By Paul Goble
During Soviet times, US diplomats at the American embassy in Moscow often referred to a nearby Russian Orthodox Church as “Our Lady of the Microphones,” a reference to their assumption that the church served not a religious purpose but rather was an intelligence collection point.
Now, in an echo of the Cold War, the French intelligence services are worried that a Russian Orthodox Church which is scheduled to be built in the center of Paris sometime after 2012 will be used for espionage against the French government rather than or at least in addition to the conduct of religious services.
Drawing on reports in the French, British and US press, Gzt.ru says today that French concerns are based on a combination of three things: First, the land on which the church is to be built currently is owned by Vladimir Kozhin, who Paris believes was “a former agent of the KGB (www.gzt.ru/topnews/realty/-frantsuzy-objyavili-russkii-hram-v-parizhe-/37791.html).
Second, the parcel is in the very center of Paris, not far from the Quay d’Orsay, where both the French foreign ministry and the DCRI, the internal security intelligence service, have their headquarters, and a district in which many prominent French officials, including advisors to President Nicolas Sarkozy, have their residences.
And third, according to French intelligence, there has been a “sharp increase in the activity of Russian spies” in France since Sarkozy’s election, a rise that has reached levels “comparable to those of the mid-1980s,” the last years before Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader.
The French, Western and Russian media suggest, have been especially concerned by Kozhin’s background even though there is no reference in his various biographical reports to service in the KGB, not that there would be if he were truly under deep cover, something that has allowed some journalists to charge that he is or at least was an agent.
Kozhin himself, GZT.ru notes, “ says of this connection that “everything developed according to the standard course. During the last year at a [Soviet] electro-technical institute, he was approached as was at one time Vladimir Putin and offered work in the KGB.” Kozhin says now that he agreed, “and the [clearance] process went forward.”
“Everything was approaching its logical conclusion but the all-powerful Communist Party interfered and sent [him] after finishing the higher educational institution not to the KGB but rather to the Petrograd district committee of the Komsomol. Further conversations about a transfer to the organs did not arise.”
But there is another reason for concern about the possible use by the Russian intelligence services of the Russian Orthodox Church abroad, one that the French are certainly familiar with even though they have not yet made public reference to it in the current case but one that makes such a possibility even more likely.
In 1972, Russian émigré writer Vladimir Volkoff published in Paris his novel, “Le tretre,” a word that combines the French words for priest and traitor. (The English translation is less meaningfully, “The Traitor.”)
The book tells how Moscow made such frequent use of Russian Orthodox priests that the latter often were uncertain of whom they served.
After that book was published, numerous European commentators called attention to the ways in which Soviet intelligence operatives were put into at least some of the Russian Orthodox Churches outside of Russia which were loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate and to the cooperation the hierarchs felt compelled to give.
The resurgence of so many aspects of the Soviet past in the behavior of the Russian powers that be and the constantly expressed willingness of the Moscow Patriarchate to be in the service of the Russian state may thus be even greater cause for concern in Paris and elsewhere than the less “religious” reasons French intelligence has offered for its fears.