Archpriest Nikolai Golubtsov is an influential and beloved figure in the spiritual landscape of Moscow. Father Nikolai was at the very core of religious events in recent Russian history. He performed the burial service of the Blessed Matrona of Moscow and had the courage to baptize Joseph Stalin’s daughter. He provided guidance to many souls through his gift of love for people and grace of confession. In this article, we will delve into the fascinating life story of Archpriest Nikolai Golubtsov, a good shepherd to the flock entrusted to him by God.
“Good soil” for God’s Seeds in the Golubtsov Family
Nikolai was born on October 12, 1900, in Sergiev Posad. The seventh of twelve children, and the eldest son in a deeply religious family, the future elder was a playful child. In his memoirs, he wrote: “When I was a child, my father often gave me a hard time. He was especially upset when I was rude to Mom. He always kept track of our progress, health, and behavior. <…> But the most important thing he did for us was instilling in us a love of justice and work, as well as compassion for the poor and needy.”
After his father’s death in 1911, Nikolai became the oldest man in the family. He readily helped his younger brothers in their studies and assisted his mother in the household, always willingly doing even the most menial of tasks.
A Firm Confession of Faith
In 1918 Nikolai was recruited and served two years in the rear militia of the Red Army. Later he recalled once disobeying an order to remove a cross from his chest during an inspection and being punished by cleaning toilets.
In 1920, Nikolai’s mother died of smallpox, which she contracted while taking care of peasants. Nikolai moved to Moscow, where he was the caretaker of his younger brothers. After graduating from the Petrovskaya Agricultural Academy as an agronomist-fieldsman, he worked in his profession for some time. In 1919, during an “ideological personnel check,” Nikolai openly confessed his faith and was fired. He was forced to transfer to work at the Moscow Seed Control Station, where he met his future wife Maria Frantsevna Grinkevich. Under Nikolai’s influence, Maria converted from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy, and in 1932 they married.
Interestingly, while still young, Nikolai wanted to join a monastery. Yet his spiritual mentors, the first of whom was his mother’s third cousin, the well-known Elder Alexei (Solovyev) of the Zosima Hermitage, said that first he needed to get married. Even the priesthood, which was also dear to Nikolai’s heart, was not approved for him right away, with the explanation: “Right now, you will perish in a snap, but there will come a time when you will be needed.”
Nikolai settled with his spouse in a wooden house in the district of Izmaylovo. From 1937 up until his ordination, Golubtsov worked as a bibliographer in the scientific library of the All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences named after V.I Lenin. As colleagues got to know Golubtsov better, they realized that he was a chosen one of God. According to his spiritual child, Orthodox theologian Sergei Iosifovich Fudel, when someone in the organization was feeling down and needed support and wise advice, they were always sent to the bibliographer: “You know what, go to Nikolai Alexandrovich and tell him everything. Don’t be shy; he is so simple and responsive. He will help you with everything.” People came to him for advice because he treated everyone with unwavering love and compassion. Once, risking his job and even his freedom, he went to court to stand up for a young man he worked with in a collective farm. The guy was facing the death penalty, and Golubtsov was the only one who could prove his innocence. By the grace of God, the young man was acquitted, and Nikolai was spared punishment.
Path of a Good Shepherd
Since 1944, Nikolai has been diligently preparing for ordination at the Moscow Theological Seminary, while actively serving as a sexton and reader, and singing in the Nativity Church choir in Izmaylovo. Becoming a priest during a new wave of persecution of the Church was an act of great courage, and he had chosen it as his life’s work. In 1949, Father Nikolai successfully passed his final exams at the seminary and was ordained a deacon on September 1. He remained in this rank for only two days, serving in the aforementioned Nativity church alongside Father John Krestyankin. On September 4, Father Nikolai became a priest.
After that, he served alternately in the Church of the Resurrection on Donskaya Street and in the Small Cathedral of the Donskoy Monastery. In the Monastery, Father Nikolai felt more confident, and most often it was there that he invited for conversations his spiritual children from various social circles. “He was even with everyone and welcomed everyone as if he had been waiting for their arrival to share with them generously his precious time and all his spiritual strength,” Sergei Fudel recalled.
In his third year of service, Father Nikolai was honoured to perform the burial of the Blessed Matrona of Moscow. Before her death, the saint requested that she be buried in the Church of the Resurrection on Donskaya Street. At that time, Father Nikolai Golubtsov, who knew and revered the blessed Eldress, was serving in that church.
His ministry was distinguished by a special concern for the spiritual condition and material needs of his flock, selflessness, self-sacrificing love and deep prayer to God for his children, as well as foresight and miracles. There are many stories illustrating this.
Similar to Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, Archpriest Nikolai often visited people in need and secretly gave them money. In one family where he performed the wedding, he left a significant sum of money under the bedding and quietly left. When asked about it, he calmly replied, “They are starting a new life and they will need it…” On another occasion, on the winter feast of St. Nicholas, Father Nikolai decided to visit an old bookbinder who helped publish his books. Seeing the old man’s poverty, the priest secretly left some money in his house. On the following day, someone asked Fr. Nikolai if it was his money. “I have nothing to do with this, it must have been St. Nicholas” he answered earnestly. Often, Father Nikolai’s spiritual care for his flock was coupled with material help. Beggars always waited for the Elder after services. He gave alms to all and asked for prayers, giving specific names.
At the same time, Father Nikolai bought nothing for himself from the moment of his ordination, and his whole family lived modestly. Having no children of their own, the Golubtsovs took in two orphans and loved them like family.
After services, the Elder usually went to perform occasional rites, not refusing to come to any corner of Moscow and beyond, although it was a violation of the rules.
He was often seen carefully writing something down in his notebook. In the busy schedule of pastoral ministry, Father Nikolai carved out minutes to write theological works. Thus, in 1956, his “Dogmatic Interpretation of Andrei Rublev’s Icon of the Holy Trinity” was born. He also wrote two akathists in honor of the Donskaya and “Seeking the Lost” icons of the Mother of God, expressing his great reverence and love for the Most Holy Virgin.
Grace-filled Sermons at General Confession
The authorities forbade priests to preach at divine services. But Father Nikolai could not leave the people who came to him without his invigorating and edifying instruction. To circumvent the ban, the Moscow pastor conducted almost daily his so-called general confessions, which were essentially sermons before confession. As Sergei Fudel recalled, “At times he did not speak, but rather begged, pleaded, and urged, wishing to awaken a heart that was still asleep. Judging by myself, and by many others, I would say that over many years there has been no occasion in which we returned from confession with Father Nikolai with the same dry soul.” There was no theological sophistication in the words of the Elder; he was equally understandable to the poor and the intellectuals.
The grace flowing from him during confession transformed people. It was for this consolation of the soul that they came to his little church, filling it even on weekdays. Father Nikolai never refused to hear anyone’s confession, and very often knew the sins that people wrote down on paper slips before the sacrament even if they were never mentioned.
Miracles Great and Small
A parishioner recalled a miracle she witnessed with Father Nikolai on a trolley bus. His eyes suddenly shone with a bright blue light, but quickly returned to their normal color when she commented on their appearance. This was a common occurrence among his spiritual children. Also during church services, some people observed an extraordinary glow around his head.
Another parishioner called Maria Krasheninnikova shared her memories of several miracles that happened to her through Fr. Nikolai’s prayers. One of them was when he helped her get a job at the Tuberculosis Institute where she worked happily for 25 years. Another time, during a cold winter, Fr. Nikolai prayed to St. Nicholas, and she was able to afford just the right amount of excellent firewood. On another occasion, Maria’s second cousin was healed of a serious illness after they prayed together at the grave of Father Nikolai.
Stories of Clairvoyance
The Elder’s clairvoyance, strong faith, and daring prayer were unquestionable. Everything that he blessed – marriage, friendship, work, or anything else – brought people joy. Those who neglected his advice had a difficult time, but the elder still prayed for their consolation.
One prophecy he made about the Russian Church at the time truly astounded many. While Nikita Khrushchev in 1961 was promising to show the “last priest” on TV by 1980, Father Nikolai firmly stated at one of his “general confessions”: “The next two or three years will be very difficult for the Church. But in one night everything will change.” Indeed, after the Elder’s death, on the night of the feast of the Intercession in 1964, Khrushchev was deposed by his allies. Although that did not make the Church completely free, the closing of churches ceased and the tensions subsided.
The Secret Baptism
Father Nikolai had a wonderful sense of humour and knew how to hide his sorrows. The only people who knew anything about his suffering were his wife and his best friend. After the death of the Elder, his wife said that recently, after he had suffered a heart attack, he often came home exhausted, lay down on his bed and covered himself with a warm shawl. When asked what was wrong, he would only reply, “Oh, nothing. You don’t need to worry about that”. According to the recollections of the Elder’s friend, Hierodeacon Porfiry (Barayev), Father Nikolai once shared that he had baptized a high-ranking person, and this had grave consequences for him. “I have been somewhere you have not been, and I have seen things you have not seen,” the Elder said to Father Porfiry, though the latter had suffered two arrests and two exiles. It was only after the Elder’s death that a book of memoirs by Svetlana Alliluyeva (Stalina) was self-published and everyone learned about the person whom he had dared to baptize. One can only imagine what he might have suffered from the authorities for this.
According to Svetlana’s memoirs, she decided to be baptized into the Orthodox faith in the spring of 1962. Following her friends’ recommendation, she met with Father Nikolai who made a great impression on her. “… Since then I have not seen anyone serve in such a sincere and simple manner. <…> I will never forget our first conversation in an empty church after service. <…> His face, full of inner strength, was both simple and intelligent. He shook my hand quickly, as if we were old acquaintances, and sat down on a bench near the wall, crossing his legs and inviting me to sit down beside him. I was confused, because his demeanour was casual. He asked me about my children and my work, and I suddenly began to tell him everything, not yet realizing that it was a confession.” Father Nikolai understood that the baptism of Stalin’s daughter could be dangerous for himself and for Svetlana, since she violated the rules established by the party. However, his dedication and love for people led him to take this step without putting her name in the church register. After her baptism, Alliluyeva wished to donate all her jewelry to the church, But Father Nikolai firmly objected. “It is more important that you have come yourself,” he said.
Svetlana last saw the Elder on Pentecost in June 1963. He revealed to her his gift of clairvoyance, advising to be patient in personal life and predicting her acquaintance with Brajesh Singh, who later played an important role in it. Very soon the words of Fr. Nikolai were fulfilled. Two months after their conversation, a new page began in Alliluyeva’s life. “Father Nikolai never wasted a word,” she wrote in her memoirs.
“Precious in the Sight of the Lord is the Death of His Saints”
In June 1962, shortly after the baptism of Svetlana Alliluyeva, Father Nikolai suffered his first massive heart attack. For a long time, he was unable to recover and petitioned for an extension of his leave or for a part-time transfer. However, his petition was denied by the ruling bishop, so the Elder was forced to resume his pastoral work with the same daily workload. Foreseeing his imminent death, Father Nikolai tried to take care of his family. A month and a half before his repose, he was seen repairing something on the roof of his house. His relatives were worried about his health, but the Elder said with a cheerful smile that “it was necessary to fix the house, which would soon be left without a master.
In September 1963 Father Nikolai had a second heart attack, after which he no longer got up. On the same day, Father Victor Zhukov, who had been living at the Elder’s home for the past few years, heard his confession, performed the sacrament of unction over him and gave him Holy Communion. After this, the elder did not look at anyone and hardly spoke. At times he would begin the Lord’s Prayer and not have the strength to finish. Then his brother, Alexey, who was with him in the last hours, finished the prayer, and the Elder gratefully shook his hand. At that point it became obvious by the Elder’s demeanour that he had had some kind of a vision, after which he said quietly, “Sing ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord,'” and started singing himself in tone 7. On the following night, September 20, the forefeast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, Archpriest Nikolai peacefully departed to the Lord.
Three bishops and twenty-eight priests attended the funeral of the beloved Moscow elder, gathering a crowd of thousands of grateful spiritual children. Sergei Fudel recalled the grace of God clearly showing His presence at Father Nikolai’s funeral. “We were celebrating Pascha in the midst of summer. Someone in the crowd was right in saying to me, ‘Today I felt for the first time in my life what the Church truly is…'”
The faithful children of the Elder have not lost their kind and loving intercessor. Even after his death, Father Nikolai appeared to them in dreams and warned them against mistakes in difficult moments.
The life and legacy of Archpriest Nikolai Golubtsov is a mission for the sake of God and neighbour, and yet another proof to the fact that sainthood is possible on earth. Perhaps it is thanks to its good shepherds that our long-suffering land never became a godless country.