By Paul Goble
Viewers of the Netflix dystopian series “Occupied” will recall that the Russian Orthodox Church in Norway worked hand-in-glove with the Russian security services when Moscow with the support of the European Union occupied Norway to force it to continue to produce oil for the continent.
But few likely expected that there would be a real life confirmation of the Moscow’s church’s role in working with the Russian intelligence services in precisely that country, and yet that is what has been exposed over the last few weeks, where Oslo has uncovered the way in which the Russian church has been used for distinctly unreligious purposes.
Using its network of six parishes, the Moscow church in Norway has purchased land adjoining NATO installations and border facilities and engaged in what Oslo describes as photographic and other forms of espionage (novayagazeta.eu/articles/2022/10/22/prikhody-dvoinogo-naznacheniia).
The churchmen in these churches have tried to present themselves as completely independent of Moscow and even as opponents of Russian policy in Ukraine, something that may have deceived a few people but only made their role as cover for Russian spies more effective, observers say.
But the Russian Orthodox Church in Norway is subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate’s Foreign Relations Department which has a long history of working closing with the Soviet and now Russian intelligence services. The current patriarch served as its head and has long been identified as having been a KGB officer.
Norway is far from the only place where Moscow churches abroad are being used for intelligence purposes. The same is clear in Turku, Finland, where what was a church has now been converted into a listening post, in Paris, where the Russian church fights the pro-Ukraine stance of the French government, and in Jerusalem, among others.
Konstantin Preobrazhensky, a KGB officer who defected to the United States and who worked with Russian religious, recalled that during his first visit to KGB headquarters in Moscow, he was surprised to encounter men with beards and dressed in church cassocks prowling the halls.
“’Don’t be surprised,’” he says a colleague told him then. He’s been told to grow a beard by his KGB bosses and is currently “gaining experience” in the patriarchate’s foreign relations department. One of those Preobrazhensky saw laer became head of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem, deputy head of the external relations department, and died as a metropolitan after which he was buried with “full military honors.”
In reporting all this for Novaya gazeta, journalist Aleksey Malyutin suggests that “the Russian Orthodox Church’s manpower reserve in cassocks did not disappear after the fall of the Soviet system” and says that “its specific potential became even more in demand in the era of Putin’s “’synthesis of red and white.’”
What this means, he says, is that “it is time for the leaders of the free world to reconsider their attitude towards ‘centers of Russian Orthodoxy’ in the West as purely religious objects. For many of these, the religious function is far from being their primary one.”