Issue 4, Article 26, 27 April 2000

Immediate reporting on violations of religious liberty and on religion in
communist and post-communist lands.

Thursday 27 April 2000

by Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service

On his ninetieth birthday on 11 April Archimandrite IOANN
(KRESTYANKIN) was reportedly surprised to receive a powerful letter of
congratulation from president-elect VLADIMIR PUTIN in addition to
greetings from PATRIARCH ALEKSI II and other well-wishers. For over 30
years a monk at the Pskov Monastery of the Caves close to the Estonian border,
Archimandrite Ioann is widely revered as a starets, or monk gifted with
exceptional spiritual discernment.

'Your life is an example of truly great deeds and sincere service of the Russian
Orthodox Church, of striving for the strengthening of the faith and spirit of our
people,' wrote Putin. 'All Orthodox Rus' knows and loves you. Surely it is
largely thanks to teachers such as you that Russia is returning today to its
spiritual and moral roots.'

It is remarkable not only that Archimandrite Ioann - having survived the
communist repression of the Church and the rigours of an ascetic life, as Putin
points out - should reach the age of 90, but also that this event should receive
such prominent attention in the Russian media. On 11 April, for example,
national television channel TV-Centre (TVTs) covered the event with a lengthy
report - including footage of Archimandrite Ioann and an explanation of the
position of starets - half-way through its 8pm news broadcast Sobytiya.

Archmandrite Ioann's birthday had been announced on 10 April on
Pravoslaviye 2000, the website of Sretensky Monastery, which was allocated
the status of Moscow representation (podvorye) of Pskov Monastery of the
Caves in 1994. Now an independent monastery as well as a thriving
traditionalist parish, Sretensky Monastery continues to maintain a special
relationship with Pskov Monastery of the Caves which sees the monks of each
monastery often visiting the other.

On 13 April staunchly patriotic television programme Russky Dom likewise
devoted a feature to Archimandrite Ioann's ninetieth birthday. This included a
studio interview with abbot of Sretensky Monastery Archimandrite TIKHON
(SHEVKUNOV), who had travelled to Pskov Monastery of the Caves to mark
the birthday of the starets - his spirtual father. The programme's host,
ALEKSANDR KRUTOV, exclaimed that it was quite extraordinary that Putin
should send such a letter to Archmandrite Ioann, to which Shevkunov agreed,
remarking that the last occasions when a 'head of the country' sent birthday
congratulations to a starets would have been when Tsars ALEXANDER III and
NICHOLAS II greeted Saint IOANN OF KRONSHTADT (d. 1908).
Archimandrite Tikhon then proceeded to read out the letters sent to
Archimandrite Ioann by both the patriarch and Putin.

What prompted Putin to write such a letter? Russia's president-elect had
'probably only heard about' the starets, suggested Archimandrite Tikhon on
Russky Dom, commenting in addition that it was 'clearly not his administration
ordering him to do it.' Writing on this point on 26 April in NG-Religii, the
religious supplement of national newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, ALEKSEI
BICHURIN suggested three possibilities: that Archimandrite Ioann had left a
deep impression on the presidential staff when BORIS YELTSIN visited Pskov
Monastery of the Caves during his presidency; that Putin was reminded about
his birthday by Moscow Patriarchate staff and quickly - 'by our reckoning,
improbably quickly' - responded to the patriarch's suggestion to send the
greeting; or that as an employee of the KGB Putin well understood 'who was
who' in the Russian Orthodox Church, especially as Pskov Monastery of the
Caves was subject to the constant attention of the Soviet security services 'since
it was the spiritual centre of unofficial Orthodox life in the USSR.' (Until its
annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940, Pskov Monastery of the Caves was
situated on Estonian territory; it remained open throughout the subsequent
communist period). Since there were instances in which Archimandrite Ioann
'gave his blessing to those accepting torture and deprivation, preferring the
camps to submission to the authorities,' writes Bichurin, 'Putin is demonstrating
loyalty to the Church by paying tribute to one of its true authorities.'

Having heard that assistant chairman of the Duma committee on religion
ALEKSANDR CHUYEV had visited Pskov Monastery of the Caves in recent
days, Keston wondered whether he would be able to shed any light on the
situation. Speaking to Keston on 25 April, however, Chuyev responded that he
did not know anything about the letter: 'It's news to me - what was the name of
the elder again?' He maintained that he had no idea where the initiative for such
a letter had come from, but thought that it was a positive sign: 'Well, it's good -
very good, actually.' Chuyev said that he had indeed recently returned from
Pskov region, where he had visited churches which his Russian Christian
Democratic Party had helped to renovate, but stated that although he had
planned to visit Pskov Monastery of the Caves he 'didn't get there in the end.'

When Keston spoke to Archimandrite Tikhon of Sretensky Monastery about
Putin's letter on 25 April, he was good-humoured but defensive. When Keston
asked how he evaluated such an unusual incident as the head of Russia sending
birthday greetings to an elder, he replied, 'I am glad. That's all.' Asked if he
knew where the initiative for the letter had come from, Shevkunov replied:
'Thanks to God - God inspired Putin to write the letter through certain people.'
When Keston asked which people, he exclaimed, 'What does it matter who?
Certain people.' Keston then asked whether the people concerned were
representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church or members of the presidential
administration, to which he exclaimed, 'Stop! You'd be better off taking an
interest in God' before questioning 'Keston College's' interest in the matter.

On 21 April one of Sretensky Monastery's parishioners commented to Keston
that it was ironic that Putin should try to enhance his worldly status by paying
tribute to one 'who has rejected the world completely.' (END)

Copyright (c) 2000 Keston Institute. All rights reserved.