RUSSIA - SPECIAL REPORT: State Persecution or Protection of Suzdal's Breakaway Orthodox?

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 12 April 2002

The public prosecutor of Vladimir region has begun "a campaign to exert psychological pressure on the clergy and parishioners of Suzdal churches of the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church" by instigating criminal proceedings against its leader, Vertograd, a news agency following developments within Russian Orthodox jurisdictions outside the Moscow Patriarchate, claimed last August. On 5 September 2001 the Church's leader, Metropolitan Valentin of Suzdal and Vladimir, was formally accused of "committing forcible acts of a sexual nature," "compulsion to commit acts of a sexual nature" and "enticing minors into antisocial activity" under Articles 132 (Part 2), 133 and 151 (Part 1) respectively of the Criminal Code. His trial, which began on 7 February 2002 in Suzdal District Court, was adjourned on 13 February, and no date has been set for its resumption.

For almost 20 years erstwhile Archimandrite Valentin (Rusantsov) carried out the prestigious duty of greeting foreign tourists to Suzdal, a town on Russia's renowned Golden Ring with some 12,000 inhabitants and approximately 30 historic churches. In 1990, however, he left the Moscow Patriarchate - protesting that he had been forced to compile KGB reports on his foreign visitors - and transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCA). Consecrated by ROCA hierarchs the following year, Bishop Valentin was then appointed joint leader of the Russian Orthodox Free Church, the ROCA's newly-founded body within Russia. In 1995, however, the New York synod of the ROCA placed a ban on both the Free Church's leaders. Bishop Valentin responded by taking sole control of the Free Church, which declared itself independent and was subsequently renamed the Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church (ROAC). In 2000 Russia's Ministry of Justice registered the ROAC as a centralised religious organisation with 60 parishes.

The allegations against Metropolitan Valentin were first publicised by a local Vladimir newspaper, Prizyv. Between June and August 2001, Prizyv printed a series of eight articles in support of the accusations, and maintained that those parishioners who had written to the newspaper in the ROAC leader's defence were "the very same mothers whom Metropolitan Valentin paid off with humanitarian aid, whose children were used by him for his revolting amusement." On 15 July Metropolitan Valentin issued a statement claiming that Prizyv's only source for the allegations was Fr Andrei Osetrov, producer of a video cassette containing witness statements concerning the ROAC leader's alleged sexual abuse. According to Metropolitan Valentin, Fr Osetrov compiled this compromising material in revenge at being defrocked by the ROAC synod and sacked as its secretary on 31 May 2001 due to schismatic activities.

As a result of Fr Osetrov's dishonest use of their children for his own mercenary ends, states an open letter from parents of some of Metropolitan Valentin's alleged young victims, published by Vertograd on 27 August, boys were called to give police evidence twice in late May, "violating all conceivable laws in the process, causing them psychological upset." Notwithstanding the trauma, however, two of these same boys were brought to Moscow to address journalists at a press conference held by the ROAC on 3 September. Metropolitan Valentin was absent - ostensibly due to ill-health - and did not attend subsequent ROAC press conferences in Moscow on 1 November and 20 February, although Vertograd reported that he made a pastoral visit to the United States during October. The Church additionally held a residential event for members of the press held in Suzdal from 12-13 January.

The ROAC insists that the case against Metropolitan Valentin has been instigated by the Vladimir regional authorities. A formal statement distributed at the Church's 3 September press conference maintains that Prizyv newspaper received direct orders from Vladimir public prosecutor's office and regional administration to publish "compromising material on Valentin." At the ROAC's 20 February press conference, Archbishop Feodor (Gineyevsky) of Borisov and Sanin claimed that, in a June 2001 meeting, Communist governor of Vladimir region Nikolai Vinogradov and local Moscow Patriarchate representatives agreed to support Fr Osetrov's campaign against Metropolitan Valentin. In an e-mail message received by Keston on 4 October, ROAC member Jerjis Alajaji of the US state of Pennsylvania complained more generally of "communist, ex-communist and undercover communists and allies from the Moscow Patriarchate attacking and persecuting our holy hierarch and the Church."

Why should the local authorities - who have made over eight historical Suzdal churches to the ROAC - suddenly turn against Metropolitan Valentin? Speaking to Keston in Suzdal on 19 October, English historian of the True Orthodox Church Vladimir Moss remarked that the Moscow Patriarchate - which has three parishes and four monasteries in the town - had "tried pretty hard" to get more churches, but had failed due to Metropolitan Valentin's good relations with the municipal authorities. "They know him, he has done something for the town with his restoration work and is living on the built-up capital of being a good guy," said Moss. Also speaking to Keston on 19 October, ROAC Archbishop Feodor acknowledged that "the local council of people's deputies supports Metropolitan Valentin" - himself a local deputy. It was the regional governor, said the archbishop, who was attempting to further the Moscow Patriarchate's aim of "getting Suzdal back" because he wished to be decorated with church awards in return. When Keston expressed doubt at whether church awards alone might be a sufficient incentive, Archbishop Feodor remarked that the Vladimir authorities also wished to restore the stability ostensibly resulting from the region being homogenously Moscow Patriarchate.

Interviewed in Suzdal by Keston on 26 March, Fr Leonid, assistant priest at the Moscow Patriarchate's Kazan Church, maintained that his jurisdiction generally had good relations with the Vladimir authorities, "if they have not been bought, like here." Also interviewed by Keston on 26 March in the nearby village of Kideksha, where he is now effectively an independent parish priest, Fr Andrei Osetrov maintained that, since Metropolitan Valentin had actively restored churches whereas the Moscow Patriarchate had been quite incompetent in that area, he had "enjoyed some kind of protection" from the Suzdal authorities. Fr Osetrov admitted that he himself had been instrumental in maintaining this state of affairs throughout the ten years during which he had worked as synodal secretary to Metropolitan Valentin, initially having been ordained into the ROCA. When any accusations against the Metropolitan of homosexual practice - a criminal offence in Russia until 1993 - or sexual abuse were made, he said, he "arranged everything so that they died away or got lost in bureaucratic channels." Once he had been removed after protesting that ROAC clergy who preached heresies were not being dealt with, said Fr Osetrov, his protection of Metropolitan Valentin had ceased: "This time I gathered evidence and sent it to reliable people in the Lubyanka [the headquarters of the FSB] and the Vladimir public prosecutor's office." Had the affair been left to the Suzdal public prosecutor, he maintained, "it would have been completely covered up."

When Keston asked how Fr Osetrov had managed to serve in the ROAC for ten years without suspecting Metropolitan Valentin, he replied that the accusation of homosexuality ("golubizna") was commonly used as an easy way of discrediting a person in the Soviet period. While the rumours about Metropolitan Valentin grew from year to year, he said, they were at first vague and he was disinclined to believe them until some of his own children began to relate details they had heard at school. Fr Osetrov said that he then discovered that the Suzdal authorities' protection of Metropolitan Valentin dated back to 1988 - " I was shocked, both the local police and administration knew everything." In that year, said Fr Osetrov, local police investigated the then criminal activities of 70 homosexuals in Vladimir region, including then Archimandrite Valentin. An article in the May-September issue of Suzdal Diocesan News, partially edited by Fr Osetrov, contains computer scans from the original police files on Criminal Case No. 0543, including various witness statements graphically describing homosexual activity involving Archimandrite Valentin. According to Fr Osetrov, this was why the Moscow Patriarchate attempted to transfer Archimandrite Valentin from the town of Suzdal, in response to which he ultimately left the Moscow Patriarchate. In his view, the only possible reason why Archimandrite Valentin was not prosecuted by the authorities at that time was because "he was working for the KGB," who, he said, most probably used his sexual orientation to compromise him.

When interviewed by Keston on 19 October, ROAC Archbishop Feodor continued to maintain that the allegations against Metropolitan Valentin were being fuelled by an alliance of the Vladimir authorities and the Moscow Patriarchate. The parish priest of Suzdal's Kazan Church, Fr Dmitri Ledko, and Archbishop Yevlogi (Smirnov) of Vladimir and Suzdal were the local Moscow Patriarchate representatives present at the June 2001 meeting aiming to "sort out Valentin", thought the archbishop. While declining to confirm whether such a meeting had indeed taken place, Fr Leonid did tell Keston that there were anonymous persons in authority who wished to see Metropolitan Valentin removed, "without them there would be no court case or publications or anything."

An Orthodox priest whom Keston met while waiting in Vladimir railway station on 19 October commented, however, that Archbishop Yevlogi was "being shrewd - he is leaving the ROAC alone because he understands that it will die out of its own accord." The priest, who did not wish to be named, claimed that he had spent a brief period in the ROAC after being placed under a ban by the Moscow Patriarchate. He left the Suzdal Church, he said, "once I was asked to place my hand on the Gospels and renounce a long list of sins of the Moscow Patriarchate - I know that they all go on, but I refused. The hierarchy can get up to all sorts of bad things but I couldn't swear against the Church as the Body of Christ, the people are there." In March Fr Osetrov confirmed to Keston that the ROAC had introduced this practice within the last few years.

ROAC representatives claim that resentment of their jurisdiction is not confined to the regional level. At their 20 February Moscow press conference, ROAC hieromonk Grigory Lurye claimed that his Church was the main obstacle to the currently mooted unity of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, and that the question of a division of the Russian Orthodox Church essentially related to a division of parishes between the Moscow Patriarchate and the ROAC.

In support of this theory, Novyye Izvestiya journalist Yevgeny Komarov suggested on 25 October that, should the ROCA join with the Moscow Patriarchate, ROCA parishes within Russia opposed to the move would have no choice but to join the ROAC. (In its 3 September press release, the ROAC set out a position attractive to such dissident ROCA parishes. Maintaining that it has not been in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate since the 1927 declaration of loyalty to the state by Metropolitan Sergi (Stragorodsky), the Church claimed that its hierarchy was reinstated by the ROCA in 1990 but became independent due to the New York synod's "obvious rapprochement with the Moscow Patriarchate.") According to "informed sources" cited in Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper on 17 January, Metropolitan Valentin forged an agreement in December about joining up with ROCA parishes under the controversial Metropolitan Vitali (Ustinov), who opposes unity with the Moscow Patriarchate.

The priest Keston encountered in Vladimir railway station suggested that it was actually the ROCA which had initiated the negative press coverage of Metropolitan Valentin "to get back Suzdal - without him the [ROAC] parishes will be scared into returning [to the ROCA]." While Fr Osetrov also supposed that ROCA parishes in opposition to unity with the Moscow Patriarchate would not join with the ROAC as long as Metropolitan Valentin was at its head, he reckoned that the Church would "collapse without him - like a puppet." Fr Leonid, however, did not think that the ROAC would disintegrate quickly without Metropolitan Valentin, since, he said, the other clergy would have to continue in order to survive.

Several Russian religious affairs commentators have suggested to Keston that the Russian federal authorities may be testing the ROAC as a counterweight to the Moscow Patriarchate, and are thus fanning conflict between them by boosting the media notoriety of the former. Some have pointed to a July 2001 interview with political adviser to the Kremlin Gleb Pavlovsky on his news website, in which he highlighted press attacks on Metropolitan Valentin as "an exceptionally effective way of sowing enmity and creating a schism within... structures such as Orthodoxy in Russia." While acknowledging the considerable attention that the allegations against Metropolitan Valentin have received in the national media - "television has been here ten times" - Fr Osetrov thought that any initiative to build up the ROAC as the main alternative to the Moscow Patriarchate had come not from the federal authorities, but from the Suzdal Church itself. Aiming to win over representatives of the political elite, suggested Fr Osetrov, the ROAC had partially succeeded with Pavlovsky, who, he told Keston, had intervened to prevent the showing of an item last September on ORT television's "Man and the Law" series which would have shown Metropolitan Valentin in a negative light. Interviewed by Keston on 19 October, however, ROAC Archbishop Feodor dismissed the involvement of Russia 's foremost public relations expert: "Just because Pavlovsky said a few words in our defence doesn't mean he is a member of our Church."

According to Fr Osetrov, the attempts to build up the ROAC into the main Orthodox alternative - in the media at least - had latterly all but ceased; perhaps, as Fr Leonid suggested, because the Church was realistically too small to pose a threat to the Moscow Patriarchate. According to the anonymous priest whom Keston encountered in Vladimir railway station, the ROAC clergy in Suzdal "serve in one church at a time because they don't have enough people." This same point was repeated by Fr Osetrov, who added that, despite his attempts to build up the Church, he had established it to have a total of 28 real parishes, both in Russia and abroad. Archbishop Feodor could not give Keston even an approximate figure for the number of his Church's parishioners.

While one Moscow Patriarchate website recently accused the ROAC of having seized 19 of Suzdal's churches, this is clearly an exaggeration. The majority of the town's churches are not used for worship, and many are in a state of decay. The weakness of Orthodoxy in Suzdal lay at the heart of the current problems, indicated Fr Osetrov, sighing that American monks and "our idiot Russian émigrés" financed his former Church "thinking that there's some kind of religious revival going on here." Fr Leonid also lamented to Keston about the state of religious life in his town: "We grieve at the spiritual corpse of Suzdal, it was poisoned long ago, in Soviet times: and these are the consequences." (END)