In the spring of this year, parishes of several Orthodox churches in the United States received a warning from the FBI that Russian special services are conducting intelligence work among priests and parishioners. The document deals with the activities of Dmitry Petrovsky, a diplomat of the Russian Orthodox Church, whom the FBI suspects of working for Russian intelligence.
18 September, 2023
Andrey Soldatov and Irina Borogan
In the spring of this year, the parishes of several Orthodox churches in the United States received a warning from the FBI that the Russian special services are conducting intelligence work among priests and parishioners. A copy of this document was provided to us by sources in the Orthodox community of America.
The FBI’s warning draws attention to a photograph of a handsome, bearded man who turned out to be Dmitry Petrovsky, an employee of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations. The Department for External Church Relations (DECR) is the Patriarch’s diplomatic service responsible for the Russian Orthodox Church’s foreign contacts. (This department regularly got into scandals – from accusations of vodka and tobacco trafficking to cooperation with the FSB).
The FBI suspected Dmitry Petrovsky of being an undercover intelligence officer for the Russian Orthodox Church and his task was to recruit agents among priests and parishioners of the Russian Orthodox Church and other Orthodox churches in America.
According to the official biography, Dmitry Petrovsky, who is now in his early fifties, a graduate of the Moscow Aviation Institute, began his career in the Department for External Church Relations in 2001. Our sources claim that Petrovsky has been well known in Orthodox circles in America since the 90s, when he began to travel to the United States.
Since then, he has traveled extensively around the world and visited not only the United States, but also China, where he accompanied the Russian team at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and 2022. Petrovsky also wrote and spoke extensively on the topic of Orthodoxy in China, Indonesia and in the countries of the Asia-Pacific region.
He is also fond of martial arts, no matter how strange it may look for an employee of the Russian Orthodox Church. This is not the only unusual feature in Petrovsky’s behavior: his avatar on WhatsApp, looking, to put it mildly, atypical for an employee of the patriarch’s diplomatic service, is a cat in a bandana and with a bat and the inscription “military intelligence” on the collar.
In May 2021, Petrovsky was stopped at the entrance to the United States and searched. On the computer that was with him, there were files related to Russian intelligence. They included dossiers on prominent Orthodox priests in the United States, containing details not only
of their lives, but also of biographies of their family members. The FBI believes that such detailed information is necessary for Petrovsky in order to blackmail these people in the recruitment process.
One file stood out from the general series of documents found in Petrovsky’s possession, and the FBI quoted it in full in its warning. Marked “confidential”, it describes the areas of cooperation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian special services – the SVR, the GRU and the FSB.
Our sources in the patriarchate believe that this document was prepared in the spring of 2009 (this is in line with an analysis of the FBI’s metadata, which dates it to the end of March 2009). This year has been a period for Russia full of hopes for positive changes in the country’s policy associated with President Dmitry Medvedev. It was also the year that Kirill, well known for his ties to the Russian secret services, was elected patriarch. Documents found in Petrovsky’s possession show that the new patriarch, almost immediately after his election, instructed his staff to determine areas of cooperation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the special services, including intelligence.
In the list of “zones of interaction” of the church with the special services, the document mentions “cooperation in the training of employees (both the Russian Orthodox Church and the SVR).” Separately, it is indicated: “it is possible to involve employees of the Russian Orthodox Church in operational activities exclusively with the direct sanction of the patriarch; the nature of such activities is controlled by the special staff of the Russian Orthodox Church in working order – to prevent and avoid negative consequences for the Russian Orthodox Church.”
The memorandum also states that the GRU is ready to “develop cooperation, but very gradually, in conditions of strict confidentiality and starting from real activities on the ground.”
With the clause on interaction with the FSB, church officials noted: “within the framework of the DECR, interaction with the Counterintelligence Service (in all regional areas) is of interest, mainly in terms of expert interaction, countering sects, and working out parity actions to foreign structures.”
The FBI press office declined to comment on the document, but noted that the bureau “regularly meets and interacts with representatives of the [Orthodox] community to seek cooperation with the public in the fight against criminal activity” and calls on “members of the public who witness threatening or suspicious activity to report it”.
The DECR replied to our inquiry briefly: “Dmitry Petrovsky is no longer an employee of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations. (Dismissed in June 2023).” According to our information, the dismissal was due to a scandal in the United States.
The Russian Orthodox Church has always been closely linked to the state, be it the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, or Putin’s Russia. The king was the head of the Church; Russian Orthodoxy is based on the notion that Moscow is the “Third Rome,” as well as on a belief in Russian exceptionalism. The message of the Church has always been simple – to serve the Tsar and defend the Motherland. In short, it has always been nationalist and imperialist.
Paradoxical as it may sound, this approach did not change much during the Soviet period, despite all the persecution of the Church. When Stalin addressed the Church during the Great Patriotic War, the priests responded to his call – they were well aware that in the conditions of total war, the dream of a world communist future had to give way to the imperial traditions of tsarist Russia. For the soldiers at the front, patriotism sounded more attractive than abstract ideas about the proletarian brotherhood of peoples.
In the late Soviet years, despite the official atheistic rhetoric, the Church always kept close to the state. The grandfather of one of the authors of the article, a high-ranking military officer in the early 1980s, was proud of the invitation he received to the Easter service at the Elokhov Cathedral in Moscow, then the country’s main church – this was a sign of elite status.
The KGB kept a close eye on the Church, but it was no longer just about surveillance, but about cooperation. Part of the reason was that the KGB and the church shared a paranoid belief that the country was surrounded by numerous enemies and under constant threat from the West. That is why the Russian Orthodox Church has always been suspicious of Catholic expansion (counting it from the thirteenth century, the time of the Pope-approved crusade to the east, which the Orthodox Church considers a full-scale ideological invasion).
The democratic changes of the 1990s affected many institutions of Russian society, with the exception of two – the KGB, which was only dismembered into several parts, and the Church. All the calls of democratic liberal priests for the reform of the Russian Orthodox Church came to nothing.
In Vladimir Putin, the Church has found its supporter and defender. Already in 2002, the FSB expelled five Catholic priests from Russia under the pretext of accusations of espionage. In this way, the FSB helped protect the Orthodox sphere of influence from Western proselytism. In response, the Church blessed the FSB in all forms: in December of the same 2002, the St. Sophia Cathedral of the Wisdom of God was reopened in the Lubyanka, in the courtyard of the FSB building complex. Patriarch Alexy II blessed the opening of the cathedral at a ceremony attended by the then head of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev.
Putin never played charity—he expected the Church to contribute to the stability of his regime at home and abroad. From the very beginning, Putin wanted to control the Russian diaspora in the West, and he made the subordination of the Russian Church Outside of Russia his personal project. Formed in the 1920s by the remnants of the White Army in exile, it became known as the White Church (while the Church in the USSR became known as the Red Church). Since 1951, the headquarters of the White Church has been located in New York, on the corner of Park Avenue and 93rd Street. In 2007, the Church of Emigration became part of the Moscow Patriarchate: the task was completed.
Since then, the Russian Church Outside of Russia has supported the Kremlin’s foreign policy and has taken an active part in Moscow’s propaganda campaigns. For example, the Immortal Regiment, a Kremlin-sponsored initiative, came to the United States with the support of St. John’s Church, the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church in New York.
When the war began, the Church saw it as an opportunity to create a full-fledged fundamentalist regime in the country.
Priests received full admission to the army in 2010, when the institution of military chaplains or chaplains was introduced. The war took the Church’s presence to a new level: the specter of defeat embarrassed the army, and social media flooded with icons, prayers for victory, and calls to pray for soldiers on the battlefield.
Even the most professional units, such as special forces, have not escaped the fascination with religious mysticism, which reflects the military’s growing need for spiritual guidance in an incomprehensible war.
The Church fully supported this, and with its blessing, Russian battalions began to bear the names of Russian saints – primarily soldiers, such as Prince Alexander Nevsky, canonized for victories over the Crusaders.
The church has also nominated from its ranks flamboyant clergy who preach all-out war, such as Andriy Tkachev, a Ukrainian-born priest and television host who left Ukraine in 2014 to become one of the most aggressive pro-war voices in the Church. With the beginning of the invasion, his YouTube videos became extremely popular in the army, including special forces.
Outside of Russia, the Russian Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) has clearly followed Moscow’s line. No noticeable crack in the system has appeared: the Church Abroad remains overwhelmingly loyal to Moscow.
Archbishop Gabriel (Chemodakov) of Montreal and Canada openly justified the invasion. “Russia was forced to take steps to protect itself from neo-Nazis who have been shelling civilians in the Donbas for 8 years, and are still doing so today,” he said in the summer of 2022.
In London, Bishop Irenaeus, head of the Diocese of Great Britain and Western Europe and the most influential bishop of the Church Abroad, published an epistle “On the persecution of Christians in Ukraine,” referring to the activities of the Ukrainian authorities, not the Russian army.
These two high-ranking priests are not some commissars sent from Moscow; they were born and raised in the West.
The Church Abroad is not simply following instructions from Moscow. This position reflects the mood of the flock: if in 2022 parishes in Ukraine withdrew from the Moscow Patriarchate, then in other countries churches and parishioners preferred to remain part of the Russian Orthodox Church. “When the war began, some priests in Russia took an anti-war stance and were punished by both the Church and the state. But most priests, including those abroad, suppressed any discussion of the war for fear of losing their flock, which generally supported the war,” the New York church community told us. The reasons are ideological: many descendants of the first and second waves of Russian emigration are still nostalgic for the glorious imperial past. This part of the Russian diaspora is naturally inclined to nineteenth-century thinking, which Putin shares. “For them, Ukraine has never been a real country,” our interlocutor added.
From the very beginning of the invasion, the Church fully supported the military actions of the Russian army in Ukraine. It seems that the old imperial slogan “For the Tsar and the Fatherland” has returned; no matter what imperialist war is sold under it, the Church will still support it.
But this time it is not about the tsars, but about Putin – and the Russian Church has linked its future with the survival of the Putin regime. This may look like a desperate move imposed by Putin and his intelligence services. Putin’s chances of surviving the war, let alone winning it, do not look too great.
In reality, the Church and her flock support the war, and the game of the Russian Church is far from hopeless.
Domestically, the church has proven to be more in demand because it provides a cause worth dying for, and it does it much better than the Kremlin’s full-time propagandists.
At the international level, the Russian Church has been on the rise in recent years, after decades of stagnation and decline. New churches are being built, primarily in the United States; new people come to the parishes, attracted by the propaganda of “traditional values”.
Agentura.ru 2023, published in abridged form in Foreign Affairs