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Schema-Hegumen Sergii at the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery. June 17, 2020

The exorcist How a confessed murderer became one of Russia’s most famous priests, took over a convent, and started cursing the Church and the state

Source: Meduza
Schema-Hegumen Sergii at the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery. June 17, 2020
Schema-Hegumen Sergii at the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery. June 17, 2020
Donat Sorokin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Russian public life has its share of COVID dissidents, skeptics, and deniers, but Schema-Hegumen Sergii is a story of his own. The 65-year-old Russian Orthodox priest, whose title indicates a commitment to especially advanced asceticism and sacred rites, doesn’t just deny the existence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sergii has harshly criticized both secular and Church officials who have closed down cathedrals to prevent the spread of the disease. In the last two months, Sergii has become a symbol of ultraconservative resistance to the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church alike. After targeting anti-pandemic efforts in the clergy, he has called on voters to boycott the constitutional plebiscite that allowed Vladimir Putin to “zero out” his term count. Father Sergii has been barred from preaching since late May, but that didn’t stop him from seizing control of a convent he founded and threatening to defend it against the Russian police. Now, the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery is awaiting its fate with nuns, Cossacks, pilgrims, and children still inside. Meanwhile, a Church court ruled on July 3 that Sergii should be stripped of his clerical rank. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev traveled to Sergii’s hideout to follow his story and hear from his flock.

The convent with the silver Mercedes

At the turn in to the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery, a boom gate stands at the ready, raised and lowered by a security guard in a small booth amid heavy auto traffic. I was able to pass by this first guard post fairly easily: the gate lifted, allowing a silver Mercedes to exit, and the guard didn’t take much interest in the cars that went in the other way. Before them, the road opened to reveal a full view of the convent and the iron fence surrounding it.

When I saw that view, it contained a dark emerald military trailer. A staid, bearded man wearing rosary beads called out and asked where I was going. When he heard my response, he asked me to wait. Less than a minute later, a rusted Lada 110 hit the brakes outside the fence, and a young man in a camouflage uniform emerged. “We didn’t ask you to come here. Leave!” he said sharply.

Since May 2020, when the Sredneuralsk Monastary became a home base for Schema-Hegumen Sergii’s standoff against the Russian Orthodox Church, the priest has offered to show the cloister to anyone who asks to see it as proof that life inside remains as calm and peaceful as ever. In mid-June, Sergii even showed local journalists his cell, complete with a coffin standing against the wall and a portrait of Joseph Stalin.

On June 25, however, when I arrived outside the monastery fence, its guards were already denying that any such invitation had ever existed. “Nobody’s going to do any interviews here! Do you want to look around as a believer? This is just a normal monastery! Why bother the nuns? Nobody asked you to come here!” the man in camouflage repeated. Soon, backup arrived in the form of the same silver Mercedes that had left the convent earlier. It housed a tall, thin young man wearing a tracksuit. “Goodbye,” he told me, tilting his head forward politely.

Cars periodically crossed the lot in front of the monastery gates. Old Zhiguli sedans and ATVs bearing camouflaged men passed by, followed by a sturdy Toyota pickup truck with a nun behind the wheel. Inside the convent, life continued on, even though Sergii and his supporters no longer wanted to show it to the outside world. The day after my first attempt, the interrogations had spread to the first guard post, and the monastery’s impromptu militia had started denying entry both to journalists and to religious pilgrims. Then, on June 27, the two men I met and their fellow guards attacked a film crew led by media figure Ksenia Sobchak. Her film director, former Meduza employee Sergey Yerzhenkov, left the site with a broken arm.

Film director Sergey Yerzhenkov after he was attacked by security guards at the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery.

Schema-Hegumen Sergii’s standoff with the Church and the Russian government began in the spring of 2020, when he filmed a video cursing every official who closed Orthodox cathedrals to visitors. “Our spiritual leaders, along with the harbingers of the Antichrist [i.e. government officials], are closing cathedrals because of a pseudopandemic. To cover up their own faintheartedness and cowardice, they have proposed that we converse with God online. […] My proposal to those senile people, those people with their senile pandemic, their spiritual leprosy, the people who offer Russians only self-isolation, forgetting God, banning them from going to church, [I suggest] exiling them either to Birobidzhan or to the island of Martinique or to the island of Spinalonga, whichever they choose. I will venture to assure you that as soon as this happens, this nonexistent coronavirus epidemic in Russia will end. Whoever interferes to close the cathedrals, may he and all his breed be cursed!” Sergii said during an April 25 sermon that was posted on YouTube. The video has since been deleted after Russian officials accused Sergii of propagating hate speech.

Sergii’s sermon didn’t go so far as to name names, but it was clear who he was talking about. The schema-hegumen had just cursed the country’s highest spiritual and secular leaders, but his punishment was mild: he was forbidden from preaching but not from performing any other part of his job.

Still, Sergii kept speaking out against the government. On May 27, he was barred from all religious service. Not only did he continue to preach and conduct services anyway; he seized control of the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery, which he had founded in the early aughts. Soon, Cossacks and Donbas war veterans started appearing at the entrance to the convent as impromptu guards. The following day, the convent’s hegumen, Varvara, left the premises, and Sergii’s improvised security force barred his replacement, Father Georgy, from entering the area.

Now, the disgraced priest has faced a Church court ruling depriving him of his religious title. Even before this case, the Court of the Yekaterinburg Eparchy had attempted to try Sergii twice. The first time, the priest left in the middle of his hearing, and the second time, he didn’t show up. He ignored his third summons on July 3 as well, but that didn’t prevent the court from issuing its verdict. In the meantime, Sergii has continued to preach, now calling the Russian Orthodox Church “Russia’s greatest enemy.” He has called on Russians to report the federal executive cabinet and Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin to the FSB, arguing that the officials are creating an “electronic concentration camp.”

In one of his most recent sermons, Sergii called on his supporters to boycott Russia’s constitutional plebiscite with his characteristic anti-Semitic flair. “Chabadniks and Chassidis are in control of Russia. Putin and the people around him are a front. Through these amendments to the Constitution, through our voluntary attendance at the polls, a slaveowning government will be legalized with or without our consent. In other words, we are voluntarily legalizing the reign of the future Antichrist and his servants. I call on all of Russia’s peoples: do not go to the polls!” Sergii read from a piece of paper in another video that has since been deleted.

“How could anyone stay away?”

Not long ago, Father Sergii was considered one of the most highly respected clergymen in the Urals. He was also popular among religiously-minded members of the Moscow elite, and the parking lot outside his monastery was often full of pilgrims’ cars. For simpler folk, there was a free shuttle bus that ran from North Yekaterinburg Station to the monastery four times a day. “The location of the monastery is very convenient — it’s right on the road to Serov, to Verkhoturye [where there are two well-known 17th-century monasteries]. There’s a cross right on the roadside, plus the Father’s famous! How could anyone stay away?” Raisa Ilyina told me. Ilyina, a journalist who writes regularly for local Orthodox publications in Yekaterinburg, has studied the rise of Sergii’s popularity.

A Yekaterinburg resident named Alexey, who works for a local construction firm, told me that it was the schema-hegumen’s reputation that drew him to Sergii’s monastery. “He’s a direct kind of person. He gets to the core of things and tells it like it is. A lot of clergy don’t have that. They’re all orderly all the time — calm and quiet. I would even want him to be my spiritual advisor, but people honestly told me I wouldn’t cut it. He only does things according to the monastic charter, and people who live in the outside world need a monk who serves in the outside world,” Alexey recalled.

Even though he ended up choosing a different spiritual advisor, Alexey continued visiting Sergii’s monastery. “It’s all done right. First you go to services, then to the refectory, and then you have a heart-to-heart with Father Sergii. I don’t know why they’ve started persecuting him now. He’s always spoken out like that. He’s prophesied a holy war, for example. He told me, ‘You’re going to be a warrior, and I’ll protect you with my prayers.’”

As evidence of the schema-hegumen’s powers, Alexey also relayed the story of one of his friends: “He gave his son a motorcycle, and then his son died in a crash on that motorcycle. Do you understand how he felt? His life started going downhill, he started drinking, his wife left him. We took him and drove him to the Father’s monastery. He lived there for a few months, and everything got back on track. My friend moved back home to his mother. He still lives there, and everything’s okay.”

Alexey believes the authorities are attacking Sergii “for telling the truth.” Still, he has his own doubts about the schema-hegumen. “He supports Stalin, says good things about him. But hang on a second — who was in power when they blew up the Cathedral of Christ the Savior? Stalin! That’s all clear to me,” he shrugged, then added, “I only have good things to say about Father Sergii!”

Oksana Ivanova, an Orthodox activist from Yekaterinburg, thinks Sergii’s followers see him as “the image of a true spiritual person, someone who communicates directly with God and can do something [with that connection].” She said, “Somebody I know — a really wealthy guy — got cancer. He tried to fight it in Israel, but in the end, he decided to go to Father Sergii to die.” Many members of Sergii’s community really are looking for some form of practical help — they hope he can heal their illnesses or advise them on how to move through life. The father’s reputation for this kind of spiritual prowess comes in part from the exorcism rituals he regularly conducts. “Maybe the first thing I heard [about him] was that he exorcises demons — collective exorcisms,” the journalist Ilyina said.

She’s personally skeptical about the rituals and calls Sergii “an actor”: “He doesn’t have those powers. It’s a staged show that uses musical variations in the voice. People concentrate on him as a figure, on the sound of his voice, and they fall into a meditative trance.”

Video recordings of the exorcism rituals show that Sergii interprets what entranced pilgrims say with a fair amount of license. For example, in one video, he asks a 13-year-old girl when the “spirit” entered her, and she says, “Five years.” “It came in when she was five years old — she was given an iPad at age five!” Sergii responds. “When she was five, she saw her fill of everything that’s out there — horror movies, perverted movies!”

An exorcism ritual led by Schema-Hegumen Sergii.
RIA Novy Den’

A high-ranking clergyman within the Yekaterinburg Eparchy who asked to remain anonymous also expressed skepticism about Sergii’s otchitki, or exorcism rituals. “Before we talk about Father Sergii exorcising demons, we’d have to find somebody who was really possessed by a demon and whose demon was exorcized as a result of these rituals. Without that, otchitki are just a staged show — and an unacceptable one, too, because the Church does not tolerate lies,” the anonymous priest argued.

According to the Orthodox journalist Ilyina, most of Sergii’s flock is composed of women of various ages — “girls, young ladies, aunties, and grannies” — who are drawn in by his personal image. “I spent the night in the monastery once,” Ilyina told me. “In the refectory, there were bunk beds set up for the pilgrims. I saw a woman lying there, pressing a photo of Father Sergii to herself, and praying. I started asking her who she was praying to. She said, ‘I’m talking to the batyushka [the father].’”

My own observations in the area surrounding Sergii’s monastery and my interviews with Yekaterinburg residents led me to believe there’s a fair number of men among Sergii’s followers, too. They, too, are of various ages. “He knows how to approach guys, especially that average businessman type. ‘What do you have? Let’s talk about life, and you donate. ‘ He knows how to talk, where to put pressure,” said one such businessman who asked to remain anonymous because “Sergii has all kinds of dangerous people around him.”

The best-known members of Sergii’s entourage are also men: the ice hockey player Pavel Datsyuk and the actor and sketch comic Dmitry Sokolov. “A lot of businessmen and even very influential people come from criminal or quasi-criminal circles. They’ve gradually climbed the social ladder. Father Sergii has a kind of resonance with that path. They’ve been washed out in the secular world, and he’s reached something like sainthood in their eyes by entering the clergy. They understand [his background],” said local activist Oksana Ivanova.

Both Ivanova and Raisa Ilyina believe Father Sergii should never have been able to become a priest because he was convicted for murder. “He has blood on his hands,” both women said. “The canon is strict on this question — a bloodless victim [one of the Church’s sacraments] can’t be tied to blood. A clergymember has to be ritually clean. He’s the only one like that out of the 400 fathers in the eparchy. People [like Father Sergii] can take on many different roles in the Church. They can be influential laypeople, they can be monks, but they can’t become priests. He’s an uncanonical priest,” Ivanova declared.

Sergii and the children

In 1985, when Investigator Nikolai Romanov of the Moscow suburb Pushkino was sentenced to 13 years for murder and armed robbery, he was sent to Penal Colony 13, a prison designated specifically for law enforcement officers. It was there, behind bars in Nizhny Tagil, that he began making his name as an Orthodox activist. Among other projects, he helped initiate the construction of a local cathedral. Romanov went free in 1997 in a different country from the one that imprisoned him. Now, Father Sergii doesn’t hide his past. He even released a video in which he explains why he was allowed to become a priest despite his criminal record, a decision he claims was the will of Patriarch Alexy II himself.

Raisa Ilyina, the Orthodox journalist, doubts that version of events. “After all, when it’s Sergii talking, it often isn’t clear whether he saw somebody in reality or whether he had some kind of vision,” she said. Ilyina sees a more practical explanation for Sergii’s entry into the priesthood despite established Orthodox canon. “Back then [i.e. immediately after the fall of the USSR], they started opening up cathedrals, and they needed people in all the ranks. So he came in handy — he could stand in the Cathedral of Ioann the Forerunner and be the picture of a lamb of God.” Whether Ilyina correctly guessed at his logic or not, Archiepiscope Vikenty inducted Nikolai Romanov into the priesthood.

Soon enough, the newly ordained Father Sergii took over the top job at the Monastery of Holy Royal Sufferers in Ganina Yama. The monastery is said to be located at the spot where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were buried following their assassination during the Russian Revolution. Though archeologists confirmed in the 1990s that the family’s remains actually lie in a different town about three miles away, thousands of pilgrims continue to flock to Ganina Yama. For Sergii, leading the monastery there was a high-status job: top Russian Orthodox priests from abroad, who already considered the last tsar and his family to be saints, would often travel there. So would high-ranking clergymembers within the Church at home as well as wealthy entrepreneurs and government bureaucrats. Sergii’s supporters believe he was the first priest to lead the Monastery of Holy Royal Sufferers, though Oksana Ivanova argues that another hegumen, Donat, actually preceded him in the post.

Regardless, people started noticing the monastery’s new leader, with his hands-on approach and his often-harsh choice of words. It was in Ganina Yama that the priest’s stormy temper began to manifest: at one point, he even ordered the monastery’s bell tower to be destroyed. Some say he saw the devil’s number appear on the tower; others recall that he thought its architecture looked “Catholic.” The bell tower incident and others like it irritated one of the monastery’s donors, Ural Mountain Metal Company (UGMK) owner Andrey Kozitsyn, who ultimately joined the effort to remove Sergii from his position.

According to Raisa Ilyina, Father Sergii also told pilgrims at Ganina Yama to destroy their passports, which, like the bell tower, he thought were imprinted with three sixes. She said the priest asked pilgrims to donate their property to the monastery as well. These practices continued at the new Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery, which Sergii was appointed to build and lead when it was established in 2005. Hegumen Varvara Krygina, who holds the equivalent of a psychology PhD from Magnitogorsk University, then took the leading role at the convent.

Pilgrims kept coming to Father Sergii, and his monastery soon took on yet another role: it began taking in children and adolescents who had been orphaned or estranged from their parents. Father Sergii and the monastery’s other representatives have made no effort to hide the presence of minors under their care. “Kids started disappearing—adolescent girls, typically—and they started popping up in the monastery and the hermitages,” Ilyina said.

The journalist went on to describe how corporal punishment was used against the children housed within the monastery. A former member of Sergii’s flock who traveled with Ksenia Sobchak’s camera crew also said the children were beaten. “They feed the children and talk to them, not in the way a teacher would order them around, and the kids liked that. But if you close yourself off too much, they just beat you. I talked to a monk who served that function. Later, when he was working at the Verkhoturye Monastery, he straight-up confessed to it: ‘Yes, I beat them!’” Ilyina recalled angrily.

High-profile stories about the monastery’s young charges didn’t take long to appear in the local news. At one point, the children took part in a territorial conflict between the monastery and a farmer named Sergey Krekov — some of the monastery’s farms had extended onto his land. “The kids tried to trash our house. They dragged our stuff away, yelled insults at me — though it’s not clear what they’re doing in the monastery at the height of the school year, harassing people instead of learning,” said Dania Suleimanova, Krekov’s wife.

A hegumen for respectable gentlemen

Despite his unusual politics and the scandals that regularly arose under Sergii’s watch, he continued his work thanks to local entrepreneurs who supported him and thanks to the Archiepiscope Vikenty, who shared his conservative views.

When Vikenty was transferred to the Tashkent Eparchy in Uzbekistan, things changed somewhat. Metropolitan Kirill, who had previously lived in Yaroslavl, moved in to lead Yekaterinburg’s churches in 2011. “He’s a more secular person, pretty educated, and what was happening [in the monastery] wasn’t to his liking at all,” said an employee of the presidential plenipotentiary office in the Urals who watched the transition to Kirill’s leadership unfold.

A source inside the Yekaterinburg Eparchy said Sergii felt he would have a hard time coexisting with his new boss, so he followed Vikenty to Tashkent. Even there, “something didn’t work out,” the source said, though I was unable to confirm this episode in Sergii’s story. Journalists have found the schema-hegumen’s name in the Tashkent Eparchy’s clergy lists, but the eparchy has officially said Sergii was never a part of the Orthodox Church’s staff in Uzbekistan.

“Here [in Yekaterinburg], Sergii asked to be outside the eparchy’s jurisdiction — he could serve, but he wasn’t really subordinate to Kirill, so he felt free in that sense,” Meduza’s source in the eparchy continued.

Nikolai Mitrokhin, a sociologist of religion working for the University of Bremen’s Research Centre for East European Studies, called Father Sergii a “typical product of the Yekaterinburg Eparchy.” The eparchy as a whole, Mitrokhin said, “was built on crooked money and money from major corporations. There are a lot of different actors here, and they clash amongst themselves.” One important aspect of the eparchy, he explained, is “the cult of the royal family.” The sociologist said he wouldn’t call those who worship Nicholas II a sect. “That’s an offensive label,” he explained. “And besides, sects try to distinguish themselves into something independent. Cultism, though, is a valid description here. It’s a fundamentalist part of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the fundamentalists are different from the conservatives in that they’re revolutionaries. The conservatives want to keep everything the way it is, but the fundamentalists appeal to the past to try to put in place something new,” Mitrokhin said.

When asked to summarize the views of this reactionary group, the religious activist Ivanova said curtly that they believe “the redemptive sacrifice of Christ is insufficient, and Nicholas II and his family helped with their sacrifice.” By way of analysis, she added, “the idea of national repentance is alive and well in the Russian people — the idea that if we repent, we can start having a decent quality of life.” The tsarebozhniki, as they are called, believe Nicholas II and his family were the “second redeemers of the Russian people” after Christ, affirmed Andrey Zainurov, a senior lecturer at the Yekaterinburg Eparchy’s Missionary Institute.

Father Sergii himself doesn’t talk much about Nicholas II and his family. Still, the Sredneuralsk Monastery houses a bust of the last Russian emperor, and multiple portraits of him hang in Sergii’s cell. More importantly, nationwide fame came to the local priest alongside one of the assassinated royal family’s best-known followers — Natalia Poklonskaya, who was appointed Prosecutor of Crimea following Russia’s 2014 annexation. Poklonskaya was a fervent opponent, on religious grounds, of the 2017 film Matilda, which depicted the affair between the future Tsar Nicholas II and the ballerina Matilda Kseshinskaya. The rising political star began visiting Sergii’s monastery, and the priest was even invited to the annexed peninsula to conduct a prayer vigil. Poklonskaya and Sergey Aksyonov, the Russian-appointed leader of Crimea, were both present.

In 2016, Poklonskaya carried an icon depicting Nicholas II during an Immortal Regiment march, where participants typically carry photographs of relatives who fought in the Second World War. Her 2017 protests against Matilda drew further fame in the Russian media as well as scorn from the political opposition. In Yekaterinburg, an Orthodox activist crashed an SUV into a local movie theater that had been planning to show the film. Poklonskaya subsequently denied any relationship with the tsarebozhniki, and she now serves in Russia’s State Duma.

Natalia Poklonskaya stands beside Schema-Hegumen Sergii at the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery. August 20, 2019
Tsar’s Cross Movement / YouTube

By the Church’s standards, though, Sergii’s views “don’t stand out all that much,” the sociologist Mitrokhin said. “It’s a kind of underground Orthodoxy that’s still especially widespread in the Donbas and in Russia’s breadbasket regions: ‘Jews control the world, they’re controlled by the Antichrist, and the Moscow Patriarchate has sold itself out to them.’”

Ivanova, who supports the Yekaterinburg Eparchy’s official political stances, is skeptical about Sergii’s most recent attempts to unite this ideology with his beliefs about COVID-19. “Our eparchy has handled the coronavirus in an exemplary way — nobody’s stopped anyone from having services, and the priests are praying as they see fit. We had freedom, and every adult could decide for themselves how they wanted to act. So who is he speaking for, exactly? What bans or obstacles has he faced?” she asked.

A source close to the Yekaterinburg Eparchy said that few of the local Church’s calmer, more rational members are fans of Father Sergii’s. Still, he has his own loyal flock, and the Church’s sanctions against Sergii himself have done little to change his following. Even after he was barred from preaching, worshippers kept attending his services. Hockey player Pavel Datsyuk and comedian Dmitry Sokolov didn’t move away from their spiritual advisor either — both stayed inside the Sredneuralsk Monastery even after Sergii “conquered” it. An acquaintance of Sokolov’s expressed surprise at the actor’s decision to stick around. “Dima [i.e. Dmitry] is no radical — he’s the kind of person who’s very cautious about everything, especially when it comes to protests and politics,” the acquaintance said, shrugging his shoulders.

Alexey, the construction worker who supports Father Sergii, was angered by the narrative that the priest “took over” the convent. “What does that even mean? He built it, and people gave him money to build it and have services!” Alexey wasn’t swayed by the fact that Hegumen Varvara and her nuns have left the monastery — for him, the most important thing is that there’s a cathedral where Father Sergii is running services.

Though he requested anonymity, one high-ranking Yekaterinburg politician told Meduza that money problems may be behind the breakdown in Sergii’s relationship with eparchy leaders. “To be honest, the eparchy isn’t the wealthiest, and so much money was going into a single institution whose leader clearly didn’t want to share,” the politician said. He thinks the only move left for Sergii was to turn up the heat: “He’s got connections — otherwise, he wouldn’t act like this!” the politician explained that Sergii’s network includes “high-ranking Moscow security officials.”

A source in Yekaterinburg’s legislature said the schema-hegumen’s spiritual charges include Sverdlovsk Region Deputy Governor Sergey Bidonko and regional All-Russia People’s Front party leader Zhanna Ryabtseva. Bidonko has publicly acknowledged that he “talks to” Sergii, both in visits to the monastery and when the priest visits him. The deputy governor denied, however, that Sergii is his formal spiritual advisor. Ryabtseva, meanwhile, has lauded the construction of “the largest Orthodox cathedral in the world” on the Sredneuralsk Monastery’s territory, and journalists wrote in early 2020 that she is a member of Sergii’s flock.

Raisa Ilyina doesn’t believe Father Sergii is as protected as these powerful connections would make him seem: “[Whenever some] bureaucrat caves in to the talk and the pressure, they come in, someone takes their picture, and if they say something good, it gets recorded, and then you get all these myths about that person’s support [for Sergii],” she said.

A cult of personality

Yekaterinburg City Duma member Konstantin Kiselyov, who is in the Yabloko opposition party, doesn’t think the schema-hegumen is a major figure either, even on the regional level. “He’s an inflammatory personality who has sources of financial support,” Kiselyov said. “Sergii is charismatic enough, but his charisma is on the level of a high-ranking organized criminal.” The local legislator pointed out that the priest’s most recent speeches have been discussions of government policy, not Church practices or theology.

“He’s moving into politics, or maybe he doesn’t understand where the line between politics and the spiritual is, and that’s why this big conflict started. If Sergii had just commented on religious dogma, started a fight inside the Church, nobody would care — nobody would have noticed him,” Kiselyov believes.

The deputy also emphasized that public interest in Father Sergii increased during the coronavirus pandemic. “Our collective consciousness has been destabilized. There are schisms happening along various lines — the constitutional amendments, the quarantine. People feel that, and their consciousness is splitting, too, so they’re drawn to feelings of strength. They want unambiguous answers. Whose fault is it? Well, it’s the yids and the masons. Oh, it’s the government, they’re trying to microchip people. People get that kind of stuff — they’re not used to digging deep into the issues. If you just show them a culprit and explain maximally simple reasons for everything, then uncertain people are able to pull themselves together,” he said.

Raisa Ilyina agreed that the priest’s supporters aren’t inclined toward critical thinking. “Becoming a part of the faith is complicated. You have to dig deep and look at your own sins; you have to rebuild your relationship with the world. [What they’re doing] is simpler. […] People don’t want to analyze the reasons behind things; they’re lazy. That creates a need to think of some distraction that can be the scapegoat for everything. I’m unhappy because something’s wrong with my passport, and that’s the reason for my problems — things like that. As Father Sergii said, ‘whoever’s with us will be saved, and everyone else will go to hell.’”

Worshippers at the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery. June 17, 2020
Donat Sorokin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

While the Yekaterinburg Eparchy declined comment on Sergii’s situation in advance of its court decision, one cleric in the eparchy who spoke anonymously with Meduza called Sergii’s views “motley and imitative.” Still, the clergymember said, “Father Sergii’s cult of personality is undeniable,” and “the schema-hegumen himself isn’t shy about it.”

The cleric continued, “He exploits people’s most primitive emotions and neuroses: fear, anxiety, uncertainty, fear of freedom. It’s a lot simpler to think you have a demon inside you than to accept that you have schizophrenia and seek treatment — that’s what’s happening with the unwell part of his flock,” he speculated. “So far, he’s no schismatic, but he’s close to it. The harm he does is in replacing real spiritual life with a surrogate. It’s easier to tell people scary stories about the Elders of Zion than to fulfill your monastic vows about humility and obedience. His activities are harmful because they draw his followers away from Christ and toward a person, even if that person is a priest.”

Waiting out the storm

Andrey Zainurov of the eparchy’s Missionary Institute told me that even though he wouldn’t call Sergii and his followers a sect quite yet, they do have some sect-like characteristics: a charismatic leader, methods for a speedy ascendance to “spiritual enlightenment,” and “a sharp line distinguishing themselves from the surrounding world.” “If they keep acting like this and moving toward a schism, then they’ll become a quasi-Orthodox sect,” Zainurov predicted.

Sergii himself said in a videotaped address to Metropolitan Kirill that the eparchy will have to “use the police and the National Guard to kick us out of the [Sredneuralsk] monastery.” In the same video, he gave a count of the number of people now living on the convent’s grounds: 523. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m not leaving the house of the Blessed Virgin. The sisters and I have nowhere to go. What did we do to inconvenience you so much? I have a coffin. I have a cross. I have nails,” Sergii says in the video.

Oksana Ivanova doesn’t think this conflict will be resolved by force. She said the eparchy seems to be waiting for the storm surrounding Father Sergii to pass. She also thinks some of the priest’s supporters will leave the monastery if the clash between him and the Church at large gets worse; anyone who leaves would be following in the footsteps of Hegumen Varvara and some of the other nuns at the convent.

Yekaterinburg political analyst Fyodor Krasheninnikov disagrees. He thinks even a small number of the schema-hegumen’s supporters would be capable of causing big problems for the authorities, especially the police and the government. “What are the Church’s positions right now? Lukewarm water! There was that scandal in [Yekaterinburg] with the new cathedral, when the government realized that people didn’t want to have it built in a local park. They backed off fast, and the Church people just waved their hands and said the cathedral could be built somewhere else. That was it. The situation with the coronavirus was similar — someone says, ‘C’mon, man, we’re closing the cathedrals,’ and they do. But in Sergii’s case, the man’s not going away, and he’s not closing the cathedrals. Like it says in Revelations: ‘you are neither cold nor hot.’ You could say that about the Church right now. But Sergii is hot, and his supporters are mobilized!” Krasheninnikov said with certainty.

Schema-Hegumen Sergii in his cell at the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery. June 17, 2020
Donat Sorokin / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Raisa Ilyina fears an even more radical turn of events — potential self-immolations in the monastery. She sees that potential in the schema-hegumen’s declaration that he and his supporters have “nowhere to go” and in their views that only those inside the monastery can receive salvation. “The situation [in the monastery] is very bad. There’s a lot of them, and they’re crowded together. They could go into a communal trance. In the 1990s, there was a somewhat similar story withthe New Tikhvin Monastery and its leader, Avraam (Reidman). The sisters had this spiritual leader, a nun named Avgusta. I asked her, ‘If people came into the monastery and tried to take Avraam away, what would you be prepared to do?’ ‘Self-immolation!’” Ilyina recalled.

Mitrokhin, the sociologist, said such extreme actions would be uncharacteristic for the Russian Orthodox Church, but he, too, acknowledged that Father Sergii’s supporters might “make something happen,” especially since the Church itself can’t simply let the situation continue as it is now. He said the Church’s “usual” methods include a kind of “descent of the priests,” a tactic in which several dozen well-built clergymen gather outside a rebellious monastery or cathedral, go inside, and then change the locks on the cell doors.

“After [the anniversary of the royal family’s assassination on] July 17, passions will simmer down, and there’ll be an opportunity to try and convince moderates [among Sergii’s supporters] to leave the monastery,” Mitrokhin predicted. “In groups that are sitting under siege for extended periods of time, internal conflicts emerge. So far, the people who have stayed are people who believe in Sergii over the Church. The women will probably stay to the very end, but the men in the group will need something to do. Sitting around in a monastery in the hot summer for several weeks ultimately stops being something to do and starts being nothing to do. The men are the most important in terms of defense, but they’ll also be more able to negotiate,” the sociologist presumes.

Mitrokhin said Sergii isn’t a threat to the Moscow Patriarchate in himself so much as he might set a dangerous example for others. “There are quite a lot of elders […] who are like him. They start getting ideas — ‘we’ll get by without the eparchy, we’ll have our own monastery, our own society’ — it’s an attractive idea for them. For the Church, it’s not at all attractive. It loses infrastructure that way, and most importantly, it loses its management structure that goes through the eparchies. The entire design of the Church rests on that structure. So long as the elders see that they might face consequences, they’re cautious. Sergii’s example is dangerous in that someone can start a rebellion and accumulate so much power that the Church’s usual methods of resolving these conflicts don’t work anymore.”

Text by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Hilah Kohen

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