Despite the skull and crossbones, these monks aren’t pirates. They’re far deadlier
Editor's Note: This article is part of the series ‘Russian Christian Military Heroes’, which illustrates the close interrelationship of the church, state, and military in Russian history. In contrast to the uniquely American idea that it is best to keep church and state separate, Russians believe the opposite - that this is, in fact, harmful, and that society is best served by a close cooperation, poetically described as a ‘symphony.’
Perhaps the most famous examples of Russian warrior-monks were Alexander Peresvet and his comrade Andrei, disciples of Saint Sergius of Radonezh (1314 –1392) who fought in the victorious army of King-Saint Dmitri of the Don. Saint Sergius (Sergei) founded one of the most famous monasteries in the Russian lands, Sergius Trinity Lavra.
Saint Sergius blesses Saint Dmitri (kneeling) at his monastery, as Saints Alexander and Andrei look on from the left.
While it is now an impressive medieval fortress as beautiful as it is insurmountable, it was then a simple wooden monastery.
Sergius Trinity Lavra (Monastery) today in Sergiev-Posad, Moscow Province.
Alexander and Andrei were Boyars (Noblemen) from the city of Bryansk (south-west Russia). They were skilled warriors in their youth, but did not become legendary before they took monastic vows; almost the reverse of the story of Ilia Muromets. These sleeping heroes would be hidden in the monastery, praying peacefully until Russia’s time of need arrived. Their example founded a sacred tradition in Russian history. From then on, when Russia is invaded, the Church is always the first refuge her leaders and people flee to; Russia's priests and monks are as much her defenders as her soldiers.
Monks of Sergius-Trinity Lavra participating in the defense of Russia during the time of troubles of the 17th century.
During the Mongol occupation of Russia, in 1380, Saint Dmitri of the Don, King of Moscow, came to St. Sergius for a blessing to fight the Mongols. Before giving his blessing, though, Saint Sergius demanded to know whether Dmitri had attempted a peaceful solution:
“Scripture teaches us that if enemies want honor, gold, or glory, we give it, and God will lift them up to see your humility, and will suppress their unyielding pride.”
In Russian Christianity, unlike in the West, there is no concept of “holy war”. The Church understands it is sometimes necessary to defend the motherland through force, but war is never glorified. It is employed sorrowfully, only against those who will bring unfathomable destruction and endanger the faith if not stopped. The Mongols were such a foe, Dmitri explained, and he had already tried everything. Saint Sergius then told the Russian King if he trusted in God, he would be victorious
He not only blessed Dmitri but sent two of his own monks, Alexander and Andrei, to fight alongside him.
Before the monks left, Sergius raised them to the great schema, the highest tier of monasticism. The monks were then given the right to wear the mark of the schema on their robes: the cross and the skull.
Modern schema monks wearing the same style of robes, a skill and cross bones beneath the cross, which represents the skull of Adam the first man.
Christ was crucified atop the same mountain where Adam died, this Russian crosses often have skulls beneath them, as Golgotha means "Place of the Skull".
“Peace be with you...fight well for the faith of Christ and all Orthodox Christians,” said Saint Sergius, as they departed. En route to the battlefield, King Dmitri stopped at the home of a hermit which is now the spot of a famous monastery and was given a blessed staff which survives to this day.
Patriarch Kirill with the staff of Peresvet
In classical antiquity and the Middle Ages, there was the custom of champion warfare: a champion would be sent from both sides to duel to the death before the beginning of any battle. Amongst the Russian principalities, this was often done to avoid bloodshed, as it was thought that the one who won was favored by God; thus, the dispute would be settled without further war. A famous example of this is King Mstislav the Brave who slew his rival with his bare hands.
Amongst Slavs, the two sides would make peace after the duel, but the Mongols had no such intentions. According to legend, a gigantic Goliath-sized warrior stood at the head of their horde, Chelubei he was called, aloft his horse he issued a challenge to the Russian host. The Russians were paralyzed with fear, but God had sent Russia her David. The monk Alexander rode out, fearing neither his terror, his bent bow, nor the point of his spear, and slew the giant, winning the single combat. Their spears hit and both died; Alexander, however, did not fall from his horse.
The Mongols were terrified that their champion had fallen, and at seeing another figure dressed in the same robe beside King Dmitri. If this was what their monks could do, they dreaded the blades of Russian warriors. The Russians won the battle of Kulikovo Fields and the tales of valor passed into legend.
Dmitri of the Don (right, white horse) leading the army to victory with Andrei on his right.
If you are interested in further study, see Zadonschina, the Russian chronicle. Andrei survived and was later buried with Alexander in the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Old Simonov Monastery.
This crucial battle united the Russian lands in a way that had not happened since the days of Kievan Rus’, the first Russian polity. Without Saint Sergius, this wouldn't have been possible. Russians went to Kulikovo field as different principalities, but returned a united Russia for the first time since Kievan Rus’.
As one of the crowing moments in Russian History, the Blessing of Saint Sergius and the victory at Kulikovo Fields is depicted on the side of Moscow's largest cathedral, The Temple of Christ the Savior, and also seen on the famous Millennium of Russia statue in Novgorod. Dmitri is the third standing figure on the right of the picture beneath the angle's wing.