BBC Russian Service: farewell to old friends

In 2006 London’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral was controversially taken over by Moscow Church authorities. The affair was typical of a wider strategy of infiltrating, appropriating and/or destroying Russian cultural property abroad, says Irina Shumovich. Unfortunately, last weeks cuts to another Kremlin target — the BBC's Russian Service — send out a message that the saboteurs have won yet again.

In 2006 Metropolitan Anthony Sourozhsky had been head of the Diocese of Sourozh for nearly fifty years. All those fifty years, the Diocese had been the centre of Russian Orthodoxy in Britain and Ireland, and of its twenty parishes, led by the Cathedral of Dormition and All Saints at Ennismore Gardens in London. Father Anthony believed that the whole world had cohesion, that mankind was one, that differences and divergences were not final and decisive. He welcomed everyone into the church - white Russians, intelligentsia, French and English converts into the Orthodox religion. Over the years, and under his guidance, the Ennismore Gardens Cathedral developed its own unique open-minded style of Orthodoxy.

When the Moscow Patriarchate tried to increase its influence on the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in London, many members left in protest. The fate of the Cathedral then became the subject of a lengthy and unfair legal dispute. 

In 1985 Gorbachev came to power and perestroika started in Russia.  Metropolitan Anthony welcomed both the changes and the wave of new Russian immigrants they brought to Britain. Huge numbers of them arrived, and he accepted them all into the church. But soon it became apparent that they were very different from the old members of his congregation. They wore larger crosses, but showed less respect for the sanctity of the service. They came into the church half way through the service and talked loudly at the back. There was a lot of unpleasantness and elbow-pushing, even occasional fights outside the church. 

Father Anthony welcomed everyone into the church - white Russians, intelligentsia, French and English converts into the Orthodox religion. Over the years, the Ennismore Gardens Cathedral developed its own unique open-minded style of Orthodoxy.

Irina Shumovitch 

Soon after their arrival, the new believers formed a pro-Russian “traditionalist” faction within the church, and began to petition Moscow for reform, to force the church community become more Russian. Tension built up. Metropolitan Anthony’s close ally, Bishop Basil, even began to consider whether it would not be a better idea for jurisdiction of the Diocese of Sourozh to be changed from the Russian Orthodox Church to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople, which unites all the world’s Orthodox who are not Russian or Greek. 

Metropolitan Anthony hesitated. He was still hoping that such drastic step could be avoided. Nonetheless, he agreed to allow Bishop Basil prepare the letters of dismissal for clergy of the Diocese of Sourozh, so that should the need arise, they could transfer to another jurisdiction.  

By now, however, Anthony was old and frail: the inner disputes and the constant worry about the future of the London Cathedral undermined his health. He died with a heavy heart in 2003, having confirmed Bishop Basil as his anointed successor. 

Moscow acted immediately. The notes of the Orthodox hymns sung at Metropolitan Anthony’s funeral had barely died away, when Moscow sent more priests to the London Cathedral. They brought with them their own world view and began addressing the congregation with Soviet-style propaganda and warnings of the ‘Devil among us’. 

In 2006 Bishop Basil decided that the situation was untenable and applied to have his diocese transferred from the jurisdiction of Moscow Patriarchate to Constantinople.  Moscow peremptorily announced that Bishop Basil had been retired. 

One Sunday morning Bishop Basil arrived at the Cathedral in Ennismore Gardens to find that the church had been taken over and other priests were conducting the Sunday service. The hostility was so intense that it would probably have ended in violence had the bishop not just bowed out gracefully. He left, followed by 554 clergy and 1,161 other members registered on the diocesan roll. These were the members who, in 1978, shelled out their own money to buy the Ennismore Gardens Cathedral and houses for the priests, which later became the property of the Trust. 

Moscow demanded that the Trust should hand over to the Moscow Patriarchate all its assets, including the cathedral and five clergy houses or flats, throwing two priests out of their homes. It was not easy to achieve: Bishop Anthony had prophetically foreseen that one day Moscow might try to seize control, and in the deed of the Trust, drawn up in 1944, spoke only of the promotion of the Orthodox Faith, deliberately making no mention of "Russian" Orthodoxy. Moscow started a lawsuit.

The lawsuit coincided with a time of terse diplomatic relations between Britain and Russia, in connection with the Russian government’s refusal to hand over Andrei Lugovoi [Alexander Litvinenko’s alleged murderer]. The last thing the Labour Government wanted was to irritate Vladimir Putin by ruling the wrong way in a small and petty row over a church. On the eve of the hearing, the then Attorney General, Baroness Scotland, issued a crucial legal opinion in favour of Moscow. This meant that Bishop Basil's side was not able to use the Trust's money to pay for lawyers, and could not afford legal representation in the High Court.

The lawyer acting for Moscow never disclosed where the funds to cover his clients’ legal costs came from. Yet while conducting the lawsuit he was also acting as lawyer to Oleg Deripaska

Irina Shumovitch 

Moscow, on the other hand, was represented by the solicitor Paul Hauser. To Hauser, the legal position was clear. A bishop had had a falling-out with the church and left, taking some of his co-religionists with him. But the Trust, which existed for the benefit of the diocese and the parish, continued to exist. He didn’t see any problem in the fact that it was exactly these departed co-religionists who had raised the money to buy the Cathedral.  In 2006, after the court ruling, all the assets of the church at Ennismore Gardens  - the Cathedral worth an estimated £23 million, and four houses of the clergy, worth £4.5 million - became the property of Moscow.

Hauser never disclosed where the funds to cover his clients’ legal costs came from. But while conducting the lawsuit, he was also acting as lawyer to Oleg Deripaska – a Russian aluminium magnate, friend of Lord Mandelson, on whose yacht George Osborne had entangled himself in the rigging of the oligarch's lavish hospitality and allegations of soliciting for political donations. 

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Meanwhile in Bush House the BBC Russian Service continued broadcasting to its target audiences in the former Soviet Union. 

I worked for the BBC Russian Service from 1989 to 2001. When I joined the Service in 1989, it was full of a vibrant, if somewhat eccentric, atmosphere of creativity. Intellectual debate was an integral part of programme-making, originality was encouraged and each member of the Service took pride in his work. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, John Tusa, then the Director of the World Service, lifted the ban on the recruitment of journalists who had been employed by the media in their countries. For the Russian Service this meant recruitment of the people who, before the collapse of the Soviet regime, had worked for the Soviet propaganda machine. They had excellent radio skills, good English and no idea about balanced reporting and treating people with trust and respect. Ideologically and politically, they were loyal supporters of the Kremlin. Many of them have gradually taken editorial positions in the Russian Service and started, in a very subtle way, bending BBC editorial guidelines to suit their political views. 

With the new style of editorial leadership, the broadcasts of the Russian Service became ever more bland. “Dedicated” presenters were chosen not for their charisma and integrity, but for their dedication to the pro-Moscow management. Their presentation style was bordering on vulgarity. The content was shallow. There was little in the programmes which provided food for thought, new information or an alternative point of view. British values were not clearly expressed. Blair was called the “British PM”, Putin “our president”; domestic newspapers referred to as “British” and Russian as “ours”. This was not what listeners in Russia expected to hear from London. All this, to me, created a sense of duplicity and discredited both the style and the integrity of the BBC. By the time I resigned in 2001, creativity in the Russian Service was stifled, individualism frowned upon, the atmosphere of fear and cynicism dominated. Audience figures began to plummet. The only section of the Russian Service still producing programmes of intellectual distinction, outstanding cultural depth and objective analysis of Russian politics, was the department of Russian Features. 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the World Service lifted a ban on the recruitment of journalists who had been employed by the media in their countries. For the Russian Service this meant recruitment of the people who, before the collapse of the Soviet regime, had worked for the Soviet propaganda machine. They had excellent radio skills, good English and no idea about balanced reporting and treating people with trust and respect. 

Irina Shumovitch 

By 2007, all editorial control of the Russian Service was concentrated in the hands of the few pro-Moscow journalists.  Getting rid of the department of Russian Features became their top priority. In 2006, they instigated a Stalinist-style persecution of the head of the department, Maria Karp, for broadcasting a programme about the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. A programme maker with 20 years of distinguished career behind her, she was accused of breaching BBC editorial guidelines. The allegation was based on the fact that pro-Putin Kremlin representatives in her programme sounded more stupid than Putin’s critics in the West. The programme was taken off the air after one broadcast, and its producer subjected to a disciplinary procedure. Ignorance and confusion of the World Service management allowed the mauling of Maria Karp. 

A year later, in spite of the wide campaign to save the Russian features led by distinguished British public figures, academics and politicians, the department was closed.  By then, the loss of audiences in Russia was irreversible. And with the closure of the Feature’s Department, destruction of the Russian Service from within was complete.

In the context of severe cuts to the BBC World Service, one of the country's most treasured institutions, it probably no longer matters that the Russian Service will cease broadcasting. For sure there will be no audiences in Russia mourning its demise: they stopped listening to the bland, sterile broadcasts a long time ago. It’s probably worth noting, though, that people loyal to Moscow are still occupying high editorial positions in the Russian Service. Whether they will be swept away by the forthcoming wave of redundancies, or remain in control of the surviving online and “new media distribution”, remains to be seen.

But the events described above pose a number of questions. Are the Church and the Russian Service unrelated incidents or part of a wider well-orchestrated campaign? Are there any other Russian cultural institutions on British soil under threat of a similar fate? And if there is indeed a campaign, is the Government going to sit idly by?

More On

More about the Russian Orthodox Cathedral at Ennismore Gardens (includes video content) here