Fighting the ‘satanic regime’ After falling out with the Russian Orthodox Church over COVID-19, a dissident priest seizes a convent in the Urals
An ongoing conflict between one of the most prominent priests in central Russia and the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church turned into an open confrontation on June 16. Schema-Hegumen Sergii not only denies the existence of COVID-19, but has also spent the entire quarantine period urging believers to visit churches and refuse vaccinations, which he claims is a front for implanting deadly microchips. The Russian Orthodox Church has announced a clerical trial against Father Sergii, while the police say his speeches could constitute “extremism.” In response, the rebellious cleric has taken over the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery outside of Yekaterinburg, overthrowing the Mother Superior and calling on Cossack guards for help.
Storm the convent
A cleric of the Yekaterinburg diocese, Schema-Hegumen Sergii (a former militiaman by the name of Nikolay Romanov) is one of Russia’s most high-profile priests. According to media reports, he wields influence as an ultra-conservative spiritual advisor to State Duma Deputy Natalia Poklonskaya and mobster Timur Sverdlovsky (a member of the so-called “thieves in law”). Before donning the cloth, Father Sergii (then known as Nikolai Romanov) served time for murder and robbery. After his release, he devoted himself to serving God and building monasteries in the Ural region, at the edge of European Russia. Sergii is also known for performing exorcisms among his parishioners.
At the end of May, Father Sergii was banned from service because of his radical opinions about the coronavirus pandemic. During his April services, Sergii claimed that the coronavirus is nonexistent and advocated “going out to the streets, not fearing the police and the National Guard, and planting potatoes.” In his opinion, Russians are “illegally imprisoned in self-isolation” and the authorities want to relegate them to “Satan’s electronic camp.” He also said that Russians will be offered “vaccines with a [micro]chip,” which “will be deadly for the masses,” claiming that this will be run by “artificial intelligence without pity or compassion.”
On June 16 (a week before church and secular courts will meet to examine administrative charges against Father Sergii and resolve his conflict with the Yekaterinburg diocese), he returned to the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery (a convent that he founded), accompanied by several supporters. Father Sergii didn’t leave: he is still there, preaching under the protection of Cossacks and the congregation, though the Russian Orthodox Church merely instructed him to “carry out a quiet, prayerful, monastic deed.”
The monastery is now under Father Sergii’s complete control. On June 17, it hosted a crowded service (parishioners did not maintain the recommended social distance of 1.5 meters, or 5 feet). Despite the fact that the diocese had deprived Father Sergii of the right to perform the sacrament, he still held a liturgy and performed an exorcism. The schema-hegumen also arranged a tour for journalists, who were admitted onto the monastery’s grounds. He showed them his room (which included portraits of Tsar Nicholas II and Joseph Stalin, among religious icons) and recounted claims that an FSB officer was “cured of stage-three cancer” at the monastery.
A day earlier, on June 16, the priest removed the convent’s abbess: Mother Superior Varvara left the monastery along with her sisters. Meanwhile, the monastery’s designated archpriest, the newly appointed Father Georgy who was meant to replace Father Sergii, has been denied access to the convent. A group of Cossacks (including some who fought in eastern Ukraine) is now guarding the premises. At Father Sergii’s behest, these men are on duty at the monastery around-the-clock. A Znak.com correspondent reported that the guards are dressed in identical black t-shirts and claim to be “parishioners” or monastic recruits at the nunnery. Olympic hockey player Pavel Datsyuk was among those who came to support Father Sergii.
On June 17, federal agents and police officers arrived at the monastery, but a formal inspection found no violations. Father Sergii had previously stated that the only way to drive him out would be to take the convent by force. “I have a coffin, I have a cross, I have nails, and I await your decision,” he said in a video message shared on June 13, recorded against a backdrop of that included portraits of Patriarch Alexy II and Stalin (the priest says his adoration of the latter is because he “raised the country”).
Hegumen Veniamin, the secretary of the Diocesan Council, warned the local news site The Daily Storm that Schema-Hegumen Sergii could push his supporters towards self-immolation and noted that many children live and go to school at the convent. Meanwhile, Father Sergii told journalists that everything is “peaceful and well in his soul.”
Father Sergii’s falling out with the Russian Orthodox Church
In late May, journalists learned that Father Sergii had been stripped of his right to wear a pectoral cross and give the sacrament. A diocesan court would consider his case. This response from the Metropolitan of Yekaterinburg and Verkhotursky Kirill came after a series of sermons by Sergii after Patriarch Kirill urged Russian Orthodox Christians to stay home from church (even during Easter). Father Sergii responded by comparing the COVID-19 epidemic to the Soviet Union’s persecution of the church.
In a video recording of one of his speeches (which has since been deleted), the priest calls the pandemic a myth and urges people to disobey the church leadership and the authorities. “Whoever threatens the closing of churches — may he and all his family be damned,” Sergii said. At that moment, outbreaks of the coronavirus had already been detected at several churches and monasteries across the country.
The Yekaterinburg diocese condemned the cleric and banned him from preaching. Sergii then violated the ban. “Serve as before, without disinfection and wiping. How can Christ, the conqueror of death, transmit death?” the Schema-Hegumen asked in a subsequent video. In this very same speech, he equated a potential vaccine with “[micro]chipping” and advised against “admiring the diabolical love of the country’s leadership, doctors, and so on.” In response to these calls, the priest was banned from service and summoned to diocesan court.
Father Sergii’s next diocesan court hearing is scheduled for June 26. Separate legal proceedings will begin three days earlier. Sergii is charged with knowingly disseminating false information. After reviewing the cleric’s speech, the Sverdlovsk region’s Center for Combating Extremism (a branch of the Interior Ministry often referred to as “Center E”) found that his remarks contain incitements to hatred.
Flouting these cases, Sergii released another video message in June, stating that Vladimir Putin has “signed all of the documents concerning personal identification, biometrics, and voluntary consent to the processing of personal data.” “Be careful, everything is headed towards a satanic regime,” the priest added, urging listeners to complain to the FSB and state prosecutors about the introduction of the digital identification (the video was later deleted from YouTube).
The Yekaterinburg diocese is asking the public “to pray for Schema-Hegumen Sergii to come to [his] senses.” As previously mentioned, the diocese has already appointed a new priest for the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery: Archpriest Georgy (Viktorov).
Who supports this guy?
Few priests in Russia attract as much media attention as Schema-Hegumen Sergii. He is also known as one of the leaders of the so-called “Tsarebozhniki” — a group of people who are convinced of the sacred role of the Russian Empire’s last Tsar, Nicholas II, who the Bolsheviks murdered in Yekaterinburg in 1918. “Gradually, a sect began to form around him, built on the cult of a charismatic leader,” says Roman Silantyev, the head of the “World Russian People’s Council” human rights group.
A source close to Yekaterinburg’s Metropolitan Kirill told the local publication URA that tensions in the archdiocese escalated after last summer’s controversy surrounding the construction of St. Catherine’s Cathedral. The city of Yekaterinburg saw protests throughout the summer of 2019, as locals rallied against the constitution of the new church. As a result, the Russian Orthodox Church and the project’s investors had to abandon their plans.
Schema-Hegumen Sergii’s circle was allegedly unhappy about how quickly the Russian Orthodox Church abandoned the cathedral’s construction. “Afterwards, a group of radical believers had an excuse to talk about the Church’s conciliatory position and to call for a more stringent upholding of Orthodox values and the place of religion in the lives of Russian people,” the source told URA. As a result, Sergii’s following only grew.
A lucrative monastery
The Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery is located about 10 kilometers (6 miles) outside Yekaterinburg. Father Sergii is its founder. “Everything that stands there in the forest — the huge monastery — Sergii built all of it with his parishioners. And I don’t know how he did it. [It was] probably difficult,” says State Duma Deputy Natalia Poklonskaya. Father Sergii himself also says that the monastery was built “from nothing, in the forest.”
Today, the monastery is practically autonomous, says Znak.com. In addition to having its own agricultural complex and garden, the convent’s premises are home to workshops, a cemetery, a hospice, a school, and a cafeteria.
The economy that developed at the monastery might be compared to the Vatican in terms of independence and power. “Moreover, as recent events have shown, the [Russian Orthodox Church] does not control this microstate, first after God is Father Sergii, who is fighting with the ‘Satanic authorities’ and the ‘[Judaic] yoke,’” says Ilya Shumanov of Transparency International.
All of these years, Father Sergii has been actively developing the monastery’s infrastructure in the Sverdlovsk region. In total, the schema-hegumen controls three large Orthodox monasteries with a combined area of more than 100 hectares (about 250 acres) of property, Znak.com reports. The economy under his control includes not only the churches, but also housing, agricultural facilities, and industrial structures.
That said, the rights to the land plots used by the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery “belong to the Yekaterinburg diocese,” its press secretary, Angela Tambova, told Znak.com.
Translation by Eilish Hart