This week a controversy that began in the Russian blogosphere concerning an altered photograph of the Patriarch's watch on the official site of the Russian Orthodox Church spread to Western blogs, as well as the West's mainstream media.
The timing of these events is remarkable for two reasons: (1) The Russian Orthodox Church is in the middle of Great Lent (with still another week before it celebrates its Easter holiday on April 15), and (2) The Church is in the process of finding its post-Soviet identity, as discussed in a January Global Voices post titled, “The Russian Orthodox Church Re-Enters Politics.”
The Russian-language v_n_zb LiveJournal blog provided [ru] details about the photo alterations in an April 4 post:
Nikolai Pravdorub contends that [staff] on the official site of the Russian Orthodox Church altered photographs in which the Patriarch of Moscow and all the Rus’ Kirill was depicted wearing a Breguet watch worth 30,000 Euros.
After a statement last week by Patriarch Kirill that he owns a Breguet watch but has never worn it, the Orthodox Church's official site, patriarchia.ru, spent the past weekend revising all photographs archived between April and July, 2009.
Specifically, the site removed all of photographs that showed a Breguet watch on the Patriarch's wrist.
In addition, one of the photos where a Breguet is visible on the Patriarch's wrist was crudely retouched in Photoshop and replaced in the old bulletins section of the official site. In the [retouched] image, the watch's reflection remained on the varnished surface of the table, and, although the photograph was taken and published in 2009, the metadata attached to the EXIF file was dated March 31, 2012.
In other words, we have evidence on the most official site of the Russian Orthodox Church that the Patriarch not only wore the watch repeatedly and for quite a long time, but also that a team was dispatched after his recent public statement to conceal this very fact and remove from the Church's site any photographs that included the watch.
The post went on the illustrate how there was a period of time when the church was in the process of returning the images to their original forms, and therefore some of the original links still do not work:
P.S. On the site, they quickly removed the altered photo, but the old photo doesn't open, either: http://www.patriarchia.ru/db/text/684785.html. And here a third photo has yet to be removed — where the reflection of the watch is also visible, but the watch [itself] has been retouched.
By April 5, the story caught the attention of the Western media, including Western mainstream blogs.
Fr. Stephen Smuts, a TAC Priest in South Africa, quoted on his blog an article from The Telegraph. Reuters ‘Faith World’ blog published an article titled, “Russian Orthodox apologise for photo after bloggers rap Patriarch Kirill over watch”:
The Russian Orthodox Church apologised on Thursday for doctoring a photograph of Patriarch Kirill to remove what bloggers said was a luxury wristwatch following accusations that he lives a lavish lifestyle. […]
The Church made no reference to a watch in a statement, but said a ‘rude violation of our internal ethics’ had been made and removed the doctored 2009 photo from its Website, replacing it with a version showing a watch on his wrist.
‘Employees of the press service’s photo-editing desk made a silly mistake while working with the photo archives,’ the statement said, promising they would be punished.
‘We apologise to all the users of the website for the technical mistake,’ it said. ‘One of the basic principles of our work is the fundamental rejection of the use of photo editing programmes to alter images.’
ABC News blog published an article titled, “Russian Orthodox Church Apologizes for Photoshop Stunt,” which included a quote from Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin — a church figure no stranger to controversy:
‘There will be a thorough investigation to determine why in this instance there was a crude violation of our internal ethical code,’ the patriarch’s press team said in a statement. ‘The guilty ones will be punished severely.’
[…] The patriarch’s press service responded, saying, ‘The person simply showed stupid initiative, not justified by anything and not agreed with superiors. It is clear that it is a mistake. We do not want to hide anything, we have nothing to be ashamed of,’ according to the Moscow News.
The Moscow News also said that Vsevolod Chaplin, the church’s head spokesman, told the Russian blog Slon.ru, ‘I do not care what watch he has; moreover, I do not remember what watch I have on my wrist, I would have to look. I am not interested in this side of life.’
In addition, the Russian blogosphere has surged with humorous posts referencing the indicient.
Typically pro-Kremlin blogger Fritz Morgen published a satirical post [ru] titled, “Ten Reasons to Defend Patriarch Kirill”:
1. The Patriarch represents a great country and should look respectable.
2. Wearing an expensive watch, the Patriarch defiantly rejects the cult of sleaze that plagues the psyche of so many Russians. […]
4. The Patriarch is teaching us how to cope with envy, which (unlike wearing watches) is a deadly sin.
5. The Patriarch socializes with wealthy and influential people, and for them to take his moral teachings seriously, he should dress on their level. […]
7. Wearing the watch and knowing that he would draw criticism for it, the Patriarch behaves bravely and independently, as befits a leader of his rank.
8. With the help of the watch, the Patriach [sic] avoids the sin of pride and reminds himself that he is not a saintly ascetic, but a man of flesh and blood. […]
10. The church thinks in terms of centuries. However much the watch is worth today, it will be worth a hundred times more in 200 years, as an historical relic that raised a scandal in the Russian state.
Activist blogger Alexei Navalny chimed in via his Twitter account:
Теперь это Мастерство Фотошопа РПЦ будут вспоминать при каждом удобном случае. Навсегда прилепится
Other Russian bloggers posted irreverent photos of the Patriarch with even more farcical alterations.
Galludo's LiveJournal blog posted a selection of these photo-parodies, including a picture of the Patriarch on the cover of a “Photoshop for Dummies” book, in an April 5 post.
Monk Blog included similar pictures in a post [ru] from a Ukraine-based blogger, with the following insightful summary of the week's events:
Many have heard in the news the story of Patriarch Kirill's watch. When the Orthodox Church on its website displayed a photograph from a meeeting, where the Patriarch wore an expensive watch. Later the photos were crudely photoshopped, [but] the reflection of the watch remained in the table. Bloggers noticed the alterations, and the original photo was restored. Amusingly, [others] on the Internet have started playing with the idea of the watch.
Yet, what remains unclear is the purpose of [the Church's] attempts to feign an ascetic lifestyle. After all, those who believe will continue to believe, and non-believers won't have any more respect [for the Church].