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How much is the Russian Orthodox Church worth? Journalists investigate the big business at the heart of Russian Orthodoxy

20:20, 24 february 2016

Photo: Moscow Patriarchate press service / TASS / Scanpix

The Russian Orthodox Church gets by on a lot more than mere donations from its flock. It operates a business—what is in fact a giant corporation with its own expenditures and revenues. It's virtually unknown how the church spends its money, and the organization's profits, which in 2014 hit 5.6 billion rubles (about $150 million, at the time), are not taxed. In a new report, journalists Svetlana ReiterAnastasia Napalkova, and Ivan Golunov from the news agency RBC take a look at how the Russian Orthodox Church does business. Meduza summarizes the key findings of their investigation here.

The Russian Orthodox Church is a corporation. All the church's parishes are registered as separate noncommercial religious organizations, and there are about 34,500 of these parishes throughout Russia. Each parish rakes in between 5,000 and 3 million rubles ($65 and $39,300) every month, in the form of donations and profits from religious activities. Parishes then transfer part of the donations they receive (anywhere from 10 to 50 percent) to their local eparchy (the next level up in the Russian Orthodox hierarchy), which in turn sends 15 percent to the Moscow Patriarchate. In cases where a parish is unable to turn a profit, an eparchy can fire the acting Father superior.

There's no precise information about how the Russian Orthodox Church forms its budget. In the early 2000s, Archbishop Kliment said 55 percent of the church's budget relied on commercial revenues, 40 percent came from the donations of sponsors, and contributions from eparchies made up just 5 percent. Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, the former spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, says sponsors are donating less now, and transfers from eparchies could soon account for half of the church's total budget. In his conversation with RBC, Chaplin did not cite specific data.

One of the Moscow Patriarchate's main sources of income is the “Sofrino” factory. This factory produces church furniture, various household items, icons, and candles, which are sold at prices ranging from a few rubles (a few cents) to half a million rubles ($6,500). Eparchies are strongly encouraged to buy their furniture from Sofrino. (Several priests confirmed this information in conversations with RBC.) The factory supplies ecclesiastical objects to at least half of the church's parishes.

The state also funds the Russian Orthodox Church. Between 2012 and 2015, the church and its affiliates received 14 billion rubles ($183 million, by today's exchange rate) in government funding. In 2016 alone, the state has earmarked 2.6 billion rubles ($34 million) for the church. This money is being allocated in the form of federal programs tied to the development of spiritual-educational centers, as well as efforts to preserve and restore churches.

The Russian Orthodox Church's spending is a secret. There's no reliable data about how the church spends its money. It doesn't publish information about procurement contracts, it issues no reports about its expenditures, and it doesn't hire contractors, preferring to use its own resources. “There's no need to disclose the Russian Orthodox Church's expenditures, insofar as it's absolutely clear that the church spends its money on church needs,” the chairman of the Synodal Department for the Cooperation of Church and Society of the Moscow Patriarchate, Vladimir Legoida, told RBC.

The travel costs of the patriarch's recent tour of Latin America exceeded 20 million rubles ($263,000). In mid-February, Patriarch Kirill visited Cuba, where he met with the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis. Kirill also traveled to Paraguay, Chile, Brazil, and even stopped in Antarctica. Throughout Latin America, he was accompanied by an entourage of roughly 100 people. Analyzing publicly available data about the patriarch's flights, RBC estimates that the travel costs alone were more than 20 million rubles. More than half of this money (about 12 million rubles) was spent on the patriarch's trip to Antarctica (and the 30 people in his group who went with him). While in Antarctica, the patriarch held mass at the only church on the continent. He also looked at some penguins.

When it comes to commercial activities, Mother Superior Ksenia says “the church doesn't hire contractors,” relying instead on its own resources. Monasteries provide the groceries, and church workshops make the candles. A multilayered cake is divided up within the Russian Orthodox Church. “What does the church spend its money on?” she repeats, answering, “There are seminaries throughout Russia. This accounts for quite a large share of the spending.”

RBC