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The Bishop's Gambit: What's Behind The FSB's Case Against A Russian Orthodox Clergyman?

Bishop Flavian (left) attends a ceremony with Patriarch Kirill in 2014.
Bishop Flavian (left) attends a ceremony with Patriarch Kirill in 2014.

MOSCOW -- In March, a strange story swept through Russian online media: Police and agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB) had raided the St. Petersburg apartment of the bishop of Cherepovets and Belozersk.

According to the sketchy reports based on anonymous law enforcement sources, the authorities discovered a laboratory for producing illegal drugs there. They claimed that a mysterious 22-year-old identified as "Kain Montanelli" was living in the flat and producing and selling narcotics.

The bishop, Flavian, was dismissed from his post by the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church "for health reasons" and sent to an obscure monastery in Vologda, a sprawling region north of Moscow and east of St. Petersburg. Flavian's lawyers denied the accusations against him and said that he'd resigned as bishop of his own accord.

St. Petersburg police at the time did not issue a statement about the raid and no arrests were reported.

Flavian, whose birth name is Maksim Mitrofanov, is now living in London. He spoke exclusively by telephone with RFE/RL's Russian Service to tell his version of the story. He denies allegations of wrongdoing and alleges that the FSB is punishing him for refusing to serve as an informant.

The case marks the first time in the post-Soviet period that the FSB has gone after such a high-ranking cleric in the Russian Orthodox Church.

Bishop In Vologda

Flavian was born in Saratov in 1975. His grandmother took him to church at an early age and by the age of 13 he was serving as an altar boy, he said. He graduated from a seminary in Saratov and became a priest in 1997. For a while he taught in the same seminary, rising to become director of academic programs.

He served in the cathedral in Samara and, in 2007, was sent to serve at the Russian Orthodox cathedral in London. In 2009 he bought an apartment in London and was granted British citizenship. He says that he was given the 200,000 British pounds to purchase the flat by his father, a research physicist who had emigrated from Russia in the early 1990s.

In 2014, he was given the opportunity to become a bishop when the bishop of Vologda was promoted to metropolitan. "So I made the stupid move of leaving peaceful London and moving to Vologda," Flavian said. The Vologda eparchy was split into three parts and Flavian became the bishop of Cherepovets and Belozersk.

Russian Orthodox priests must be married, and Flavian had earlier taken a wife. He had a son from his marriage. However, to become a bishop, Flavian had to take orders as a celibate monk. Even though Orthodoxy does not recognize divorce, in Flavian's case, a divorce decree from the secular authorities in Saratov was enough to satisfy the church.

As a bishop, Flavian increased the number of monasteries in his eparchy from one to three, increasing the number of monks and working priests as well. His official salary was 1.5 million rubles ($20,500) a month.

Flavian says he was given political assignments by the church.
Flavian says he was given political assignments by the church.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill began giving Flavian political assignments, he said. He was made co-head of a joint commission on relations with the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church.

In 2018, he traveled to Syria and Lebanon -- officially to bring humanitarian aid to the region, but unofficially to convey an unspecified sum of money to the Orthodox patriarch of Antioch and All the East in exchange for his support in Moscow's opposition to the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

Kain Montanelli

In 2017, Flavian said, he met a young Russian man going by the name of Kain Montanelli (RFE/RL knows the man's real name but has agreed to conceal it due to the sensitivity of the situation). Flavian said Montanelli told him he'd been born into the large family of a priest in the Ural Mountains city of Kurgan. He said he was regularly beaten as a child, forced to kneel on dried peas, and to pray for hours at a time. After he finished school, he ran away to Yekaterinburg. For a time he worked as a waiter, and he failed the entrance exams needed to get into an academic institute.

He then moved to St. Petersburg, where he supposedly applied to enter the FSB academy, but failed the physical examination.

"I came to love him," Flavian told RFE/RL. "It was some sort of sublimation for me, I think. I did not have good relations with my father and my relations with my son are essentially material. But now I had a real spiritual connection. I began to show him the world. We traveled around Europe. I took him to London."

Flavian rented a St. Petersburg apartment for Montanelli and paid him 40,000 rubles ($550) a month to work as his assistant.

Asked whether the two men had a physical relationship, as was hinted at in negative terms in many of the news stories that appeared in March, Flavian responded: "Your question is absurd. Monks do not have sexual relations."

After a while, Flavian said he noticed that Montanelli began to have some money. The young man claimed he was earning cash by selling knock-off Western-label designer goods.

However, in December 2019, Montanelli and two of his friends were arrested and charged with manufacturing drugs. Investigators claim that the trio began selling marijuana. Later, on the so-called dark Internet, they became acquainted with someone going by the alias "President." Flavian believes that President was an FSB agent.

The young men bought a dacha outside St. Petersburg and President allegedly gave them money to set up a laboratory to produce synthetic drugs. When the dacha was searched, investigators claimed that about a ton of narcotics precursors were seized.

'A Dialogue With The Devil'

Flavian's St. Petersburg apartment was also searched at that time, although the story did not leak to the media. He was questioned and tested for narcotics. Agents seized his passport, his credit cards, his mobile phones, and 570,000 rubles ($7,775) in cash, according to the official report, a copy of which RFE/RL has examined. No drugs were found at the apartment.

But during the search, Flavian said, he was questioned by an FSB lieutenant named Krasavin. The name M.K. Krasavin is listed on the police report of the search. "He said that they know all about me and that they have been tracking me since 2007," Flavian said. "We need information about your contacts."

Flavian said that since his time in London, he was acquainted with numerous people working at the United Nations and other international organizations, as well as with people connected with various Russian oligarchs. He said that the FSB had tried to recruit him several times, sometimes approaching him through friends in St. Petersburg or employees in his office in Cherepovets.

"I told him that I would not cooperate with an organization that was up to its elbows in the blood of Russian priests and the Russian people," Flavian recalled. "The holy fathers warn us not to enter into dialogue with the devil because you will lose. That organization is purely diabolical. And that's what I told him to his face."

The matter seemed to have died down until March, when local media were full of reports citing unnamed law enforcement sources that a "drug laboratory" had been found in Flavian's apartment and hinting at "inappropriate relations" between Flavian and Montanelli. Flavian travelled to Moscow to consult with Metropolitan Dionisii, the patriarch's chief of staff.

"Dionisii said to me: 'Why didn't you cooperate with them? Why do you need these problems? Everyone cooperates,'" Flavian recalled. Flavian said that he was instructed to sign a letter of resignation on health grounds and sent to the Pavlo-Obnorsky Monastery, some 70 kilometers from Vologda.

FSB Pressure Mounts

Flavian said that conditions at the monastery were so appalling that he left after just two days, returning to St. Petersburg. There he remained undisturbed until 5 a.m. on December 2.

That's when an FSB operational group headed by Lieutenant Krasavin appeared to search the apartment, Flavian said. He claimed that he and a guest who was also there were roughly manhandled by the agents, forced to the floor and left bleeding and bruised. The search continued until 1 p.m. According to the police report, which RFE/RL has seen, nothing illegal was found.

"'Take your toothbrush and a change of underwear,'" Flavian said he was told. "'You are going to be arrested.'"

"I told them that I wouldn't take anything with me and that if I was arrested, I would immediately begin a hunger strike to the death."

Flavian said that conditions at the Pavlo-Obnorsky Monastery in the Vologda region were so appalling that he left after just two days.
Flavian said that conditions at the Pavlo-Obnorsky Monastery in the Vologda region were so appalling that he left after just two days.

Flavian was held at the local headquarters of the St. Petersburg branch of the FSB until 9 p.m. He was led into an interrogation room where he was confronted by one of the young defendants in the Montanelli drug case, who mechanically claimed that he knew Flavian and that Flavian had given him 500,000 rubles ($6,800) to start a drug laboratory.

Flavian denies ever meeting the man before.

Flavian showed RFE/RL a letter from Montanelli's lawyer, Nadezhda Zhirinova, to the High Ecclesiastical Court of the Russian Orthodox Church in which she claims that her client had been under pressure from the FSB to provide information "about any foreign property or bank accounts" owned by Flavian and about his contacts abroad with "church employees, UN employees, employees of the Council of Europe, and people in the inner circles of Russian oligarchs."

The letter adds that these conversations were "unofficial" and took place without the presence of defense counsel.

Zhirnova declined to be interviewed for this story.

At 9 p.m. on December 2, Flavian was released from custody without being charged or ordered to remain in the city. He was immediately summoned to Moscow to see Metropolitan Dionisii again.

"I explained the situation to him and he told me that I was myself to blame and that I don't understand what is going on," Flavian said. He added that Dionisii ordered him to return to the monastery under threat of being disgraced.

"I understood that he had reached an agreement with the FSB that I would await my summons not in custody but in a monastery," Flavian said.

He pretended that he would comply, but two days later, he was on a plane to Britain.

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Moscow by Sergei Khazov-Cassia of RFE/RL's Russian Service

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