Archpriest John Vostorgov was born on January 20, 1864, to the family of
Fr. John Vostorgov, the priest of the village of Kirpilskoye in the diocese
of Stavropol. He lost his father at an early age, but remembered him with
great affection as an exceptionally mild and good man. His widowed mother was
persuaded by the parishioners to stay in the parish as a baker of prosphoras,
and they helped her to raise her three children. Both her sons graduated from
In 1883 (1887, according to another source), on completing his course of study at the Stavropol seminary, John Vostorgov was anxious to continue his education, but life made its own demands on him. His aged mother urged him to accept ordination to the priesthood and appointment to a parish as quickly as possible, so as to be able to support her and his younger brother and sister. But in this he encountered an obstacle - the bishop hesitated to bestow the priestly rank upon a nineteen-year-old youth, and offered him instead the post of reader until such time as he came to "fully mature manhood". But the salary of a reader was not sufficient for the Vostorgov family, and young John accepted the post of instructor of Russian in the lower classes of Stavropol's women's high school. His sister managed to obtain a public scholarship at the institute at which she was studying, and his brother took the position of reader in their native village and moved in with his mother. This accorded John the possibility of realizing his cherished dream, and he prepared himself for the examination which would qualify him to teach Russian on the district level. But he was not destined to teach. His younger brother, the reader, died unexpectedly, and his mother was forced to insist that he leave his teaching position and appeal for ordination. The parishioners of the village of Kiprilskoye petitioned that he be assigned to his father's old parish of the Archangel Michael, and, his mother's wishes being thus fulfilled, he was ordained to the diaconate on August 1, 1889, and to the priesthood on August 6 (according to another source, on July 20, 1887, the feast of the Prophet Elijah).
But the young priest did not long remain in the village, being soon recommended by the diocesan authorities for the position of teacher of religion at Stavropol men's high school, which he took up on September 18, 1890. On October 28, 1894 he was appointed teacher of religion in the Elisavetpolsky high school. On June 17, 1897, 1898 he was appointed teacher of religion in the First Tiflis women's high school, and on August 20, 1898 - teacher of religion in the First Tiflis men's classical high school.
On December 22, 1900 Fr. John was appointed diocesan supervisor of the chuch parish schools in the Exarchate of Georgia. Within three years the number of schools in the Exarchate had doubled.
On January 6, 1901 he was raised to the rank of protopriest by Archbishop Flavian, exarch of Georgia.
Fr. John began to study the language of Persia's Syro-Chaldeans, who were adherents of the Nestorian heresy, and on August 21, 1901 was sent to Persia to oversee the work of the Russian Orthodox Mission and began to labour for the conversion of the Syro-Chaldeans to Orthodoxy. For several years he waged a determined battle, the result of which was that three bishops - Mar Elijah, Mar John and Mar Marian - expressed their desire to be united to the Church. Thus was initiated the Syro-Chaldean Mission of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The future Hieromartyr, Metropolitan Vladimir, Exarch of Georgia, on being transferred to the see of Moscow, invited Fr. John to serve there as diocesan missionary. On January 25, 1906 the Holy Synod appointed him preacher-missionary preacher for Moscow diocese, in which position he remained until his martyrdom. On Jun1 he became a member of the Preconciliar Consistory attached to the Holy Synod for the second department. He was also a member of the Brotherhood of St. Peter the Metropolitan.
Archpriest John shone forth with particular brilliance during the abortive 1905 revolution. With the complete approval of Metropolitan Vladimir, he took as active a part as possible in monarchist gatherings, and was therefore hated and slandered in leftist circles.
Fr. John's sermons, which were designed to expose sectarians and the teachings of the socialists, left a tremendous impression upon those who heard them. He also published the newspapers Tserkovnost' and Russkaya Zemlya, and the journals Poteshnij and Vernost'. As a result of his appeals to the teaching of Christ and to common sense, Fr. John acquired for himself countless enemies among all the sectarians, dissenters and socialists of all persuasions and classes. "Member of the Black Hundred" and "obscurantist" were but two of the epithets laid at the door of this eminent man who was possessed of a vast intelligence and an exceptional talent as a preacher, writer and seer. But such nonsense did not daunt a fearless and idealistic man such as Fr. John. He kept unwaveringly to the straight path, and his discourse had but barely to awaken a soul to arouse within it patriotic consciousness.
On Great Friday, March 31, 1906 said the following in the cathedral of Christ the Saviour: "Our homeland has entered upon a new path of life, before and ahead of us is - a new Russia.
"Forgive us, forgive us, old, thousand-year-old Russia! Before our eyes they have judged you, condemned you and sentenced you to death... Threatening and merciless judges have spat in your face and have found nothing good in you. The judgement was strict, implacable and merciless. Everything has merged into cry: 'Take her, crucify her!'
"We also know that nothing human was alien to you; we know that you had many faults. But we also know and see that you made Russia holy, and her people - a God-bearing people, if not in actuality, at any rate in the eternal, undying ideal of the people's soul; you gave birth to and raised a mighty people, preserving it in its bitter fate, in the crucible of its historical trials through a whole series of centuries; you gave birth to and raised an array of saints and righteous ones; you did not perish under the blows, the heavy blows of destiny, but became stronger under them, strong in faith; with this faith, this great power of spirit, you endured all the burdens, and yet you created, and entrusted to us and left behind a great kingdom. For all this we bow down to the earth in gratitude..."
The State set the Church the difficult task of serving the spiritual needs of those migrating to Siberia and the establishment of Church life in the new settlements. There were not enough priests, and it was necessary to train in a year's time as many as were needed. At the behest of the Synod, this labour was undertaken by Archpriest John Vostorgov. He dealt efficiently with this task, selecting able readers and village teachers to be priests and preparing them in special seminary courses. Especially striking were the results of his instruction in homiletics. Within a year, his students had completely mastered the art of ecclesiastical oratory by employing his methods. In fact, his sermons were reworked by his students, printed and distributed in church after they had been delivered.
Fr. John travelled constantly throughout the villages and cities of the immense Russian land, delivering sermons, making appeals, holding discourses everywhere. During his stay in Harbin, China, in 1910, he organized the Brotherhoods of the Resurrection of Christ in the St. Nicholas Cathedral, entrusting its members with the task of tending the graves of the Russian soldier who had fallen in battle in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War.
In June, 1911, following a number of attempts by the Palestine Society over the years, he succeeded in purchasing a plot of land in Bari, Italy, where the relics of St. Nicholas of Myra rest, and established there a hostel for Russian pilgrims.
On his return to he became a cleric in the church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils in Moscow, and was in charge of many course preparing priests and readers for the Church in Siberia. From May 31, 1913 he became rector of St. Basil's cathedral in Red Square, and in the same year began to edit the newspaper "Tserkovnost'" in Moscow. From 1917 to 1918 he was secretary of the Missionary Council attached to the Holy Synod.
At that time the relics of the holy youth Gabriel, who had been murdered by the Jews, were in the cathedral. The frequent molebens Fr. John performed before his relics served as a reason for his later arrest and execution.
Fr. John made St. Basil's cathedral the focus of healthy ecclesiastical and political forces. All of Moscow knew that, on visiting that church, one would find spiritual courage in listening to Fr. John's inspiring discourse.
The Bolsheviks' seizure of power did not bring with it any abatement in his anti-revolutionary activity. At all his services he delivered denunciatory sermons, knowing full well that there were chekists in the crowd that filled his church to overflowing. On Sundays at four o'clock he served a moleben in Red Square, and again thundered against the chekists, who, walking along the Kremlin wall, could always hear him. He was well aware that martyrdom awaited him.
On February 25, 1918, he delivered the following sermon "on Meatfare Sunday and the anniversary of the revolution": "The Russian monarchy, fanned by faith and the mystical Divine anointing, like ancient Israel, had great tasks and the greatest calling from God, the greatest religious destiny, which compelled many to serve it in a religious spirit. It is impossible to serve any other power in this way. A certain mystical and providential atmosphere surrounded it, as it did the ancient God-chosen Israel, the ancient theocracy and God-anointed theocratical kingdom. But let us admit the bitter truth - in its bearers it often departed from its destiny, and often, too often repeated the words of the ancient Israel which so embittered the Prophet Samuel and God Himself: 'Give me a king, such as the pagan peoples have'. It began to take its content and spirit from unchristian sources; it changed its nature. The people often turned to it only as a weapon for the exercise of power, for the sake of earthly and personal ends; one estate often unrighteously suppressed the others; 'it chained the Church of God to the footstool of vain earthly power'; the spiritual enlightenment of the people was forgotten; it often tried to ingratiate itself with the enemies of Christ, it went along its historical path in accordance with their command, and, when it was necessary, under the influence of indistinct murmurings from below, to make compromises, it always hastened to compromise something of the Church's breadth of action... And the judgement of God was accomplished! It placed its hope on the nobles, and gave them most privileges in life, but the nobles betrayed it and sold it and formed, together with the intelligentsia, who were mainly from their own estate, a political party which for a hundred years corrupted the people, struggled for power and yearned hungrily for power, sparing no expense, until it prepared a rising of the people, although it itself collapsed, in accordance with the judgement of God, under the ruins of the great fall of the old order. The monarchy leaned on the officials, but the officials turned out to be hirelings, changing stripes with the greatest ease and adopting any colour so long as they preserved their own position. It leaned on the bourgeoisie and the wealthy classes, supporting their prosperity and capital in every way possible, but the bourgeoisie used the money it had gained under the protection of the monarchy to nourish only its enemies. It placed its hope on the terrible strength of the army, but the army leaders betrayed it, while the officers, a year ago, rushed around and celebrated before our eyes in automobiles draped by soldiers, students and girl-students, to the shouts of everyone in the street, with red flags of rebellion... on the eve of their own, most terrible destruction. It placed its hope on the representatives of the Church, but they, instead of taking a back seat in view of the judgement of God and the sin of man, and at any rate keeping quiet, got frightened and sent telegrams from here, from royal Moscow, welcoming the coup, and drove out their own hierarchs and in a humiliating fashion called upon and enthroned over themselves a new power foreign to the Church. And so - it is accomplished! The judgement of God has thundered out. And just as Saul was chosen by God and then rejected, so has it happened with our monarchy. It is fallen before our eyes incomprehensibly easily, and now we, after all that has happened, in view of the common collapse of life, understand the words of the ancient prophet: 'You have destroyed yourself, O Israel, for your only reliance was on Me. Where is your king now? Let him save you in all your cities. Where are your judges, about whom you used to say: "Give us a king and superiors." And I have given you a king in My wrath, and removed him in My displeasure' (Hosea 13.9-11).
"... The former authority has voluntarily abdicated from power and, one must say, has departed in silence, behaving up to now with the greatest moral dignity. All the cries of hatred against it have gradually died down, and in this year all the personal accusations against it have collapsed one after the other.
"Those who seized power after the overthrow of the monarch have carried out their own will. They are responsible for it before history, before the people, before God. But God has allowed them to carry out their reward both on us and on themselves. Just like the ancient peoples who had been instruments of the punishment of Israel, they have split up endlessly in front of our eyes, overthrowing each other, and in the course of a year they have covered the distance which in antiquity would have required five hundred years.
"Immediately declaring themselves outside God and every religion, they have constructed a tower of Babylon and a Babylonian babble and have arrived at mutual incomprehension and complete division. Monomakh's cap has turned out to be heavy. It was easy to scramble onto the throne of power, but it has turned out to be very difficult to remain sitting on it, as it is in general difficult to sit on the point of a sword or bayonet... And God, O God! How terrible has your righteousness judgement been in this year. Everybody has received his due reward and chained himself with his own hands.
"The parties of the intelligentsia-noblemen - where are they? Beaten, driven out, persecuted! How they yearned for power, how they sought to be the members of the first provisional 'right-believing' - with the atheists Kerensky, Guchkov and Shingarev - government! How they revelled and triumphed in the intoxication of power, how they drowned in greetings, how they rejoiced in the supposedly bloodless revolution, how they buried Russia and the people with their addresses, appeals and calls! Where are they, those first rulers? Show me just one who is still in power! They are killed, in prisons, in exile, in trembling, in obscurity!...
"And everything of which they justly accused the old power they new rulers have repeated, only a thousand times worse. And in this what a Divine sentence is revealed, what shame before human history and what complete lack of any kind of justification! That is what happened to the first power, which constantly changed its members before it was destroyed by our present rulers, who came out of its ranks and were fed by it.
"... Before us appear avengers sent by God from outside - Wilhelm [the German Kaiser], and from within - the Bolsheviks. We repeat: they, too, are doing their own will, they are responsible for all their actions, all their cruelties, all the blood they have shed, all the violence they have committed, but God allows them to do their own evil will for the revelation of His own judgement. There is something terrible in all this, and something providential. They are weapons of the wrath of God, and Wilhelm has often said that. Like ancient Rome, iron-clad and bloody, pitiless and merciless, they have been enthroned over our ruined life. It is not delight in evil that speaks through my lips. You know, the prophet did not sympathize with Rome, of course, he did not rejoice in his coming - he only foretold Rome's coming with sorrow, and foretold the end of the people's history as if from a flood... But God judged and judges still, and before our consciousness there arises this thought: God exists, and His impartial judgement exists!
"And on the anniversary of the revolution I open the third chapter of the mysterious book. It has the inscription: 'And at the end of the time an end shall be put to the desolation' (Daniel 9.27).
"If Wilhelm and our present rulers do not understand the signs of the times, the terrible judgement of God will strike them here, while they are still on the earth. They themselves will be divided and will perish in civil war. 'And the word will be fulfilled': 'Let the sword enter into their own hearts, and let their bows be broken' (Psalm 36.15).
"... Just as Bolshevism was the logical consequence of socialism in its search for freedom, so the logical consequence and end of freedom will be anarchy, and it will come to us - black, terrible, mysterious and awful. It will sweep away the present rulers, it will once more reveal the terrible pages of the judgement of God. And this judgement of God will reveal to us openly that there is not and cannot be complete and absolute freedom for man, that it is limited and must be directed by the Law of God: like steam or a steam-engine in the absence of a good driver, it lead to the destruction of life; like a river which flows beyond its bed and over its banks, it turns life into a bog and a source of illnesses. And when the 'end from the flood' will appear before us, then will begin - if we repent, of course, and are worthy of life, and not of death, - the recreation of life. And this not only in Russia, but in the whole of humanity..."
On May 30, 1918, Fr. John was arrested (according to one source, "for antisemitic propaganda") and imprisoned in the inner prison of the Cheka before being transferred to the Butyrki prison. At that time, however, the Bolsheviks were afraid to murder a man with such an influence over the people for the mere fact of his preaching, and thus they sought other "counter-revolutionary" activities of which to accuse him. A Soviet agent provocateur managed to obtain Fr. John's consent to the sale of Moscow's diocesan residence, which had already been nationalized. His parishioners, who loved him fervently, collected in vain twenty thousand rubles to hire a lawyer; and Fr. John, also in vain, transmitted from prison in written depositions exhaustive proofs of political provocation.
He was at first imprisoned in Lubyanka prison, but was later transferred to the Taganka prison. His parishioners supplied him continually with foodstuffs, even though they themselves were in great need at the time. He was, however, permitted to serve in the prison church, and many went there to pray.
Before his execution he was transferred back to the Lubyanka, the chekists' principal headquarters. He was fully aware that death was drawing near. He heard the confessions of those imprisoned with him and accompanied them to the place of execution.
Here is an account of the execution of Fr. John and some high political officials who were shot with him:
"Six months ago, I happened to meet a certain person who had been incarcerated throughout 1918 in Moscow's Butyrki prison. One of the most difficult responsibilities of the prisoners was the burial of those who had been shot and the digging of deep trenches for the burials of victims of the next execution. This work proceeded day in and day out. Prisoners were transported by truck under armed guard to Khodynka field, or, sometimes, to the Vagansky cemetery. There the supervisor would measure out a trench as wide as a man is high, the length of which was determined by the number of victims to be executed. We usually dug graves for twenty to thirty individuals, but at times prepared the trenches for many more. The forced labourers never saw the bodies of the executed, for they were lightly covered with earth by the executioners before they arrived at the site. The prisoners had only to fill in the pit with dirt and make a mound along the trench which had swallowed up the victims of the Cheka.
"A friend of mine had served in this cemetery detail for several months. The prisoners managed to grow so accustomed to their guards that the latter shared with them their impressions of the operations being conducted. One day, after the prisoners had completed the excavation of the usual long, trench-like grave, the guards mentioned that the following morning (August 23 / September 5, 1918) an important execution of priests and former politicians would take place. The next day the matter was explained. It appears that the victims were: Bishop Ephraim (Kuznetsov) of Selenginsk; Archpriest John Vostorgov; the Roman Catholic priest Liutostanski and his brother; N.A. Maklakov, former Minister of the Interior; I.G. Shchegolevitov, former president of the State Council; A.N. Khvostov, former Minister of the Interior; and Senator S.P. Byeletsky. As soon as they arrived the victims were positioned along the trench, facing it... At the request of Fr. John Vostorgov the executioners permitted all the condemned to pray and ask forgiveness of each other. They knelt, and there poured forth from the unfortunates fervent supplication, after which all approached His Grace, Bishop Ephraim, and Fr. John for a last blessing. Then they bade each other farewell. First of all, Archpriest Vostorgov manfully approached the grave and said a few words to the others, urging all to offer the ultimate redeeming sacrifice with faith in God's lovingkindness and the speedy rebirth of their homeland. 'I am ready,' said he, turning to the firing squad. All stood in the places indicated to them. An executioner walked up behind Fr. John, grasped his left arm, brought it back behind his waist and, placing his revolver to the back of his neck, shot him, simultaneously pushing him into the grave. The other executioners approached the remaining victims. Byeletsky broke free and managed to dash quickly some twenty or thirty paces towards some underbrush, but, hit by two bullets, he fell and was dragged back to the trench, where he was finished off and cast in.
"From the words of the guards as related to us by my friend, it was clear that the executioners, in exchanging comments while covering the unfortunate victims with earth, had expressed considerable astonishment at Fr. John Vostorgov and Nicholas Alexeyevich Maklakov, who had apparently impressed them with their composure in the face of the dreadful fate which awaited them. John Grigorievich Shchegolevitov, in the words of the narrator, had moved with difficulty, but had now shown the least fear..."
According to some sources, Fr. John was shot on August 22 / September 4.
Later, certain of Fr. John's parishioners went to the place of his execution, which was not far from the Bratsky cemetery, and placed flowers on the mass grave.
(Sources: M.E. Gubonin, Akty Svyatejshego Tikhona, Patriarkha Moskovskogo i Vseya Rossii, Moscow: St. Tikhon's Theological Institute, 1994, p. 853; "The New Martyr Archpriest John Vostorgov", Orthodox Life, vol. 30, no. 5, September-October, 1980; Sergius Fomin, Rossiya pered Vtorym Prishestviyem, Sergiev Posad: Holy Trinity - St. Sergius Monastery, 1993, pp. 226-228; Pravoslavnaya Rus', N 3 (1576), February 1/14, 1997, pp. 9-10, 15; I.I. Osipova, "Skvoz' Ogn' Slyoz i Muchenij", Moscow: Serebryanniye Niti, 1998, p. 67; Za Khrista Postradavshiye, Moscow: St. Tikhon's Theological Institute, 1997, part I, pp. 285-286)