MOSCOW, January 21 (Marc Bennetts, RIA Novosti) – A pro-Kremlin TV channel, whose exposés of President Vladimir Putin’s critics led last year to the arrests of political activists, has aired a new documentary, this time attacking what it called the “godless” enemies of the Russian Orthodox Church.
“Anti-church campaigns are an instrument of political warfare,” intoned Boris Korchevnikov, the presenter of “I Don’t Believe: The War Against the Church,” which aired Sunday evening on the NTV channel.
The onset of street protests against Putin’s rule in December 2011 also saw a rise in public criticism of senior Orthodox Church officials over their alleged luxurious lifestyles and subservience to the Kremlin.
But Sunday’s documentary compared media and online “attacks” on the church to the persecution of Christians in Stalin-era Russia.
“They even use the same terminology as in those times,” Dmitry Smirnov, a senior Moscow priest, said in the documentary, mentioning “obscurantism” as an example. “This all has a very familiar ring to us.”
The Soviet authorities murdered 80,000 people for their faith in 1937 – the peak of Stalin-era purges – according to the Moscow Patriarchate. Some 200,000 clergymen were executed during the entire Soviet period, according to a 1995 presidential committee report.
“In a world where the arguments for abortion and same-sex marriage are becoming louder and louder, the church is facing criticism over its calls not to confuse human rights and sins,” Korchevnikov, the program’s presenter, told the viewers.
A church spokesman, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, who was featured in the documentary, praised the film afterward.
“This is a fair reflection of the mood in society,” he told RIA Novosti on Monday. “Not the virtual society, which is dominated by a small group from large cities, but real society, which loves its church.”
Some 70 percent of Russians regularly identify themselves as Orthodox Christians in opinion polls. But a survey conducted last August by the independent Levada Center pollster found that 30 percent of Orthodox Christians in Russia did not actually believe in God.
The NTV program also cited an Italian expert on the Vatican, Massimo Franco, as saying that Putin’s opponents were attacking him through the Russian Orthodox Church. Franco is not known for his expertise on Russia.
Despite years of service in the KGB, the feared security agency in the world’s first officially atheist state, Putin has projected a pious image since coming to power in 2000. He is frequently shown celebrating religious holidays in church, often in the company of Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The documentary also featured a secretly filmed conversation between “blogger Oleg Zorbin” and an unidentified person that suggested popular Russian bloggers – including Rustam Adagamov, a member of the anti-Putin opposition council who recently faced a slew of murky child-abuse accusations – were accepting payments of around $5,000 for posting damaging material about the church. Media outlets demanded fees “higher than $7,000,” Zorbin also said.
“It’s not important who is right, who is guilty,” Zorbin is shown saying. “We just make a fuss.”
Searches on Google and Yandex in both English and Russian did not turn up any blogs by or relevant references to an Oleg Zorbin
One of Russia’s most popular bloggers, Oleg Kozyrev, told RIA Novosti he had “never heard” of such a blogger. An NTV spokesperson could not be reached for comment as of Monday afternoon.
Prior to the March 2012 presidential elections, Patriarch Kirill came under fire for his televised support for Putin after he said the ex-KGB officer’s first two terms as president were a “miracle of God.” The comments triggered a high-profile protest by the feminist punk performance group Pussy Riot in Moscow’s largest cathedral, which ultimately landed two of the young women in prison camps for two years each.
The patriarch also faced criticism in 2012 over his insistence in an interview with a Russian journalist that he had never worn a luxury watch that Ukrainian media reported he had been sporting on a visit to Kiev in 2009. When eagle-eyed bloggers later discovered a photograph of the patriarch wearing the $30,000 Breguet timepiece on the church’s official website, the watch was subsequently airbrushed out. But its tell-tale refection on a varnished table remained, triggering a storm of online mockery. A spokesman for Kirill said the watch had been deleted by a “secular” employee who had made an “absurd mistake.”
Early last year, NTV aired a documentary alleging that people attending anti-government rallies were being paid “cookies and cash” by the US State Department, sparking a protest outside the channel’s Moscow studios. A criminal investigation was opened into the claims, but no charges have so far been brought. Alexei Navalny, a protest movement leader who requested the Federal Security Service (FSB) probe the claims made in the film, said last week he had received official notification that there were no grounds to bring charges of treason against demonstrators or rally organizers.
A second documentary aired by NTV last autumn alleged that Sergei Udaltsov, one of the figureheads of the anti-Kremlin protests, had conspired with an influential Georgian politician to overthrow Putin. Two of Udaltsov’s fellow activists, Leonid Razvozzhayev and Konstantin Lebedev, are in custody awaiting trial, while Udaltsov is barred from leaving Moscow. All three men face up to 10 years in jail if found guilty of the charges, which they deny.