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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

The Russian Orthodox Church Has A Kremlin Spy Network — And Now It's Spreading Abroad

The Russian Orthodox Church has long supported Russia’s ongoing war effort in Ukraine. Now, clergy members in other countries are suspected of collaborating with and recruiting for Russian security forces.

Photo of Russian soldiers during mass at an Orthodox church in Moscow.

Russian soldiers during mass at an Orthodox church in Moscow.

Wiktoria Bielaszyn

WARSAW — Several countries have accused members of the Russian Orthodox clergy of collaborating with Russian security services, pushing Kremlin policy inside the church and even recruiting spies from within.

On Sept. 21, Bulgaria deported Russian Archimandrite Vassian, guardian of the Orthodox parish in Sofia, along with two Belarusian priests. In a press release, the Bulgarian national security agency says that clergy were deported because they posed a threat to national security. "The measures were taken due to their actions against the security and interests of the Republic of Bulgaria," Bulgarian authorities wrote in a statement, according to Radio Svoboda.

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These reports were also confirmed by Russia's ambassador to Bulgaria, Eleonora Mitrofanova, who told Russian state news agency TASS that the priests must leave Bulgaria within 24 hours. “After being declared persona non grata, Wassian and the other two clerics were taken home under police supervision to pack up their belongings. Then they will be taken to the border with Serbia" she said.

Pushing the Kremlin's agenda abroad

The Russian ambassador called the deportation "brutal and blatant." In a statement, the Russian mission in Bulgaria wrote: "It is obvious that the current Bulgarian leaders have set themselves the task of destroying only socio-political and cultural-humanitarian ties between our countries, but also the severance of relations between sister Orthodox Churches and the turning of the Russian and Bulgarian nations against each other."

Bulgaria is not the only country accusing Archimandrite Wassian, who in secular life is known as Nikolai Zmeev, of working for Russian security services.

The priest may have been cooperating with the Russian services for years.

Radio Svoboda has reported that he was among three Russian diplomats recognized as persona non grata by North Macedonia. According to Macedonian and Bulgarian media, Zmeev had been "following Moscow's orders to cause a split in the Macedonian Church" for years.

Photo of Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill

File photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill

Wikimedia Commons

From the church to the FSB, GRU and the intelligence service

Even stronger charges were brought in the U.S. against another Russian Orthodox priest, Dmitry Petrovsky. After analyzing his activities as part of his work in the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, the FBI accused him of recruiting agents among priests and parishioners of Orthodox churches in the U.S. for the Russian services.

Citing FBI sources, Russian investigative journalists Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan described Petrovsky's activities on the independent website Agentura. Their findings show that the priest may have been cooperating with the Russian services for years, under the guidance of Patriarch Kirill, who has long been loyal to the Kremlin and openly supports the war in Ukraine.

In May 2021, FBI officers found files related to Russian intelligence on Petrovsky's computer. The documents included files on prominent Orthodox priests in the U.S., as well as detailed biographies of their family members. According to FBI agents, this data was intended to help Pietrowski to blackmail other members of the Orthodox clergy.

Kirill tidying up

According to Soldatov and Borogan, the documents found on Petrovsky's computer also contained a plan for cooperation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian security services.

The "areas of cooperation" mentioned included, among others, "the involvement of clergy in operational activities." Investigative journalists, citing informants from the Russian Orthodox Church, determined that these documents were prepared shortly after Kirill was appointed patriarch in 2009. The FBI shares the same opinion.

However, the American authorities have not yet detained Petrovsky, who appears to be in Russia.

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