An Extraordinary Case
A True Story from Holy Russia
Mine eyes are upon the faithful of the land (Ps. 100:6)
During his stay in Moscow in the spring of 1707, Tsar Peter Alekeevich commissioned Prince Feodor Yurevich Romodanovsky to organize the penitentiary system. And so, Romodanovsky set out on an inspection of the Moscow prisons. In the convict prison, accompanied by an inspector and a guard, he walked along all the corridors, looking into each cell and inquiring about the prisoners.
Suddenly, one of the convicts addressed him: “Esteemed Prince! We know that you are a pious and God-fearing man, that you venerate the memory of the saints, especially that of our hierarch St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. For his sake, the merciful one, show thy generous mercy and let me go home for a visit, just for two days.”
“What?!” exclaimed the astonished Romodanovsky. “Are you crazy to think of asking such a thing?”
“I am fully aware and of sound mind,” replied the convict. “I shall add that in my part of the country the feast of St. Nicholas is particularly honored. There in the village church is an altar dedicated to him. And besides, I long to see my young wife and my little children. I want to embrace and to kiss them. Let me go … .”
“What kind of a man is this?” asked the prince.
“He murdered one of the tsar’s soldiers,” answered the guard.
“What kind of soldier?”
“One of the Preobrazhensk regiment. True,” added the guard, “it was committed in a fit of anger.”
The prisoner continued:
“Merciful prince! It’s true, I’m a great criminal. I repent of my deed before God and man. Nevertheless, I’d like to go home for a visit. I’m asking for two days only, and be assured that on the third day I shall return here on my own.”
“St. Nicholas the Wonderworker,” answered the prisoner. “He will secure me against any temptation.”
Here Romodanovsky looked the prisoner straight in the eyes, and something warmly compassionate moved in his soul.
“Unfetter him and release him for two days,” he ordered, pointing to the prisoner.
“Your honor,” said the inspector, “I dare say he will deceive you. He has only to make it out of the prison and there’ll be no trace of him. Nothing in the world is sacred for these criminals. They are masters of fine speech.”
Romodanovsky pondered these words…
“It’s true,” he thought. “Once he leaves the prison where would one look for him? Maybe he isn’t even interested in going home but just wants to be released and do what he pleases … . Obviously, I wasn’t thinking when I gave the order. But once said, there’s no turning back; a Romodanovsky doesn’t take back his words.”
The prince looked once again into the open face of the convict and repeated:
“Release him from prison for two days! I have faith that he will return at the appointed time. His holy surety will guarantee it.”
The prisoner threw himself at the feet of the kind prince, while the inspector, sullen and pessimistic, ordered the guard to unfetter him.
… . Twenty versts from Moscow, in the village of Nikolsk, the feast of the ninth of May was in full swing. At the end of the Liturgy the people spilled out from the church onto the market square. There a colorful picture of a fair presented itself. The temporarily released prisoner mingled happily in the midst of the crowd. In his arms he held a beautiful child who clung tightly with his pudgy arms around the neck of his father. Beside them walked a slender young woman, holding by the hand a lively boy.
“My poor, unfortunate husband,” said the woman, “don’t leave us orphaned. See how agreeable life is in freedom. But there—prison, fetters. True, you killed one of the tsar’s soldiers. But you did so without evil motive, unintentionally, by accident. Why must you torment yourself in eternal imprisonment and ruin your unhappy family!”
“I can’t, my dear,” answered the prisoner. “I promised . . . .”
“As a prisoner, I’m sure you promised many things,” continued his wife. “If you don’t return, no one will be able to do anything. Let’s hurry away from here, let’s go to the Don. There we can live a free life. Our sons will grow up to be brave Cossacks and will serve our Tsar-batiushka for you.”
The prisoner considered the tempting words of his wife. To go away to the Don, to live in freedom … But will it be like that? Will it really be good there? And the conscience? That holy sponsor, who is more powerful than any prison or earthly exile … What shall I do if I deceive his sacred memory? Everything will be lost: there will be neither success, nor joy, nor happiness. I shall pine away worse then a captive slave. It was not in vain that the prince said the Saint would not permit deception.
Under the persuasive arguments of his beloved wife, however, the unfortunate man again began to waver, and he was close to giving in to the decision to run away with his family. But there in the depths of his soul something powerful stopped him, turning his mind towards what was just and true. The prisoner listened to this and thought, “No, Saint Nicholas won’t allow it! I must act according to my conscience.”
Taking leave of his family the next day, he said to them: “Although it is difficult for me to part with you, I nevertheless feel that my conscience is at peace. And I trust that he who is my surety will save me from further troubles and misfortunes.”
In two days time he was already in Moscow and arrived at the prison an hour before Rodomanovsky drove up. “I was passing by,” said the prince to the inspector who met him, “and I remembered about the convict who called upon Saint Nicholas to act as his surety. His term of release is up. Has he returned?”
“Yes, your honor,” replied the inspector. “An altogether extraordinary case. He returned within the allotted time and is back in prison.”
“Most commendable!” exclaimed the prince. “Today I’m to see the Tsar and I shall tell him about this rare case.”
The next day the convict prison was buzzing with the news that in the morning a messenger had come from the Tsar and had taken the prisoner to the palace. When the prisoner returned everyone impatiently asked him what the Tsar-batiushka had said to him.
“Our majesty,” replied the prisoner, “wished to know about the crime for which I was sentenced. Then, having mercifully heard my admission, he said that he is reducing my term.”
Here the prisoner crossed himself and added with emotion:
“Glory to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker who, in a critical moment, helped me to vanquish my temptation.”
And within a short time the prisoner was set at liberty.
Translated from Raiskie Tsveti Russi Zmli, reprinted by the Russian Orthodox Youth Committee, Baldwin Place, N.Y., 1984, from Orthodox America.