(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. John the Russian, whose account is found in Volume 2 of the series.)
St. John the Russian
The border clashes between the Russians and the Turks posed no threat to the larger Orthodox nation but did result in the Russo-Turkish War in the early eighteenth century. Among the Christian soldiers in the Russian ranks in this conflict was a young man named John whose gallantry was rewarded with a betrayal by renegades of his own country. Although his homeland was spared the fate of the gallant but smaller Greece, oppressed since the fifteenth century conquest of the Turks, John suffered a more sinister lot at the hands of traitors to a country that was a bastion of Orthodoxy.
The man who has come down to us as John the Russian was an able soldier and devout Christian who in the course of his service had the great misfortune to fall into the hands of unscrupulous Tartars who sold him into slavery to the Turks. He found himself captive in a hostile country that scorned his religion more than his nationality and eventually served as a stableman for a Turkish nobleman of Cappadocia in Asia Minor where he found many other Christians in servitude.
It was not uncommon for Christian captives to embrace Islam as a matter of expediency, risking their souls for an easier life among their captors; although the majority who did so feigned the defection that was a gesture aimed at pleasing the Turks, who had no way of knowing that their alleged apostates still carried Jesus Christ in their hearts. John would have none of Islam, even in pretense that might have eased his burden, and he clung to his Christian beliefs with even more tenacity when pressed to become a Muslim.
There were others in the community as tenacious in their Christian faith as John. As a result they were allowed to worship in their own church. It was logical to assume that those who would not yield were men of character who excelled in whatever they were doing, and for the most part they enjoyed a religious, if not a personal, liberty. As time wore on John grew increasingly devout, to the point where, lacking a priest, the Christian community grew to look upon him as their spiritual leader. With each passing day he seemed to acquire a closer proximity to God, ever increasing his efforts to keep the small band of Christians intact. In this he won not only the admiration of the Christians but the respect of the Muslims as well. His stature grew even greater in the entire community when he manifested a spark of divine grace with the power to heal the afflicted.
A priest was finally brought to the community, but one of his first duties proved to be his saddest: he was called upon to administer holy Communion to John the Russian, who lay dying, as envisioned by the stricken man who had received a message that he was soon to enter the kingdom of heaven. The priest made certain that John would not be denied this last sacrament by some insensitive Turk and enclosed the holy Eucharist within an apple which John managed to consume just before he died, on May 27, 1730.
The earthly remains of John the Russian were entombed at the Church of St. George, the site of which thereafter witnessed many miracles. After the customary waiting period of three years, his body was exhumed and to the wonderment of all was found to be in a perfect state of preservation, proof that here indeed was a man of God. John the Russian seemed only to be asleep, as he lay in the sanctuary where many came to pay their respects and some to receive healing.
During the bloody massacre of Greeks in Asia Minor in 1922, many of the Greeks of Procopios fled Asia Minor for the haven of their homeland, taking with them the remains of John the Russian who had been revered at close hand for nearly two hundred years. Admitted as refugees in Evia, Greece, this group of survivors of the Greek massacre established a colony that exists to this day in a village named Procopios. John the Russian is revered here with special observances on May 27 each year at the site of his remains, a small portion of which was given to Russian monks of St. Panteleimon Monastery on Mount Athos.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from GOArch.org.