Chosen for His People: A Biography of Patriarch Tikhon

The only canonical Orthodox church in Malaysia today is a Russian mission in downtown Kuala Lumpur, practically under the shadow of the Petronas twin towers. The Moscow patriarchate gave us the building, sent us a priest-monk and a few nuns to help run the services, and supports us in many other ways.

I am very grateful that our small community receives this help, and very grateful that the Russian church is in a position to support Orthodox Christians all around the globe. Things were very different a few decades ago.

tikhon

Chosen for His People (by Jane  Swan) is a biography of St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Moscow during the communist revolution. This is the only complete biography of St. Tikhon written in the English language. I found this fact very surprising, as St. Tikhon was of great importance in 20th century Russian history, as the man who led the Russian Orthodox Church through the first persecutions of the Soviet communist regime.

The book is short- 117 pages, not including the very extensive endnotes and bibliography. It is more than just a hagiography, rather, Swan makes a good effort at historical rigor, and a lot of the statements and stories in the book are sourced.

Given the short length of the book, St. Tikhon’s early life and ministry are covered very briefly. The focus is on his Patriarchate from 1917 to 1925, a time of great turmoil and transition in Russia. The communist revolution deposed a devoutly Christian Tsar and installed an atheist government that was hostile toward the church, and sought to undermine it at every opportunity. The book chronicles with great detail St. Tikhon’s struggles against the enemies of the church, both within and without. St. Tikhon had to deal with the state’s slander, the murders of clergy and the confiscation of church property, but also with collaborationists in the church, opportunist clergymen who sought to empower and enrich themselves by siding with the Soviets.

The book paints a very humanizing picture of a simple, humble man, called to an impossible task in the most trying of circumstances. We see St. Tikhon’s courage in the face of great  adversity, and deep compassion for his country and its people. We see his great faithfulness and prayerful perseverance despite deteriorating conditions and physical frailty.  At its core, his is a story of a man refusing to give up, refusing to be cowed, standing up for Christ and His church in its darkest hour.

As with a lot of stories set in Russia, this is a depressing read. The Soviets eventually get St. Tikhon deposed as Patriarch,  and at his death Christianity  in Russia remained under grievous threat.  Nevertheless, the church survived and endured, and has now outlasted the Soviet regime. We see Christ’s words fulfilled- “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

I am grateful that I can read this book 100 years after the events transpired, so I can see now that St. Tikhon’s sacrifice, and the martyrdoms of countless thousands of bishops,priests, monks, nuns, and laypeople like him in the past century were not in vain. Half the people who worship with me in our Kuala Lumpur church are ethnic Russians- those around my age are the first generation for whom the Soviets are but a faded memory. I am thankful for the opportunity to partner with them in building our little Russian Orthodox mission, and in some small way honoring the legacy of St. Tikhon and all those who suffered with him.

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