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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Holy Doctor Resonates 150 Years Later

For MTA visitor placing a wreath of flowers on the grave of Doctor Friedrich-Joseph Haass.
The life of a man who mixed with the top echelons of Russian society and died a pauper after giving his possessions to those at the bottom is being celebrated on the 150th anniversary of his death this year.

Friedrich-Joseph Haass, or Fyodor Petrovich Gaaz as Russians called him, was born in the small German town of Munstereifel but spent almost 50 years as a medical doctor in Russia.

At least 20,000 people are reported to have accompanied him on Aug. 19 on his final journey to his grave in the German Cemetery, today the Vvedenskoye Cemetery, where well-wishers lay flowers year-round.

"Hasten to do good works," was his motto. The Vatican, with the support of the Orthodox church, has started the process of recognizing him as a saint.

His efforts to better the lot of fellow humans did not end with his death. He was an example for dissidents in the Soviet era and is being held up by German and Russian leaders today as an example of how to live.

Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev provided a laudatory introduction to a documentary drama about Haass. And Anatoly Pristavkin, the presidential adviser on pardons, has also praised Haass, who in his lifetime was referred to as "the holy doctor."

Haas was born in 1780. He studied in Cologne, Jena and Goettingen, before graduating in Vienna in 1805. He came to Moscow the next year to begin a private practice. He quickly came to head a Moscow hospital.

Well known among the nobility, he investigated mineral springs in the Caucasus and contributed to the creation of the Russian health-spa system. He traveled as a military physician with the Russian army to Paris in the campaign against Napoleon.

In 1828, Prince Dmitry Golitsyn, governor of Moscow from 1820 to 1844, created a prison's committee. It was to this committee that Haass would dedicate the rest of his life.

Haass was appointed chief of Moscow's prison hospital and from a site on Vorobyovy Gory he saw to the welfare of the 6,000 to 8,000 people who set off for Siberia in iron shackles every year.

Haass considered prisoners no less worthy of help in the name of the Lord than other human beings.

At the time, prisoners heading to Siberia marched in small groups of two lines, which were joined by a heavy iron bar to which the prisoners were individually shackled. The slower-marching prisoners suffered terribly from this since the heavy weight of the irons cut into their flesh as the faster prisoners set the pace. If a prisoner died on the march, often the rest of the group had to drag him along with them.

It was through Haass's efforts that the cruel iron bar was abolished and the heavy iron shackles were replaced with lighter ones that were lined with leather so they no longer sliced through prisoners' flesh. These new bindings were named Haass shackles.

Haass was a tireless fighter against harsh laws. He filed numerous petitions with the government and called on police not to separate children from their parents. When his pleas fell on deaf ears he paid for the requested mercy-buying the freedom of 72 serfs over his lifetime and repeatedly paying fees so that children would be allowed to stay with prisoner parents.

He established a hospital for the poor and the insane and ran it at his own expense. He exhausted all of his assets: real estate, a cloth factory, and even his white horses and carriage, which he sold.

Haass's philanthropy was not roundly hailed. One chief of a police intelligence unit called him an "impertinent philanthropist" and demanded Haass's dismissal from the prison committee.

But the doctor stayed on, until he died on Aug. 16 1853 -- poor, tired and exhausted from his battles with bureaucracy and the inaction and cruelty of officials.

A practicing Catholic, Haass offered his services to people regardless of their religious affiliation. He wrote two books on Christian morals and gave copies to convicted people on their way to Siberia.

His reputation as the holy doctor spread far and wide. One winter night two insolent men stole Haass's fur coat. Upon recognizing him soon thereafter, they returned the coat to him, then fell on their knees and asked for forgiveness.

Haass's reputation did not die with him, and his life and works attracted the attention of writers including Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexander Herzen, Maxim Gorky, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Turgenev and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

In 1917, however, Haass's biographer Anatoly Koni wrote that "mention of a name that deserves to serve as an inspiring and instructive example to each new generation, is already accompanied by the question 'Who is that?'"

Pristavkin noted in a recent speech on Haass that soon after the Bolsheviks came to power, they had no use for Haass's type of philanthropy.

The doctor's name lived on in small dissident circles. Lev Kopelev, who would later write a biography of Haass, heard of the holy doctor as a child.

Kopelev had been a supporter of Soviet power, but then became a convinced opponent. In 1945, he was sentenced to 10 years in the gulag for "sympathizing with the enemy," after complaining about the conduct of Soviet troops in East Prussia.

Kopelev's time behind bars emphasized to him the humanity Haass had shown in forgoing personal fame and wealth for the benefit of the poor. He went on to write a biography of Haass.

If in the Soviet times Haass's life was disregarded, there has been something of a revival of his name in the post-Soviet period. In 1989, Moscow's German School was named after him. This year, its students have been studying his life and work. The medical community, prisoner support groups, human rights activists and churches are all commemorating his selfless struggle.

Commemorations of Haass's anniversary include: a conference held by the Medical Academy of Science; church celebrations for which the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Joachim Meissner, will visit Moscow Nov. 13 and 14; and a screening of a documentary drama on Russian television.

An international conference in memory of Haass will be held at the Central House of Scientists of the Russian Academy of Medical Science, 16 Ul. Prechistenka on Sept. 26. More information is available from