The hue and cry over the Amur Albazinsk fortress became an object of enmity for the Chinese emperor and his generals, who then already dreamed of expanding their influence over all of Russian Siberia.
On the eve of the Feast of the Annunciation, on March 24, 1652, the first military clash of the Russians with the Chinese occurred at the Amur. Through the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos the pagans were scattered and fled to their own territory. This victory seemed like a portent for the Russians. But the struggle had only just begun. Many sons of Holy Russia died in the struggle for the Amur, and for the triumph of Orthodoxy in the Far East.
In June of 1658 an Albazin military detachment, 270 Cossacks under the leadership of Onuphrius Stepanov, fell into an ambush and in a heroic fight they were completely annihilated by the Chinese.
The enemy burned Albazin, overran Russian lands, and carried off the local population into China. They wanted to turn the fertile cultivated area back into wilderness.
During these difficult years the Most Holy Theotokos showed signs of Her mercy to the land of Amur. In 1665, when Russians returned and rebuilt Albazin, together with a priest there came to the Amur the Elder Hermogenes from the Kirensk Holy Trinity monastery. He carried with him a wonderworking icon of the Mother of God “the Word made Flesh”, called the Albazinsk Icon since that time. In 1671 the holy Elder built a small monastery on the boundary mark of the Brusyan Stone (one and a half kilometers from Albazin near the Amur), where the holy icon was later kept.
Albazin was built up. At two churches in the city, the Ascension of the Lord and Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker, Albazin priests offered the Bloodless Sacrifice. Not far from the city (along the Amur) another monastery was built, the Spassky. The fertile soil produced bread for Eastern Siberia. The local populace adapted itself to Russian Orthodox culture, peacefully entering into the multi-national Russian state, and found Russian protection from the plundering raids of Chinese feudal war-lords.
At Moscow they did not forget the needs of the far-away Amur frontier. They strengthened military defenses and improved regional government. In 1682 the Albazin Military-Provincial Government was formed. They concerned themselves about the spiritual nourishment of the Amur region peoples. A local Council of the Russian Church in 1681 adopted a resolution to send “archimandrites, igumens, or priests, both learned and good, to enlighten unbelievers with the law of Christ.” The Daurian and Tungusian peoples as a whole accepted Holy Baptism. Of great significance was the conversion of the Daurian prince Hantimur (renamed Peter) and his eldest son Katana (renamed Paul) to Orthodoxy.
The servants of the Chinese emperor planned for a new attack. After several unsuccessful forays, on July 10, 1685, they marched against Albazin with an army of 15,000 and encircled the fortress. In it were 450 Russian soldiers and three cannon. The first assault was repulsed. The Chinese then from all sides piled up firewood and kindling against the wooden walls of the fortress and set it on fire. Further resistance proved impossible. With its military standards and holy things, among which was the wonderworking Albazin Icon, the soldiers abandoned the fortress.
The Mother of God did not withhold Her intercession from Her chosen city. Scouts soon reported that the Chinese suddenly began to withdraw from Albazin, ignoring the Chinese emperor’s command to destroy the crops in the Russian fields. The miraculous intervention of the Heavenly Protectress not only drove the enemy from Russian territories, but also preserved the grain which sustained the city for the winter months. On August 20, 1685 Russians were in Albazin again.
A year went by, and the fortress was again besieged by Chinese. There began a five-month defense of Albazin, which occupies a most honored place in Russian military history. Three times, in July, in September, and in October, the forces of the Chinese emperor made an assault on the wooden fortifications. A hail of fiery arrows and red-hot cannon balls fell on the town. Neither the city nor its defenders could be seen in the smoke and fire. And all three times, the Mother of God defended the inhabitants of Albazin from their fierce enemy.
Until December 1686, when the Chinese lifted the siege of Albazin, of the city’s 826 defenders only 150 men remained alive.
These forces were inadequate to continue the war against the Chinese emperor. In August 1690 the last of the Cossacks departed from Albazin under the leadership of Basil Smirenikov. Neither the fortress, nor its holy things, fell into the hands of the enemy. The fortifications were razed and leveled by the Cossacks, and the Albazin Icon of the Mother of God was taken to Sretensk, a city on the river Shilka, which flows into the Amur.
But even after the destruction of Albazin, God destined its inhabitants to do another service for the good of the Church. By divine Providence the end of the military campaign contributed to the increase of the influence of the grace of Orthodoxy among the peoples of the Far East. During the years of war, a company of about a hundred Russian cossacks and peasants from Albazin and its environs were taken captive and sent to Peking.
The Chinese emperor even gave orders to give one of the Buddhist temples in the Chinese capital for an Orthodox church dedicated to Sophia, the Wisdom of God. In 1695 Metropolitan Ignatius of Tobolsk sent an antimension, chrism, service books, and church vessels to the Sophia church. In a letter to the captive priest Maximus, “the Preacher of the Holy Gospel to the Chinese Empire,” Metropolitan Ignatius wrote: “Be not troubled, nor troubled in soul for yourself and the captives with you, for who is able to oppose the will of God? Your captivity is not without purpose for the Chinese people, so that you may reveal to them the light of Christ’s Orthodox Faith.”
The preaching of the Gospel in the Chinese Empire soon bore fruit and resulted in the first baptisms of Chinese. The Russian Church zealously looked after the new flock. In 1715 the Metropolitan of Tobolsk, Saint Philotheus “the Apostle to Siberia” (+ May 31, 1727), wrote a letter to the Peking clergy and the faithful living under the Peking Spiritual Mission, who continued with the Christian work of enlightening pagans.
The years went by, and the new epoch brought the Russian deliverance of the Amur. On August 1, 1850, the Procession of the Precious Wood of the Life-Giving Cross, Captain G. I. Nevelsky raised up the Russian Andreev flag at the mouth of the Amur River and founded the city of Nikolaevsk-on-Amur. Through the efforts of the Governor-General of Eastern Siberia, N. N. Muraviev-Amursky (+ 1881), and Saint Innocent, Archbishop of Kamchatka (March 31), and through the spiritual nourishment which obtained in the Amur and coastal regions, in several years the left bank of the Amur was built up with Russian cities, villages and Cossack settlements.
Each year brought important advances in the development of the liberated territory, its Christian enlightenment and welfare. In the year 1857 on the bank of the Amur fifteen way-stations and settlements were established (the Albazin on the site of the old fortress and the Innokentiev, named in honor of Saint Innocent). In a single year, 1858, there were more than thirty settlements, among which were three cities: Khabarovsk, Blagoveschensk and Sophiisk.
On May 9, 1858, on the Feast of Saint Nicholas, N. N. Muraviev-Amursky and Archbishop Innocent of Kamchatka arrived in the Cossack post at Ust’-Zeisk. Saint Innocent was there to dedicate a temple in honor of the Annunciation of the Mother of God (Blagoveschenie, in Slavonic), the first building in the new city. Because of the name of the temple, the city was also called Blagoveschensk, in memory of the first victory over the Chinese on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1652, and in memory of the Annunciation church at Irkutsk, in which Saint Innocent began his own priestly service. It was also a sign that “from that place proceeded the blessed news of the reintegration of the Amur region territory under Russian sovereignty.” New settlers on the way to the Amur, journeying through Sretensk, fervently offered up their prayers to the Holy Protectress of the Amur region before her Wonderworking Albazin Icon. Their prayers were heard: the Aigunsk (1858) and Peking (1860) treaties decisively secured the left bank of the Amur and coastal regions for Russia.
In 1868 the Bishop of Kamchatka, Benjamin Blagonravov, the successor to Saint Innocent, transferred the holy icon from Sretensk to Blagoveschensk, thereby returning the famous holy icon to the Amur territory. In 1885, a new period began in the veneration of the Albazin Icon of the Mother of God and is associated with the name of the Kamchatka bishop Gurias, who established an annual commemoration on March 9 and a weekly Akathist.
In the summer of 1900, during the “Boxer Rebellion” in China, the waves of insurrection reached all the way to the Russian border. Chinese troops suddenly appeared on the banks of the Amur before Blagoveschensk. For nineteen days the enemy stood before the undefended city, raining artillery fire down upon it, and menacing the Russian bank with invasion.
The shallows of the Amur afforded passage to the adversary. In the Annunciation church services were celebrated continuously, and Akathists were read before the Wonderworking Albazin Icon. The Protection of the Mother of God was again extended over the city, just as it had been in earlier times. Not daring to cross the Amur, the enemy departed from Blagoveschensk. According to the accounts of the Chinese themselves, they often saw a Radiant Woman over the bank of the Amur, inspiring them with fear and rendering their missiles ineffective.
For more than 300 years the Wonderworking Albazin Icon of the Mother of God watched over the Amur frontier of Russia. Orthodox people venerate it not only as Protectress of Russian soldiers, but also as a Patroness of mothers. Believers pray for mothers before the icon during their pregnancy and during childbirth, “so that the Mother of God might bestow the gift of abundant health from the Albazin Icon’s inexhaustible well-spring of holiness.”
This icon depicts Christ as a child standing in a mandorla before His Mother’s breast.