Bishop Gregory, in the world Alexander Alexeyevich Lebedev, was born on November 12 (24), 1878 in
Kolomna, Moscow province, into the family of a
priest, Fr. Alexis Mikhailovich, who was a priest attached to the Kolomna Dormition Brusa monastery. He was
the cousin of Archbishop Tobias. His mother, Maria Fyodorovna, the daughter of a priest, was a kind and very
religious woman; she tried to instil her own love of the Church into her children. Unfortunately, she died young,
in 1885, leaving eight children aged from one-and-a-half to 16 years. Nevertheless, the first seeds of faith and
prayer were laid by the mother. The further education of the children was taken upon himself by their father,
who strove to fill them with a fear of God and a desire to fulfil the commandments. Alexander's four brothers
all became priests, and two of his three sisters were married to priests.
Occupied with services and other pastoral duties, Fr. Alexis sent Alexander and the other younger children to the monasteries, where the nuns kept an eye on them the whole day. The young Alexander stood out among the other children. Thus one nun who was looking after him said: "This one will be a hierarch." And truly, even before entering school, the boy demonstrated a love for prayer: he would joyfully attend the long monastery services, standing throughout.
Alexander received his first education in the Kolomna theological school, where he revealed brilliant abilities. Every year he was commended for outstanding successes and exemplary behaviour. He was not interested in games and amusements, but spent all his free time in reading books.
After finishing school the youth entered the local theological seminary, where he was distinguished again for his seriousness. The rector marked him as an expert in the typicon and the canons even before the end of this studies. Fulfilling these obligations enabled Alexander to come closer to the grace-filled power of the services, under whose influence his inclination towards the Church grew.
At home during the summer holidays he loved to go to a solitary place to pray, and he asked his father for an uninhabited building for this purpose, which he decorated himself. On Sundays he would unfailingly go to the services in the church of the women's monastery.
The seminarians treated Alexander with respect and love. He himself was sociable with all his classmates, but was particularly close to a group of students who wanted to go deeper into religious-philosophical problems. A certain seriousness and reserve were the distinguishing features of the future Vladyka.
He loved to spend his summer holidays in long trips, which he almost always underwent alone. Every year he would go from Moscow to the Trinity-St. Sergius monastery, and from Kolomna - to the Golutvin monastery, the Spassky men's monastery in Ryazan province, etc. All this gave him a definite inclination towards the solitary life.
In 1898 he finished his studies at the seminary and decided to prepare himself for exams to the Moscow Theological Academy. With this end, with the blessing of his father he joined the Bobrenev monastery, one kilometre from Kolomna, as a novice. In the summer all the younger monks did work in the fields, and only the elderly monks remained to carry out the services. The young novice was appointed to help them, and he carried out this obedience with joy. He was the first to enter the church, took part in the reading and chanting of all the services, and in his free time fervently prepared for his exams.
The exams began with written work. Although Alexander carried this out, he was in turmoil because he considered himself insufficiently prepared. So he interrupted his exams and returned to Kolomna, whence he left after a certain time to go to Kazan and become one of the novices of the Spassky monastery and, at the same time, an occasional student at the Kazan Theological Academy. After successfully passing the entrance exams, he became a student at the Academy in 1899 and in 1903 graduated from it with a first-class degree of candidate of theology.
Bishop Anthony (Khrapovitsky), the rector of the Academy, was very loving to the talented student, and directed him towards monasticism. But the time had not yet come… The future bishop accepted an appointment from the Holy Synod as teacher of homiletics and liturgics at the Simbirsk theological seminary.
The young teacher quickly drew the attention of those studying homiletics by his serious and absorbing lessons. He tirelessly directed seminars in which the students learned to make plans and conspectuses of sermons on the most varied themes. He taught the future pastors to make improvised sermons. Alexander Alexeyevich advised them to read Russian classical literature as well as the Holy Fathers.
After working for four years in Simbirsk, Alexander Alexeyevich felt the desire for deeper theological studies, for which better libraries were necessary. So he moved to Moscow, where he was again given pedagogical work in the Cadet corps and the third Moscow gymnasium. He was also a teacher of general and Russian history and inspector at the Nikolayevsky orphans' institute.
At this time he decided to marry one of his former pupils. Although she was sympathetic to his proposal, her parents, who were merchants, did not agree, wishing to marry their daughter to a man of their own class. Alexander Alexeyevich, tried to persuade the parents of his chosen one, even asking his father to help him; but they were unbending. Shaken by this event, he went still deeper into himself, seeing what had happened as the Providence of God directing him on another path in life.
In 1918 the former Nikolayevsky orphans' institute was reformed as the 165th Moscow workers school, and in 1919 Alexander Alexeyevich left teaching to take up a post as head of the postal section of the Chief forests committee. In 1920, according to one source, he entered the brotherhood of the Danilov monastery in Moscow. However, according to another source, he was tonsured into the mantia with the name Gregory shortly before Christmas, 1921, in the Zossima desert, Vladimir province, by Bishop Bartholomew (Remov). Here he spent some months under the direction of Elder Metrophanes. Then he moved to Danilov monastery, where he was ordained to the diaconate and priesthood by Bishop Theodore (Pozdeyevsky) of Volokolamsk, who became his spiritual father.
On November 19 / December 2, 1923 Archimandrite Gregory was consecrated Bishop of Schlisselburg and Lodeinopol, a vicariate of the Petrograd diocese, by Patriarch Tikhon, and was at the same time appointed superior of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra. At his consecration the new bishop said: "The judgement of God is now taking place... If we now place our bets on man and humanity, we shall only be more unhappy. You saw how misplaced were the bets on experience, on learnedness, even on spirituality understood in a human way. The bet on man - forgive me for using sharp words - has been lost. And after that - what shall I say about myself? Am I ready? And I worthy? I am not ready. I am not worthy. But the judgement of God is proceeding, the human is being swept away and the Divine is taking its place. That is my faith." The patriarch sent the newly consecrated bishop to his flock with the words: "I am sending you a pearl."
Bishop Gregory was wonderfully gentle and condescending to people. He could patiently listen to the most varied opinions on Church questions, however absurd they might be, and would lovingly point out any original thought. But he was firm and unyielding in the defence of the purity of Orthodoxy. He demanded a strict fulfilment of all the Church canons and rules from his flock.
He made a great impression on his parishioners by the manner of his serving and his unusually bold sermons. Here is an extract from his sermon on Forgiveness Sunday:
"People always strive for paradise, for union with God, for blessedness. This is a characteristic placed in them by the Creator - this is the Image and Likeness of God. But it is difficult to attain the real paradise; for that unceasing work on oneself is necessary, we have to cleanse ourselves from sin, from defilements, we have to struggle with sinful thoughts and feelings. And this is Satan's bait: it turns out that we can attain this paradise easily and simply: we only have to distribute income in a different way and make people full - and the earthly paradise is with us. This is an attempt to substitute the easy for the difficult, the carnal for the spiritual, the sham for the genuine. But as with every house of cards, the sham paradise collapses at the slightest shove, and flies away at the slightest puff of wind. This puff of wind is human spite, passion and love of honour. At one puff of these everything disintegrates into dust, the paper walls fall down, and only darkness remains. But we shall seek the true, the genuine paradise, and for that we shall cleanse ourselves our hearts and feelings now, in the fast that is beginning, so that we may behold Christ risen from the dead. Amen."
Vladyka Gregory fought well against the renovationists, and on December 6, 1924 he was arrested for "non-payment of taxes and the sale of the Lavra sacristy". Hieromartyr Michael Cheltsov records: "At the trial he behaved unexpectedly courageously, to the astonishment of all, replying politely but fearlessly." According to another witness, the authorities accused the bishop "of inspiring life into the Lavra. Many of the brothers who were living in the world returned to the Lavra… and the believing people began to flock to the churches which had previously been empty."
Fr. Michael Cheltsov writes that "under Gregory diocesan life passed quietly and calmly. They didn't enter into any kind of relations with the renovationists; they didn't undertake any great projects. But the authority and influence of Gregory somehow grew, and the clergy were attracted to him."
He was released on April 17, 1925. On March 31, 1927 he was arrested again in Leningrad and was accused of forming the circle "The Zealots of True Orthodoxy", whose members were supposed to protest against the closure of churches. He was imprisoned in the prison of Shpalernaya street. The case was cut short because of "insufficiency of compromising material", and he was released on November 19, 1927.
In July, 1927, Metropolitan Sergius issued his notorious declaration, which placed the Russian Church in more or less complete submission to the militant atheists. The opposition to Metropolitan Sergius was led by Metropolitan Joseph of Petrograd. On October 31, Archimandrite Sergius (Zenkevich), a supporter of Metropolitan Sergius, was consecrated Bishop of Detskoye Selo, while Bishop Gregory, who was the bishop recognized by the believers of Detskoye Selo, was still in the OGPU prison. When Bishop Gregory came out of prison, he did not openly join the "Josephite" opposition to Metropolitan Sergius, but supported it secretly. Thus Protopriest Peter Belavsky confided that it was Bishop Gregory who persuaded him to join the Josephites. Bishop Gregory submitted himself to no one, and commemorated only the patriarchal locum tenens, Metropolitan Peter. He considered that a decentralized Church consisting of autocephalous dioceses could best resist the atheist authorities.
On February 12, 1928, Metropolitan Joseph issued an ukaz appointing Bishop Gregory superior of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra as his vicar. At about this time, Metropolitan Sergius appointed Metropolitan Seraphim (Chichagov) to the see of Petrograd in place of Metropolitan Joseph. Bishop Gregory wrote to Metropolitan Seraphim that he "earnestly desired union with the Church, but was not orienting himself on definite personalities". In the Lavra, as before, Metropolitan Sergius was not commemorated.
According to Archimandrite Benjamin (Voznyuk), Metropolitan Seraphim took Vladyka Gregory, whom he knew well from the Danilov monastery, on a tour of the diocese. During the journey they had enough time to exchange views, and since they did not agree, on February 28, 1928 (old style), Vladyka Gregory wrote to Sergius that he could not work with him and was going into retirement.
While not commemorating Sergius, Bishop Gregory did not openly break with him, which elicited a large letter to him in the summer saying: "From every word of yours addressed to inquirers there breathes ambiguity. Many pastors who used to be close to you have bitterly complained at the change that has taken place in you. How many times have your unclear words elicited tears amongst the abbesses and nuns who are devoted to you!"
However, the sergianist Protopriest Nicholas Chukov believed that it was Bishop Gregory's lack of clarity on his relations with Sergius that actually strengthened the Josephite position.
Moreover, Fr. Michael Cheltsov wrote: "In his quiet cell Gregory became the real uniter of all those who were dissatisfied with Bishop Nicholas (Yarushevich), Metropolitan Sergius and his Synod - all those who were supporting Metropolitan Joseph. Clever and tactful, he himself was somehow not prominent, he remained as it were in the shade, but everything came to him and went out from him… Bishops Gabriel, Demetrius, Seraphim and Sergius more than once met at his place, as did several of the prominent protopriests. All their judgements came down to one thing: insist on the return of Metropolitan Joseph."
However, the break with Sergius was not long in coming. In May, 1928 the Synod appointed him bishop of Feodosiya, a vicariate of the Tauris diocese in the Crimea, which Bishop Gregory rightly understood as a form of exile. He turned down this appointment, and, in his own words, "asked to be retired, not because of weak health, but for differences in the understanding of Church life in the diocese and its needs".
On August 28 he himself went into retirement in spite of "the petitions of the Lavra and the regions that he be left in place"
After saying goodbye to his flock, during which he spoke of his departure as "involuntary and forced", and after sending a sharp protest to the Synod, he set off the next day for his native Kolomna, whence he wrote to his spiritual daughter the next month: "I seek only one thing, that the Lord help me to become stronger in the good. Various rumours reach me. I sorrow when they use my name for evil. I seek nothing."
According to one source, Bishop Gregory signed the acts of the so-called "Nomadic Council" of the Catacomb Church, which took place between March and August, 1928.
In Kolomna he worked hard, collecting his sermons and writing theological works, including his commentary on the Gospel of Mark. In the spring of 1929, in a sketch on the mystical understanding of Christianity, he wrote: "I want to explain that the reason for the weakness of Christianity does not lie outside us and still less in Christianity, but in us ourselves, and first of all in our crude approach to Christianity and our lack of understanding of its essence."
In 1931 he began to complain of illness and rheumatic pains, and in September he moved from his native home in Pochtovaya ulitsa, Kolomna to relatives in Moscow. He did not return in order to serve, but continued to write and send his writings to his spiritual children.
In 1932 for reasons of security he moved to Zhavoronki on the Belorussian railway, Moscow district. But when the authorities learned that he was there, they threatened the landlady and she turned him out of the flat. In about March, 1933, he moved to Kashin, where he lived "without a definite occupation" with his brother Fr. Victor, who was serving in a church near Moscow. For the first year he was looked after by the wife of his other brother, Fr. Constantine - Lyudmila Alexeyevna, who was sent from Moscow for the purpose, and later - by N.A. Slepushkina.
He lived almost a hermit's life, writing extensively - on St. Andrew of Crete and the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian. Many of his spiritual children visited him from Leningrad, as did the Kashin priests Protopriest Michael Sokolov and Hieromonk Matthew (Michael Nikolayevich Chelyustkin), whom he had tonsured in the Lavra and who had returned from exile in Kazakhstan. He probably served at home because a search revealed vestments and 1250 candles. He remained as before in silent opposition to Metropolitan Sergius ("I personally support the Tikhonite Church").
According to another source, however, in 1929 Bishop Gregory left Leningrad with the help of Hieromonk Nicephorus (von Richter-Melling) and became a watchman on a poultry farm in Tver province, near Kashin. Then, in 1932 (1933, according to another source), he was arrested and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Three weeks before his arrest in 1937 he wrote: "By the mercy of God, I live quietly. I'm comparatively healthy. Time is moving more quickly, and you don't manage to do what you should."
On April 16, 1937 he was arrested in Kashin in connection with the affair of "the Danilov brotherhood", and was confined in prison in Kalinin. On the same day 16 people were arrested in the city. With him was arrested his cell-attendant Slepushkina, who behaved very courageously at the trial, even refusing to sign the protocols.
Although Bishop Gregory was interrogated three times in April-May, he each time refused to admit that he was a member of an underground group. His words were distinguished by their caution: "I gave no directions with regard to the question of relations with the renovationists", "I conducted no conversations on political themes, nor, in particular, on the question of the relationship of Soviet power to the Church", "there were no conversations on political themes since I am not keen on such conversations". When the investigator shouted at Vladyka: "You are hiding from the investigation a whole row of people who think like you in Kashin!", he calmly replied: "I have given all my connections to the investigation and I have no others".
Seeing the firmness of the bishop, the investigators turned away from him, and after May 10 they did not summon him again, occupying themselves instead with the other arrestees, of whom the majority were laypeople.
On August 31 the investigation was brought to an end, and then, on September 13, 1937 Bishop Gregory with a group of about 50 clergy and laity was condemned to be shot by a troika of the UNKVD, which sentence was carried out on September 17. According to another source, however, he was sentenced on September 17 and shot in Tver prison on November 3 (13?), 1937.
(Sources: M.E. Gubonin, Akty Svyatejshego Tikhona, Patriarkha Moskovskogo i Vseya Rossii, Moscow: St. Tikhon's Theological Institute, 1994, pp. 581-582, 855; L. Regelson, Tragediya Russkoj Tserkvi, 1917-45, Paris: YMCA Press, 1977, p. 591; Russkaya Mysl', December 5, 1974; Introduction to Tolkovanie na Yevangelie ot Marka, Moscow: Philanthropic Brotherhood of Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Vladimir, 1991; Bishop Ambrose (von Sievers), "Istoki i svyazi Katakombnoj Tserkvi v Leningrade i obl. (1922-1992)", report read at the conference "The Historical Path of Orthodoxy in Russia after 1917", Saint Petersburg, 1-3 June, 1993; "Episkopat Istinno-Pravoslavnoj Katakombnoj Tserkvi 1922-1997gg.", Russkoye Pravoslaviye, N 4(8), 1997, p. 4; A. Psarev, "Zhizneopisaniye Arkhiepiskopa Leontiya Chilijskago", Pravoslavnaya Zhizn', N 3 (555), March, 1996; Victor Antonov, "Otvyet na Deklaratsiyu", Russkij Pastyr, 24, I-1996, p. 73; Metropolitan John (Snychev), Mitropolit Manuil Lemeshevsky, St. Petersburg, 1993, p. 169; Bishop Ambrose (von Sievers), "Katakombnaya Tserkov': Kochuyushchij Sobor 1928 g.", Russkoye Pravoslaviye, N 3 (7), 1997; Za Khrista Postradavshiye, Moscow: St. Tikhon's Theological Institute, 1997, pp. 338-339; Michael Shkarovsky, "Iosiflyanskoye Dvizheniye i Oppozitsiya v SSSR (1927-1943)", Minuvsheye, 15, 1994, pp. 446-463; I.I. Osipova, "Skvoz' Ogn' Muchenij i Vody Slyoz", Moscow: Serebryanniye Niti, 1998, p. 206; V.V. Antonov (ed.). Episkop Shlissel'burgskij Grigorij (Lebedev), Moscow: "Otchij Dom", 1996, pp. 3-16; "Poslyedovateli Arkhiepiskopa Fyodora v Danilovskom monastyre", Pravoslavnaya Zhizn', 48, N 8 (584), August, 1998, pp. 13-14)