Orthodox America

 Priest Nicholas Derzhavin – New Martyr of the Communist Yoke 

When his wife's labor became acutely difficult, Fr. Vastiy Derzhavin sent a telegram to St. John of Kronstadt, and on April 18, 1897, she was safely delivered of a boy, Nicholas.

Soon after the birth of his son, Fr. Vasily was appointed rector of the St. Nicholas church in the city of Bor, and inspector of the Nizhegorod seminary, where his son Nicholas eventually enrolled, completing his studies in 1918.

      Mobilized by the authorities, the recent seminarian and son of a priest was assigned to a work battalion. Here, with the status of a semi-prisoner, Nicholas spent two years, until the end of the civil war, his first experience of forced labor.

      On his return he became a reader in a village church not far from Bor. In addition to his duties at the cliros, he taught singing to the parishioners. He loved church singing and was an inspired teacher. Among his pupils was his future wife, Daria Vasilievna, who was destined to share her husband's path of martyric confession.

      In those days the Bolsheviks organized debates and lectures in many cities to promote atheism. Such a debate was scheduled in Goredets, a small city on the Volga, which boasted seven churches. Sent there by the ruling hierarch, Nicholas so impressed his listeners that they forgot entirely about the atheist speaker. Before them stood a born pastor. His pure and ardent faith captivated the people, and they sent a delegation to the bishop requesting that the young reader be ordained to the priesthood. The bishop gave his blessing. Nicholas got married and moved to Goredets.

      He was ordained in 1927 by Bishop Neophyte, who turned to the congregation after the service and said, "Here before you stands a new voluntary martyr, who for your sake, his flock, and for the Holy Church, must forsake everything he loves. Even his wife he will now love less than before. He must leave her when duty calls him to the service of the Holy Church." All too soon his words were fulfilled. 

    In December 1928 Fr. Nicholas was arrested and imprisoned. His wife did what she could to arrange a meeting. Among the guards one could still find those whose hearts were not yet hardened. One of these said to her, "Come, and I'll bring him out to you." At their meeting Fr. Nicholas said to his wife, "We must endure everything. No matter what trials befall, don't turn away from God." And he gave her a list to give to Bishop Neophyte of all the priests and laity who were imprisoned.

      This was an extraordinary period of life in captivity. Neither the guards nor the prison administration prevented the prisoners from conducting church services; frequently they themselves stood at the doors and listened together with the prisoners to the wondrous singing, as twenty or thirty voices joined together in compunction and inspiration. There were days when all the cells which held bishops, priests and lay believers began singing together, and then the prison was transformed into the likes of a church where hundreds of Christ's prisoners sang in praise of the Creator.

      There were no specific charges against Fr. Nicholas; the fact that he was an Orthodox priest was sufficient for him to be sentenced to five years' imprisonment on Solovki. [1]

      May 2, the eve of Pascha, the sentenced men arrived in Kern.

      'That night," wrote Fr. Nicholas, "we had to pray quietly, to ourselves. From the window we were able at least to watch the church procession at the beginning of the Paschal matins, as it made its way around the small church near the train station on Popov island." 

      When the prisoners arrived at Solovetsk Camp II, located not far from Kern, doctors discovered that Fr. Nicholas had a heart condition, and he was assigned to work as a watchman.

      Daria Vasitievna applied for permission to see her husband, and when she received no response she journeyed in the summer of 1930 to Moscow. Upon her arrival she went first to the Iveron chapel and prayed there for a long time, asking the Mother of God to help her. Then she went to the offices of the NKVD.

      There she saw a large courtyard, tilled with people. She learned that she'd have to stand there a week. What was there to do? She took her place in line. Soon a Chekist came out of the building and she approached him:

      'I sent in an application, but there was no response....'

"I don't know. We don't have anything."

“Then what should I do?"

      "Well, go have a photograph taken, bring the photo, and then we'll see."

      The next day Daria Vasilievna returned with a photo. The same Chekist she'd seen the previous day said to her:

"Stand here. Don't go anywhere."

      He took the photo and disappeared. She stood the whole day. Finally, towards evening, he came out and said that she had been granted a three-hour meeting.

      With God's help she managed to reach Kern. Here she learned that the camp where Fr. Nicholas was located was some hundred kilometers distance from Kern, in Poduzhemye. The camp director gave permission for a week's visit. On the second day of the visit a directive came that the prison sentence of Fr. Nicholas and the other Nizhegorod clergy was to be commuted to exile.

      They were taken by sea to Archangelsk and then overland together with a large group of people, including elderly and infirm; conditions were difficult, and many did not survive.

      On their arrival in Karpogori the exiles were assigned to various villages. Fr. Nicholas, together with a number of other Nizhegorod clergy, was sent to the village of Shardonel'; from there they made their own way further, to the village of Kuskopol.

      With every year life in exile became more difficult. They stopped receiving wages, the food allotment was reduced and wasn't always handed out; for five days' work they were given four days' allotment, and on days off--nothing.

      There in exile something in the way of a parish developed under Fr. Nicholas. As one of the exiled sisters described it, "We had our own parish, a community really, under the name 'Joy of All Who Sorrow.' True, Batiushka's flock consisted not of the 'mighty' of this world but of the most wretched, feeble, deaf and lame, impoverished. Although he [Fr. Nicholas] is young in years, in wisdom he surpasses all of our exiles, and he's responsive to everyone's sorrows and misfortunes; his services are wholly penetrated with reverence; truly, there dwells upon him the Holy Spirit. And although he has a family, he is entirely penetrated by the spirit of monasticism. There's nothing calculating about him, no partiality; in his eyes everyone is equal, or rather, the needier and less fortunate a person, the more attention he gives him." 

    Fr. Nicholas' term of his exile ended in the spring of 1934, but the GPU was in no hurry to release him. He was arrested and incarcerated in the basement of the inquest prison. "We'll release you if you agree to cooperate with us," the Chekists offered. Fr. Nicholas refused. Then they sent a gypsy woman into his cell. She employed all her charms in order to seduce him, but her efforts were in vain.

      When Daria Vasilievna saw that her husband not only did not return but was threatened with another trial, she wrote to the city procurators of Moscow and of Archangelsk, as well as to the wife of Maxim Gorky, Peshkova, asking her to investigate the case and make sure the official deposition did not disappear. On May 8 Peshkova replied: "A petition has been relayed to the OGPU of the northern district and to Archangelsk for the speedy release from exile of your husband, Derzhavin, Nicholas Vasilievich, upon completion of his term."

      It was another six months before he returned to his family in Goredets.

      After Fr. Nicholas' arrest, the warden of the cathedral, Ivan Mikhailovich, invited Daria Vasilievna to settle together with her children in the church gate house. 'It'll be difficult for you to live alone, but here you can help in the church, you'll be warm, and you'll have everything you need." There she lived during Fr. Nicholas' absence, and when he returned from exile he accepted a position there at the Cathedral of the Saviour.

      These were years which, according to the calculations of the godless, were to be the last for the Orthodox Church of Russia. 

      1937. A service was in progress. Fr. Nicholas came out with the chalice: "With fear of God and faith draw near." He carried it back into the altar and came out to read the dismissal. Just then four Chekists walked into the church. Without so much as taking off their hats, they made as if to go into the altar. Fr. Nicholas barred their way:

      "Only over my dead body. You're not allowed here," he said.

"We have to talk with you."

      "When I've finished!" answered Fr. Nicholas adamantly. "Then we can talk. I can't now. Get out of here."

      They stepped aside to wait. Meanwhile, people began quietly leaving the church. When the service was over only a handful were left. Fr. Nicholas consumed the remains of the Holy Gifts and took off his vestments. He came out of the altar.

"Your church is closed," announced the Chekists.

       Fr. Nicholas wasn't arrested immediately. The church was closed, and in order to go elsewhere a passport was required. Daria Vasilievna submitted the necessary documents. To get the passport, Fr. Nicholas had to go to the militia station. Everywhere people were being arrested. Daria Vasilievna accompanied her husband to the station.

       Fr. Nicholas was the last to be called. Half an hour went by, an hour. Finally a militia man came out carrying Fr. Nicholas' pectoral cross which he hung on the wall. To Daria Vasilievna it looked as if  it were hanging over her husband's grave. She  asked the militia man anxiously:

 'Tell me, what's taking so long?"

 "Go home. That's everything."

      At the house she found a search going on. "Where's your husband?" the Chekists asked. It was a cruel joke.

"You know where he is," she answered. "Well, sit down and wait."

They wanted to take the tabernacle,

      "You mustn't touch that," interceded Daria Vasilievna, as emphatically as Fr. Nicholas. "It's not allowed. Don't touch it!"

      ''Well, all right. Just make sure not to take off with it. Everything we list we're going to come and take."

      When they had left, she hid the tabernacle together with some books.

      It is almost certain that Fr. Nicholas was executed very soon after his arrest. In any case, nothing was ever heard from him.

      After the death of Stalin, Daria Vasilievna went to the Pskov Caves Monastery, to the elders Fr. Simeon and Fr. Luke, and she told them the whole story.

"He was a martyr," said Elder Simeon.

Holy Martyr Nicholas, pray to God for us!


Translated and compiled from Mucheniki, ispovedniki i podvzhniki blagochestiye Rossiskoi Pravoslavnoi Tstrkvi XX stoletiye by Hieromonk Damascene; Tver, 1992.

[1] A renowned ancient monastery on the North Sea, turned into a concentration camp by the communists.