in a house in the centre of the town on Kresatik Street. As a boy, little Valentin did not stand out. Everyone thought him average and said that he could not be expected to make anything out of his life. He was distinguished, however, for being serious, honourable, high principled and sensitive. His talent for drawing displayed itself from an early age. When he was in secondary school, he also took lessons at the academy of fine arts in Kiev. At the age of 15, he took part in a painting competition and won first prize.
Two worlds warred in his soul: doubt and faith. What had the greatest influence on his soul was the famous monastery of the Pecherskaya Lavra- the Monastery of the Caves. The monastery stretches over 70 green acres inside the town of Kiev, right above the River Dnieper. It used to house thousands of monks and has produced a host of saints. Apart from the archaeological value and interest the Lavra holds for the visitor, it also has unique spiritual treasures. The older ascetics used to hew their cells underground and live the enclosed life there in unceasing prayer.
With the passage of time, two large labyrinthine catacombs were created and cells were hewn on either side of the corridors. The enclosed monks blocked their doors and left only a window. Every day the duty monk went by with bread and water and they lived on that. If someone did not take this frugal meal for three or four days, the others realized that he had died. They then closed off the window and the cell became his tomb. When, many years later, these cells were opened, they found that the relics of these ascetics were undecomposed. It is a unique phenomenon for anywhere in the world: a single place holding 118 undecomposed relics.
There in the catacombs we also find the skulls of other saints, from which myrrh flows. In some mysterious way, the skulls become moist. Every now and then the monks collect the myrrh and distribute it to pilgrims. The Pecherskaya Lavra is truly a hallowed spot. The whole of its life, the movement and the vibrant monastic tradition, which had continued for centuries, had a profound influence on little Valentin, who used to visit the monastery to draw pictures of pilgrims and monks.
At the same stage in his life, he was also influenced by the ideas of the great Russian writer, Tolstoy, with whom he established a personal correspondence. He quickly came to understand the latter’s errors in matters of the faith and broke off contact. At this same time, he was also making a careful study of the Scriptures.
When he finished school he was unsure which career to pursue. Initially he enrolled in the School of Law, but stopped after a year. He then left to go to Moscow to study at the School of Fine Arts under the famous Professor Knir. But he quickly returned to Kiev. He had now become intensely interested in service to his neighbours, his fellow human beings. At this difficult time, he discussed his options with an educator, who urged him to study medicine. In this way he would be able to contribute a great deal to villagers, whose medical care was very substandard.
In 1898, he began his studies at the School of Medicine in Kiev, which had an excellent reputation for the quality of the courses it offered. From the very first years, he became particularly interested in anatomy.
He took a first in his studies, specializing in surgery. He took up work at once, mainly on ophthalmic cases. In those days, a very common problem was trachoma, a dreadful eye disease which, for many people, resulted in blindness. The young doctor, as he then was, introduced a difficult method and gave thousands of people their sight.
Before he managed to get started working in the provinces, the Russo-Japanese war broke out and Valentin volunteered to serve with the Red Cross contingent. Together with other doctors he set out by train for the Far East. The journey lasted a month. They took up residence in the town of Chita and, despite his youth, Valentin undertook the running of the surgery department of the military hospital. He operated on wounded soldiers and performed operations, from the simplest to the most difficult, with consummate ease.
In Chita he became acquainted with Anna Vasilievna, a volunteer nurse who was conspicuous for her high moral standards. They married and four children were born to the marriage.
From 1905 to 1910 he worked in a variety of regional hospitals. The demands were enormous. He had to be surgeon, gynaecologist, pathologist, paediatrician, health-care worker and dentist.
At that time he came face to face with the problem of general anaesthesia. Its implementation had already begun, but, because there were no specialist anaesthetists nor, indeed, appropriate facilities, general anaesthesia was actually more dangerous than the operation itself. For this reason he attempted to find new methods of local anaesthesia. And at the age of only 29 he discovered a new method of local anaesthesia to the sciatic nerve. This work was later submitted in the form of a thesis and was approved with flying colours.
He often went up to Moscow to work on his thesis. In 1910, he moved to the town of Pereslavl Zalessky. He found himself in a beautifully picturesque place, but his working conditions left a lot to be desired. The hospital had 50 beds, but its facilities were primitive. There was no electricity nor X-ray equipment. Water had to be brought every morning, in a barrel, by a water-seller.
He was taken to the hospital every morning in a carriage and he utilized even this time. En route, he read teach-yourself foreign language books and managed to learn seven. He spent hours in the operating theatre, and would lock himself up in the evenings in his office, continuing his scientific studies by the weak light of a petrol lamp.
In Pereslavl Zalessky he carried out between 650 and 1,000 operations a year and was alone. He was among the pioneering surgeons in Russia and ventured to undertake difficult operations on the kidneys, the stomach, the bile duct and even the heart or brain, with great success.
Towards the end of his stay in Pereslavl Zalessky, he considered becoming involved in surgery on pus producing infections, concerning which little had been taught at university. And then something strange happened. He himself explained that he had put together a plan for a book, had written the prologue and then quite suddenly the peculiar thought came to him: “When this book is finished, it’ll be signed by a bishop”.
1917 was a difficult year, not only for him but for Russia as a whole. The country was in turmoil. The Tsarist establishment crumbled. It was followed by a succession of interim governments, political instability and the October Revolution. It was also in this year that Valentin’s wife contracted tuberculosis. They were therefore obliged to leave Pereslavl Zalessky and move to Tashkent.
They made their home in a spacious house and Valentin was immediately appointed head of the surgical unit of the state hospital, which he set about organizing diligently.
The political situation worsened, however. Immediately after the October Revolution, the Civil War broke out, which lasted four years and caused havoc throughout the vast country.
Millions died. Numbers in the region of 20 million have been mentioned and, of course, there were also very many more wounded. There were also, however, other unfortunate victims, the children, who lost their parents and were forced to survive by scavenging. Valentin was at the hospital day and night, risking his life. The few hours he was at home, he had to look after his sick wife, see his children, cook, clean up, do the washing.
In 1918, he was the leading figure behind the establishment of the University of Tashkent and was elected Professor of Topographic Anatomy and Surgery.
The political situation was out of control; the civil war raged everywhere. The Tsar and his family were under house arrest in Yekaterinburg. In July 1918 they were executed without a trial.
The murder inflamed passions and increased brutalities. People were in despair. You could be arrested for the slightest thing. All that was needed was the merest slander. And something of the sort occurred with Valentin. He had told off a problematic, hard-drinking worker at the hospital and the man sneaked on him to the authorities. One morning as he was going into the operating theatre, he was arrested and carted off to Tashkent’s railway station. They had already arrested 2,000 soldiers who had mutinied. They condemned them after summary justice, condemned them to death and then executed them on the spot. Valentin took a place in the queue and awaited his own execution. The hours stretched endlessly. Late in the evening, after a wait of 16 hours, some party official recognized him. He heard about the pack of lies, intervened and they let Valentin go. And this is where we see his magnanimity and his self-denial: instead of going home, he went to the hospital. He went into the operating theatre at midnight as if nothing had happened and began work.
But the terrible event worsened the already poor state of health of his wife, Anna, and, a few days later, she departed this life in the arms of her husband. She was only 38 years old and he was 43. They buried her in Tashkent Cemetery. Above her grave he wrote: “Anna Vasilievna, 38 years old. A pure heart who pursued the truth with passion”.
Valentin was now a widower with 4 small children. At this difficult juncture, God provided the answer: a nurse of very strong faith, whose husband had died, agreed to raise his children and become a second mother to them.
At this point we should, perhaps, speak of him in his medical and surgical capacity. Today he is considered the top surgeon of the 20th century in Russia. As Professor and Academician Kasirski writes “…His fame and skill were legendary. He could perform the most difficult operations without any problem”. He himself said: “A surgeon should have the eye of an eagle, the heart of a lion and the hand of a woman”, meaning a very delicate sense of touch. Once he took 20 sheets of paper and a scalpel. He asked his children to tell him a number and he would cut that number of pages at one stroke. They said 7, and with one movement he cut the seven sheets, leaving everyone astonished.
Apart from his scientific expertise, he was also distinguished for his deep faith in God. He would call for His help during operations. He had an icon of Christ and the Mother of God hanging on the wall, with an icon-lamp in front. He would light it, pray a while and then with the gauze and iodine make the sign of the Cross on the patient’s body, where he would start the operation. Only then would he make the first cut.
Although Valentin was always close to the Church, at that time he participated more actively in the ecclesiastical life of Tashkent. This was a particular joy to the faithful. One day a clergy/laity trial was held in the Cathedral, the aim of which was to pass judgment on and remove from office the local archbishop, Innokenti. Doctor Valentin, as he still was, was called to the trial and he boldly defended the archbishop. Innokenti was cleared of the charges and much moved by the position taken by the doctor. When the court was dismissed, the archbishop waited for the doctor at the door and thanked him for his defence as they walked three times round the church. Suddenly the archbishop stopped, looked the doctor in the eye and said to him: “Doctor, you should become a priest”. Without a second thought, Valentin answered: “Your Eminence, if it’s the will of God that I should become a priest, I’ll do so”.
And, indeed, in January 1921, he was ordained deacon and thereafter priest. The ordination of the famous university professor to the priesthood was a bolt from the blue for Tashkent. The new priest undertook parish duties and preached the word of God at every opportunity. He did however, have to deal with the ironic jibes of his colleagues and students, who thought he was of no further use to science. But he proved them wrong.
Let us dwell for a moment, as a parenthesis, on the political situation which obtained then in the Soviet Union. The civil war ended in 1921. The victors engaged in a merciless persecution of everyone that came under suspicion, under the charge of being counter-revolutionaries and so on. The prisons were packed and the revolutionary courts sat without a break. The situation was to be made even worse by an unexpected event. Lenin became ill. In two years he suffered a succession of strokes that in the end had him confined to a wheelchair. The battle for the succession began. Against all expectations, Stalin prevailed, a ruthless man who would not only be the death of millions of citizens, but even of his friends and comrades.
It was also in the ’20s that the “correction” facilities were set up, the forced labour camps known as gulags. Within a few years they had spread throughout the vast country. It all began with a monastery, the Solovetstky, which was built in the 14th century on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea. It was a large monastic centre, a central monastery with lots of sketes throughout the islands. It was bitterly cold in the winter, which lasted 8-9 months. Since it was impossible to escape from, the Solovetsky monastery was an ideal location for a prison camp.
The inmates worked16 hours a day, and if their productivity was not up to scratch they were executed as saboteurs. If they wanted to punish someone, they sent them to the skete on the steep hill of Sekirnaya Gora (“Hatchet Mountain”). They took away their clothes and tortured them while they were naked in the snow and ice. Their only food was a soup of rotten potatoes, once a day. When, after some months, the inmates were completely exhausted, they took them to the edge of the hill, where there were wooden stairs with 365 steps. They tied them to barrels and pushed them onto the stairs, where they met a tragic death. There were so many dead that a tree formed the sign of the Cross with its branches.
All the other labour camps followed from Solovetsky. The inmates worked as slaves and died in untold numbers from torture, sickness and the miserable conditions.
At the same time, a merciless war was unleashed against the Church. Through a series of legislative acts, the Church was bound in chains. Very many churches and monuments to art were closed, blown up, turned into gymnasiums, barracks, or centres of entertainment. Icons were consigned to the fire. Churches were pillaged and the relics of saints desecrated.
Three hours away from Saint Petersburg lies the Monastery of Alexander Svirsky, built near the River Svir. Saint Alexander was a great figure who was found worthy to see the Holy Trinity and when he fell asleep in the Lord, his relics remained incorrupt.
In 1918, the revolutionaries entered the monastery and executed all the monks. Then they took the relics of Saint Alexander and threw them into a fire. But they did not burn. They then took them to a museum for mummies in Saint Petersburg. In 1997 the monastery opened again and the fathers asked to have the holy relics back. The curator of the museum, however, refused to allow this, because he considered them to be a mummy. The fathers insisted and the curator fetched X-ray equipment. They took an X-ray of the body of the saint and discovered that it was not embalmed, but incorrupt. They were therefore forced to give the relics to the fathers and the saint returned home.
The people of Russia frequently displayed a heroic outlook in their defence of the churches. I shall mention only one, moving case. In the town of Olonets, in 1927, they went to demolish a church. A young woman, about 25 years of age, heard what was about to happen, ran to the church and shouted to the workers: “Pull down the church and kill me”. The workers waited for her to leave, because they did not want to kill her. In the end, they left after a few days. And the girl stayed to guard the church for 25 years. She swept it, looked after it and people brought her food. The church was saved. At the end of her life she became a nun and took the name Varvara. She departed this life at the age of 96 and was buried next to the church. Everyone there reveres her as a saint.
Among the victims were clergymen and monks. Throughout Russia, in 1922 alone, a total of 8,100 clergymen and monks were executed. In St. Petersburg more than 40 fathers of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery were shot against a wall. One Sunday, again in Saint Petersburg, they arrested 40 priests at the time they were celebrating the liturgy. They took them to the Smolensk Cemetery, near the grave of Saint Xeni. They gave them tools and told them to dig a large hole. Then they threw them in and buried them alive. So the blood of the new martyrs was spilt abundantly and the Church of Russia can boast of the multitude of its new holy martyrs.
Let us return, though, to Tashkent. It was at this difficult time that Valentin elected to be ordained as a priest. New responsibilities awaited him. Archbishop Innokenti was removed in 1923 and the people’s choice to succeed him was Fr. Valentin. He humbly accepted the new call from God, though he was well aware of the dangers. There was an exiled bishop in Tashkent at that time and it was he who initially tonsured him a monk. Because there was no church, the tonsure took place in his children’s bedroom. There made his monastic vows and had his name changed from Valentin to Luke. Since the bishop could not consecrate him by himself, he suggested that Fr. Luke go to Penjikent, where there were two other bishops in exile. He left at night and crossed Uzbekistan as best he could, though exposed to many dangers. He first stop was Samarkand. From there onwards, things became even more dangerous because of brigands. It was with the greatest difficulty that he was able to continue into Tajikistan. In the town of Penjikent, he found the two bishops who consecrated him hierarch in all secrecy, at night. It was May 31, 1923, and Bishop Luke then returned to Tashkent.
His consecration brought new turmoil to Tashkent. The Party people began to spread false stories about him and to undermine him through the press. It was not long before he was arrested, on Saturday, 9 June, 1923 and taken off to Tashkent Gaol. Thus began 11 years of imprisonment and exile. He remained in prison for two months and was then sent to Moscow, where he twice visited the much-tried Patriarch Tikhon, who was under house arrest at the Donskoy Monastery. Patriarch Tikhon urged him not to give up his medical and surgical activities, because they were a way of helping people. Having borne the heavy weight of the persecutions, Patriarch Tikhon fell asleep in the Lord on 25 March, 1925. His last words were very prophetic: “The night will be very dark and very long”. Recently he has been canonized.
A week later, Bishop Luke presented himself at the dread Lyubianka, the CHEKA-KGB building. There he was interrogated with the harsh methods employed by the investigators there, with a lamp shining in his face. Millions of people were cross-examined and condemned in that building, while many were taken down to the basement and executed with a bullet to the nape of the neck.
After his interrogation and conviction he was put into a notorious “Black Raven”, the “Black Maria” of the CHEKA. These “Black Ravens” brought fear and trembling to the Russians of the time. They transported those under arrest and were always full. Many prisoners died of asphyxiation. Bishop Luke was taken to the worst prison in Moscow, the Butyrka. The cells were vastly overcrowded. Most prisoners slept on the freezing floor. The blinds on the windows were closed. An electric light burned the whole time so the inmates never knew whether it was day or night. Sleep was a real trial. There wasn’t enough room for them all on the floor and if they wanted to turn over, they had to co-ordinate with others. And there might have been as many as 30-40 people in a room meant for six. It was in this prison that the saint first noticed signs of the heart complaint that was to worsen in exile and accompany him for the rest of his life.
Two months later, they brought him and other prisoners on foot to Taganka Prison. One day he was given a fur coat by the Red Cross, but he did not keep it for long. He gave it to a young inmate who was shivering with cold.
In 1923, despite the terrible cold and the fact that he was ill, he was sent into exile in Siberia. The journey by train lasted a month. They were fed half a herring, a piece of bread and a glass of water a day. The compartments on the train were no different from the cells at the prison. They, too, were full of prisoners, with one stealing from another.
After a month they arrived in the town of Krasnoyarsk in the heart of Siberia. They then exiled him to the town of Yeniseisk, 430 kilometres to the north. The journey took place in the dark hold of a ship, which today is a museum. They arrived in Yeniseisk in the depths of winter. His lodgings were somewhat more humane here: a room in the house of a prosperous resident. There were two other priests with him and the house was turned into a church and a surgery for when he was visited by the sick.
A short time later he sought hospital work in Yeniseisk. The doctors were surprised but very pleased that they would have a famous surgeon with them. They gave him permission and he began to operate. Here, too, the need was great. Waiting lists were as long as two months. In 1924, he attempted a pioneering and extremely difficult operation: they brought a man to him who was suffering from severe renal failure and Bishop Luke carried out the first successful transplant in the world of a kidney from an animal to a human.
As a reward, the local authorities sent him even further away, to a more or less forgotten village, Khagia, where there were only eight houses and which was cut of by the snow. Despite the difficulties and the very few means available to him he continued to operate. Indeed, among other operations was a very successful one he performed for a cataract. We should note that he sterilized his instruments in a… samovar.
In the summer, they brought him back to Yeniseisk. The bishop was housed in the isolation section of the prison which was alive with bugs which gave him no peace. They then let him out and he was able to operate and celebrate the liturgy in an old monastery in Yeniseisk.
He operated non-stop and the residents of the town loved him greatly. But the more their love for him increased, the greater was the hatred of the authorities towards him. So they decided to send him to the frozen north. At the landing stage in Yeniseisk, they pitched him onto a barge and he travelled about 2,000 kilometres north along the River Yenisei. The journey was endless, monotonous, boring, tiring and very trying. There was hardly any food. Rather, the prisoners had themselves become food for the lice.
At some stage they arrived in the town of Turukhansk. The climatic conditions made life unbearable here. The winter was dark and endless. Everything was frozen. During the short summer, clouds of mosquitoes made life a real trial for the inhabitants. Bishop Luke worked in a small hospital. There was no other doctor and no proper facilities. All he found were a bottle of alcohol and a knife. He operated with these and stitched the wounds with hair from the patients.
We might pause for another parenthesis here. At that time, millions of prisoners were taken to the tundra, in the frozen north. Here, the snows never really melt, even in the summer, which lasts 2-3 weeks. The prisoners had to build new townships from scratch, construct factories, roads, railways to nowhere. Temperatures fell to -60 and when it was windy the situation became unbearable. The prisoners died like flies. The place was littered with the corpses of the condemned. To this day, when the snows melt and water runs, human bones are brought up from the ground in the mountains, where the mines were. There were so many dead, it is impossible to calculate their numbers. In the town of Norilsk, which was built in the 1930s by prisoners, there has been created the “Norilsk Golgotha”, with lots of crosses and memorials to various nationalities, to remind us of the martyrdom of so many people. In the surrounding towns, too, there are small museums which take us back to that tragic time.
This was roughly the route that Bishop Luke took. The journey of over 400 kilometres had to be made by sledge. It was a painful journey, in the heart of winter. The cold was terrible. The darkness oppressive. First stop was Selivanikha, a small village, and the journey then continued on the River Yenesei. They crossed into the Arctic Circle and arrived at the village of Plakhino, which had fifteen inhabitants. They gave him a room in a wooden hut surrounded by ice. It was so cold that birds could not live there. The small wood stove was inadequate and the water in the bucket froze. When the wind got up, conditions became hopeless. He remained in Plakhino about two and a half months and it was only the grace of God that kept him alive.
In March, the director of CHEKA sent the sledge again to fetch him back. In Turukhansk someone had died from lack of medical care. People were up in arms and demanded the return of the bishop-physician. So he found himself back in Turukhansk and continued his work in the hospital and the monastery without interference.
The date had almost arrived when his sentence would be served and he awaited it in anxiety. He watched the river boats sail away with prisoners but his name was never called. At the end of August, the boat service ceased operations because the river would ice over and he had to wait until the following summer. In the end, they freed him in November, 1925. Now he had to travel by sledge on the frozen River Yenesei, a difficult and dangerous journey. In total he covered more than 2,000 kilometres. He reached Krasnoyarsk and embarked on a train to Tashkent.
He again took up his Episcopal duties. They would not give him a position at the university, so he received patients at his home. A lot of young people gathered around him and he helped them in a paternal manner, while they assisted him in his work. They went around looking for people who were poor and sick and told him about them. People loved him very much.
It was not long before new problems presented themselves. A certain mentally unstable professor committed suicide. The authorities called it murder and Bishop Luke was accused of being complicit. For a whole year they spread lies about him in the press. Plays were even written about the bishop/murderer. Finally, in 1930, they arrested him. Back to the prison in Tashkent, back to the harsh cross-examinations, the threats, the blackmail. In vain everyone defended his innocence. He remained in Tashkent Prison for a whole year and was then sentenced to exile in Northern Russia. They took him to the railway station and their behaviour towards him was inhumane. A woman who was present later related: “Lots of people had gathered… We saw him from a distance. They were dragging him by his beard, as if he was some kind of miscreant. They spat in his face. It came to me in a flash that that was exactly the same way that Jesus Christ Himself was mocked”.
He himself wrote of the train journey: “There were so many lice that every morning and evening I had to take my clothes off and there were hundreds of them in there, every day. In among them there were some enormous black ones, the like of which I had never seen before”.
A good many days later they arrived at the town of Kotla. This had also been built in the vast forests by prisoners, many of whom had died martyrs’ deaths. Bishop Luke was initially taken to the prison in Kotla and then three kilometres further on to Makarikha. They lived in wretched, roughly-built shacks. They were forced to sleep in the open where they had to deal with the cold and damp. Many committed suicide. At that time an epidemic of typhus and other diseases broke out in Makarikha. The inmates died without being given any attention. Every day, they dug a large pit and would bury about 70 bodies. Today, lots of memorials have been erected in Makarikha to recall the tragedy of those people.
Bishop Luke watched this drama, the hecatombs of the dead, unable to offer anything. Soon afterwards he was taken to the hospital in Kotla, and allowed to operate, because the needs were so pressing. It was not long before he was moved again, this time by river boat down the Dvina to Archangelsk. This is one of the northernmost cities in Russia and, because they had sent thousands of prisoners there, Bishop Luke was pressed to find a house. The exiles shivered on the streets because there were not enough houses to go round. He finally found a room in a large house where other exiles were living. The authorities allowed him to operate at the hospital but he had to face the jealousy of his colleagues. He attended church in the cemetery chapel, but here, too, he was viewed with suspicion.
In 1932, a tumor appeared and he went to Leningrad to be operated on by an oncologist. Fortunately, it turned out to be benign. In Leningrad, he was called to meet Kirov, a high-ranking member of the Party. The latter offered the bishop the largest surgical research facility in the country, provided he would remove his monastic habit and renounce Christ. He refused and returned to his place of exile. In 1933 his famous book was published: “Essays on the Surgery of Pyogenic Infections”, signed “Bishop Luke”. The book was very well received and ran into a number of editions. Professor Polianov declared that: “Our country does not have any other such book with so much knowledge of surgery and so much love for people”.
He lived in Tashkent from 1933 to 1937. He experienced peaceful family times with his children, something he had missed greatly. He worked mainly on scientific research, which consumed him. He wanted to understand the pus mechanism in the greatest detail, and wrote to his son: “I’m making astounding discoveries. I work all the time. I want to write a lot. I’m afraid I won’t have time. I’m at the height of my powers. I must make time…”.
He was one step away from the discovery of penicillin. But he did not make it…
The 1930s were the era when Stalin was all-powerful. The gulag archipelago was at its height. Millions of people were in the camps and worked at forced labour. More than 300,000 people worked on the White Sea Canal, digging their way thorough granite rock with primitive implements to create a stretch of waterway 280 kilometres long. At least 100,000 died and others had their health ruined. In 1936, the terror reached its peak. In Moscow, the famous trials took place, at which the leading figures from the revolution were eliminated. Arrests of innocent citizens assumed epidemic proportions. And naturally Bishop Luke was under suspicion.
One evening in 1937, commissars entered his house and arrested him. Outside waited the Black Raven which took him to Tashkent Prison. The charges were that as a doctor he had killed people, that he was organizing a counter-revolution and a plot to kill Stalin. Many of his colleagues were also arrested and they gave way under duress and testified against him. They tried to make him sign a confession and subjected him to a chain of terrible, cruel cross-examination. Fixed on a chair under the glare of a powerful lamp, various interrogators cross-examined him ceaselessly, day in, day out, for thirteen days.
They would not let him eat nor sleep. He often passed out and suffered from hallucinations and then they threw buckets of ice-cold water over him to bring him round. Because he refused to sign the charges, he was again subjected to a chain of cross-examinations, for another 13 days and nights. His body was covered in sores from the blows. They kept him in Tashkent Prison for two years, under constant threat and torture.
In 1939 they sentenced him again to exile in Siberia, this time for three years. Another grievous train journey to Krasnoyarsk and then by river boat to the town of Bolshaya Murta. Here he presented himself at the hospital and asked to be allowed to operate. They engaged him, but since there was no other position available they gave him the job of washerwoman for the hospital. They gave him a small room in the hospital building and he lived in great poverty. Here, too, he was very active in the operating theatre, even though working conditions were very bad.
There was no church in the village. Every morning Bishop Luke would go into a nearby forest to pray. He would set up a little icon on a log, kneel in the mud or the snow and pray. But even there the young members of Komsomol would desecrate his prayer. God had been exiled from everywhere.
There are still people living in Murta to this day who remember him with great affection. There still is no church there, but one is being built by the residents and it will be dedicated to Saint Luke. Indeed, on the day that the foundation stone was laid, a sick woman was miraculously healed by the saint. The cross was erected there to commemorate the miraculous intervention of the saint and in front they have set the stone on which the lady had been sitting.
At that time the world scene was dominated by war. The German hordes invaded Russia, causing enormous damage and leaving countless victims. The whole country underwent a dreadful trial.
In Krasnoyarsk, trains would arrive full of wounded soldiers with infected wounds. Many died without care, because there were hardly any doctors. Bishop Luke was moved by this state of affairs and sent a telegram to Kalinin, President of the Supreme Soviet, asking to be allowed to return and operate on the soldiers. The answer came immediately. He was returned to Krasnoyarsk, appointed head physician of Military Hospital 1515 and advisor to all the military hospitals in the region.
Here, too, he was met with mistrust by his colleagues and was constantly under the surveillance of the KGB. His living quarters were a narrow, damp room at the hospital. He was also subjected to the scorn of those in higher positions. They considered him a second-class citizen and forbade him to eat in the canteen at the military hospital. Often he went without food. Some nurses felt sorry for him and would take him a little food on the quiet. He was never heard to complain, and persisted in his great faith in God. In one of his letters to his son, he writes: “I have come to love the trial, which, strangely, purifies the soul”.
Every now and again he would go to the train station to pick out the worst of the wounded in order to operate on them. All of these soldiers loved him greatly, because they felt that he had saved their lives. But the intensive work schedule affected his health. He was overcome with exhaustion. Nevertheless, he continued, as ever, to think of those who were suffering and served them with incredible self-denial.
There was no church anywhere. All of them were closed. But now Stalin needed the Church and in 1943, he gave it a modicum of freedom. He freed many of the imprisoned clergy and allowed some churches to re-open. Bishop Luke was appointed Archbishop of Krasnoyarsk. In the city, permission was given for the opening of a small church, Saint Nicholas’, in a suburb 7 kilometres from the centre. On 28 February, the Archbishop celebrated the first Divine Liturgy. Ecclesiastical life in Siberia began again from this humble church. But to get there, he had to trudge 7 kilometres through mud or snow. Often he was snowbound and unable to go on.
Today in Krasnoyarsk, a church dedicated to Saint Luke is being built in the grounds of the General Hospital. The doctors there now are grateful to him and feel blessed by the tradition he left them. At a central point in the city there is a large statue of the saint and there are always passers-by who will stop, say a few words of prayer or leave a few flowers.
In 1944 he was transferred to Tambov as head physician and Archbishop. Here, too, everything had fallen apart. With great effort, he managed to repair the ruined church of the Holy Protecting Veil and he began to celebrate the Liturgy and to preach with great joy, because, as he said in his first sermon: “for fifteen years, my lips have been sealed”. At the same time he worked at two hospitals in the town, the General and the Military, whilst also giving lessons at the Medical School and speaking at medical conferences.
In the ecclesiastical sphere, he made tremendous efforts to reorganize his province. In churches he preached the word of God. People flocked to hear him and were profoundly influenced.
The authorities were in a cleft stick. They recognized his enormous scientific, social and patriotic contribution, but could not tolerate his sermons and pastoral work. They often invited him to scientific conferences or the university, but asked that he come without his cassock and pectoral icon. He would not give way and indicated that he was not afraid of anything. In two years, the people of Tambov came to love him very much and the traces of his residence here, too, have proved indelible.
Today, the General Hospital in the city bears his name. In the courtyard there is a bust of him and nearby, in the Museum of Medical History, a large section is dedicated to Saint Luke.
Despite his work load, he took part in the synods of the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1946, recognition came at last. Some members of the party slandered Archbishop Luke to Stalin and demanded he be executed. Stalin became furious and cursed them roundly and ended by saying: “We cannot execute those people any more; we have to honour them”. And, indeed, Archbishop Luke would be honoured by the greatest State medal, the 1st Stalin prize among 15 scientists. The ceremony took place in Moscow. Everyone was present. The only one missing was Archbishop Luke, who did not have the money for a train ticket. The prize was accompanied by 200,000 roubles. He sent a telegram to Stalin asking that the money be distributed to war orphans.
In the same year, on Stalin’s orders, a bust was made of him, which is now in the Klenisovsky Museum in Moscow, among the busts of great scientists. Many foreign journalists came to him for interviews and special broadcasts were made. His health worsened, however, and in 1946 he would lose the sight in one eye. The Church transferred him as Archbishop to the see of Simferopol and Crimea.
The Crimea is a beautiful region, with shades of Greece, but has suffered much. The destruction left by the war was very great here, too. The Church had been completely broken up and the Archbishop had to make Herculean efforts in order to restore it. In his efforts, he came up against the resistance of the authorities, who continually opposed him and undermined his work. There were very many poor people, and he organized a soup kitchen at his home. He often went without food himself, so as not to deprive some poor person of it. Here, too, he was invited to conferences or to give lessons at the School of Medicine. Sometimes the authorities would demand that he should not appear in his cassock, but he would not agree and so some conferences were cancelled.
His everyday life was full. He woke early and performed a service for two to three hours, after which he read a portion of the Old and New Testaments. He would then go to his office and deal with the affairs of his see. In the afternoon, he would receive patients, always without a fee.
A variety of people would come to his surgery: atheists, heathens, foreign nationals. He offered his services without discrimination.
In 1956, he lost the sight in his other eye, too. Although he was now blind, he continued to work tirelessly, to preach and to celebrate the Liturgy. In 1957, he celebrated his 80th birthday in Simferopol.
After Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev attempted to introduce de-Stalinization. Most prisoners were released and the camps were closed. This positive development, however, was overshadowed by renewed attacks on the Church, with Khrushchev re-opening the anti-Church front. Churches were seized, closed and blown up, while priests were persecuted. Archbishop Luke faced a lot of problems and struggled to keep his churches open. In an anxious letter he wrote to his children: “It is increasingly difficult to direct the affairs of the Church. It’s a great trial. I can’t bear this in my eightieth year. Yet, with the Lord’s help, I’m continuing my difficult task”.
The authorities sought to make an example of him, because he resisted the closure of churches, but they did not dare imprison or exile him.
In another letter to his son, he wrote: “I have more worries than you and they’re hastening my end… In general, the situation in the sphere of the Church is becoming unbearable”.
Archbishop Luke’s life on earth was drawing to a close. At Christmas, 1960, he celebrated the liturgy for the last time, and on Cheese-Fare Sunday he gave his last sermon. Thereafter he remained at home. He prepared for the great journey by praying. Just before his repose, he baptized his great-grand-daughter, Tatiana, now a doctor in Odessa.
One day he turned to his niece and said: “Do you suppose they’ll let you sing Holy God for me at my funeral?”. The niece did not understand what he meant at the time, but she did on the day of the funeral.
It was 11 June 1961, the day of All the Saints of Russia. At four minutes to seven in the morning, Archbishop Luke breathed his last and his soul winged its way up to the heavens. He left to be in time to celebrate the liturgy on that great day at the altar in the sky. The sad tidings spread like wildfire. For three days, people came from all over and by any possible means to venerate his body. Before the coffin, they burst into hot tears and cried aloud: “Our father has left us, our saint”, and they recounted to each other his blessings and miracles.
All that crowd of people turned out to make a magnificent funeral and to bear his body through the main street of Simferopol. On the day of the funeral, however, there came an urgent telegram from Moscow, forbidding the cortège from passing along the central streets.
Anyone wanting to take part would be bussed, free, via side-streets as far as the cemetery. There was to be no singing. Everything was to be over in three minutes, with the body in the grave.
The funeral was attended by a large force of police to implement the order. But after the funeral service, the people revolted. There were scuffles and fights with the police. At some point, the road became open and the hearse started to leave. Some women broke through the police cordon and attached themselves to the hearse, while three heroic women threw themselves in font of the wheels of the vehicle and stopped it, shouting: “You’ll go the way you want only over our dead bodies”.
At that moment a large flock of pigeons appeared in the sky, circled, and followed the procession. Finally, the police gave way. The procession passed along the main boulevard which was packed with people and strewn with roses for a distance of some two kilometres. All those people, with one voice, for three and a half hours, sang “Holy God”.
He was buried in the cemetery of All Saints and since then his grave has become another pool of Siloam. His miracles are countless. And so, in 1966, the Russian Church announced his official canonization. In March, 1966, his relics were translated by Archbishop Lazar of the Crimea and his priests. At the time of the lifting of the relics a sweet perfume pervaded the area. Among his relics, his heart, brain, eyes and lungs were found intact.
On 20 March, 1996, his relics were taken to the church of the Holy Trinity in Simferopol in the presence of thousands of people. In 2001, they were placed in a beautiful silver casket, a present from Greece.
In 1997, a statue was unveiled by Archbishop Lazar in front of the Simferopol hospital, while in 2005 a bust was erected at the Medical School, where the church of Saint Luke is being built.
His memory is kept on June 11. Every year, thousands of people come for the feast from all over the Ukraine, Russia and abroad.
On the eve of the feast, the Medical School, headed by the Dean, sing the Salutations to the Saint and lay their doctor’s coats before his casket to be blessed by him.
On the day of the feast itself, there is a festal Divine Liturgy and a procession with the relics.
His miracles are countless, not only in the Crimea but also in Greece, with many appearances and interventions. He has appeared to many people in their sleep, in either his prelate’s vestments or physician’s clothes. He holds surgical implements, gauzes, syringes and so on. After introducing himself to the patients, he says he has come to operate on them. Many of them, when they wake next morning, find they have an incision or blood on their bodies.
In truth, what was it that glorified and endowed Saint Luke with grace? His virtues were many. But I believe that what distinguished him most was love, the crown of the virtues. Love for God and for people. Genuine love, comprising service, sacrifice and self-denial.
In the land of Palestine, there are two rivers and a lake. The first lake, Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee), is small. Despite this, it is alive with fish, and it was there that Christ’s disciples cast their nets. The second lake is to the south, the Dead Sea, and it is four times as large as the former. But it is dead. There is no trace of life. The two lakes are linked by the River Jordan, which starts from Lake Tiberias and ends in the Dead Sea. And here is the strange thing. For centuries now, the small Sea of Galilee has been giving its waters, letting them flow all the time, and it remains alive. It never empties. The Dead Sea can never get enough of gulping in these waters, but never comes to life. It takes the waters and stays dead. This is the nature of love. We do not ask for love or demand it from others. We simply receive it, without conditions, without calculations and it is only then that we are alive. People who have learned from childhood to take all the time, without giving anything back are crippled, dead, unhappy. People who have learned to love, to sacrifice themselves and to offer themselves are alive and happy.
Such was Saint Luke. A man of love, service, sacrifice, self-denial. This is why he was blessed with grace from God and continues to live, to work wonders, to be so close to us and to comfort us.
May we be inspired by his life and have his blessing…
by Metropolitan Nektarios of Argolida