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Rogue Russian Priest Seizes Convent With Cossack Brigade, Sparking Public Showdown With Church

Father Sergiy Romanov is a prominent figure among the faithful of Yekaterinburg, where some consider him a spiritual leader of a marginal breakaway sect of the Orthodox Church whose adherents worship Nicholas II, Russia’s last tsar.

MOSCOW -- The Russian Orthodox Church is struggling to wrest back control of a convent in the Urals after a cleric it suspended for disobeying its coronavirus-prevention policies occupied the compound with help from Cossack guards.

Father Sergiy Romanov, the abbot of a nearby men’s monastery who has praised Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and called the coronavirus a Western plot, commenced the standoff with church authorities on June 16 after he took over the Sredneuralsk Women’s Monastery and called on his followers to join him.

Local media reported that a group of Cossacks, members of a paramilitary group with deep historical roots in Russia, surrounded the convent until its abbess and nuns decided to vacate it.

In a statement on June 17, the Yekaterinburg diocese said that Romanov had shown disobedience to Russian Orthodox Church authorities and called on him to seek penance for his actions while a clerical court investigates his conduct.

“The Yekaterinburg diocese encourages prayer for the sake of bringing Father Sergiy around, so he uses the time until the next hearing of the ecclesiastical court to change his ways and repent,” it said.

Romanov is a prominent figure among the faithful in and around Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, where some consider him a spiritual leader of the Tsarebozhniki, a breakaway sect of the Orthodox Church whose adherents worship Nicholas II, the last tsar, as a saint who suffered a martyr's death for them, and advocate a return to monarchy. The Russian Orthodox Church canonized the last tsar and his family in 2000, but not as martyrs killed for their faith.

Despite calls from the church and Cossack leadership, the renegade cleric is refusing to leave the monastery. (file photo)
Despite calls from the church and Cossack leadership, the renegade cleric is refusing to leave the monastery. (file photo)

Nicholas II and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, in a pivotal episode that helped the communist revolutionaries seize power and inaugurate the Soviet Union three years later.

But Romanov, who shares the tsar’s surname, is a highly controversial figure. A former police officer and army sergeant who reportedly served 13 years on a murder conviction starting in 1985, he has publicly challenged authorities of the Russian Orthodox Church at a time when the country’s predominant religious organization is riven with internal conflicts and regularly distances itself from the radical proclamations of clergy members.

Anyone who attempts to close churches will be cursed, and so will all his kin."
-- Father Sergiy Romanov

Some ultraconservative members of the institution assert that the church leadership and President Vladimir Putin's government are too liberal, and unwittingly in thrall to outside forces seeking to weaken Russia by undermining its spiritual values.

Romanov’s latest clash with church leadership was sparked by his public denial of the coronavirus pandemic, which began spreading throughout Russia in March.

The Russian Orthodox Church was slow in reacting to the virus, waiting until mid-April to call on the faithful to stop attending church services. That decision ended weeks of internal discussion over the severity of the pandemic that were complicated by skepticism from many members of the sprawling, deeply hierarchical institution.

In a sermon on April 26, Romanov cursed all state and church figures who uphold the ban on Russian Orthodox gatherings and called the coronavirus pandemic an invented threat whose ultimate aim was to facilitate the implantation of tracking microchips in Russia’s population, apparently echoing a conspiracy theory that has resonated worldwide despite being patently false.

“Anyone who attempts to close churches will be cursed, and so will all his kin,” Romanov said in the sermon, which was recorded and subsequently posted online.

Several weeks later, on May 27, the Yekaterinburg diocese barred Romanov from preaching and launched a probe into his conduct, citing his coronavirus denialism and interference with church policy during the pandemic. A hearing in the case is slated for June 26, the diocese said.

Among the people who reportedly turned out in support of the rogue cleric’s takeover of the Sredneuralsk convent was former NHL hockey player Pavel Datsyuk. A Yekaterinburg native, the athlete has spoken out in support of Romanov after the priest was banned from service.

“With the father’s blessing, many questions resolve themselves,” Yekaterinburg-based news outlet quoted Datsyuk as saying on June 4. “I’m thankful that God has given me and my family such a spiritual father.”

According to local media reports, Romanov remains holed up in the convent, conducting services for parishioners despite his official suspension. But his support may be slipping. Late on June 17, the regional Cossack leadership issued a statement distancing itself from the abbot and said only “individual members” of its community backed him.

The same day, Romanov recorded a defiant video address in which he refused to leave the women’s monastery and claimed to have the full backing of parishioners and additional support from “33,000 military officers” who fought in Moscow’s wars in Chechnya and Afghanistan.

“I will not leave here,” he said. “Let the police and National Guard come for me. They’ll have to take the monastery by force.”

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.