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By John Helmer, Moscow

The name Isaac (lead image, right), son of Abraham (centre) and Sarah (left) in the Old Testament book of Genesis, meant “he laughs”. That was because Isaac was conceived when his mother thought she was long past child-bearing,  so Abraham started laughing at her news. He got more serious, later in the story, when he prepared to cut Isaac’s throat. Abraham thought he was doing God’s bidding, until God sent down new instructions.

The Isaac after whom St. Petersburg’s cathedral (Isaakievskiy Sobor, Исаа́киевский Собо́р – lead image, extreme right) – Russia’s largest; world’s fourth biggest church — is a different one. He too got the lucky last laugh. That Isaac was a fourth century Syrian by origin, who was living as a hermit contemplating Christian theology when Valens ruled the eastern Roman empire in nearby Constantinople.  Valens was a nervous, insecure sort who, with his brother, the co-emperor in Rome, had taken power by assassination, bribery and regular shows of military force.

Isaac was a go-getter, and insisted Valens give him an audience. Valens wasn’t so nervous he saw every Christian hermit in from the desert, so he refused. Isaac got his own back by broadcasting the meme that Valens would die shortly in a fire.  Valens threw Isaac in prison for sedition, where he stayed until Valens did die (378 AD), and the new successor emperor released Isaac to run a monastery on his pledge not to issue any more emperor death threats. Isaac was lucky too, because of the four versions of how Valens met his death,  one of them included fire. All of them recorded that Valens’s body was never found.

Because Isaac died on May 30 (383 AD), and that turned out to be the birthday of Peter the Great (1672), the tsar decided to turn Isaac into the patron saint of the Romanov dynasty. That’s what the current 19th century cathedral, built to replace smaller structures on the site, means. Its name signifies  holy war on the enemies of the tsar and  Romanov dynasty. That’s one, but not the only reason, a group of Russian Church bishops have recruited Kremlin support to order  Georgy Poltavchenko, St. Petersburg’s governor, to overrule his earlier decisions,  ignore the courts, city parliament,  and thousands of citizen petitioners, cancel state ownership of the building,  and hand it to the Russian Church to become its property.  

“The Church”,  according to close observers of its affairs in Moscow, “has persuaded the Kremlin to allow it to act above the law, and outside the law, too.  Thieving Church banks like Peresvet go unprosecuted. When businessmen take real estate, the state’s or each other’s,  it’s called asset raiding, and the courts often intervene. Not when the Church is the raider. But even raiding is not enough. The state budget, and of course ordinary taxpayers are being required to pay for the Peresvet Bank bailout,  and for running St. Isaacs, while the priesthood hang on to their gains.”

The most recent fraud at the Russian Orthodox Church’s  (ROC) Peresvet Bank, and the frauds and embezzlements at smaller ROC-controlled banks add up to the misappropriation estimated at the Central Bank of Russia to total at least $5 billion; the details can be followed by clicking

The full story of the St. Isaac’s Cathedral raid can be followed in Meduza, successor to Lenta.ru, now publishing from Riga, Latvia, and in this exceptional piece of research by reporters Natalia Galimova (right)  and Vyacheslav Kozlov at RBC, published on April 27.  RBC has produced the most painstaking investigations of the Russian Church’s business ever published. After this  appeared on Church cashflows in February 2016, the three reporters Svetlana Reiter, Anastasia Napalova, and Ivan Golunov, were no longer employed at RBC six months later. Golunov has moved on to Meduza; read his investigation of the Peresvet Bank affair.  

The US   and British  press reporting of the St. Isaac’s story  has cribbed from Meduza and RBC without acknowledging credit, and also without speaking directly to the participants.

Georgy Poltavchenko, 64, the Governor of St. Petersburg, was educated in the city and has spent most of his career there. He was a KGB officer in the Leningrad region in the 1980s; head of the federal tax police in St. Petersburg from 1993 to 1999; then the presidential plenipotentiary to the city in 1999 and 2000. After he took office, President Vladimir Putin sent Poltavchenko as the presidential representative to the Central District, headquartered in Moscow. In 2011 he was returned to St. Petersburg as governor. Church sources confirm Poltavchenko is religious.

He has been asked through his press office over two weeks to answer two questions:   Why did Poltavchenko change his mind and overrule his earlier decision not to transfer the cathedral to church property? Why is the governor refusing to allow a referendum of residents?    In response to a telephone call, Poltavchenko’s spokesman asked for the questions to be put in an email. He then refused to answer them.  

Metropolitan Varsonofy (Anatoly Sudakov), 62, has been the chancellor of the Moscow patriarchate, chief of staff to Patriarch Kirill and head of the ROC administration for eight years; he was one of Kirill’s first appointments after he succeeded Patriarch Alexei II in January 2009.  Varsonofy was also Metropolitan of Saransk and Mordovia until March 2014, when he was promoted to be Metropolitan for St. Petersburg and Ladoga. He also heads a new Church commission for verifying the remains of the Nicholas II, the last Romanov tsar who was canonized for his death as a passion bearer, one canonical rank short of martyr, in 2000.  Church media report Varsonofy is one of the most influential priests in Kirill’s entourage.

Meeting of the Holy Synod, as the Church’s top administrative cabinet is known, on May 4, 2017; attending to promote the St. Isaac’s takeover was Metropolitan Varsonofy (right), who combines the leadership of the Church in St. Petersburg with management (chancellor) of ROC business in Moscow.

In 2015 Varsonofy announced that Kirill had decided on a ratio of one church for every 10,000 parish residents. That’s residents, not believers.

“Today”, Varsonofy told Interfax  on September 2, 2015, “there are over 200 churches in St. Petersburg, most of them are located in its historic center, and certainly it is not enough for such a populated city. If we use this [Kirill’s] index, we will find the ‘northern capital’ among outsiders. If there are about five millions of residents in the city, there should be three times as many churches in it as we have today.” He added that “churches should be returned to the Church.”  In July of 2015 he wrote Poltavchenko demanding their return.

Poltavchenko agreed to the handover of two at the top of Varsofy’s list – Smolny Cathedral and St. Sampson’s Cathedral were conceded. But Poltavcheno was adamant privately and publicly explicit in refusing Varsonofy’s demand for St. Isaac’s; his reply to Varsonofy was leaked to the press.  Poltavchenko also did an Emperor Varens to Varsonofy’s version of St. Isaac – he refused several  requests for a meeting.

Poltavchenko’s resistance continued through that year and persisted in 2016, despite the intervention of Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev whom Varsonofy lobbied for support in the spring of 2016.  In September of that year Poltavchenko repeated in public his refusal. In letters to the state property authorities in Moscow, which Poltavchenko has leaked, he warned that the majority of St. Petersburgers is against the transfer; that the Church’s demand would violate their rights in Russian law; and upset “the priority of human rights over the rights of religious organizations.”

Poltavchenko in church with Varsonofy; source: http://www.rbc.ru/investigation/politics/27/04/2017/58f483479a794798aa3769f8

The Patriarch visited St. Petersburg from December 17 to 19, and met with Poltavchenko in the latter’s office. Within days Poltavchenko announced he had changed his mind. He now said St. Isaac’s would become ROC property.  What had happened in the 12-week interval?

Left: Putin met Poltavchenko, November 8, 2016. Right: Putin meeting Patriarch Kirill on February 1, 2017. They had also met together the previous November 22. 

The answer, as reported by sources speaking anonymously to the press from the Church and Poltavchenko’s administration, is that after Varsonofy’s failure with Medvedev, Kirill went over both their heads, applying to Putin to overrule Poltavchenko, and order him to hand over St. Isaac’s. Putin agreed. More than that, Poltavchenko was ordered by the President to make sure the St. Petersburg courts, the city legislature, and the citizens’ campaign against the transfer should be neutralized.

There is no direct corroboration that Kirill asked; that Putin conceded; and that Poltavchenko clicked his heels and saluted.  Tass reported on January 17: “ ‘The issue of the transfer of St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the use of the Russian Orthodox Church is resolved, but the building will fully retain its museum functions’, the Governor of St. Petersburg Georgy Poltavchenko has reported to Tass today. ‘The issue is resolved,’ he has said. ‘By agreement between the Patriarch and me the cathedral will keep the museum and educational function’,  Poltavchenko has explained. He has given his assurance that ‘access to the building will be provided to representatives of one and all faiths.’” Tass was told the process of transfer agreed between Krill and Poltavchenko should be completed within twelve months, with formal handover by December 2017.  

 “It is necessary only to guess why our dear head of St. Petersburg so sharply changed his opinion in a year,” editorialized Fontanka.ru, a city internet website. “I like our Governor, I even feel sorry for him,” a city government insider told RBC.  “He could not make that decision on his own. Everything was decided for him.” The implication is that since there were only two officials who could do that to Poltavchenko, they must be Putin and the patriarch.

After Poltavchenko revealed the policy change, the opposition to the cathedral transfer released a petition calling on the governor to reverse himself. The petition says  that tourism will be restricted at the site, and “there will not be enough efforts of the ROC to undertake large-scale restorations of the unique objects of cultural heritage, or their maintenance in proper condition. After the transfer to the ROC it will be necessary to pay for maintenance and restoration works from the [state] budget. Now the museum is completely self-sufficient. The educational and educational component will be completely liquidated.”

As of today, there have been almost 219,000 signatories.

The published financial data are unclear on what St. Isaac’s currently earns, and what it costs. The RBC investigation reports that last year the 393 employees of the cathedral were paid Rb358.4 million (about $5.5 million), and with restoration and other charges, total costs came to Rb744.3 million ($11.5 million). Income from the sale of visitor tickets, special tours and other charges came to Rb468.8 million ($7.2 million), according to the RBC estimate.  The deficit was reportedly covered from the budget of the St. Petersburg government. This is far from the self-sufficiency claimed by Reznik and Vishnevsky. On the other hand, there are press reports claiming the annual income for the cathedral is almost double the RBC estimate. Nikolai Burov, director of the present St. Isaac’s cathedral museum, told a US newspaper that in 2016 the income came to $13.5 million.

Operating income isn’t the only source of potentially lucrative cashflow for the ROC hierarchy which St. Isaac’s represents. According to the RBC report from Church and city sources, planned reconstruction and restoration of the cathedral is currently budgeted over the next decade at Rb3.5 billion (about $60 million). Accounting investigations at Peresvet and other ROC-controlled banks reveals how state money, corporate accounts and donor funds have been diverted through fraudulent procurement, construction contracting, and loans to insiders.   

Opponents of the transfer in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly claim the Church would be unable to charge for visits, and could not afford the upkeep or restoration. The 50-member, 5-year term assembly was last elected on September 18, 2016 – when the issue of St. Isaac’s appeared safe in state custody. The majority of the assembly – 36 seats – is held by United Russia, the government party. The opposition of 14 deputies was split between Just Russia, the Communist Party, Yabloko, and others. 

The response of the Church on the issue of fees, charges, and responsibility for the upkeep and operations of St. Isaac’s remains ambiguous. Claims by the opposition that because the Church has taken over the building, it will not be allowed to charge for admission are not corroborated. Those who attend religious services in the cathedral at the moment are not charged, as secular visitors and tourists are.

This is normal practice elsewhere in Europe. In Britain, for example, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, charges £18 for an adult visitor; Exeter Cathedral charges £7.50; York Cathedral, £10; Lincoln Cathedral, £13.50; Durham Cathedral, £2; and Westminster Abbey, £22.  A Church of England bishop has defended this charging on the ground that there is not enough state money to support the buildings, and the Church is too poor.  The bishop claimed the state budget in the UK pays far less for upkeep of ecclesiastical buildings than the European states. In Paris, Notre Dame charges €10; Rouen Cathedral, no charge. In Rome, St. Peter’s is free, but the Sistine Chapel costs €15.  In Milan the Duomo is free for worshippers; €2 for tourists.

The Europeans usually separate the flock of the faithful from the tourist sheep by assigning them separate entrances. This is likely to be what Kirill and Varsonofy intend to do, though they are not admitting it until the transfer is completed. Some Church sources have been telling local reporters that Poltavchenko is dragging his feet in an attempt to delay the transfer until 2019, after the presidential election next year.

The two leaders of the referendum campaign in the Assembly are Maxim Reznik and Boris Vishnevsky, both of the Yabloko party. They have been backed by Just Russia.  In March and April they tried to get the Assembly to enact a referendum, but their proposal was stalled in committee by the United Russia party majority, and no vote of the assembly has been held. Vishnevsky has also applied to the city courts to issue an injunction to Poltavchenko to halt  his transfer because, he and Reznik argue,   it violates the applicable laws on state property. A first-level city district court refused to hear the application on its merits. A higher court is due to hear Vishnevsky’s appeal on May 15. A vote by the Assembly has been promised for May 17.

The case for holding a referendum in the city is almost unprecedented, as is the extent of the opposition to the Church move among St. Petersburgers. In 1991 a petition signed by 100,000 led to a referendum in June of 1991, when by a 55% majority, the name of the city was returned from Leningrad to St. Petersburg.   In 2010 opposition stopped the construction of a 400-metre tall office tower for Gazprom; in 2016 a proposed 80-metre statue of Jesus Christ was also blocked, both without an Assembly vote or public referendum.  As the numbers against the transfer of St. Isaac’s have grown, press coverage has intensified.  So has the shyness of the Church officials.

At first, the Synod reportedly considered filing suit to get a court ruling to confirm the right of the ROC to recover religious property confiscated after the Bolshevik Revolution. They reconsidered when the Synod metropolitans and the Patriarch were advised that such an open challenge might inflame public opinion even more. Church lawyers told RBC that they aren’t going to participate in litigation in St. Petersburg because the decision to transfer St. Isaac’s has been taken by the federal government in Moscow on the basis of federal law, and is thus beyond the jurisdiction of the city’s courts.

The Synod has decided to stay out of the limelight and work instead through proxies to  discredit the opposition. According to Aleksandr Pelin, a spokesman for the Church in St. Petersburg: “only a handful of marginal people, including L.G.B.T. [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] movements and right-wing politicians, speak against this decision.” In Moscow, Kirill’s spokesman, Alexander Volkov, said the patriarch is ready for a “positive dialogue on the subject with all the interested parties.”

The unofficial Church campaign has been organized through supporters in the Assembly and the State Duma in Moscow. The outcome is the first display of Church-sponsored anti-Semitism in Russia for more than 70 years.  

St. Petersburg Assembly deputies Maxim Reznik (left) and Boris Vyshnevsky  (right).

Attacking Reznik and Vishnevsky, who are Jewish, are Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg representative in the State Duma, and Pyotr Tolstoy, a former television journalist and currently deputy speaker of the Duma,  both of them Orthodox.  

Former St. Petersburg Assembly deputy, now Russian State Duma deputy Vitaly Milonov (left); Russian State Duma deputy, Pyotr Tolstoy (right).

On February 13, Milonov said at a city rally:   “Christians survived despite the fact that the ancestors of Boris Vishnevsky and Maxim Reznik boiled us in cauldrons and fed us to animals.”  Earlier, at a 2014 session of the  Assembly, Milonov reportedly said the Jews “vilify any saint, it is in their tradition of 2,000 years, beginning with the appeals to crucify the Saviour, ending with accusations of anti-Semitism against St. John of Kronstadt.”  Father John Sergiev, a 19th-century faith healer, whom the Church canonized in 1990, had been defamed, according to Milonov, by “complete lies, a modern neo-liberal fable with a sulfuric, deep history of Satanism.”

Milonov’s attack on Jewish involvement in the campaign to stop the transfer of St. Isaac’s followed one by Deputy Tolstoy. “Observing the protests surrounding the transfer of St. Isaac’s Cathedral,” Tolstoy said on January 24, “I cannot help but notice the amazing paradox: people who are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who destroyed our churches, [of those] who jumped out of the Pale of Settlement with revolvers in 1917, now their grandchildren, working in various very respectable places – on radio stations, in legislative assemblies – continue the work of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers.” Meduza added the explanation for readers that the Pale was the area of the Russian Empire – now territory of  Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Ukraine and Crimea — to which Russian Jews were restricted.

Catherine the Great established the Pale in 1791; it was abolished after the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917. The empire’s convict settlements or penal colonies were located at the opposite end of Russia in Siberia and the Fareast. For details: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pale_of_Settlement 

When Tolstoy was accused of anti-Semitism, he responded: “I am very surprised by the reaction to my assessment of the lawfulness of the transfer of St. Isaac’s Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church. Only people with a sick imagination, [who] do not know their country’s history, can see ‘signs of anti-Semitism’ in my words. They were, on the contrary, a warning against repeating the events that occurred 100 years ago after which thousands of churches were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people were deported and executed. Someone obviously likes to make labels in an attempt to [introduce] yet another division into the public debate … I emphasize again: in my referring to actual historical events there is no indications of that which vigilant comrades wish to see.”

 “I think just the headlines that came out on the Echo of Moscow and in Nezavisimaya Gazeta are actually anti-Semitic themselves. I was, frankly, greatly surprised … People with disturbing characteristics for some reason [saw my words as an address to ethnic groups]. I did not mean anything of the sort.”

Defending Tolstoy is Vyacheslav Volodin, the Speaker of the Duma, and former deputy chief of Putin’s staff.  “These momentary accusations [against Tolstoy] in which each person sees a hidden  meaning are unacceptable … The term [Pale of Settlement] applied to convicts. Then convicts began to occupy leadership positions in the Revolution. What if [Pyotr Tolstoy] was referring to this? Has anyone asked him?”

Speaker Volodin follows the Patriarch at the State Duma on January 26, 2017. An engineer and  lawyer by training and politician by profession, Volodin’s official biographies do not identify his religious faith.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was asked about Putin’s role in the St. Isaac’s affair.  He told RBC the transfer of churches “is not the prerogative of the President.”

NOTE ON LEAD COMPOSITE IMAGE:  the illustration of the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac comes from a mosaic on the floor of Beth Alpha, a 6th century synagogue first discovered in 1928.   Its location in the present Israel has been fought over for several millennia between Egyptians, Philistines, Israelites, Seleucid Greeks, Judaeans, Romans, Muslims, Crusaders, Ottomans, British, Palestinians, Syrians, and Israelis.

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