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Russia: Church, Lies, & Opulence

These days, the Russian Orthodox Church is on everyone’s mind, and not always in a positive way. Its involvement in the Pussy Riot trial has especially attracted criticism in the Russian blogosphere.

This is probably why a recent blog post, full of photographs documenting the birthday party of a church functionary, struck a raw nerve. The original post was made by LiveJournal user Damir Shavaleev [ru], a professional photographer living in the town of Sergiyev Posad [ru], not far from Moscow. His friends-only post documented the seventieth jubilee of the director of a Church-owned factory, for which he was one of the official photographers.

The factory, Sofrino [ru], produces all matter of church related commercial art and merchandise, including votive candles, and is located close to Sergiyev Posad. Its director, Evgeny Parhaev [ru], has held the post since 1987. Parhaev, while a lay-person, is considered a powerful figure in the Church bureaucracy, since the Church relies on Sofrino’s output for much of its income [ru].

Parhaev's personal website. Screenshot, Aug 12, 2012.

Shavaleev used to work at Sofrino and clearly holds a grudge, because the photos he published were accompanied by crude attempts at humorous commentary that ranged from calling Parhaev’s corpulent son “a boar” to saying that Parhaev “shat his pants.”

The largely grotesque photos of the seventy year old Parhaev in a ridiculous light-beige suit, white leather shoes, and a turquoise sash were an instant hit after being published on July 30 [ru] by Andrei Trofimov, the proprietor and editor of Alternativnaia Gazeta (The Alternative Newspaper), an online publication which largely deals in local Sergiyev Posad news.

The post was picked up by blogger melancholy-gay [ru], and republished [ru] in the anti-Russian Orthodox Church community stop_rpc, where it has gathered almost 3,000 comments. From there, it went viral. The photographs and the accompanying comments by Shavaleev tell a story of excess and commercial approach to religion — popular criticisms of the modern Russian Orthodox Church. The story, however, is also somewhat disingenuous.

For example, most re-posters of the photographs and their readers assume that the birthday party occurred just this past June. Admittedly, this is a reasonable assumption to make, since the general spirit of Shavaleev’s comments seems very current and Trofimov did not provide any context when publishing the piece under the rubric “topical.” There are also references to recent events, like President Putin’s spring election.

In fact, the pictures were taken last summer, and were published by Shavaleev only after he left the company [ru] this spring. This is easily ascertained on the Patriarchy’s website, which lists Parhaev’s congratulatory meeting with the Patriarch [ru] on June 19, 2011.

The meeting, incidentally, is another way in which the story veers from the truth. Shavaleev’s irresistible narrative is presented in a way that makes it seem that the Patriarch held special service in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior to honor Parhaev (and presumably all the money he makes for the Church). In fact, the ceremony was a bishop’s ordination [ru], and the Patriarch congratulated Parhaev after the service.

Although the photographs are damning in their own right, their lack of context creates confusion, and opens up the author’s motives to attack. For example, pro-Putin blogger unilevel sees nothing wrong with a successful lay businessman lavishly celebrating his birthday. Shavaleev’s distortions allow her to ask “Why now?” and state the following [ru]:

Итог. Весь наброс состоит не из фотографий, а из глумливых подписей под ними. Подписей с шулерскими передергиваниями. Ничего там больше нет.

To sum up. The entire attack consists not of photos, but of the mocking comments under the photos. Comments with misrepresentations worthy of a cardsharp. There is nothing else there.

Of course, such a critique diverts the discussion from valid points like Sofrino’s tax exempt status, or the Church’s role in Russia’s political sphere. (Mikhail Prokhorov was but one of the politicians present at the party.) Nevertheless, the whole affair does speak to the ease of creating a narrative through the withholding of information.

Shavaleev took his post down right away, after getting a call from Sofrino's representatives. He also asked Trofimov to do the same. It was, of course, already too late — the post had proliferated across the RuNet. A few days later, stop_rpc reported that Shavaleev had received threats from local bandits, citing Shavaleev’s comment in his blog [ru]. Shavaleev later deleted the comment in question, and issued a statement [ru] saying that he has not actually received any threats. Hopefully, this time, he is on the level.

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