The Russian Orthodox Church has suffered a major blow to its public image because of disclosures, made in a series of articles in the Russian press, about the involvement of the church's hierarchy in lucrative business operations, including the import of tobacco and alcohol.
Since the fall of Communism the church has become involved in various businesses to meet the costs of its own reconstruction and development. Some church ventures--like the Danilovski Hotel in Moscow, and the Sofrino factory outside Moscow, which produces candles, icons, vestments, and jewelry--are well known to the public. Another famous church enterprise is the production of Russia's most popular bottled water, Holy Springs, from Kostroma on the upper Volga. Every bottle carries the local bishop's official seal.
Another major church-linked company is the oil-exporter MES, 40 percent of which is owned by the church's Moscow Patriarchate, though this is not widely known. Last year alone, the company exported 6 to 8 percent of Russia's total exports. According to the Moscow Times newspaper, MES's 1996 turnover is expected to total US $2 billion.
But other business activities carried out by the Russian Orthodox Church have been the cause of recent press attacks. The Moskovskiye novosti weekly newspaper has alleged that the church and, more precisely, its Department of External Church Relations, led by one of the church's most prominent officials, Metropolitan Kirill, has been importing tobacco on a massive scale. Since 1994, when the government granted the Moscow Patriarchate the right to import thousands of tons of tobacco--duty free--as humanitarian aid, 10,000 tons of cigarettes have been imported by the church. According to estimates, that works out at about 8 billion cigarettes--10 percent of Russia's total tobacco imports. Because they were imported free of duty, the government has missed out on US $40 million in tax.
Another newspaper, Novaya gazeta, has claimed that the Sofrino icon and vestment factory has been importing millions of bottles of wine, also duty-free. The bottles have been officially listed as church wine imported as humanitarian aid. The deputy chief of the Russian government's State Customs Committee has been sacked for violating the law in connection with the Sofrino wine deal, and a criminal investigation is under way involving Sofrino's director, Yevgeni Parkhayev.
Patriarch Alexei II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has distanced himself from the controversy. In September he wrote to the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, requesting that the State Customs Committee stop clearing tobacco and alcohol products addressed to the Moscow Patriarchate as humanitarian aid. However, President Boris Yeltsin had already signed a decree removing tobacco and alcohol from the list of goods eligible for acceptance as humanitarian aid. In response to the allegations in the press, the churc's Department of External Church Relations issued a statement on 11 October denying it had ever been involved in "commercial activities involving alcohol or tobacco products or any excise goods." However, the statement admitted that some humanitarian aid was not intended for direct use by church organizations, but to be sold for profit. "In the latter case, with the government's approval, these items have gone to secular trade organizations . . . . Part of the revenues received has gone into the general church budget, and part into special programs for restoring churches and monasteries, restoration of church life as a whole, and for charitable activities."
The revelations were a complete surprise to most of the rank-and-file employees of the Moscow Patriarchate interviewed by the Russian press. A source in the Department of External Church Relations told this author that only a very small circle of people were aware of the cigarette and wine deals. The controversy has focused attention on Metropolitan Kirill who has a high profile at home and also internationally as an important participant in the ecumenical movement. Some observers predicted that because of the press coverage of the issue, Metropolitan Kirill would be forced to resign and the Department of External Church Relations would be dissolved. This would have delighted those within the church who are opposed to ecumenism. However, though it seems there are some tensions between Patriarch Alexei and Metropolitan Kirill, the latter's resignation seems unlikely. Many within the church are now saying that the main lesson from the tobacco scandal is the need for the church's finances and operations to be open and accountable. According to the Russian press, Metropolitan Kirill has refused to present a report to the State Commission on Humanitarian Aid about the issue.
Andrei Zolotov is a reporter with Ecumenical News International (ENI). Excerpt reprinted from the ENI Bulletin, no. 25 (13 December 1996), 6-7, with permission of ENI.
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© 1997 Institute for East-West Christian Studies