Suddenly a portrait of Stalin burst into flames. Fr. Gabriel had gained entrance to a window and poured kerosene on the back of the portrait and then set it on fire. Lenin’s portrait burned immediately, too. Horror came over the entire crowd. They all froze from fear and everything became still . . .
A previous post on Saints who destroyed religious images (or idols), gives a considerable list of Saints who in their lives courageously and physically confronted the practice of worshiping idols.
Most of the examples come from the First Millennium A.D., which shouldn’t be surprising as this is when idol-worship was widespread in the world and at its most aggressive towards Christianity.
Saint Gabriel Urgebadze burning a portrait of Lenin, May 1, 1965
Looking back over so many centuries it can be difficult to imagine just what these heroic Saints did in publicly taking a stand against something so anti-Christian, yet so popular.
This is why I would like to offer a story from the life of Elder Gabriel (Urgebadze), a Georgian priest-monk now recognized as a Saint, who in times closer to ours publicly denounced the idolatry of a people.
Abandoned Lenin statue in Tbilisi suburb
The account is taken from an interview with Fr Gabriel in the Death to the World magazine, one year before his repose in 1995.
Fr. Gabriel was a very young Hieromonk in 1965, the year these events took place.
“Do you know the central square in Tbilisi? During the May Day Demonstration, the government speakers and the speaker’s rostrum stood there. Behind them, on the building of the Executive Committee of the Communist Party, there always hung portraits of the party leaders in full figure, two floors in height. At the peak of the demonstration, when the square was packed with people and while a member of the government was delivering a speech, suddenly a portrait of Stalin burst into flames. Fr. Gabriel had gained entrance to a window and poured kerosene on the back of the portraits and then set them on fire.”
“Perhaps it is a legend?”
“Some things, of course, have been enshrouded by legend; but he burned the portraits. Lenin’s portrait burned immediately, too. Horror came over the square. They all froze from fear and everything became still. While the pictures of the leaders were in flames, from the second floor window, Fr. Gabriel gave a sermon: “The Lord said, ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee idols, or any graven images… Thou shalt not bow down before them nor serve them for I am the Lord your God, Thou shalt have no other Gods!’ (Exodus 20:3-5). People, come to your senses! The Georgians have always been Christians! So why are you bowing down before Idols? Jesus Christ died and rose again… But your cast idols will never be resurrected. Even during their life they were dead…”
“It is impossible to imagine… How could they let him utter another phrase!?”
“Evidently he also said another phrase, and perhaps more. The doors of the Executive Committee building had been locked; he had entered the attic earlier and sat there until the demonstration began. They brought him down; it is true, quick enough: they brought in some fire engines and raised ladders…”
Lenin Square in Tbilisi during the Soviet-era
“But when they brought him down, the crowd fell upon him, breaking through all the barricades… They kicked him, hit him with rifle butts, and flailed him with fire hoses. They screamed: ‘Let me finish off that louse!’ Each person wanted to trample the enemy of the people underfoot with their shoes, to express their zeal. The firemen dragged him away.”
“How was it that he was not shot?”
“The reason they didn’t shoot him is that they carried him off almost like a corpse. His face couldn’t be made out; he was one bloody mess. His skull was fractured and there were seventeen bones broken in his body. He lay barely conscious for almost a month. But he was treated carefully so that investigations could be conducted… It seemed that they were going to arrange a show trial-but they couldn’t even get the condemned man onto a stretcher. He didn’t respond to the treatment at all; the entire time he was at death’s door, but didn’t die. This is what I was told; I had only been born at that time. Beyond that I don’t know anything with certitude; Fr. Gabriel won’t speak with anyone about it. Either it dragged on until Khrushchev amnesty, or they tried for a long time to uncover a conspiracy, to get out of him the names of the conspirators. Then, either he was certified psychologically not responsible for his actions, or it became too unpleasant for the authorities. When they finally released him, he was suspended from Priestly ministry. Not only in the Church, but for ten years time they wouldn’t hire him anywhere. It is fortunate for him that there was a house, that he had a mother-the old woman who opened the gate for you. Both of them lived on his pension: since he was a certified lunatic, he was allotted by the State seventeen rubles a month. No one would let him into their house to earn a little money on the side; everywhere people knew and were afraid of him. Neither he nor his mother could appear outside in the daylight; if they did, the neighbors would let their dogs loose on them… At first he wondered among the villages and was hired to guard vineyards or attend to the fire in Churches. Then his mother became paralyzed from all the trauma and he could no longer go anywhere. For several years he could be found sitting at the portico of some Church with an outstretched hand. Only the people who did not know him would give him anything-his acquaintances turned away from him or derided him.”
Top: Lenin Square in the 1950s
Bottom: Freedom Square today
In his later years, when the interview above was given, Fr Gabriel was known as a healer and wise elder – seemingly at odds with the account given above. However, the fact that he was still alive at the time probably meant that neither Fr Gabriel or his friends would want to glorify him too much: dwelling on the scorn he undoubtedly received so as to downplay his popularity with the faithful. After his death, God revealed the wonders and miracles of his life, beginning with his brave denouncement of Soviet idols in the 1960s.
As for “Lenin Square”, the scene of the burning of the Soviet-leader’s portrait, that square is now called “Freedom Square”, and a golden statue of Saint George the Victory-Bearer now stands on the podium where Vladimir’s likeness once stood.
NB: In the DttW article quoted, the year of Fr Gabriel’s burning of Lenin’s portrait is given as “the year of Stalin’s death”, which is 1953 – but a website dedicated to the elder gives the date as 1965. I have gone with the latter date.
Elder Gabriel – a Confessor of Christ, website dedicated to the miracle-working elder, giving many details of his life in numerous languages.
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