The Woman in Black
March 2, 2017
The fantastic story of how a small Moscow monastery has contrived to sue the state and take over a huge wing of the Fisheries Research Institute forces us to take a closer look at at a church official who has long remained partly in the shadows, Mother Superior Ksenia (Chernega), abbess of the selfsame St. Alexius Convent that sued the state and, simulaneously, head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s legal department. Chernega is not entirely unknown to the public. She has often been quoted in official reports of restitution of large pieces of real estate to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). However, as holder of a “boring” post, she has not been particularly prominent in the public eye.
And that’s too bad. Chernega is not only one of the most influential women in the ROC (in 2013, she took fourth place in an internal church rating) but also a successful raider who skillfully manipulates clerics and laymen alike. The adjudged research institute, a huge building that incorporated part of the foundations and a wall of a demolished church, is the most striking but hardly the largest victory in her career. The 46-year-old Oksana Chernega (her name until 2009, a name she still uses in secular contexts) is probably the longest-serving staff member of the Moscow Patriarchate’s legal office. She has worked there since 1993, while also working in secular law schools, achieving professorial rank. She became a leading authority on church law in the early 2000s. Generations of politicians and MPs have come and gone, but Chernega has the whole time testified at hearings of the relevant parliamentary committees and governmental review boards, lobbying the laws the ROC has wanted passed.
Her main achievement has been the law, signed by President Medvedev in late 2010, “On the Transfer of Religious Assets in State or Municipal Ownership to Religious Organizations.” It is this law under which movable and immovable property has been transferred to the ROC the past six years. Yet the Church has behaved capriciously, taking only what looks good or has real value. The Perm Diocese is unlikely to restore to its former use the huge military institute that took over what used to be its seminary: there are catastrophically few people who want to go into the priesthood, and the poor diocese is incapable of maintaining the enormous premises. But how sweet it is to get a huge building on the river embankment in the city center as a freebie. Whatever you do with it you’re bound to make money.
But not everything has been had so smoothly. The property the ROC has set its sights on has owners, and they are capable of mounting a resistance. That is when Chernega takes the stage. When she announces the Church has set its sights on a piece of real estate, it is usually a bad sign. The day before yesterday, it was St. Isaac’s Cathedral, yesterday it was the Andronikov Monastery, today it is the Fisheries Research Institute. What will it be tomorrow? Anything whatsoever.
On the eve of March 8 [International Women’s Day] and amidst the debates on feminism in Russia, it would seem that Chernegas has pursued a successful, independent career as a woman in the Church. But it’s not as simple as all that.
It is well known in ecclesiastical circles that Chernega acts in tandem with a notable priest, Artemy Vladimirov. He is not only confessor at the St. Alexius Convent but is also well known throughout the Church. A graduate of Moscow State University’s philolology department and rector of All Saints Church (a neighbor of the convent and the reclaimed fisheries institute), Vladimirov is a glib preacher who specializes in denouncing fornication; he is, therefore, a member of the Patriarchal Council on Family and Motherhood. The council has become a haven for the Church’s choicest monarchistically inclined conservatives, including Dmitry Smirnov, who has led an aggressive campaign against Silver Rain radio station, Konstantin Malofeev, Igor Girkin‘s ex-boss and, concurrently, an expert on web-based pedophilia, and the wife of Vladimir Yakunin, former director of Russian Railways, a billionaire, and former KGB officer.
Vladimirov vigorously espouses monarchist views and has made a huge number of basically stupid public statements, such as the demand to remove a number of works by Chekhov and Bunin from the school curriculum and a call to campaign against Coca-Cola. Such radicalism is not rare in the ROC, however, Since the late 1990s and the publication of the novel Celibacy by church journalist Natalya Babasyan, Vladimirov has served as a clear example for many observant and quasi-observant Orthodox believers of where the line should be drawn in interactions between a priest and his flock, especially his young, female parishioners.
Because of this reputation, Vladimirov has remained in the background even during periods when the grouping of monarchists and Russian nationalists to which he has belonged has had the upper hand in the ROC. But if you can’t do something directly, you can do it indirectly, and Oksana Chernega has come in very handy in this case. As is typical of a young woman in the modern ROC, she is utterly dependent on her confessor. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Orthodox fundamentalists and monarchist heterosexuals developed a curious lifestyle. Young and handsome, usually university grads with the gift of gab, and often married, many of them newly arrived in the Church, they formed small “communities” consisting of young women, communities with unclear or flexible status in terms of ecclesiastical law.
In theory, a convent is established by order of a bishop, and a married or elderly priest is appointed as the convent’s confessor. He does not live on the convent’s grounds and is present there during “working hours,” when he has to serve mass and take confession from the women who inhabit the convent. As part of the so-called Orthodox revival, a monk or a young priest who had “complicated” relations with his wife would first form a group of female “adorers” in the church, later organizing them into a “sisterhood” and then a “convent community,” which he would settle in a building reclaimed from local authorities, sometimes the site of a former convent, sometimes not. He would immediately take up residence there himself in order to “revive Orthodoxy” and denounce fornicators and homosexuals in the outside world. The record holder in this respect was Archimandrite Ambrosius (Yurasov) of the Ivanovo Diocese, who built a huge convent in Ivanovo, where he officially lived in the same house as the mother superior and yet never left the apartments of the rapturous Moscow women whom he had pushed to come live with him after they had bequeathed their dwellings to the convent.
For those who did not want to leave the capital even nominally, historical buildings in the city center were found. That, for example, was the story of the ultra-fundamentalist Abbot Kirill (Sakharov), who took over St. Nicholas Church on Bersenevka opposite the Kremlin. There, according to a correspondent of mine, “the Old Believer girls creatively accessorized their robes with manicures.” In Petersburg, the so-called Leushinskaya community, led by the main local monarchist Archpriest Gennady Belobolov, has been “restoring” a church townhouse for twenty years. However, the archpriest himself lives on site, while his wife raises their children somewhere else in town. It is a good arrangement for a young man from the provinces: come to the capital, occupy a large building in the city center under a plausible pretext, and shack up there with attractive and spiritually congenial sisters in the faith while putting on shows at press conferences stacked with selected reporters and confessing pious female sponsors who are thrilled by their pastor’s superficial strictness and inaccessibility.
So in this system of interwoven personal and political interests how could one not help out a dear friend? The affairs of the alliance between Vladimirov and Chernega, especially when it comes to dispensing other people’s property, are so broad and varied that observers sometimes wonder whether it isn’t time for police investigators to have a crack at them.
However, the couple’s activities are not limited to Moscow. Gennady Belovolov, with whom they organized an “evening in memory of the Patriarch” in 2009, involving a “boys’ choir from the Young Pioneer Studio” and other young talents, has recently been having obvious problems with the diocesan authorities. On January 17 of this year, he was removed from his post as abbot of the church townhouse he had been “restoring.” Like the majority of such priests, he regarded the property he was managing as personal property: “When I read the document [dismissing him from his post], I realized that now all my churches and parishes were not mine, that now I could not serve in them. I remember the feeling I experienced. No I was no one’s and nobody, a pastor without a flock, a captain without a ship, a father without a family.” It transpired, however, that Belovolov, as an organizer of the apartment museum of St. John of Kronstadt, an important figure for the modern ROC, had registered it as private property, either as his own or through frontmen.
Where do you think the part of the church community sympathetic to Belovolov’s plight would want to transfer such a managerially gifted and cultured pastor, a pastor capable of creating a little museum and one who knows a thing or two about restoration? To St. Isaac’s Cathedral, of course, and the post of sexton, the chief steward of the church and its property. What would Chernega, who is coordinating the legal aspects of transferring such a huge chunk of public property, have to do with this? Formally, of course, nothing, and it isn’t a sure bet that the appointment will take place, just as it’s not a sure bet the ROC will get its hands on the entire cathedral.
Translated by the Russian Reader