“The purpose of life is to seek after the highest truth and to never divert from that road even when they force you to serve the purposes of the lowest form of truth by trampling upon the truth of Christ.” — St. Luke the Blessed Surgeon
In the 20th-century, Orthodox Christians were greatly persecuted during the militant atheist rule of the Soviet Union. At the start of the Russian Revolution in 1917, there were over 46,000 Orthodox churches in Russia, 50,000 priests, and some 130 bishops. By 1941, over 40,000 of these churches were secularized, closed, or simply demolished. At least 45,000 priests, an untold number of monks, and over 100 bishops were either shot, deported, imprisoned, or exiled. Such a great catastrophe for the Orthodox Church in Russia and yet we see it blooming again. This is in part due to the enduring examples of how to live the Christian life provided by the many saints and martyrs who suffered during this period.
One such example is the Bishop Luke of Simferopol, who endured over a decade of exile and torture. He was born in 1877 with the name Valentine to civil servants living in Crimea. The family later moved to Kiev due to their poverty but the young Valentine found nourishment for his soul by visiting the Kiev Caves Lavra, where he watched the pilgrims and monks and drew their pictures. He later described how this influenced his direction after high school:
“The Lord God blessed me with different talents. After high school, I finished my studies in the School of Fine Arts in Kiev. I was a very talented artist and I decided to enter the Academy of Fine Arts in Leningrad. But in the middle of exams I abandoned this effort because I thought that I should serve God and His people, in work that is more beneficial than art. Even though at that time it was clear to me the direction my art would take if I didn’t abandon it; it would purely be a religious direction. From that time theological issues concerned me very much. The driving force in my character was a strong desire to serve God and His people.”
Valentine graduated the Kiev School of Medicine in 1898 and began serving as a rural doctor. In 1905, he volunteered for the Red Cross and travelled to the Far East to serve as a doctor during the Russo-Japanese War. There he met and married a nurse named Anna, known by the wounded as the “holy sister”, and after the war they started a family. Valentine described the years that followed:
“For thirteen years I worked twelve to fourteen hours a day. I was thinking seriously of abandoning the rural hospital in order to travel to distant villages where the people were poor and dying because of the lack of medical help. But the Lord had decided differently for me. He sent me to Tashkent in 1917 where I was one of the organizers of the University of Middle Asia and became a professor of topographical anatomy and the chief surgeon.”
Valentine proved himself to be a brilliant surgeon. He wrote numerous articles which brought him acclaim. Yet his Faith came first. Before every surgery, he would pray before the icon of the Theotokos in the operating room and then make the sign of the cross with iodine on the patient’s chest.
Because of his selfless work, many came to him for healing and he welcomed all, regardless of their ethnic or social background. Aware of his a gift as a surgeon, Luke often worked without pay, following Christ’s command to his apostles: “Freely you have received, freely give”
1917 was a pivotal year for both Valentine and his homeland. Russia suffered greatly during World War One when, near the end, the Czar’s government collapsed and a fierce civil war broke out between the Bolshevik Red Army and the anti-communist White Army. As the conditions in Tashkent deteriorated, Valentine was forced to work long hours in surgery under deplorable conditions. Worse, the Bolsheviks created an atmosphere of terror and paranoia, with millions dying during the four year war.
The war years took their toll on Valentine and his wife. One day, Valentine confronted a drunk worker at the hospital. The worker reported Valentine who was then falsely arrested by a communist Troika and placed in a queue with 2,000 soldiers awaiting execution for mutiny. After 16 hours of waiting, a local party official recognized the famous surgeon and facilitated his release.
But the stress endured by his wife Anna, already suffering from tuberculosis, was too great. After thirteen days with Valentine at her bedside, she passed away. The grief stricken Valentine stayed up for two days reading psalms at her graveside. On her tombstone was written, “Anna Vasilevna … A pure heart who pursued the truth with passion.”
“My life has been tough and difficult but never did I pray to God to make it easy. Because “narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” — Bishop Luke
When Lenin took over the government he began persecuting the church. Valentine was under constant threat due to his faith. And yet, he found comfort worshiping and serving in the church. In 1920, the authorities ordered that Valentine’s icon in the operating room be removed. Valentine, at the risk of not only his job but his life, refused to operate until it was replaced. Soon, a prominent party member’s wife became sick and demanded Valentine as her surgeon. He replied: “I am sorry, but due to my beliefs I cannot enter the operating room unless the icon is put back in its proper place.” The authorities gave in, Valentine healed the party member’s wife, and the icon was replaced.
Valentine’s faith was also evident when called to the priesthood, as he later described:
“During the years of the anti-religious demonstrations during which they derided the Lord Jesus Christ, my heart was saying: “I cannot keep silent.”At that time there was a clergy-laity congress taking place in Tashkent. I was present and during the discussions on some important issues I made an impassioned speech. That speech made a great impression on Bishop Innocent of Tashkent and at the end of the congress he said to me; “Doctor, you must become a priest!” That was something that was completely unexpected by me but the words of the Hierarch brought forth a calling through his lips and I did not hesitate one second in answering him: “Of course, Your Eminence, if that is the will of God, I will become a priest.” And the following Sunday, I, the professor of medicine, with a borrowed robe, appeared before the Bishop who was standing on his throne and I was ordained a sub-deacon and then during the course of the Divine Liturgy I was ordained a deacon. Within two weeks I became a priest and the pastor of the Cathedral Church.”
Valentine showed great courage by entering the priesthood at the time when Stalin was ascending to power. Churches and monasteries were being closed, desecrated, or destroyed; clergy — arrested, tortured, and killed. In 1922 alone, 8,100 clergymen and monks were executed.
In 1923, Archbishop Innocent was exiled and Valentine called to replace him. He received the monastic tonsure and then consecrated Bishop Luke in secret.
For the next twenty years, Bishop Luke discovered just how deep a hatred the militant atheists had for the church. His first arrest on false charges came on June 9, 1923. Luke was imprisoned for two months before being sent to Moscow. There he met the soon to be martyred Patriarch Tikhon who uttered the very prophetic words for both Luke and the Russian people: “The night will be very long and very dark.”
The security forces harshly interrogated Luke before throwing him into Moscow’s worst prison, Butyrka. The conditions were unbearable, with up to forty people crammed into a cell that normally held 6. After this, Luke had to endure squalid conditions for a month on a rail car heading to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. Officials in Krasnoyarsk allowed him to work in a hospital and perform surgery until he was sent further north to Yeniseisk in the dark hold of a cargo ship. He suffered from cold and starvation throughout his two years in exile.
Yet even in the cold and dark northern reaches, Luke managed to operate using a pocket knife and a bottle of alcohol. He also performed liturgies in an abandoned monastery and consoled the people, never losing his faith in God. He even spent time in Turukhansk, where so many prisoners died that even to this day when the snow melts and the water runs, human remains rise from the ground.
In 1926, Luke returned to his duties as bishop in Tashkent. But this freedom was short lived. He began operating on people from his home but was falsely charged again. After interrogation, Luke was brutally tortured and then left in Tashkent prison for a year. One witness describes the moment when they took the Bishop to the railway station to send him off to Siberia again:
“They dragged him by his beard, as if he was some kind of criminal. They spat in his face. It came to me in a flash that this was exactly the same way that Jesus Christ Himself was mocked.”
Luke ended up in the town of Makarikha where the rough shacks offered little cover from the cold. Many prisoners committed suicide rather than endure the harsh conditions, with up to seventy being buried in a day due to self-injury or exposure.
After several years, bishop Luke discovered he had a tumor and was sent to St. Petersburg for treatment. It was benign. But during his stay, a high ranking official offered Luke a job as the head of the best hospital in the country, if only he would give up the priesthood and deny Christ. Luke refused and instead returned to Tashkent as bishop. For the next five years, he reopened churches and drew many back to Orthodoxy. He also continued to operate, training others on the art of surgery and winning an award for his book, “Essays of the Surgery of Pyogenic Infections”. He was even one step away from discovering penicillin.
Then one night in 1937, he was arrested and suffered two more years of torturous interrogation and humiliation to the point where he was covered in sores. Again, the charges were ludicrous … accused of killing patients and plotting to overthrow Stalin. Such hatred towards him, and yet Luke could only speak the truth; so what could he say under interrogation when the charges were so absolutely false? Such was the absurdity and horror of the communist system.
Luke spent four more difficult years in Krasnoyarsk, then Bolshaya Murta in Siberia.
In 1941, the Germans invaded and Russia found itself in a desperate struggle for survival. Luke sent a telegram to Kalinin, President of the Supreme Soviet, to volunteer. The answer was immediate. The government named Luke the head of a military hospital and an advisor to several others. Luke worked tirelessly, even going to the railway station to operate on incoming soldiers during his off hours.
During the war, Stalin granted some freedom to the church in order to gain their support for the war effort. Luke was named the Bishop in Krasnoyarsk and was allowed to open the small Church of St. Nicholas. From this humble spot, church life in Siberia began to grow once more. He opened the Church of the Holy Veil in Tambov the following year. People flocked to hear his passionate and heartfelt sermons.
After the war, some party members wanted to persecute Luke further. But Stalin refused, saying “We cannot execute these people anymore; we have to honor them.” He awarded Luke the Stalin Award for Science. Luke donated the money to war orphans even though he couldn’t afford a ticket to the ceremony.
“I believe deeply in God and I have built my whole life upon His commandments.” — Bishop Luke
After many years of suffering, Luke found peace. The Church transferred him to Simferopol in Crimea. As Bishop, he woke up early and prayed for several hours before reading the Bible. He would then go to his office and occupy himself with church matters. In the afternoon he would see patients free of charge.
In 1956, Luke lost his eye sight but continued to preach and celebrate the liturgy. On Christmas, 1960, he performed his last liturgy. A little before his repose, he baptized his great granddaughter Tatiana.
Near the end, he said to his niece, “I wonder, will they allow you to sing Holy God” at my funeral?” At that time, his niece didn’t understand these prophetic words but would later.
Luke reposed on June 11, 1961. The government tried to keep the funeral small. But mourners boldly ignored the roadblocks. A three and a half hour funeral and procession followed along crowded roads, with some people watching from rooftops. Despite government interference, one could hear the constant chant of the Trisagion during the procession: “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.” The Bishop’s niece then understood her uncle’s words.
Bishop Luke suffered greatly in his life and yet he always put others first, working to heal their wounds whether physical or spiritual. A sign of his sanctity came in 1966 when his remains were disinterred and a beautiful fragrance came from his relics. He continues as a vessel of divine grace today, working miracles for those who visit his relics in Russia and Greece, and for many across the world who pray for his intercessions with faith. The night indeed was long and dark for Russia, but today, with the Soviets fallen and Orthodoxy resurgent, there remains the brightest star, Saint Luke the blessed surgeon and bishop, whose humility, selflessness, and complete trust in God are great lessons for those of us who strive to live a Christian life. Saint Luke, please pray for us!
Video produced by Efstratios Papageorgiou
Written by Michael Gavalas