The strange story of Russia’s ‘revolting bishop’

Mikhail Zakharov
31 July 2008

The scandal of the rebellious bishop Diomid of Chukotka rumbles on. Yesterday, this strange figure pronounced a curse on Patriarch Alexei II. The church responded in kind, saying that Diomid was not coping with his missionary work and was just a ‘bad priest'.

Some people have suggested that Diomid has been set up, to show people what Orthodox fundamentalism is really like. Others see Diomid's statements as an attack on Metropolitan Kirill, regarded by many as the second most important figure in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and probably the next patriarch.

The view within the Church is that in his eight years as Bishop of Chukotka, Diomid ‘has been unable to create normal conditions for the spiritual life of believers'. ‘Proof of this is the empty churches and tiny number of signatures collected on appeals in defence of the former bishop,' Interfax Religiya was told by Hieromonakh Agafangel (Belykh), Acting Superior at the Church of the Transfiguration of the Lord at Anadyr, where Diomid formerly served.

Whatever the truth of this, the ROC will have to react to the outrageous behavior of the former bishop of Chukotka. Yesterday a website close to the Church posted another appeal for signatures for the disgraced clergyman, which the Patriarchate called ‘madness and nonsense'. The former bishop, or whoever the authors of the text are, went on to excommunicate not only Patriarch Alexei II, but Metropolitan Kirill, (head of the Department of External Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate), as well as Kirill's predecessor in that post, Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk and Slutsk. He even excommunicated ‘all their predecessors who took part in the uprising against the Tsar in February 1917, as well as everyone who shares their beliefs'.

Bishop Diomid has been criticising the ROC since 2007, posting his letters and appeals on the internet. He calls on the ROC to reject dialogue with other religions and the government, which is ‘against the people'. He wants a return to monarchy, rejects mobile phones, the newly-introduced passports and tax identification numbers. But note that almost all these appeals are posted on the internet, and Diomid does not call for that to be banned.

Bishop Diomid did not attend the last assembly of bishops, claiming he was indisposed (with a nervous complaint). The canonical rules stipulate that a bishop cannot be condemned and punished in his absence. But the participants decided that Diomid was feigning illness. ‘The reason Diomid gave for his absence is not legitimate,' declared Metropolitan Kirill. So he was removed from office.


The ‘virtual Diomid' - author of the letters and troublemaker - may not actually be a real person. But he undoubtedly reflects the beliefs of some of the Orthodox community and clergy. You could call this movement Orthodox fundamentalism. Although few priests hold such views, many are sympathetic to Diomid's ideas (especially those opposing all church reforms). Characteristically, Diomid's main message is about fighting the ‘secularisation' of the Church. He claims that the Church is deviating from its mission and that it's getting far too involved in modern technology and in making money. Many people would agree with that.

What's striking is that the real villain for Diomid is not the Patriarch so much as Metropolitan Kirill, Alexei's most likely successor. We may of course be getting altogether too conspiratorial here, but the message of our anti-hero Diomid seems to be this: that there are bad things going on in the Church (money-making etc, see above) and that Metropolitan Kirill is directly responsible for them, as he is for the fact that he does not know his own congregation and will not listen to his fellow priests.

Here's how the ‘revolting bishop' puts his complaint to the Church court about the decision to remove him from office: ‘Bishop Diomid is unrepentant. Furthermore, at the trial he intends to accuse Metropolitan Kirill (Gundyaev) of betraying Orthodoxy.'

This is pure politics. Note that this battle is being waged like a textbook piece of political strategy. Diomid (or is it someone pretending to be him?) has been making waves for the past year. He's created news out of nothing - bishops in the modern Church can't just  excommunicate their boss, the top man! It's a revolt, and it might suggest there's going to be a split in the church. But he's turned it into news. The hounds of the liberal press, all secular to the core, have been falling over themselves to write about the bishop's latest pronouncement.

He's had mysterious supporters appearing in Moscow from nowhere, though admittedly not in great numbers. They've taken to picketting the Church of Christ the Savior during the Bishops' Assembly. Then the no less mysterious ‘Orthodox Nashi' and the ubiquitous Union of Orthodox citizens turn up to demonstrate against them - in the relatively short span of its existence this latter organization has already managed to ‘defend' everyone you can think of, down to the dean of the Sociology faculty of Moscow State University, Dobrenkov.

By the way, it was Diomid's supporters who've been calling for a Church Council to be convened. The ROC charter passed in 2000 states that this Council should only meet in exceptional cases, for instance when a new patriarch is elected (the charter of 1988 says that this council's supposed to convene every five years, but it never has). This has proved a fairly effective tactic in any organization. Stalin, for example, was called to account for not having held party congresses often enough. The device is aimed at winning over the parishes, if not to the views of Diomid, then to those of forces in the Church which do not like the present leadership of the Church.

This was the tactic which was used in the communist party's internal battle in 2003-2004, which almost led to Gennady Zyuganov's overthrow. It was orchestrated by his former associate and head treasurer of the party, Gennady Semigin, with the support of grass-roots party cells and regional party branches. Zyuganov was accused of being autocratic, too close to the oligarchs, out of touch with the grass roots etc.  

The excommunication of the Patriarch and other ‘betrayers of Orthodoxy' is the subject of a blog by Diomid's former subordinate (clergymen really seem to like the internet. Or are they professionals acting on their behalf?). It's author Father Mikhail knew Diomid in the earl 1990s', when he was still a priest, serving in Kamchatka. According to Father Mikhail ‘when he began serving on the peninsula, the future bishop drove away all the parishioners. During services he would come out and yell at his praying flock, calling them goats and sheep. He has no respect for his congregation, he has no respect for the archbishop - what kind of priest is this Diomid anyway?'

About once a year articles start appearing in the press about various bishops of the Orthodox church who ‘like to do business'. Before the bishops' assembly, someone calling himself ‘Sobesednik' wrote that ‘the income of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is no longer calculated in kopecks', but in ‘millions of dollars', as the Church acts ‘as an investor, even investing in business centres'. Surprisingly enough, these rather monotonous ‘investigative attacks' come at a time when there are rumours  that the patriarch is ‘ill', and may even die soon. These articles always criticise the Church's Department of External Relations, which suggests that this opposition is coming from within the Church. This may reflect disagreements that are not so much political as canonical, ideological, or have some completely different cause.

But when it comes to Diomid - whose actions aren't really very significant for the Church - the tactics he's chosen leave little room for doubt that the forces behind him are political.

This conclusion is reinforced by the way the bishops have been responding to questions from the press about him.  ‘Who is this Diomid?' they tend to say, or just ‘No comment'. Doesn't that remind you of something, of the way Vladimir Putin responds when he's asked about someone like Boris Berezovsky: ‘Who's he?' Doesn't it sound like those generals when they're being asked to comment on the latest hazing scandal: ‘No comment, the investigation will get to the bottom of it'.




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