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Dual-purpose parishes

Events in Ukraine have reminded Western governments that the Russian Orthodox Church’s branches abroad perform not only religious functions

Alexey Malyutin, exclusively for Novaya Gazeta. Europe
Photo: Sefa Karacan/Getty Images

Photo: Sefa Karacan/Getty Images

In the middle of October, an unusual espionage scandal flared up in Norway. It seemed unusual, that is, when held against classic conceptions of church-government relations — and classic conceptions of the role played by religious organisations in espionage activities. When held against Russian (and Soviet) conceptions of “the patriotic duties of the church”, however, nothing here is out of the ordinary.

Working under the auspices of its parishes (six of which, in total, are located in Norway), the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) began to buy up Norwegian real estate parcels which border NATO military facilities. Simultaneously, several Russians had been detained while carrying professional photography equipment and drones that had been caught filming these same military facilities. What’s more, it turns out that one of these detained Russians was Andrei Yakunin, the son of Vladimir Putin’s friend and the former head of Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin.

The key point of the ROC’s suspicious activity in Norway is the Epiphany Parish in Bergen, which is located next to a naval base housing submarines in the town of Haakonsvern. A few years ago, the parish acquired a house of worship in the vicinity of this base. Religious services are held there just once a year. Norwegian journalists who visited the house of worship noted that only the second floor of the building is open to visitors, and “on the first floor, all the windows are covered with thick curtains.”

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Another such “religious” facility is located in Stavanger, in close proximity to the united military centre (command point) of NATO. And there is a third suspicious ROC facility in Kirkenes, near the Russian-Norwegian border.

In conversations with journalists, the rector of the ROC parish in Bergen — father Dimitri Ostanin — gives the impression of a person not connected with any secrets. On the contrary, he distances himself from the position of the ROC’s patriarch in Moscow: “I denounce what Russia has unleashed against my fatherland [Ukraine]. My mother-in-law and father-in-law are refugees here, in Norway… My relatives and my wife’s relatives are still in the line of fire, under bombardment”. He says the Bergen parish is supporting a crisis centre in Dnipro which searches for children under the rubble of houses destroyed by missiles and transports them to safe places. “The fact that Patriarch Kirill supports this horror does not, fortunately, apply to all Russian Orthodox people,” the priest says.

According to Norwegian state data, about 10,000 Russians live in the country, many of whom already hold Norwegian citizenship. The centre of Russian Orthodox life in the country is the parish of the Holy Apostolic Princess Olga in Oslo. Legend suggests that the grandmother of St. Vladimir — who brought Christianity to Russia — was Scandinavian and came from a royal Norwegian family. More than a thousand people belong to the Oslo parish, whose house of worship has been provided by the Norwegian state. Aside from the ones in Oslo, Bergen, and Kirkines, there are also ROC parishes in Stavanger, Trondheim, and Tromsø, as well as in the village of Barentsburg on Svalbard. Interestingly, the parishes on the border are headed by a rotation of clerics from the ROC’s Murmansk diocese, which itself is headed by Metropolitan Mitrofan (Badanin). A captain of the second rank of the Navy, Metropolitan Mitrofan is now a spiritual guide of Russia’s Northern Fleet and is responsible for physical education and sports throughout the Moscow Patriarchate.

Administratively, the Norwegian parishes of the ROC fall under the Department for External Church Relations in Moscow, and their ruling bishop is the chairman of that department, Metropolitan Antony (Sevryuk), a special confidant of Patriarch Kirill. Until July of this year, Antony lived and served in Paris, where he headed the Western European branch of the ROC.

Following an unexpected transfer to Moscow — to fill the position Kirill had held before becoming patriarch — Antony proved an active supporter of the Putin regime. In particular, he attended the ceremony at the Kremlin in which the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” — and two regions of Ukraine — were admitted to the Russian Federation. He has not yet fallen under Western sanctions, but this, it seems clear, is only a matter of time.

The bishop’s direct representative in Norway is Father Superior Kliment (Hukhtamäki); two priests and a number of clerics are subordinate to him. The ROC’s parishes in Norway operate an official website, though no news has been published there since March. The feeling is that after that, the parishes fell into deep thought…

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The Russian consulate in Turku, Finland includes in its complex an Orthodox church, which until this spring was used for its intended purpose. However, with the start of the “special military operation”, Russian diplomats have repurposed the church as a warehouse. According to the local press, the building is owned by the city, which had granted Russian diplomats the right to use it for free — but it does not belong to the Russian consulate.

In the language of the Russian diplomatic mission, the church is designated as the “consulate clubhouse”. It is surrounded by a fence, and access is provided by Russian guards. The church’s dome was dismantled by consular staff this year for undisclosed reasons. A local resident told reporters that throughout June and July, Russian diplomats unloaded items brought on trucks into the church building. The icons that once decorated the outer church walls had also been taken down.

Finnish law prohibits any reconstruction of this building, which is designated a cultural monument.

Paris under control

We find another instance of this kind — what might in fact be called a “classic” of the genre — in a complex of four large buildings in the centre of Paris, built in the 20th century on a plot of land on the Branly Embankment which the Russian Federation bought at an exorbitant price. (“Novaya” has reported more than once on the controversy and mysterious circumstances surrounding the construction of this complex.)

The central facility of the complex is the Trinity Cathedral, which is surrounded by mysterious office buildings with small windows and a diocesan house with a more traditional appearance.

The complex, officially called a “spiritual and cultural centre”, has diplomatic status: to enter the chapel, you need to show the contents of your bags to Russian guards and go through a metal detector.

The construction of the centre, despite enormous financial support from Russia, dragged on for almost 10 years due to constant protests from the local public and the distrust of the French authorities, who, on the one hand, were guided by considerations of profit, and on the other, feared accidentally espousing the establishment of a large espionage centre in the heart of Paris. As Vincent Jover, a journalist for the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, notes, the construction of such a grandiose ROC facility in the centre of the French capital became part of “a global strategy to legitimise the Putin regime [in the West] with the help of the church… To establish a church on the Branly Embankment was to admit the return of Russian influence to France, and indeed in Western Europe as a whole.

In 2007-2008, the Central Directorate of Internal Intelligence of France protested against the construction of the “centre”. After all, the “spiritual centre” is surrounded on three sides by the Alma Palace — one of the official residences of the President of France. This palace is home to the Supreme Council of Magistracy and the Presidential Postal Service. In the years when the project was being developed, the mission of the Russian Orthodox Church in the West was formulated as follows: “To more actively utilise the church’s capabilities to protect Russia’s foreign policy interests and to counter anti-Russian forces among Russian emigres and in the Orthodox world in general.” Following the completion of the centre’s construction and its consecration by Patriarch Kirill in 2019, the Moscow Patriarchate managed to absorb the main Parisian centre of Russian church life — the Paris (Orthodox) Archdiocese, whose autonomy dates back to the 1920s. Having subordinated itself to Moscow, the archdiocese now must work aggressively to dissociate itself from the military position of its leadership and insist that “not all Russian Orthodoxy is the same”.

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Scout’s robe

Konstantin Preobrazhensky, a veteran of the KGB who emigrated to the United States, has completed a number of research studies devoted to the specific ways the ROC uses its foreign structures to advance intelligence interests. According to his research, Orthodox communities of Russian emigres were for decades the strongholds of residencies “under the roof of the church”.

One widely-known story to this effect is that of the Metropolitan of Vienna and Austria, Zusemil Irenaeus, who in 1969 recruited Georgy Trofimov, an American military intelligence officer. Trofimov was serving a life sentence in the US at the time of his death in 2014. In another example, the spiritual mission of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Holy Land remained the only Soviet institution in Israel after the rupture of diplomatic relations between the USSR and Israel in the 1960s. Preobrazhensky is confident that all positions in this mission were occupied by intelligence officers working in disguise as clerics and monastics. This theory is also evidenced by the former secretary of the mission, KGB major Dubov, who fled to the West in the late 80s.

“I remember my surprise,” says Konstantin Preobrazhensky of his visit to the headquarters of the First Main Directorate of the KGB of the USSR in the late 1970s, “when, walking along the long corridors [of the control building in Yasenevo], I saw hundreds of people in business suits and ties rushing around... And then suddenly an officer with a thick red beard passed me. ‘Don’t be surprised, his boss ordered him to grow it!’ my friend who worked in the personnel department explained to me, laughing. ‘Right now he’s gaining experience in the foreign department of the patriarchate.’” The officer in question soon became the head of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem with the rank of archimandrite — he then ascended to bishop and then deputy chairman of the Department for External Church Relations. He recently died in the rank of metropolitan and was buried with official military honours.

The Russian Orthodox Church’s cassock-wearing intelligence wing did not disappear after the dissolution of the Soviet system. In fact, I would venture to suggest that its special potential became even more in demand in the era of Putin’s combination of KGB ideals and “patriotic Orthodoxy” adapted to suit his needs. This means that under circumstances of geopolitical confrontation, which has already developed into an acute military phase, it is time for the leaders of the free world to reconsider their attitude towards the “centres of Russian Orthodoxy” in the West as purely religious sites. For many of them, the religious function is far from the primary one.

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