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November 19, 2020

The Soviet Exhumation and Autopsy of the Relics of Saint Philaret of Moscow in 1939

Why the Relics of the Saint Were Disturbed

In 1939, Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow was exhumed on the territory of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra

Red Corner on the Grave

On the territory of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra in Soviet times, several autopsies were carried out on the burials of famous historical figures. One of the most dramatic is the opening of the grave of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow.

The Saint, who died on November 19, 1867, was buried on the tenth day after his death in a chapel specially built near the Church of the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles on the feast of Saint Philaret the Merciful. The construction of the side-altar, begun during the life of the Metropolitan, in the place designated by the Metropolitan himself, was completed after his death - on June 30, 1868.

After the events of October 1917, the church was closed for worship, and its building was used for various organizations. In the chapel where Philaret was buried, the new authorities arranged a Red Corner and, naturally, the decoration of the Metropolitan's tombstone was seized.

In 1928, when drawing up a plan for restoration work, the idea of demolishing the later extensions first arose.

Professor V.P. Zubov wrote that "the emergency state of these outbuildings and their anti-artistic character made them start dismantling them in 1938, since there was no point in restoring or constructively reinforcing them." The main reasons for the dismantling were the destruction of the ancient monument. Side-altars, not having a "deep foundation", settling, "pulled" the walls of the temple.

Autopsy Under the Supervision of the Commission

Until now, it was believed that the autopsy documents were not preserved. This is stated in the report of the archaeologist Sergei Alekseevich Belyaev, who in 1994 supervised the uncovering of the relics of the Saint. He also writes that he does not know the exact date of the autopsy, widely dating it between 1938-1940.1

However, by looking at unpublished archival material, we found material that bridged this gap.

The exhumation of the remains of Metropolitan Philaret was carried out on September 28, 1939 by a special commission. It included: Deputy Head of the Moscow Regional Office for Arts V.V. Grachev, Sergeant of the State Security of Zagorsk (the town of Sergiev Posad at that time was called Zagorsk. - Ed.) of the NKVD regional department C. Fedorov, a representative of the NKVD in Moscow T. Zhirkov, three representatives of the museum - director I.Z. Ptitsyn, senior researcher I.V. Lazarev,  and photographer A.D. Grinberg, as well as the heads of restoration and construction work on the architectural ensemble of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, architect I.V. Trofimov and artist-restorer P.I. Yukin.

For some reason, the archaeologist was not called for the autopsy. This, we believe, is the fundamental difference in the reasons for the Soviet-era autopsies on the territory of the Lavra: in some cases, it is archaeological research, such as the autopsies of the burials of Saint Maximos the Greek (1942) and Boris Godunov (1945). And in others - the debunking of the cult, since the exhumation of the Saint was carried out during the period of an active struggle against religion.

Also, one of the possible reasons for the creation of a special commission, probably, was that during the opening of the grave of the biggest Russian hierarch, precious objects could be found that were subject to confiscation.

Apart from members of the commission, other persons were present at the autopsy. An eyewitness to the events, the museum's guide, the wife of the archaeologist I.G. Eremina - Galina Ivanovna Utkina said that the commission hoped to find a diamond cross in the burial (we thank the archaeologist V.I. Vishnevsky for the kindly provided information. - Author).

There were other reasons for the 1939 autopsy. The side-altar was dismantled, the crypt, located far from the wall of the temple, protruded from the ground to a considerable height. Therefore, it had to be removed so that it would not interfere with free passage through the territory. In addition, an almost open burial could be easily damaged and disturbed.

What Was Found?

So, under the supervision of the commission the autopsy took place. First, they removed the cast-iron slabs and ceilings of the crypt, in which there was an oak coffin with a copper plate on the lid, then they transferred it to the Serapion tent, where the members of the commission and invited museum staff performed an autopsy without strangers. After removing the lid of the coffin, another - pine - coffin was discovered, the lid of which was decorated with a wooden overhead Calvary cross, with a spear and a sponge.

The following items were sequentially removed from the inner coffin: "a half-rotted cover, leather footwear (decayed), an iron miter (...) with images and fake amethysts in a cross, a wooden cross with an enamel lining, a gospel with a silver lining, two panagias with silver chains , staff, aer, omophorion large and small, sakkos, sticharion, shirt and trousers, epitrachelion, handguards, wooden neck cross and copper neck cross."2

Everything found corresponds to the description of the history of the burial of Metropolitan Philaret recorded in the sources of the 19th century.

The autopsy report testifies that "under everything described are scattered bones and a skull with well-preserved hair, a decayed pillow with shavings." According to the memoirs of G.I. Utkina about this event, when removing the body of the Metropolitan, the commission saw that his head and hands were embalmed.

It is known that then the commission decided to bury the remains of Philaret in the northeastern part of the fence of the Dormition Cathedral.

The Fate of the Remains

The question of this autopsy was raised again in the fall of 1944. This was probably due to the beginning of the process of preparing the transfer of the churches of the Lavra to the Patriarchate. The senior researcher of the museum, Anna Mikhailovna Kurbatova, in her memo spoke about the exhumation carried out, about the objects seized and about the fate of the remains. In particular, she reported that "after lying on the floor of the Serapion tent for a long time (...) an order was given to burn everything and the bones, which was done by Comrade AF Sozykina, a technical worker of the foundation. Where did the coffins go? I do not know." And her further words attract special attention: "I also don't know whether the main skeleton of the deceased was buried or burned." Since several years have passed since the autopsy, A.M. Kurbatova clarifies that the information she reported is presented from memory, but at the same time mentions that she turned to colleagues for information.

Almost 50 years after the exhumation, G.I. Utkin, according to her recollections, Philaret's embalmed head stood for a long time in the closet and some cleaning lady eventually threw it out or burned it.

It turns out that today we have two possible scenarios for the development of events: the remains of Metropolitan Philaret were either buried on behalf of the commission at the wrong place of burial, or burned. Information about this, as we see, is contradictory. Perhaps some other option was implemented. Therefore, further research is needed.

1. Belyaev L.A. "Providence will be in eternal memory ...: Uncovering of the relics of St. Philaret of Moscow, St. Innocent of Moscow and Archimandrite Anthony." Journal of the Moscow Patriarchs. 1996. N12. S. 58, 59.

2. SPMZ. Archive of the Accounting Department. Op. 2 D. 488.L.1. Autopsy report of September 28, 1939.

3. SPMZ. Archive of the scientific part. NA-1/97. L. 12.

Photos are published for the first time. Photos from the archive of Andrey Yaganov.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.