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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

On “fresh” sins

The scandal around the Russian Orthodox Church primate’s “housing problem” is a mirror image of the crisis in Russian Orthodoxy
3 April, 2012 - 00:00
TOO CLOSE! / Photo from the website NOVAYAGAZETA.RU
“THAT BREGUET” / Photo by Vladyslav MUSIIENKO
Sketch by Anatolii KAZANSKY from The Day’s archives, 1997

The scandal around the court case that involves Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill is gaining momentum. Illegal seizures used to be the preserve of businesspeople, but it turns out that the highest-ranking clergy can be also inclined to seize someone else’s property by legal action.

The very nature of the lawsuit against those living next door to the apartment of Kirill (born Vladimir Gundyayev) does not arouse much interest. It is common knowledge that the Russian and Ukrainian judicial systems serve either the rich or the powers that be, both of which often being the same thing. I would like to dwell here on the moral and ethical sides of the matter, for it is a mirror image of the crisis in Russian Orthodoxy.


There have also been many other scandals that involved clergymen. What is more, the life story of Patriarch Kirill raises too many questions to view him as a true bearer of the moral values preached by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).

According to Russia’s Novaya gazeta, it is in the 1990s that the current ROC primate (chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Foreign Church Relations Department and Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad at the time) “made a name for himself and scraped up a fortune which, after all, allowed him to ascend the patriarch’s throne.” Before mounting this throne, Kirill made a personal fortune which some experts estimate at 4 billion dollars, the newspaper claims. Speaking of Vladimir Gundyayev’s business, the publication refers to an “extensive dossier” compiled by Doctor of History Sergei Bychkov, who has published dozens of articles – mainly on the future patriarch’s tobacco business (he also conducted transactions in seafood and oil). None of his publications has been officially denied. Kirill has admitted that much of the information that Bychkov gathered is hard facts, Novaya gazeta notes.

The newspaper article mentions in conclusion the luxury items that the ROC head uses in everyday life, such as a 30,000-dollar-worth Breguet watch which Ukrainian journalists saw next to the rosary on the patriarch’s wrist, a private airplane, a villa in Switzerland, a summer retreat in Peredelkino, and a palace in Gelendzhik. In general, Russian Orthodox Church hierarchs have always had an inclination for luxuries. Back in the tsarist era, the church was the second largest owner in the country after the Russian monarch. The Bolsheviks funded foreign communists for a long time by means of the valuables they had seized from the church in an attempt to kindle a worldwide revolutionary fire. They failed because “comrades” in Moscow and in other countries learned very fast how to squander free money.


But for the scandal, it is rather unlikely that anybody would have paid attention to the patriarch’s housing demands and to the fact that his penthouse is in the “House on the Embankment” – the apartment house the tragedy of which Yury Trifonov described in the homonymous novella, where he used this word combination for the first time.

The House on the Embankment is one of the major symbols of the 1930s, the time when the regime was exterminating the party and industry elite which lived in this residential complex on the Moskva River’s Bersenevskaya Embankment. It is no mere chance that the main overseer of the construction of what was officially called Government Building was Genrikh Yagoda, deputy chief (in fact the chief) of the OGPU secret police. The No. 11 entrance to the building leads to no apartments or elevators. Supposedly, this was the place from where secret policemen eavesdropped on residents of the apartments in other stairwells or there were perhaps some secret premises behind the wall. Apart from this section, the building also had a number of secret address apartments. The operatives worked in the guise of superintendents, doormen, and elevator operators, receiving in their apartments their informers or hiding some special lodgers, such as, for example, Dieter Gerhardt, a Soviet intelligence agent in South America. In the years of the 1937-38 Great Terror, more than 800 out of 2,000 residents, often including women and children, were repressed. In those years the building was dubbed “trap for the Bolsheviks” and “pretrial detention house.” In 1937-53 the apartments would change their occupiers from five to almost twenty times.

Due to censorial restrictions, Yury Trifonov, himself a dweller in this building in his childhood, could not write about repressions. He mentions them vaguely and metaphorically. “An enormous grey mass hung over the little street. In the mornings it blocked the sun, and in the evenings you could hear radio voices and gramophone music from above. Over there, on the celestial floors, there seemed to be a life entirely different to the drab one down below,” Trifonov wrote in the novella The House on the Embankment. The house tends to symbolize the darkness that hung over the life of every Soviet citizen, even though everything looked cheerful from the outside. For in what other country could an individual breathe so freely with frosty air in the Kolyma prison camps or during the construction of the Vorkuta tundra railroad?

There are legends associated with this house, including those about the shadows of the unlawfully repressed, which haunt their apartments, as well as the shadows of the butchers who choose their prey. These legends are not far from the truth. Taking advantage of having keys to all the apartments, Lavrentiy Beria’s deputy Bogdan Kobulov used to penetrate the apartments of those whom the Black Maria was to carry away later at night. Sort of a herald of death…

It is in this building that Patriarch Kirill acquired an apartment. Now he wants to enlarge his real estate. The shadows of the past do not embarrass him.

In general, the Russian Orthodox Church has always maintained a definite kind of relationship with the authorities. For some exceptions, its hierarchs always managed to find a common language with the country’s leadership. The church also once became part of the communist authorities, and it has not yet repented for this. It is not for the first time that it is changing its masters, although, by all accounts, the principles remain the same. Now, too, when priests are no longer being deported or executed, the nature of the church-government relationship remains unchanged.

The de-Stalinization announced by President Medvedev died out very soon. One of the reasons is the church did not support this initiative to cleanse society. Small wonder if you take into account that the church itself has not undergone this de-Stalinization and is in fact continuing to work, as before, for an authoritarian government.

From this angle, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) of both Moscow and Kyiv patriarchates, the Autocephalous, and the Greek Catholic churches have gone far ahead. Suffice it to remember that the UOC has recognized the Holodomor as genocide, while the ROC has not done so – quite in the spirit of the Soviet era.

Another interesting detail. The patriarch’s penthouse looks out on the Temple of Christ the Savior, which the former Mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, restored and which made headlines last years for having elevators behind the altar, the leased-out hidden offices, as well as a banquet room and a car wash. Christ used to drive moneychangers from the temple, whereas His followers are, on the contrary, letting them in. So are the patriarch’s financial operations a big wonder? This triggers a top-to-bottom movement. Like priest, like people. Many get disillusioned with faith when they look at church fathers. Meanwhile, Patriarch Kirill comes to Ukraine and levels charges at the sinister and evil foreign forces. The truth is the Russian Orthodox Church needs no enemies while it has fathers like this. It must blame no one but itself for crawling into a crisis – nobody was pushing it. It is now reaping the fruits of all these misdeeds.


The patriarch’s “housing problem” is rife with a host of interesting and rather eloquent details. For example, the context of the relationship between the patriarch and the former Minister for Public Health of Russia, Yury Shevchenko, against whom the lawsuit was filed, is not so simple.

Helped by the then Patriarch Aleksiy II, Shevchenko graduated from the Tashkent Theological Seminary and was ordained as priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. He struck up a friendly relationship with His Beatitude Volodymyr, the Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine.

In 2008 Aleksiy died and Kirill was elected patriarch. According to Shevchenko’s relatives, shortly after this the Moscow Eparchy advised him to sign a letter of penitence to Kirill for having been ordained without his knowledge and consent. Shevchenko refused to do so because he had breached no canons. The doctor’s relatives are saying that close contacts between Shevchenko and Metropolitan Volodymyr stirred up bitter resentment among the ROC leadership. Maybe, this is the backbone of the story with dust, a court trial, and the resulting scandal?

As Shevchenko’s relatives note, he is a practicing surgeon widely acclaimed by the international cardiac surgery elite. He has performed a lot of operations in Russia and abroad. At the same time, he serves as a priest at the National Pirogov Medical and Surgical Center, where he had the Temple of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker built. He is now seriously ill (a cancer-related disease), and he only wishes the court to be fair and look into the essence of the case rather than at who represent the plaintiff. This natural wish is unlikely to be fulfilled in modern-day Russia, though.

According to the Russian journal The New Times, the patriarch’s penthouse was bought in 2002 and is now the only apartment in Moscow registered for a clergyman named Gundyayev, to which effect there is a record on the cadastre list. The piquancy of the legal action situation is that the suit was filed on behalf of Lidia Leonova who lives in the patriarch’s apartment but has submitted no documents which confirm that she represents the apartment’s owner. But the court ignored these “trifles” and handed out a controversial ruling.

Journalist Saken Aimurzayev writes in the blog of the Moscow Echo radio station’s website that when Vladimir Gundyayev took monastic vows, the so-called “lesser schema,” on April 3, 1969, he was named Kirill and vowed obedience, celibacy, poverty (repudiation of private property), and perpetual prayer.

There are various versions of relationships with Lidia Leonova, but what interests us more is violation of the vow of poverty. In the words of Moscow Patriarchate Chief Spokesman Vladimir Vigiliansky, questions about Kirill’s apartment are unethical because it is his private life which is inviolable. It depends. When it comes to the topmost representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, this kind of questions are very ethical. It is about fulfilling the taken vows, not about intruding into private life. If the vows are being broken, this suggests far-reaching conclusions. Aimurzayev notes that breaking even one of the taken vows is a religious crime, which is not at all a personal affair or private life.

Novaya gazeta quotes the patriarch as saying in Ukraine: “It is very important to learn Christian askesis… Askesis is the ability to regulate your consumption. It is a human’s victory over lust, passions, and instinct. So it is important that both the rich and the poor possess this quality.” And, what is still more important, the clergy of all, especially the highest, ranks of the Russian Orthodox Church should possess this quality.

And the final touches. Yury Shevchenko willed his apartment to his daughter and her four children. According to Moscow Echo editor-in-chief Aleksei Venediktov, “impounding the apartment by a court ruling should prevent it from being transferred as inheritance. All you have to do is to wait, and the apartment will be in your pocket. It’s not OK, Your Holiness…”

And what about mercy to the infirm and those under age? Or the commandments are no longer important for Russian Orthodox Church hierarchs? It seems so. For the laws of not only the church but also common morality are being trampled upon for the sake of an apartment in the House on the Embankment which should have long become a memorial museum, a reminder of the victims of Stalinism. Is this not the crisis of Russian Orthodoxy? Is it not time to stop desecration and repent, as the Christian religion demands? Otherwise it will be too late.




Andrii YURASH, religion researcher; Associate Professor, Lviv National Ivan Franko University:

“This is a scandal which would hardly become any Church or religious figure. The main cause is that, in the conditions of the present-day Russian state, the Russian Orthodox Church is in fact a state-run formalized institution rather than a non-governmental body for free informal expression of popular will, as it should be in a liberal society. Hence are the problems that any – secular, ecclesiastical, or totalitarian – system may create. These problems are caused by a closed system of relationships and extrapolated onto the religious field.

“On the other hand, it would be wrong to take an uncompromising attitude to this problem because any person, including a clergyman, in both Russian and Western societies can and must have certain sources of material wellbeing. Wellbeing in itself cannot be negative. What can be negative is the way this wellbeing is gained and used. It is from this angle that we should look at the latest court litigation for an apartment in Moscow and at the nature of the business that Kirill was doing when he was Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad and chief of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Foreign Church Relations, abusing his position and in fact collaborating with the state.

Orthodoxy, as a system of religious principles and dogmas, is an extremely rich and integral tradition. But this wealth should be correlated with new, modern trends. If the church fails to adequately respond to modern challenges (I mean the problems of secularism, liberal principles, and the objective openness of society), it may face two negative results (maladies). We can see these today on the example of the ROC. Firstly, it is the exclusiveness complex which may arise if the church is unable to adequately understand and find recipes for how to function and live under the new conditions. The principle of exclusiveness results in the accumulation of fundamentalism and conservatism, which hinders the development of a rich historical and theological potential which Orthodoxy has gained in the many centuries of its existence. The other downside is merger or too close partnership with the governmental system. Religion is by definition, a priori, a sphere of something free, spiritual, and inner. Therefore, it is answerable to nobody but one’s own soul, conscience, and system of sensations. And when the church ceases to understand that it should focus on inner human feelings and believes that it can condone violence against society, it turns from a spiritual institution into a semi- or fully totalitarian body. To perform this violent and totalitarian function, the church collaborates with the state, which brings about the abovementioned merger with the state.

“Obviously, this cannot but reflect on Ukraine. The Russian Church has a great deal of clout in Ukrainian society. Sociological surveys convincingly show that 18 to 25 percent of Ukraine’s population are and want to remain loyal to the ROC.

“Therefore, in this context, Ukrainian society ought to orient itself towards a pluralistic model and gradually persuade a part of the Ukrainian public of the need to accept new liberal approaches. Ukrainian society should choose these approaches in its attitude to religion because, unlike Russia, we are doomed to live in a multi-denominational and multicultural society. For this reason, the approaches that the ROC and the Moscow Patriarchate may be applying to society within the Russian Federation’s limits may not be accepted by the Ukrainian public. If the community that deliberately chooses to belong to the Moscow Patriarchate refuses to accept the dominating liberal and multi-denominational values of Ukrainian society, this may as well provoke conflicts. In this case, both the state and society must explain to the ROC-oriented Ukrainians that even the religious tradition they adhere to in the conditions of a Ukrainian state should assume a somewhat different organizational, cultural, and spiritual shape.”


His Eminence YEVSTRATII (ZORIA), Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Kyiv Patriarchate:

“Kirill manages to ‘combine’ clerical service and serious business matters. I would say it is the crisis of Russian Orthodoxy or, rather, of the Moscow Patriarchate. The latter is losing public prestige because of these very events. Three years ago, when Kirill ascended the patriarch’s throne, many expected the Russian Church to develop and modernize. But, with every passing year, more and more people become disappointed with him as spiritual leader. These scandalous events are only increasing the disappointment. At the same time, the Russian Church is not only Patriarch Kirill. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, there were also many of those who betrayed the Christian faith – believers and priests used to publicly repudiate God and become theomachists. Yet, at the same time, the Lord also showed a lot of saints who staunchly adhered to faith. It is now a time of unpleasant and hard trials for the Russian Church, but it must go through them in order to clear itself of the burden of the past.

“In my opinion, the crisis is in the fact that, as time goes by, patriarchs and the Moscow Patriarchate are increasingly being viewed as not only a religious force and a voice that calls for spirituality and morality but also as one of the political centers of influence. Moreover, this center is closely tied up to the government and, accordingly, all the crisis phenomena that arise in Russian society also embrace the Moscow Patriarchate as part of the vertical chain of command in Russia. The Russian Church faced basically the same problems in the early 20th century, when the crisis of monarchy also dealt a painful blow to the prestige of the church which was in fact defending the latter. Liberation from monarchic power was a boon for the Russian Church, even though it had to go through new ordeals. At the same time, being freed from this external ‘tutelage,’ the church managed to seriously prepare for the trials of a ‘Godless’ period. The newly-elected Patriarch Tikhon proved to be a worthy leader who duly prepared the Russian Church for that tempestuous era.

“The Russian Church is still in the same situation. It has an old system created long ago in Soviet times. It is still functioning by inertia. The ROC should embark on the road of updating and clearing itself of the burden of collaborating with and serving the interests of the governmental system. The church must serve Christ and the people. I think the Russian Church will be able to pass this trial, but this is unlikely to occur under the current patriarch.

“What effect is this situation having on Ukraine? Many of those who viewed the Russian Church 10-15 years ago as an ideal or a role model and thought that it was the best option for Ukraine and the Ukrainian Church are disappointed now. On the contrary, it is a boon that the Ukrainian Church is distancing itself from the Russian one. For the problems and difficulties that have been dogging the Russian Church (especially in the past few years) are prompting many Ukrainian clergymen to change and avoid making the mistakes Patriarch Kirill and his inner circle are making in order to ward off the same deplorable consequences. This shows the consolidation of the Ukrainian Church itself. I think it is increasingly clear now that the Moscow Patriarchate is not the force that can help us settle our own problems because it has bogged down in its own.”

Interviewed by Tetiana KOZYRIEVA, The Day, Lviv; Ihor SAMOKYSH, The Day


The patriarch himself has not publicly commented on the scandal around the trial and his property, but spoke negatively the other day on bloggers and Internet debates. “Suffice it to follow the debates the believers – both the laity and the clergy – hold in the blogs. After reading this, I often recall a proverbial phrase: ‘Why not apply this energy to a good purpose?’ I would also like to ask these online debaters a simple question: you speak very convincingly, but what is your real work and what are your real deeds? What are your practical actions?” the Rosbalt news agency quotes the patriarch as saying.

“Without diminishing the importance and necessity of profound and serious debates in the Orthodox milieu, I still want to remind each of the debaters that it is he or she to whom the Savior said ‘Ye shall know them by their fruits’ (Matthew 7:16). By the fruits, not by the talk, and, all the more so, not by the buffoonery, jokes, babbles, or the wish to look strong, wise, convincing, biting, etc.,” Kirill emphasized. “If our Orthodox Internet community accepts this great Divine testament, ‘Ye shall know them by their fruits,’ our Internet space will be cleared of all this trash that is insulting today the ethical feelings of very many people,” His Holiness Patriarch Kirill says.


The Russian Orthodox Church is actively mulling the question of including mobile inflatable tent temples into the airborne troops’ table of organization and equipment (TOE). “If temples are included into the TOE, they may be air-dropped together with self-propelled guns and combat landing vehicles,” Russian Ministry of Defense spokesman Aleksandr Kucherenko told the Interfax news agency. In his words, the reform of Russia’s Armed Forces provides for only one full-time position of military chaplains in the airborne troops – brigade commander’s assistant for educational work.