Long before Marxist-inspired liberation theology began poisoning the minds of Catholic clergy in South America, and Catholic clerics became activists, revolutionaries, and proponents of disruption in the United States, Father Georgii Apollonovich Gapon helped ignite the Russian Revolution.
Gapon, an Orthodox priest with an understanding of the Gospel as false as that of today’s revolutionary priests, organized Russian workers, encouraged them to strike, and led them on the disastrous march to the Tsar’s palace that culminated in what is known as Bloody Sunday, January 22, 1905.
More the 3,000 striking workers and their families, singing hymns and carrying icons, marched towards the Winter Palace led by Father Gapon. They fully expected Nicholas II would welcome them, and receive their petition, with open arms. They did not know the Tsar was not at his Moscow residence that day, or that their beloved Tsar had ordered his Imperial Guard, over 2,000 men, to protect the palace that morning.
No knows exactly how many were actually killed or injured that January day. Walter Sablinsky writes in The Road to Bloody Sunday that the Russian government’s official calculation, based on hospital reports, is that 130 died. He adds that a Russian historian estimates that somewhere between 150 and 200 died and between 450 and 800 were wounded.
Father Gapon was not injured and escaped by exchanging his priest’s robes for a common laborer.
Sablinsky believes that Gapon worked to ensure that the march would be peaceful, but that because he suspected that violence might occur he also worked to ensure the workers would march anyway. He writes of Gapon:
“He inspired his followers to march to their deaths even when it became clear to him that the government was determined to use force.”
The shedding of blood, Gapon came to believe, served a greater purpose. He idealistically writes in The Story of My Life that it was: “. . . a flash of lightning that had rent the darkness of Russian life. . . . Blood had been spent, and this lamentable blood has fallen like warm rain upon the frozen soil of Russian life.”
Gapon, a reluctant priest who was disdainful of the clergy and rites of the Russian Orthodox Church, came to believe that his participation in the strike was divinely inspired. His autobiography, however, leaves the impression that his work was far from divinely inspired and that he never should have been ordained a priest. A gifted organizer, his passion for the poor blinded him to the truths of the faith.
Gapon’s life didn’t start out that way. Born in the village of Beliki, Poltava Oblast, in Ukraine in February of 1870, he learned the Orthodox faith from his devout mother and grandfather as a child. Under their influence, he too became devout. He recalls praying before icons with tears and deep remorse for his sins when he was seven or eight.
His devotion led him to seminary, but while a student he says he became disillusioned to the point of sickness by the Church’s doctrines and the lives of the clergy. Even though he eventually became a priest, his disillusionment remained throughout his life and his assessment of the clergy grew more harsh.
Something more than disillusionment seems to have motivated Gapon. His criticism of others suggests that he saw himself as a lone authority on the Gospel and the poor.
Gapon fared poorly at seminary and he leaves with a poor evaluation. This prevents his attending university, so he gives lessons, works as a statistician, and reflects on the misery of the peasants he encounters. During this time, he reads and hears about revolutionaries and their ideas influence his. He decides to study medicine and to dedicate his life to helping the poor as a doctor, a course that perhaps would have prevented his becoming a false messiah for the workers.
At this time he meets a young Ukrainian woman, the daughter of a merchant considered wealthy. She convinces him that he can do more good as a priest than as a doctor. When he tells her that he is opposed to the values of the Orthodox Church, she gives him a new foundation for his distorted understanding of Jesus Christ as having died for the temporal good of humanity.
She tells him, Gapon writes: “. . . the main thing was to be true, not to the Orthodox Church, but to Christ, who was a model of sacrifice for humanity. As to the symbols of the Church, they were symbols of ritual only.”
They marry, and a year later Gapon is ordained. As a provincial priest in Poltava, Ukraine, he sees just about every other cleric as using faith to steal from the poor. One deacon, he writes, gave up a medical career because working in the Church was “a more lucrative calling.”
Another parish priest he knows charges parishioners for his liturgical services. So Gapon rightfully celebrates free services for the poor. He says he was fined by ecclesiastical authorities for interfering in another parish.
His wife dies after four years of marriage and two children, and Gapon loses interest in being a priest and seemingly in being a father to his children. He moves on to St. Petersburg.
In St. Petersburg, he becomes a student at the Theological Academy. Most of the students and professors there, he says, cared little for “religious and moral truth.” He suffers a breakdown and goes to Crimea to recover.
Crimea is no better. There, too, he sees the church as oppressing the ignorant poor: “Everywhere I saw rich lands lying idle, monks living on the superstition of the people, and feeding that superstition in order to maintain themselves in a sluggish and depraved life.”
So he concludes: “Every day I saw more clearly that these thousands of monasteries—there are more in Russia than in any other country in the world—are nothing but nurseries of vice and machinery for increasing the superstition of the people.”
Back in St. Petersburg to continue his studies, Gapon becomes moved by the plight of outcasts – unemployed workers who have taken to drink, girls, and women of loose moral character rejected by society, criminals.
To assist these outcasts, he develops a plan for labor houses and colonies where anyone unemployed would be sent. The Church would be at the center of each. The plan is well received by clergy and eventually gains the attention of Tsarina Alexandra. But nothing happens.
He is invited to salons and he says the lives of the aristocracy leave him largely unimpressed. Their interest in the poor was a distraction, he says, as was their interest in what he taught them about Christianity.
He meets St. John of Kronstadt, one of the greatest saints of the Russian Orthodox Church, and finds him a great preacher but too worldly and uninterested in “radical proposals for the betterment of the conditions of the suffering and toiling masses.”
By June of 1904, most of Gapon’s time is spent organizing workers. In the days leading up to Bloody Sunday, he says he was full of anxiety, feeling that our society was on the brink of a precipice.
On January 14, 1905, the workers of Putiloff Works in St. Petersburg accept Gapon’s proposal and decide to strike. As planned, workers from other sites followed when their demands were not met.
Gapon is filled with foreboding on January 19. Before he leaves his home for what turns out to be the last time, he looks at a cross in his bedroom and at a picture of Christ in the Desert hanging on the wall. He does not think of the temptations Our Lord endured and defeated. The cross, he says: “… always reminded me of the sacrifice of Christ for the sake of the people.”
In the weeks before the strike Gapon grew hoarse from giving speeches. His assistants, Sablinsky writes, also gave speeches that depicted Gapon as the symbol of the movement, as a messiah.
The march on the palace was presented as a religious one, but the religious symbols carried by Gapon, a cross, and marchers, icons, seem merely props for the messiah of the workers. Like the Church in his plans for labor houses, they are a means to an end.
In March of 1906, about a year after Bloody Sunday, Gapon was hanged in a cottage outside St. Petersburg on the order of a leader of the Socialist Revolutionary Central Committee who also was a double agent working for the police. After the spectacle of his funeral, Gapon was mostly forgotten by the revolutionaries and the workers.
Like the aristocrats he condemned, Gapon had good intentions. But in taking up the cause of Russia’s workers and outcasts, he was no less superficial. His understanding of Christ was upside down. He cared more for the earthly plight of the workers than for their souls. For him, the cause was so great that he was willing to lead some to death.
Gapon died not the death of a martyr for Christ, not the death of a priest-martyr who died for his faith in the gulag. He died the ignoble death of an ideologue for an earthly cause.