April 23rd marks the feast day of St George the Great-Martyr and Trophy-Bearer and of St Alexandra the Martyr Empress (III c.). From the time of her reception into the Orthodox Church, the Empress Alexandra took the latter as her patron saint and marked her feast as her saint’s day. Below we provide an account of this occasion in 1917 from the diary of Fr Afanasy Belyaev, who served as chaplain to the Royal Family during their forced confinement in the Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo.
April 22 and 23, 1917 — The saint’s day of the former Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. It had already been announced on the sixteenth that Her Majesty wishes me to bring the akathist [to the Great Martyr St George] to be read at the all-night vigil on the twenty-second. This was done. At 6:30 p.m., the vigil service began. The entire Imperial Family came, dressed in bright, festive garments. The son, four daughters, and their parents, and the entire staff of servants. After the six psalms and the small litany, the akathist to the Great Martyr St George was read.
At the end, there was a special prayer for Her Majesty Tsarina Alexandra. The next day, all of the same people, dressed in festal garments, came to the Divine Liturgy. Before the liturgy, we served a moleben for health, and during the liturgy, instead of the usual prayer for victory, a special prayer to the Holy Martyr Empress Alexandra was read. The liturgy concluded with my sermon on the occasion of the feast. As they approached the cross, I congratulated the Sovereign and the Empress, giving them each a prosphora [blessed bread]. To the Empress, I extended my congratulations on her saint’s day, and wished her spiritual peace, health, patience to endure those difficult days, and help from the Lord, according to the prayers of the Holy Martyr Alexandra. In response, the Empress expressed her thanks, making an effort to smile, but her smile was that of one who was suffering and ill. Everyone in the church, upon kissing the cross, made a silent bow toward the place where, near the screen, set apart from everyone else, the Imperial Family stood. That was all to distinguish this day from any ordinary weekday spent in strict confinement. It saddened me to the point of tears.
At mid-Pentecost, on April 26, there was no service.
April 29, 1917 — Saturday. The usual vigil, with the usual faithful, except for the former Heir. The same sorrow and the same solitude. Joy and comfort in prayer…
April 30, 1917 — I served the liturgy, and gave a homily on the words of the Gospel God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth…1John 4:24 I was speaking about enduring spiritual suffering, which faces man, abandoned by everyone, in an inexpressible, oppressive state, horrifies him, and the sole comfort he finds is in prayer. At this point there escaped from someone such an irrepressible, loud and powerful, heartrending sigh, that it amazed all of the listeners. And that response of spiritual torment emanated from the place where only the Imperial Family was standing. After the service, everyone venerated the cross.