April 6, 2009

Elder Nikolai Gurianov (+ 2002)

By John Sanidopoulos

Elder Nikolai Gurianov (sometimes spelled "Nikolay Guryanov) was born May 26, 1909, in the village of Chudskie Zakhody, Gdov District of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, into a pious, long-established merchant family. From early youth, Nikolai served as an altarboy. In the 1920s, the parish to which he belonged was visited by Metropolitan Benjamin (later glorified as a hieromartyr) of Petrograd and Gdov. Here is how Nikolai described that event: “I was still only a child. Vladyka served, and I held his staff. Then he hugged me, kissed me, and said, ‘How fortunate you are to be with the Lord.’”

In 1926 he finished Gatchina Pedagogical College and in 1929 he received an incomplete pedagogical education at the Leningrad Institute, from which he was excluded for having stood up at a meeting against the closure of one of the nearby churches. During the period 1929-31 the future elder taught mathematics, physics and biology, and served as a chanter. In 1931, Gurianov was unjustly arrested, and sent to the prison "Kresty" (Crosses) in Leningrad, to a concentration camp near Kyiv in Ukraine and spent 7 years in Syktyvkar (Republic of Komi) in imprisonment. In his difficult trials, he encountered many spiritual strugglers, luminaries of the Orthodox Faith, whose examples set the path he would later take in serving God and the Church. Freed, Nikolai worked as teacher of mathematics in the schools of Tosno district since Leningrad residence was denied him. He chanted in a church there as well.

During World War II he was not mobilised due to the weakness of his feet which had been caused by work at the concentration camps. When Gdov district was occupied by German troops, Nikolai together with other residents was exiled to the Baltic. Here he became a student at Vilnius Theological Seminary in Lithuania which opened in 1942. After two semesters of seminary studies Gurianov was consecrated to the priesthood by the exarch Metropolitan Sergius (Voskresenkiy) at Riga Orthodox Cathedral of Christ`s Nativity in Latvia. Later, he served as priest at different parishes in the Baltic states. During 1949-1951 Nikolai studied part time at the Leningrad Theological Seminary and in 1951 was admitted for the first year to the Academy, but having completed one year of part-time studies he did not continue further.

In 1958, Fr. Nikolai was transferred to the Diocese of Pskov. At his request, he was assigned to be rector of the Church of St. Nicholas on Zalit Island on Lake Chudo . Fr. Nikolai served his first Liturgy there in 1958 on the Feast of the Protection of the Most-holy Theotokos, and it was there that he spent the next 44 years of his pastoral service. He eventually was elevated to Archpriest, and had the honor of wearng a bishops mitre and vestments and an episcopal panagia without being a bishop. It was also there that he became the one whom Orthodox believers in Russia and abroad know as Batiushka Nikolai, the Elder of Zalit Island.

The time of the “finding” of the Elder, i.e., the point at which he threw open the doors of his humble cell to everyone who was in need, came at the same time as the fall of the Soviet regime, the year that was the beginning of a second Baptism of Rus’. From that moment, the Russian Church began to gather unto itself a great multitude of new converts.

It was not easy for this flock of newly-born people, newly turned to the Church, to make firm a foundation for new life within themselves. The people had been too crippled by decades of atheism. To bolster and raise up their spirits demanded a leaven of absolutely unique power. It seems that it was provided to them by in the person of Elder Archpriest Nikolai, by the Lord, the invisible Head of the Church. He was that spiritual power that would penetrate not only into the souls of those drawn to Christ. In his presence, all of newly-baptized Russia , whose impression of righteousness had, at best, been gleaned from books, received a clear and comprehensible understanding of the meaning of Orthodox holiness. “Everything will be as you need it to be,” he would often say to fearful people, as if to say that no circumstance could hold sway over a Christian who had a true and unwavering faith.

People came to the Zalit spiritual struggler not just from all over Russia, but from throughout the world. Among many of those who were allowed to visit him in recent times were pop stars Andrei Makarevich and Valentina Tolkunova. From the middle of 1999 the starets did not meet anyone due to illness, which provoked pilgrims to such a point that complaints were written to the administration of the Russian president.

In his final year, before his blessed end, Nikolai, despite his illness nevertheless found the strength to receive pilgrims, to strengthen them and instruct them in faith. The thoughts of the starets spoken during these earthly conversations became a sort of spiritual testament for many Russian Orthodox.

Guryanov died on the night of August 24, 2002, at the age of 92. He was buried on August 26 on the island of Talabsk.

The following was written as an obituary shortly after the Elder's departure:

"Very recently the famous elder, known to all, Archpriest Nikolai Gurianov of the isle of Zalit reposed in the Lord. He was in his 93rd year. As his cell-attendants reported, Fr. Nikolai was fully conscious before his death, although he was so weak he could barely speak. When they felt that the elder was about to depart this life, they began to read the special service of the Canon for the departure of the soul from the body. He held a candle in his hand. One of his cell-attendants assisted him, but he held the candle fully consciously.

"And when they read the prayer of absolution, that is, at the very end of that service, he could tell that he was drawing his last breath. A cell-attendant said to him: 'Christ is Risen!' Very, very quietly, barely audibly, he whispered: 'Truly He is Risen!' and gave up his righteous soul. Truly Fr Nikolai’s death seemed more like a falling asleep, a dormition. Of course I do not know what those closest to him, who were next to him at that time experienced. But I will tell you what I experienced when I found out about his death and what I felt when I was present at the burial of that great elder."


- A spiritual child of the Elder has written the following: "Father Nikolai demonstrated amazing clairvoyance, knowledge of what was transpiring in a person’s soul and thoughts, knowledge of the future and of things far away. It was as if he could look into a book and read clearly and precisely the information written there about what we needed. Even when he was conversing with people who came to see him, he looked somewhat off to the side and above them. Indeed, one might think that Fr Nikolai was looking off somewhere and when he had read or heard something, he immediately passed it on to those who came seeking understanding from him."

- According to one biographer, the following is written: "Sometimes he himself would appear to people to bring them words of consolation, instruction, and criticism. It seemed that for him, neither temporal nor geographical limitations existed; it was as if he lived in a different space and in another body. I myself was an eyewitness to such happenings. I will mention but one example: The assistant conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made a guest appearance in St. Petersburg. He spent some time with the Elder on the island, and related to him all of his misgivings: on the eve of his arrival, his wife had been in an automobile accident, and had experienced a miscarriage. This alarmed the husband, and evoked the mournful idea that in those events he should see God’s ill will toward the marriage. The Elder comforted the musician and said that his fears were unwarranted. The next day, the happy man telephoned his wife in America to share with her his happiness. 'I know everything,' answered his wife from the other end of the line. 'How did you hear?' asked the startled conductor. 'While I was dozing, he came to me in a dream with words of love and consolation.' A great many such incidents took place in his life."

- It is written of him that he used to find lost people and freed hostages from bandit captivity, all the while remaining in his tiny hut.

- He became particularly famous after a surviving sailor came to him and recognized in him the starets who appeared to him during an accident. The sailor had originally come to the island to see a respected man and only after recognized him.

- Gurianov was endowed with a special musical gift which he used in combination with his gift of clairvoyance. Starets loved ecclesiastical singing, and composed many spiritual songs and hymns which he performed himself. Many of his songs such as "Appraisal to the Mother of God", "To the Guardian Angel", "Savior, Warm My Soul", "Brotherly Hymn" and others became truly national indicating in the prophetic songs the way to true repentance.

"I came to Father Nikolai being torn with doubts about my life, with an empty, insignificant question and he in answer sang all my life in song and in the end said a few guiding words. And everything became clear to me, I said farewells in tears and left in peace and consoled - now I knew how should I live and what to do." - such stories were often heard from pilgrims, for many of whom the meeting with the Starets became the beginning of new life - life in

- There is also a reported weeping icon as well as a weeping photo of the Elder:


- In September 1997, a group of 10 piligrims visited Nikolai in his wooden hut. He came out to bless people and anoint them with holy oil. One woman asked: "Father Nikolai, who will be after Yeltsin?" He replied: "Afterwards there will be the military one...His power will be short. But his age is little as he is himself. There will be persecutions, upon the monks and the church. His power will be as it was during the communists...". She asked again: "And what will be after? After will there be an Orthodox Tsar. Will we live to see that?" "You, yes." After those words he blessed the woman.

- In June 2002, a group of Orthodox priests and laity visited Nikolai for his blessing. He was asked: "Will we see an Orthodox Tsar?" Nikolai having traced the sign of the cross, prayed and firmly said "A Tsar is coming!"


- The Elder would ask all Orthodox: "And you, have you repented for the Tsar slain, for Russia laid waste, for the faith profaned?"

- "We don’t know ourselves, so we don’t raise our noses in the air."

- "Rejoice and be glad that we belong to Christ."

- "We must preserve, in a holy manner, the purity of Orthodoxy and what has been entrusted to us by the Holy Fathers. In order to do that, we have to explain, in a calm and peace-loving way, and by any means possible, how the Ecumenists have gone astray. We must not be silent, but must lovingly clarify, and must avoid any arguing."

- Once he was asked what he considered to be the most dangerous sin in the souls of people? Father Nikolai answered: "Unbelief! This is frightening." Even with Christians? they would ask. "Yes, even, with Orthodox Christians".

The pilgrims then asked: "Batushka [Russian for "Father"], what would you say to all Orthodox Christians about salvation? " He would answer: "Listen here, the believing man, he must...with abundance of love relate to everything that surrounds him. Understood? With abundance of love."


The room of Father Gurianov was filled with photos and images of Nicholas II and the Royal Family. He kept albums, films, and documentaries telling about the last Russia Tsar. With these it is said Gurianov also honored Tsar Ivan the Terrible and Rasputin.

My Response To The Controversy:

As far as Elder Nikolai's devotion to the last Royal Family of Russia, it is hardly a controversy anymore since all Orthodox Churches have recognized their canonization since the year 2000 as "Passion-bearers" - people who accepted their imminent death with Christian humility - and an appropriate apologia for their canonization was given by the Moscow Patriarchate as well as reported miracles throughout the world including weeping icons. More can be read here:

As far as the extent Elder Nikolai honored Ivan the Terrible and Rasputin is up for speculation and the resources are not available to me. We should not jump to extremist conclusions based on hearsay. If he was in the wrong however, we should keep in mind that even a holy elder can jump to a wrong conclusion but still have the right intentions.

The controversial Metropolitan Ioann of St. Petersburg, who died in 1995, is noted as the originator of a movement to canonize Ivan the Terrible and Rasputin. Ioann taught that the monarchy was the last bastion of the Orthodox Faith in a battle against the anti-Christian forces of Jews, Freemasons and Western Christian heretics, who he said led the Russian people to atheism and liberalism. This was a minor movement that gained a loud voice over time and was severely criticized by the Moscow Patriarchate, though it got a lot of attention in the media. It is possible Elder Nikolai either was influenced by or even influenced this movement, but this information is not available at this time. If he was, he seems to not have been vocal about it.

What is important to keep in mind is that Elder Nikolai had no hatred in his heart and discouraged such an attitude to all his visitors. He was not anti-Semitic either since Jews would visit him also, such as Andrei Makarevich mentioned above. His devotion to Tsar Ivan the Terrible may have only been a respect he showed to the man who established the Russian monarchy, and he may have believed the ill-repute of Rasputin was part of a conspiracy, or maybe he merely accepted the supposed endorsement of St. John of Kronstadt (which may or may not have been given). Today we seem to know the truth about Rasputin and the evidence points to the probability that he was a corrupt man who in fact aided in the fall of the monarchy. But there are many credible sources that argue Rasputin was a victim of slander, such as his daughter Maria. I don't see much harm in honoring Ivan the Terrible as a national hero. To me it is akin to the Romanian's honor of Vlad the Impaler as a hero. One should keep in mind that Russian tradition believes Tsar Ivan sincerely repented of his evil deeds and even though he murdered many innocent people it is said that he was fed false information thinking he did it for the greater good. 

The only problem I see in this issue is if the honor goes so far as to seek canonization for Ivan the Terrible and Rasputin. No evidence points to the conclusion that this is what Elder Nikolai endorsed, and if he did it was probably because he was fed the wrong information. We simply do not have any information. As Patriarch Alexi said back in 2001, speaking of the drive for the canonization of Ivan the Terrible and Rasputin: "This is madness! What believer would want to stay in a church that equally venerates murderers and martyrs, lechers and saints?"


Below is a beautiful video of Elder Nikolai and shows what great devotion he inspired among the Russian people. The video is in Russian, but he can be heard saying: "My time is up, as of yesterday, like smoke my life is blown away, and the doors of death, dreadfully heavy, are so very close, so close to me."

See also this excellent photo album here.