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Police investigate teenage girl’s death at convent seized by defrocked Orthodox priest

Source: Meduza
Donat Sorokin / TASS

On August 6, 15-year-old Marina passed away at the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery — the same convent outside of Yekaterinburg that was taken over by the recently defrocked Orthodox priest Sergii Romanov in June. A source told the news outlet that Marina had been living at the monastery’s “hospice,” and that she had died of cancer. The Sverdlovsk Region’s Children’s Rights Commissioner, Igor Morokov, said that Marina had been staying at the monastery with her parents, and confirmed that she died of natural causes: “A disease, there’s nothing criminal there.” Nevertheless, Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin ordered an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Marina’s death.

The Sredneuralsk Monastery’s unofficial hospice

The Sredneuralsk Monastery has been running a “hospice” for the past nine years; it has enough beds to accommodate 24 patients. In June 2020, Mother Fotinya, who lives at the monastery, told the news agency EAN that they usually call it a “home for critically ill people” since it isn’t officially recognized as a hospice. “Rospotrebnadzor doesn’t come [here],” she said, referring to Russia’s public health authority. Nevertheless, the convent tries to maintain the standards of a regular hospice. The nuns who look after the patients have medical training, and consult with doctors in nearby cities as needed. At the same time, according to Mother Fotinya, the patients in their care receive “spiritual nourishment,” first and foremost. 

Former Schema-Hegumen Sergii has said that the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery is home to critically ill people on more than one occasion. “There’s no hospital at the monastery. I accept stage four cancer patients who doctors have rejected. I support them with confession and the sacrament,” he said in a recent YouTube video. Many of Sergii’s supporters believe that he is able to cure cancer patients, writes the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. Dmitry Sokolov, from the show Uralskie Pelmeni, started visiting the now-defrocked cleric after his mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer. Asked about the Sredneuralsk Monastery, he said, “They cure people, the demons come out of them, the blind see, cripples recover, and cancer [patients] get back on their feet.”

Two months to live

In June, spokesman Sergii Vsevolod Moguchev uploaded a video of 15-year-old Marina and her parents, Vasily and Natalia. In the video, her mother explains that Marina was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor a year ago. Her parents sought treatment for her in the Kemerovo Region (where they used to live), as well as in Moscow, but in the end the doctors gave up hope. “Good people told me [about] the Sredneuralsk Monastery and the priest, Father Sergii. I had no clue what that was, I wasn’t even baptized. We were literally baptized the day we got here,” Natalia said. According to Marina’s mother, this was in February. At the monastery, her daughter “began to get better,” she celebrated mass and became attached to Father Sergii.

“’Without the priest we could have lost her’ — Marina’s family on Schema-Hegumen Sergii Romanov”
Vsevolod Moguchev

After the media reported Marina’s death on August 6, the former priest recorded a video with her parents and an oncologist who, according to Sergii, was monitoring her condition while she was at the monastery. Both the parents and Sergii said that doctors had given Marina one and a half or two months to live — but at the monastery she lived for seven months. Oncologist Viktor Shchipitsyn (his last name isn’t included in the video, but it was reported in the media) confirmed that there was no chance of curing Marina, but that she received all necessary palliative care at the monastery’s expense. According to Shchiptsyn, tests revealed that Marina didn’t have any infections — including the coronavirus — and that she died due to a “malignant tumor.”

According to the video, news of Marina’s death appeared in the media within half an hour. Officials from the police and the Investigative Committee came to the monastery. Law enforcement officers allegedly launched a criminal case and decided to conduct an autopsy. “I don’t understand what it’s about at all, what kind of criminal case?” — Marina’s father said in the video. Sergii was outraged at the idea of conducting an autopsy (“Are you not people, or what? Have you no conscience? And no honor? What are you hoping to find in a malignant tumor?”) and linked the attention from law enforcement to the “political and spiritual leadership’s” desire to shut down the convent.

“⚡ Speculation about the death of a child ❗ / Explained by Schema-Hegumen Sergii, the girl’s parents, and a doctor”
Vsevolv Moguchev

The Investigative Committee later denied the reports about the initiation of a criminal case, but confirmed that an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the girl’s death is being carried out. Preliminary results showed that Marina died “due to a serious illness,” but an autopsy has been scheduled to determine the exact cause of death. The Investigative Committee stressed that in this case a post-mortem examination of the body is completely legal.  

Defrocked but not forgotten

Former Schema-Hegumen Sergii is one of the most popular priess in the Urals, and he’s famous for his ultra-conservative views. In the spring of 2020, he claimed to “curse” the authorities who closed churches during the coronavirus pandemic. The Yekaterinburg diocese temporarily banned him from service and recommended that he retire. Sergii refused to comply. With the support of a group of Cossacks, he seized the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery (a convent that he founded) and overthrew the abbess (Mother Superior Varavara was forced to leave, along with her sisters). He was then defrocked and fined 90,000 rubles (approximately $1,220) for spreading false information about the coronavirus.

At the end of June, Sergii’s supporters attacked a film crew working with TV host Ksenia Sobchak, which had come to the Sredneuralsk Monastery to shoot a film about the cleric. The film came out at the end of July, and it includes interviews with former novices at the convent, who discuss violent incidents during their childhoods. Sobchak published an open letter addressed to the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, the Attorney General’s Office, and Presidential Children’s Rights Commissioner Anna Kuznetsova, requesting an inquiry into the former novices’ claims and the initiation of a criminal case. Kuznetsova promised to ask the Attorney General’s Office and the Investigative Committee to conduct an inquiry into the Sredneuralsk Monastery, as well. 

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Story by Olga Korelina

Translation by Eilish Hart