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Russian Priest Sparks Firestorm By Calling Cohabitating Women 'Unpaid Prostitutes'

Russian Orthodox Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov (file photo)
Russian Orthodox Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov (file photo)

"I woke up this morning and found out that I am a prostitute," a Moscow-based Twitter user who goes by the handle A Lady Who Has Had Too Much posted on February 16.

She was referencing controversial remarks the previous day by Russian Orthodox Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov, who declared bluntly that women living together with their partners are comparable to "unpaid prostitutes."

"Our women do not understand themselves what marriage is," Smirnov, who is a member of the Russian Orthodox patriarch’s Commission on the Family, told a gathering of a society called Orthodox BRO. "No one wants to say, 'I am an unpaid prostitute,' so they say, 'I am in a common-law marriage.' Really? You are just providing free services – that's all. And no one considers you a wife.

"Is it really so hard to get registered?" he added. "No, it isn't hard at all."

The comments quickly ignited a firestorm on social media.

Metropolitan Ilarion, head of the external affairs office of the Moscow Patriarchate, the church’s leadership body, issued an apology on February 17 – but also defended Smirnov by suggesting that he meant no harm.

"I apologize to the numerous women who felt personally offended by the latest shocking statements by this priest," the metropolitan said. He added that although Smirnov frequently makes such statements, he does so "from good intentions" in order to "attract public attention to the topic of defending marriage and the family."

Nonetheless, even some socially conservative and pro-Kremlin commentators said Smirnov had offended millions of Russian women.

"The decision not to register one's marriage does not rule out mutually respectful relations or the love of two adults for one another," said Irina Kirkora, deputy head of the Kremlin’s advisory council on human rights and civil society, according to Interfax. "It does not alter their arrangement regarding property arrangements with one another and it does not deprive their children of the right to support from both of their parents."

Smirnov's comments were "crude and insulting, unworthy of the great traditions of the Christian church," said pro-Kremlin political scientist Sergei Markov -- a former deputy from the ruling United Russia party in the State Duma, the lower parliament house.

"Common-law marriage is the norm for tens of millions of people," he added. "Quit sticking your nose into the beds of people who love each other and are not offending anyone."

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova pointedly asked the church what men who live in such unions should be called.

And Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of the state-funded RT television network, said every time she considers getting married, someone from the church comes out with such a statement.

"Again, I am not going to get married," she wrote on Facebook. "Simply out of principle."

Other social-media users wondered whether Smirnov considered retired rhythmic gymnast and former United Russia Duma Deputy Alina Kabayeva, who has been widely rumored to be romantically involved with President Vladimir Putin, a "prostitute" as well.

'We Only Exist Now Thanks To Our Missiles'

Smirnov has a long history of provocative statements. In 2012, he declared that Islamist terrorists blow themselves up "because they don't want to live in states ruled by pederasts." Earlier this month he justified the blessing of nuclear warheads by priests by saying such weapons were "the defense of our people, our churches, our culture."

"We only exist now thanks to our missiles," he added. "Otherwise we would have been destroyed long ago."

And on February 9, Smirnov said that the idea that "the [ethnic] Russian people are the foundational people" of Russia should be included in the constitution.

"Various peoples have lived in our country for many centuries," he said. "But not one of these nations participated in the creation and strengthening of our state. All these peoples served selflessly and heroically, but only the Russians had the instinct for creating a state. This must be written down."

In a statement on February 16, the Russian Orthodox Church said that Smirnov's remarks were not aimed at women but at "those who debase and use them," Kipshidze said.

Smirnov was "in his own colorful manner…drawing attention to the problems of women who are forced to live with men without a registered marriage," the statement by church spokesman Vakhtang Kipshidze said.

"It can be supposed," Kipshidze said, "that his pastoral experience has shown him that men in such situations refuse their family obligations and often abandon their common-law wives without justification, causing them psychological trauma.

"The church once again attests that happiness in relations between men and women is attainable only on the foundation of love and mutual responsibility, which is bolstered by a marriage registered by the government," he said.

'Offending Honest Citizens'

The Russian Orthodox Church is by far the biggest religious denomination in Russia, with polls indicating that more than two-thirds of its citizens consider themselves Orthodox Christians but that far fewer regularly attend services.

The church has undergone a major resurgence since the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, and some Russians have voiced concern about the extent of its ties with the state under Putin.

The Twitter user who goes by the handle A Lady Who Has Had Too Much noted that Russia already has a law against "offending the feelings of religious believers" and wondered why there is no protection against "offending honest citizens."

"We Russian women should write a mass complaint against the political prostitute Smirnov for offending us," she wrote.

With reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Ostap Karmodi