Troublesome priests

Police in southern Russia raided the church of an 86-year-old priest who dared to speak out against the war in Ukraine last week

Troublesome priests

At dawn on 3 October, police in Russia’s southern Krasnodar region raided a church in the town of Slavyansk-on-Kuban with a brutality more often seen in anti-terror operations or drug raids.

Their target, however, was 86-year old Archbishop Viktor Pivovarov, whose outspoken anti-war sermons had attracted their attention in the past. The 10 policemen beat Pivovarov’s assistant priest, Iona Sigida, before attempting to shave his beard off and then hauling him away for two days in detention for “resisting the police”, while Pivovarov was given a warning to avoid politics in his sermons or face new criminal charges.

Preaching ‘disrepute’

In March, a local court fined Viktor Pivovarov 40,000 rubles (€450) for the content of one of his sermons, which it ruled had discredited the Russian army.

Pivovarov had been denounced by a woman who had never been seen at the church before who was said to have become so outraged by the sermon that she walked out midway through, shouting “You’re preaching politics. You’ll pay for this.”

Archbishop Viktor Pivovarov

Archbishop Viktor Pivovarov

Parishioners clubbed together to pay the fine, and Pivovarov says that some local officials and even some police officers secretly agreed with what he preached and continue to attend his services, though they are too afraid to express their support publicly.

Who is Viktor Pivovarov?

Viktor Pivovarov is an archbishop in the Slavic and Southern Russian True Orthodox Church, an offshoot of the Russian Orthodox Church.

He was born in Russia’s Altai region in 1937. His father died in the first year of World War II, leaving his mother to raise four children alone.

“I’ve hated Bolshevism since my childhood. I saw how the Cheka and Bolsheviks abused and tortured my mother. I vowed to take revenge,” Pivovarov told Novaya-Europe.

In 1963, Viktor Pivovarov joined the Moscow Theological Academy but was expelled in his final year for his anti-establishment activism.

In Soviet times, he preached illegally and repaired churches and icons. He was later ordained into the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad and, in 2006, became an Archbishop in the Russian True Orthodox Church.

Months after the court ruling, the church’s website published a sermon by Pivovarov in which he criticised the Russian Orthodox Church for collaborating with the siloviki. In it, he quoted the International Criminal Court warrant for the arrest of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Presidential Commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova. This move, the cleric claimed, had “increased the likelihood of a nuclear disaster”.

On 26 September, the same website published The Cult of War, a sermon penned by Pivovarov’s assistant at the church, Iona Sigida. This sermon now forms the basis of a civil case for bringing the military into disrepute, even though the sermon doesn’t mention the army once, focusing instead on the official Russian Orthodox Church’s involvement in the war in Ukraine.

Father Iona Sigida

Father Iona Sigida

“The cult of war is an integral part of all totalitarian, inhumane regimes. Worshipping the god of war isn’t just temporary insanity. It is a mark of the even greater psychosis and warmongering lunacy to come in World War III, which won’t just be against Ukraine … The cult of war and victory will be key to the ideology of the future Antichrist.”

To deal with this duo of turbulent priests, the siloviki promptly resorted to their tried and tested methods.

The raid

Sigida told Novaya-Europe that law enforcement raided the Church of St. Tikhon of the Intercession at around 6 AM on 3 October, while he was still asleep.

“They threw me face-down onto the ground, after bursting into the church like soldiers, in fatigues and balaclavas and carrying automatic rifles. One of them pressed his knee into my back so I could hardly breathe.

He asked, ‘Why did you write that article?’ I answered, ‘Because I’m a Christian, unlike you.’”

Sigida says there were at least 10 officers present during the raid.

The priest’s room after the police search. Photo provided exclusively to Novaya-Europe

The priest’s room after the police search. Photo provided exclusively to Novaya-Europe

Police also searched residential quarters within the church, seizing documents, electronic devices and hard drives.

“I was shocked by how aggressive and rude they were, coming into the church with rifles. They deliberately turned everything upside down.”

Sigida recalls they sat him down, punched him in the face and stomach and twisted his nose. They then interrogated him, and beat him again when he refused to answer certain questions, invoking Article 51 of the Russian Constitution, under which nobody can be obliged to give testimony against themselves.

“Ha, we couldn’t care less about that and it won’t help you anyway,” Sigida says he was told.

The priest’s room after the police search. Photo provided exclusively to Novaya-Europe

The priest’s room after the police search. Photo provided exclusively to Novaya-Europe

During the raid, the officers found a pair of scissors and an old electric razor and attempted to shave off his beard with them. At that point Sigida, who suffers from a spinal disorder, began convulsing, and they left him alone.

They then managed to log on to his computer and looked through his browser history, where they found Ukrainian news websites. They promptly accused Sigida of being a Nazi and a fascist.

“They were most interested in the Novaya Gazeta Europe piece about us. They were really angry about it. Most of their questions were about that,” Sigida adds.

The siloviki punched Sigida in the stomach several more times and twisted his arms behind his back. Some then left and were replaced by a police officer accompanied by several young male “witnesses” to the raid.

“The siloviki made them testify that I had resisted the police, lunged at them, and basically tried to assault them,” Sigida attests.

A report was filed accusing Sigida of bringing the Russian army into disrepute in his Cult of War sermon. They then took him to the police station after a local court ordered he be detained for two days for “failing to obey a lawful police order”. The police later launched a civil case against him on the original charge, though Sigida is not currently being detained.

Archbishop Pivovarov himself was not detained and has remained at the church since the raid. However, the police warned him that he would face criminal charges should he discredit the Russian military again.

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