Nikolay Mitrokhin: The Woman in Black

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Mother Superior Ksenia (Chernega). Photo courtesy of Monasterium.ru

The Woman in Black
Nikolay Mitrokhin
Grani.ru
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

“Senator”

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I wonder whether Zygmunt Bauman, Mike Davis, Joseph Stiglitz, Immanuel Wallerstein or any of the other twenty-one of “the world’s greatest minds” featured in the book 22 Ideas to Fix the World (NYU Press, 2013) has commented on the sudden fall from grace of Vladimir Yakunin, their fellow “greatest mind,” co-author, and benefactor (because it was Yakunin who shelled out for the book and the high-toned geopolitical hootenannies in Rhodes that, no doubt, some of them had also attended)?

The CNBC article I have linked to, above, says that Mr. Yakunin is slated to become a “senator,” which is also a hoot, because there is no senate in Russia. (But there are, literally, megatons of needless and misplaced America-envy, which sometimes spills out into, alternately, “rabid anti-Americanism” and slavish imitation of America.)

There is no senate in Russia, but there is the “upper house of parliament,” the so-called Federation Council, and Mr. Yakunin is carpetbagging to Kaliningrad, of all places, to get “elected” to the non-Senate by the good people in that lonely enclave of the empire. Or, probably, the good people of Kaliningrad don’t even have to do that much to have Mr. Yakunin as their “senator.”

Personally, I think he’s a shoo-in.

See my earlier smack at the Yankuninshchina and its marquee leftist collaboratorsPhoto courtesy of Politika.ru

UPDATE.

It seems that the would-be senator has changed his mind about what sinecure he would like to take.

Can’t Get There from Here

When the world is a monster, bad to swallow you whole
Kick the clay that holds the teeth in, throw your trolls out the door


One of the strangest shocks I’ve had over the past couple years was discovering an advert for this sprightly academic tome in my favorite biweekly review of books:

9781479860982_Full

In this unique volume from the World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations and the Social Science Research Council, some of the world’s greatest minds—from Nobel Prize winners to long-time activists—explore what the prolonged instability of the so-called Great Recession means for our traditional understanding of how governments can and should function. Through interviews that are sure to spark lively debate, 22 Ideas to Fix the World presents both analysis of past geopolitical events and possible solutions and predictions for the future.

[…]

Interviews with: Zygmunt Bauman, Shimshon Bichler & Jonathan Nitzan, Craig Calhoun, Ha-Joon Chang, Fred Dallmayr, Mike Davis, Bob Deacon, Kemal Dervis, Jiemian Yang, Peter J. Katzenstein, Ivan Krastev, Will Kymlicka, Manuel F. Montes, José Antonio Ocampo, Vladimir Popov, Joseph Stiglitz, Olzhas Suleimenov, Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Immanuel Wallerstein, Paul Watson, Vladimir Yakunin, Muhammad Yunus

source: NYU Press (emphasis is mine)

What brought me up short was Vladimir Yakunin’s presence on the roster of the “world’s foremost thinkers.” The only Vladimir Yakunin of whom I was aware was the Putin insider and Russian Railways head, who even back then (in 2013) had already been accused by anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny of having amassed a vast offshore business empire with members of his family.

Vladimir and Yakunin are common enough first names and surnames in Russia, so I thought that maybe the Vladimir Yakunin in question was a previously obscure philosopher or economist working in the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences or Tempe, Arizona.

What I didn’t know then was that the cumbersomely named World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations was a soft-power vehicle, vigorously headed by the one and only Vladimir Yakunin, for advancing Putinism 3.0’s new Cominternist “conservative” agenda, a wild melange of militant homophobia, “traditional Christian family values” (this from veterans of an organization previously and murderously committed to “militant atheism”), “anti-imperialism,” post-capitalism, “anti-fascism,” “anti-globalism,” anti-Americanism, anti-liberalism, a yearning for the (perpetual) “decline of the west,” etc. You name the flavor, they had it (almost).

The main thing, apparently, for the hundreds and thousands of “foremost” thinkers, pols, players, NGOists, bored middle-aged academics, IR chancers, and “youth leaders” invited by Yakunin to dialogue and confab in exotic locations like Rhodes was never to ask too hard (or at all) who was footing the bill for all this grassroots diplomacy and heavy thinking.

After I attended a Russian sponsored conference in Rhodes last year, a friend and colleague separated from me for many months believing I had fallen in with KGB oligarchs and gangsters,” wrote Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, around the same time NYU Press was rolling Yakunin’s vanity publication off the presses and Navalny was publishing his exposés. (If you think I’m kidding about the vanity business, read the editors’ acknowledgements.)

What a rare, perceptive friend Mr. Ruse had! At the time, the only other person on planet Earth, apparently, to notice that something was amiss with Yakunin’s largesse and the seating arrangements at his tea parties was Richard Bartholemew, who writes about religious affairs:

That’s quite a line-up of intellectuals. However, the key name here is not the most famous, and it has the penultimate position: Vladimir Yakunin runs Russia’s state-owned railways, and he is a part of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. He also co-founded the World Public Forum, which co-produced the book and which perhaps therefore has some bearing on why he’s among the “World’s Foremost Thinkers”.

As I’ve discussed previously, the WPF holds regular “Dialogue of Civilizations” events involving academics, activists, and religious leaders. The range of those involved is unusually broad – recent events have included input from figures ranging from Noam Chomsky, whose critical view of the place of American power in the world is doubtless congenial to Russia, through to Don Feder, an arch-conservative “family values” fulminator whose social views fit well with Yakunin’s activism on behalf of Russian Orthodoxy. WPF events have also involved Helga Zepp-LaRouche, and it is claimed that Yakunin has cited her husband Lyndon LaRouche favourably. More on all these links here and here. There’s also apparently some interest at the WPF in extra-terrestrial matters.

Another oddity I’ve noted before is that one of Yakunin’s fellow WFP co-founders is a US-based businessman who is closely involved with the neo-Pentecostal sector of the Christian Right, particularly Rick Joyner and William “Jerry” Boykin. More on that here.

* * * * *

Further shocks to my feeble mental health were to come as, intrigued by my chance discovery of the nexus between leftist grandees like Wallerstein and Russian’s head railwayman, I plunged into the weird and distinctly unwonderful world of the Yakuninshchina.

For example, when I visited the website of the WFP-affiliated Rhodes Forum in July of last year, I was greeted by the following surreal collage:

chomsky yakunin

Far be it from me to cast aspersions on Professor Chomsky’s deservedly sterling reputation. In any case, it is clear the positive associations and cultural capital the website’s designers were trying to generate for Yakunin with this juxtaposition, probably made without Chomsky’s permission. (The site seems to have been completely redesigned since then, and the offending collage has vanished.)

But what prevented Chomsky or any other of Yakunin’s many forum guests and co-authors from doing a bit of due diligence into Yakunin and his ilk, and deciding whether their progressive causes and scholarly research were well served by dialoguing or associating with him in any way?

What really beggars the imagination is how all this useful networking on the part of an authoritarian, kleptocratic regime with growing homophobic and clericalist tendencies has flown under the journalistic radar for over ten years.

* * * * *

On March 30, 2014, Yakunin popped up as the headliner and co-chair of a timely international conference in Petersburg entitled “Neo-Fascism in Europe: 70 Years Later.” As can been seen in a news report aired on local channel TV 100, Yakunin predictably inveighed against the dangers of “Ukrainian fascism,” even as his own country had tens of thousands of troops amassed along the Ukrainian border.BV5A7638

Petersburg governor Georgy Poltavchenko and Vladimir Yakunin (right) at “anti-fascist” conference in Petersburg, March 30, 2014

Liberal city councilman and journalist Boris Vishnevsky broke the curious story that one of the scheduled speakers at this “anti-fascist” conference was renowned Polish neo-Nazi Mateusz Piskorksi.

Piskorksi later helpfully turned up in Petersburg again in the autumn, this time not as an “anti-fascist” but as an “elections observer.” He was part of an international team putting its facile stamp of (pre-)approval on a farcical but successful bid to transform the “incumbent,” Putin appointee Georgy Poltavchenko, into a “popularly elected” governor, and, by the by, stack the mostly powerless municipal councils with the right sort of folk. (If, unlike ninety-nine percent of the population and the world, you’re actually interested in how it all went down, read this eyewitness account.)

On the other end, presumably, of the political spectrum, 22 Ideas to Fix the World co-editor Richard Sakwa has recently published a hilarious op-ed in The Guardian arguing that Putin may actually be planning to do an end-around on his detractors and liberalize the regime.

So, the furious networking Yakunin has been doing over the past ten years or so has not been without its dividends.

* * * * *

But the really unfunny thing is that Yakunin has a day job as head of Russian Railways. What have they been up to lately?

On New Year’s Eve, they announced they were ending service on hundreds of local routes in Russia’s regions.

Russia analyst Paul Goble explained the likely impact the cuts would have on people in rural and small-town Russia:

The importance of local and regional train service in Russia is far greater than in almost any other country, given the lack of decent roads in much of the country and the availability of critical services only in the oblast capitals.  Without train service, for example, diabetics who need insulin face enormous difficulties in getting it in a timely fashion.

Indeed, in some cases, as in Pskov oblast over the last two decades, the increasing difficulty rural residents face in getting to the capital – there the authorities earlier cut back bus service and then snow removal efforts – has sent mortality rates skyrocketing, reducing life expectancy among rural residents by a decade or more.

Now that Russian Railways is posed to cut back rail services elsewhere, a similar pattern is likely to obtain, and a Russian government which claims that it is acting on behalf of ethnic Russians and what it calls “the Russian world” in Ukraine will be harming ethnic Russians at home in the most serious and immediate ways.

Ordinary Russians, of course, didn’t need Paul Goble to help them see how their lives would be drastically altered for the worse, as The Moscow Times reported on February 4:

“I am a schoolboy in Class 11 and I need to prepare for the Unified State Exams. Most students have tutors that live in Tver,” Yury Arakcheev wrote on petition site change.org after local trains from his town to regional capital Tver north of Moscow were canceled.

“A large number of people work or study in Tver and to leave at five o’clock in the morning and returning at 10 o’clock at night is not an option, especially if a person has a family or small child,” Arakcheev said in a petition addressed to the regional governor that has now 7,700 signatures.

Cancellations of suburban trains have launched a wave of popular anger in Russia, a country where social protests are rare.

Last month, residents of a small village in Zabaikalsky Krai threatened to block Russia’s East-West rail artery, the Trans-Siberian Railroad, after suburban train services were cut, local media reported.

Other protests have taken place against the cuts in particularly-badly affected regions.

Opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, currently under house arrest, has repeatedly raised the topic in his popular blog, dubbing the cancellation of train services a “genocide of Russians.”

On Jan. 12 Navalny said in a blog entry that a Facebook post he wrote about the issue was seen by almost 1 million people, making it one of his most popular posts on the social networking site ever.

Predictably, the uproar has forced Putin to give the minister responsible for transport a televised dressing-down and demand that all local services be restored. Meanwhile, Yakunin has denied any responsibility for the mess.

* * * * *

And who knows, maybe in some sense, despite the charges of corruption and corporate malfeasance leveled by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation against Russian Railways, Yakunin isn’t strictly to blame for this business.

But what if there is a connection between all his generosity and persistence on the soft-power front and the miseries endured by Yuri Arakcheev and people like him as they try and travel between home and work and school in Russia’s regions? (I won’t even mention the possible connections between those things and allegations of Yakunin’s family’s living large outside of Russia.)

What I mean to say is that it takes a lot of chutzpah to imagine that your academic career or political/moral cause or balance sheet is so earth-shatteringly important that you can’t even be bothered to do an elementary background check on who exactly is paying your junket to sunny Rhodes or using your university press’s good name to publish his cultural-capital-generating vanity volume.

Although in the space of this blog post and with the limited means at my disposal, I can’t strictly get from here to there today, I do mean to suggest that you might have been visiting harm on people like Yuri Arakcheev by pretending none of these considerations mattered or even existed when you were getting ready to hobnob with the world’s “foremost” whomevers, who rarely have to worry about reduced public services.

At any rate, I don’t think anymore, after digging a bit into Yakunin’s high-powered glad-handing, that it is exactly an accident there is so much “confusion” in the west over recent events in Russia and Ukraine.

There are less charitable ways of putting this, but I’ll stop while I’m ahead. I really can’t get there from here yet.