Flywheel of spiritual occupation
06/04/2011 19:19
Giorgi Tsiklauri

Abkhazian clergy has rebelled. Passions around the village of Aibga have still been running high as the next time when Russians meet their match in Abkhazians was in New Athos. On May 15th a church-people assembly will be convened there. Supporters of arch enemy of hieromonk Andrey (Ampar), who is a head of the New Athos Monastery of St. Simon the Zealot came out against the head of the so-called "Abkhazian diocese" father Vissarion (Apliaa). The decision to convene the meeting was taken at the gathering on April 4th, when hundreds of people gathered in front of the monastery to support Ampar in connection with information about his dismissal. Thus, contradictions that have been accumulating for years among the Abkhazian churchmen and directly affecting not only spiritual but also political situation in the Russian-occupied region came to a head. But then this church conflict is almost complete projection of the dilemma that faces the Abkhazian society today.

Some of modern history

To better understand the situation, we must begin from afar. Russia used Abkhazian nationalism that Moscow itself formed and stirred up not only in the secular, but in the spiritual realm as well. This is not surprising, since the KGB that was responsible for implementing "the Abkhazian project" on the instructions of the Soviet party leadership, controlled the church community till the end of the Soviet Union much more strictly than social and political processes. Priest Vissarion, ordained, by the way, by the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II, was made a head of the church separatism in Abkhazia. Originally, he bore the name of Pilia, which after the 1992-1993 war he "restored" into more politically advantageous Apliaa. However, it did not help him get rid of eloquent nickname Pop-Mauser (priest-Mauser) earned during the fighting.

Georgian clergy headed by Metropolitan Daniel (Datuashvili) were expelled from Abkhazia, along with most of his congregation. Clerics, both Georgians and Abkhazians who did not share the ideas of hatred of the fratricidal war and who fell into enemy hands awaited the same fate as priests of the Church of St. John Chrysostom: Father Andrey (Kurashvili) and Ipodeacon Yuri (Anua) who were brutally murdered in Komani together with their congregation. Thus, almost no priests were left in Abkhazia where ethnic cleansing took place, except Vissarion Apliaa.

Without any religious or moral authority, he declared creation of a new "Abkhazian diocese", and proclaimed himself its leader. Two years ago he changed his title into "the head of the Abkhazian Orthodox Church." This "church" unites a group of nationalist-minded priests-Abkhazians who were mostly ordained in the Russian Orthodox Church and nurtured under the wing of Pop-Mauser (many of which were sent by him to study in Russian seminaries). In particular, these are Vasilisk Leiba, Ignatiy Kiut, Dorofei Dbar, David Sarsania, German Marshan, Andrey Ampar, Leon Adzhindzhal ... Needless to say, that this "church" has never been recognized by anyone. But this, of course, did not prevent Russia to conduct the same policy with this issue as it did with "secular" part of the conflict.

In the conditions of official denial and non-recognition, the dissenters got tacit support of the Moscow Patriarchate, which was not slow to take root in Abkhazia that was "cleansed" of Georgians. Activities of Russian priests and their relationship with the Abkhazian "diocese" have never been advertised, and when they received publicity it was presented as arbitrariness of individual priests. But Vissarion met Patriarch Aleksy II several times. However, the Georgian Orthodox Church preferred to turn a blind eye to what has been happening and were satisfied with standard answers of Moscow to the questions sent there in very high-profile cases. But, during the" tumultuous nineties" by and large the "Abkhazian diocese", like the rest of Abkhazia, was left to itself. At that time Russia was absorbed in its domestic affairs, and was satisfied that the situation in Georgia was safely frozen by "peacekeepers "on the Enguri.

Fathers and Sons

By the Nougties in the absence of legitimate ecclesiastical authorities and with no serious oversight from the Russian Federation a struggle for power flared up among Abkhazian priests. Dorofei Dbar and Andrey Ampar who carried out service in the Abkhazian language, came into conflict with Vissarion Apliaa, who sees himself as a bishop of the Russian Church in Abkhazia, though he cannot speak openly about it. Apart from the political side the conflict has also other roots. Young hieromonks, who became hegumens of the monasteries of Komani (Dbar) and New Athos (Ampar) are educated people and more consistent image of a priest, than obscurantist Vissarion, known for his intemperate temper, love of booze, a criminal past and dubious connections in the present. So reluctance of ambitious Abkhazian nationalists in the clergy to obey to such person as Pop-Mauser is understandable.

In May 2005 the conflict turned into open confrontation. It was possible to smooth it out with the help of Archbishop of Maikop and Adygei Panteleimon (Kutovoi). Mediation of the Russian cleric has led to the conclusion of the so-called Maikop agreement according to which "Abkhazian diocese" was to have two co-chairmen with equal rights. These were Apliaa and Ampar. But exactly one year later - in May 2006 - hieromonks Ampar and Dbar again spoke against Apliaa, accusing him of violating the agreement and usurpation of power. Vissarion, in turn, called opponents "destroyers of the Abkhazian Church" using standard accusations of Orthodox fundamentalists of contacts with Catholics.

Apliaa managed to defend his position. With the assistance of Archbishop Panteleimon his chief opponent Dorofei Dbar was virtually banished from Abkhazia. Since January 2007 former head of the New Athos religious school himself has been "studying" in the University of Thessalonica in Greece. And his friend Andrey Ampar was compelled to sign a dismissal from the position of co-chairman of the Abkhazian diocese, which left him with just the New Athos monastery, where he had lived quietly until recently. Then, claiming a monopoly on spiritual power in Abkhazia, Father Vissarion drove Russian monks led by priest Gregory (Khorkin) who were not under his control, out of the Komani monastery. Father Gregory was a successor of Dbar in Komani but now he lives and works in Kuban while his place was taken by Ignatiy Kiut - a great friend of Pop-Mauser and the FSB people.

Abkhazian exarch

The episode with Khorkin is not a demonstration of Vissarion's attitude to the Russian clergy at all. This is just a case of personal incompatibility. In general, Apliaa became actively engaged in attracting clerics from Russia into Abkhazia. They have indisputable advantages. Not having roots in Abkhazia Russian clerics depend on Pop-Mauser and certainly recognize his supremacy. For the same reason none of the priests and monks from Russia can become a rival and challenge to the "head of the Abkhaz Church" in the foreseeable future; this brethren is just the church part of which local archpriest believes himself and the whole Abkhazia to be. After all, "outsiders" are close to him spiritually and mentally, not like those young wiseacres with clear Abkhazian orientation... So Vissarion did not fail to marry his son to a daughter of an influential Moscow priest, ensuring a quiet haven away from his native diocese for his offspring (and himself at the same time). And prayers are said for Patriarch Kirill in temples of the diocese whether in a sign that "the Abkhazian Church" is the diocese of the ROC, or a sign of willingness to establish full communion and to obtain, thus, the official recognition.

"Settling" of Abkhazia by Russian clergy was accelerated after Moscow officially recognized the occupied region as an "independent state". At present, two-thirds of Orthodox clerics on the territory of Abkhazia do not have anything to do with Abkhazia. Only Russian priests and deacons serve in the cathedral of Sukhumi. Even in ancient Abkhazian village of Anukhva ("sacred place"), services are conducted by father Sergey from Russia. Field churches are being opened at the Russian military bases with regimental priests of the Russian church. Thus recently former representative of the Petropavlovsk Diocese of Moscow Father Alexander (Terpugov) appeared in Gudauta. And theological lectures are read in the Abkhazian university by such remarkable personality, as well-known Russian missionary and campaigner for the "Russian cause" Deacon Andrey (Kuraev) who entertains students by giving tips as to how "mission to the full " girls-non-believers.

Against this background, young shoots of the Abkhazian clergy united around Andrey Ampar. They were silent for a long time, but finally lost patience (or realized that had nothing to lose), when in March 2011 Pop-Mauser brought a new head of the monastery - Hegumen Efrem (Vinogradov) to New Athos. The latter along with a group of clergymen of the Russian Orthodox Church was sent by the Moscow Patriarchate "to revive traditions of Russian monasticism in Abkhazia". Why specifically the Monastery of Simon the Zealot is understandable, since it was founded in 1875 by Russian monks from the Monastery of St. Panteleimon on Mount Athos in Greece. And afterwards the monastery enjoyed a special favour of Emperor Alexander III. So Ampar was pushed to a post of a manager of monastic household matters. And for the better adaptation of a new hegumen at the new place a rumour was started about Vinogradov's descent from the Abkhazian family of Lakerbaya. But his habits turned out to be not too Abkhazian.


From the start, referring to directions of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill (Gundyaev), Father Efrem demanded to withdraw all Byzantine elements from vestments, church service and monastic furnishings. Nationally oriented representatives of the Abkhazian Church use them to, in line with modern Abkhazian ethnomythology, emphasize the lack of connections between the historical Abkhazian cathedra and the united Georgian Orthodox Church. However, hymns in the Abkhaz language, executed in the Byzantine style, turned out to be irrelevant, since neither new hegumen, nor brothers who arrived with him know this language. Subsequent slavianization of service has made it impossible for the Abkhazians to understand. But at least they realized what Georgians experienced in the XIX century when the imperial edict deprived their church of autocephalous status, which at the time was fourteen centuries-old, and when it was transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church on the rights of the Exarchate of the ROC, and Exarches sent from Russia cancelled conduction of service on the "dog" Georgian language and whitened ancient Georgian frescoes in churches.

It should be noted that Hegumen Efrem is quite a well-known person. But fame he acquired incognito, writing and publishing books in Russia under the name "Hegumen N». The essence of teachings of this priest is simple: infusion of occult fears, search for demons in everything, and substitution of psychiatry with demonology. In general, everything as befits a member of the clergy, which "has always taught its congregation not to know and love God, but to fear devils, that it itself has bred (" Course of the Russian History ", 1908, v. 9, p. 356). Everything is in order with Efrem when it comes to political views as well: "there is no salvation without turning to national roots "; "World backstage ... saw its task also in subjugation of Russia for unimpeded development and removal of its resources abroad "(website of Hegumen N). A typical combination of modern Russian nationalism and classic Soviet "surrounded by enemies" principle. Even the Leninist vocabulary is there!

However, hungered Abkhazian congregation - at least part of it - did not appreciate prospects to get spiritually enriched with preaching about the world backstage, demons and salvation through unification with the ROC. But to certain point the local media did not raised this topic, although rumours of a new hegumen of the New Athos monastery immediately spread throughout Abkhazia. Only Internet-agency Apsny Online reported about appointment of Vinogradov belatedly on April 2nd. While gathering in support of Andrey Ampar, which occurred two days later near the monastery was not covered by any of the two Abkhazian televisions, despite the fact that such events in Abkhazia are usually a hot topic. Presumably, TV reporters took into account that Efrem Vinogradov is a protégé of Vissarion Apliaa who in turn is very close to "president" Sergei Bagapsh. But it did not help to hush up the matter. The New Athos events were broadly covered by the Abkhazian opposition press.


Now this is not just about a struggle for a place of the head of the monastery, albeit the biggest spiritual centre of Abkhazia. In fact, we see a church mutiny aimed at dismissal of Father Vissarion from his post, and this spills into the Abkhazian-Russian relations. Apliaa is not unreasonably accused of gradual transfer of local churches to the Moscow Patriarchate. Which recognizes no "Abkhazian Church" and by filling out monasteries and churches with Russian priests, first will get itself a new de facto diocese, and afterwards will not fail to completed all formalities of the case de jure (since acquiring lands has been a good business in Russia from old times). By the way, as recently as December 2010, the Abkhazian government handed over to Pop-Mauser 42 churches of the region "free of charge and for unlimited use". And the local opposition has no doubts that Apliaa agreed his actions with the Bagapsh regime.

Therefore, on April 4th , representatives of the Abkhazian clergy went to see the "president" and put the question before him squarely. The latter, in turn, asked Ampar's supporters to solve religious problems "peacefully, in a spirit of unity, without politicization." However, Sergei Bagapsh's wishes are unlikely to come true. After he spoke with guests, the monastic brethren and parishioners in New Athos expressed distrust towards Apliaa and decided to convene All-Abkhazian public and church gathering in mid-May. The most interesting thing is that along with government officials and the public representatives of the Abkhazian clergy that live outside Abkhazia are specially invited to this gathering. These are Andrey Ampar's comrades – hieromonk Dorofei Dbar, Hierodeacon David Sarsaniya and novice Leon Adzhindzhal who have been driven out of Abkhazia by Pop-Mauser.

Vissarion Apliaa declined to comment to journalists about the gathering at the New Athos Monastery, referring to the Lent and incompetence of this kind of gatherings to make ecclesiastical decisions. However, on the same day he himself held a gathering of Russian priests in Sukhumi Cathedral. Outsiders were not allowed there, but according to the Abkhazian press Apliaa called on those obedient to him not to support the monks of New Athos. And he prohibited Andrey Ampar to conduct services for his disobedience. So it seems that this spring there will be a little warmer than usual under the arches of the church in Abkhazia.

View from Tbilisi

The Patriarchate of Georgia was as usual slow at reacting to the events in Abkhazia. And it's not due to a lack of interest, but preference of the position. The fact that the Georgian Orthodox Church attaches great importance to what has been happening is clear at least by the fact that on April Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia himself called to Moscow. Ilia II spoke to head of the Synodal Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Hilarion. The latter assured the head of the GOC that the information on the appointment of Hegumen Efrem as the head of the monastery of Simon the Zealot is "not true." What else they talked about to and whether Metropolitan Volokolamsky explained what Russian priests had been doing in the canonical territory of the Georgian Church is not known.

It can be assumed that the conversation was serious as special attitude of His Holiness towards this issue is well-known. Subject of Abkhazians and Abkhazia, where Ilia II served as bishop and metropolitan, is ever present in his sermons. And it is unlikely that Tbilisi is so poorly informed about the real situation in Tskhum-Abkhazian diocese, the title of the head of which the Georgian Catholicos-Patriarch symbolically adopted again in last December. But as it looks from the outside the Georgian clergy once again was satisfied with explanations of their Russian colleagues. And now in Moscow they are saying to the public that Efrem was sent to New Athos as an "assistant" and are "puzzled" by the stir that was raised in Abkhazia.

Vladimir Putin and Vissarion ApliaaBut only someone very naive can believe this. This version is not taken seriously, Abkhazians themselves in the first place, as Vinogradov and Apliaa lucidly explained things to them. And here a question arises towards the Synod of the Georgian Church: How long will it be satisfied by formal excuses and turn a blind eye to the real processes that are happening? Clerics do not like interference of laity in their affairs, but still the church is not just religious but also social and political institution. In Georgia it is the second when it comes to authority and influence, after the state itself and it lives an independent life. In contrast to the Russian Orthodox Church which is religious continuation of the Russian empire, subordinate to its goals. So do Georgian clerics understand to the full that flywheel of spiritual occupation has been launched, and after the de-facto absorption of Abkhazia the de-jure absorption at both church and political and military level will definitely happen?

In principle, almost open declaration of "spiritual war" has already happened when Patriarch Kirill sequestrated title of Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia. Then conclusions should have been drawn not only by Georgians but also by Abkhazians as well. However, the same trick happens to them in church policy as in secular politics. Being trapped in their heavily mythologized ideology, patriotically-disposed Abkhazians perceive Russian-granted "independence" as real. They have neither the strength nor the desire to recognize that roles have already been distributed "above", and Vissarion Apliaa has the same role as Sergei Bagapsh, for whom Moscow is a capital. Both of them act in coordination with Russia, and relying on its support. And Russia looks back at discontent of Abkhazians as much as it threatens its own affairs.

Moscow knows how to pay with illusions. The same will happen with New Athos as it did with Aibga. The current scandal is only probing the soil. Where one fails to grab unceremoniously, where one meets stiff opposition one postpones finishing the job for later, keeping appearance of respectability. After all, if something cannot be simply grabbed it can be "rented" for 1 ruble per year. The result is the same: Abkhazians are turned into natives, who swagger around like masters on the land where everything is already owned by colonizers. The process of assimilation is in operation, and when the entire Abkhazia will become aware of its state it will be too late. The new masters will be thoroughly in possession of the land where our ancestors buried Apostle Simon the Zealot two thousand years ago when there were no Russians as such, much less Russian Christians. And Abkhazian patriots will suddenly discover that they are not the majority after all...

So would not it be better for Georgia, as well as Abkhazia, if Russian "spiritual nourishment" in Abkhazia will have the same fate as the Russian "peacekeeping"? Is it not time to call a spade a spade? After all the Moscow Patriarchate is the right hand of the Kremlin and the Russian security services rule there and it has always been and will always be an instrument for destruction of everything Georgian wherever the hands of Russia are stretched. It is clear that figures of the Georgian Church, many of whom were educated and brought up in the Russian Orthodox Church, struggle morally and mentally to take such a step. But it would perhaps be worthwhile to remember the time of restoration of the autocephaly, to get imbued with its spirit and stop confusing great Russian monastic elders – Sergii Radonezhsky, Seraphim of Sarov, Ignatii Brianchaninov, Ioan Kronstadtsky, Ksenia of Petersburg, and others - with the current Sinod in Moscow and "tobacco-baron" Gundyaev.

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