Saturday, December 31, 2011

From Russia With Love

Russian Prime Minister Putin
and Greek Orthodox Abbot Ephraim
What a year it’s been.  I'm sure you’ve heard all that before.  So I won’t even start.  But I can’t resist telling you of the surprise CCCP I received.  No, I don’t mean by that the Cyrillic abbreviation (CCCP) for the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), I mean a Corroborating Christmas Chanukah Present.   Then again, from the players involved in this story there’s undoubtedly a bit of the old Cold War intrigues at play.  

First, some background that's not intended as BSP even though it might seem that way.  It’s been almost a year since the release of my third Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis novel, Prey on Patmos.  The story opened with the modern day murder of a monk on the Greek island where John wrote the Book of Revelation, and moved 250 miles northwest to the Aegean peninsula of Mount Athos, the world’s oldest surviving monastic community. Mount Athos is the idyllic, yet haunting, home to twenty fairy tale-like monasteries guarding the secrets of Byzantium amid a way of life virtually unchanged for more than 1500 years.           

The heart of the story tied into the murdered monk’s efforts to link Russians to a high stakes financial scandal involving Greek government ministers and the abbot of the most prominent Mount Athos monastery in a fraudulent land swap and money laundering scheme arising out of the 2004 Athens Olympics.

An actual financial scandal along those lines was big time news in Greece and, a month or so before the release of Prey on Patmos, Michael Lewis published an article in Vanity Fair, titled, “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds,” which focused on that scandal at Vatopedi Monastery and its abbot, Archimandrite Ephraim.  I consider Lewis’ article a prequel to Prey on Patmos :).  And this year “60 Minutes” did its own piece on Mount Athos, Vatopedi, and Abbot Ephraim.
Vatopedi Monastery, Mt. Athos

But nowhere did anyone suggest a possible Russian role in anything.  Allow me to correct myself: Nowhere except in Prey on Patmos.  To those of you in the media who actually scoffed at my suggestion, tsk, tsk.  It’s payback time!

It all started to come together a week ago on Christmas Eve with this headline story in the Greek press: 

Greek Abbot Accused of Money Laundering Arrested.

The Abbot of the Vatopedi Monastery at Greece's Mount Athos has been placed under house arrest on charges of money laundering and embezzlement in connection with a €100 million ($130 million) land swap deal with the Greek government that prosecutors say ended up benefiting the monastery.

Abbot Ephraim was taken into police custody on the grounds of the 1,000-year-old monastery, which bans all women and female animals from setting foot on its soil.

But wait, I said a Russian influence, and there’s still no mention of anything like that in the news article.  For that we have to go back about a month, just before the December 4th Russian elections.  As you may recall, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party was facing serious challenges, and with the Russian people’s ever-deepening commitment to the Eastern Orthodox faith they shared with the monasteries of Mount Athos, a candidate favored by the Church had much to gain with the voters.

So, guess who showed up two weeks before the elections bearing one of the most revered relics in Christendom, the Belt of the Virgin Mary?  
Putin and Ephraim staring at
the Belt of the Virgin Mary

As the Russian press reported:

Normally situated at the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece, the relic made of camel wool is believed to have the power to boost fertility.  The Russian people really have come out in force!  Braving cold and snow, Moscow residents were willing to stand in a 5km [2 mile] line just to touch the belt…

Monks who accompanied the shrine from Athos were astonished at such a huge number of believers arriving to pray before the Belt.

The belt has already visited 14 Russian cities, and Moscow is the last point before it is taken back to Greece.  In total, approximately 2 [ultimately 3] million people in Russia have queued to venerate the holy relic. 

But lest there be any doubt of who was responsible for bringing the treasured Vatopedi monastery’s relic to the people of Russia, there was a highly publicized meeting between Abbot Ephraim and Prime Minister Putin on November 25th at which time each profusely thanked the other for bringing it all to pass.

Here are some brief, significant excerpts from the transcript of their meeting:

Archimandrite EPHRAIM:     Mr. Putin, I am very glad to have been by your side all this time. We are amazed at the number of Russian people who came to worship the Cincture [Belt]. All of us, the monks at Vatopedi Monastery who brought the belt, have attended the sites of worship and personally witnessed people’s eagerness to touch the holy relic. This shows that Russians have profound faith. I am certain that this is the greatest strength of your nation, and it is a strength that brings our countries together. Greece is going through a difficult period and I ask you to provide assistance to our country wherever possible under these challenging conditions. I would also like to thank Mr. Yakunin, chairman of St Andrew the First-Called Foundation’s board of trustees [Remember that organization], for his efforts and participation, which made it possible to bring the relic to cities across Russia…

Vladimir PUTIN:     I remember my visit to Mount Athos and the warm welcome I received. I want to thank you once again and ask you to pass my best wishes to the Holy Community. I remember the people who accompanied us there, and those who accompanied us unofficially as well. One of them stuck in my memory the most, and I told you about it.

Archimandrite EPHRAIM:     Certainly. The Holy Mountain shows its love for you. (Emphasis added)

Vladimir PUTIN:     Many thanks. Russia and Mount Athos have centuries-long ties, going back to the 18th century. There is a Russian monastery and many Russian pilgrims visit the mount.

There were also photo ops for Russian President Medvedev with Abbot Ephraim.
Abbot Ephraim and Russian President Medvedev

Let’s now fast-forward a month to the day after Christmas and Ephraim’s arrest.  This was the big news story in Greece, as covered by the Russian Press:

The Russian Orthodox public organization, the Foundation of St. Andrew the First-Called has spoken up in defense of the archimandrite of the world-famous Vatopedi monastery on Mount Athos in Greece, ITAR-TASS reports.
Chairman of St. Andrew First-Called Foundation
 with Putin and Abbot Ephraim

The Chairman of that Foundation, who sat next to Putin at his late November Moscow meeting with Abbot Ephraim, also happens to be the Russian Government’s appointed head of the Russian Railway system.  Although some might say the Foundation’s support of Abbot Ephraim is simply a quid pro quo return of “love” to Vatopedi from Russia, there is justification for viewing the Greek judicial system on this matter with some cynicism.  After all, although Abbot Ephraim, along with 31 other defendants, will stand trial, the politicians embroiled in the scandal will not because the Greek Parliament decided in February this year that the statute of limitations—which is far more restrictive for members of Parliament than for other citizens—had expired.

And there are many within and outside of Greece who hold Abbot Ephraim in the highest regard.  As one reporter (Emmanouela Seiradaki) covering Abbot Ephraim’s trip to Moscow wrote:

One thing monk Ephraim knows well is business so it’s only normal that he would find a way to exploit financially this relic hysteria [in Russia over the Belt of the Virgin Mary]. As any hot-shot manager would do, he spotted the market gap and produced the needed product in no-time. The product is no other than relic replicas that would satisfy the spiritual needs of Russian believers. As expected, the replicas sold out within days. But he didn’t stop there. He promised he would write a book on the relic and the miracles associated with it. No wonder why the Greek media say that Ephraim would be ideal for being Greece’s PM right now. He’s the only one that can actually enforce development and production and as it turns out his public relation skills are far greater than [former Prime Minister] Papandreou or [opposition leader] Samaras.

But my piece today is not about judging guilt or innocence, or even right or wrong.  It’s simply my chance to end 2011 on the cathartically joyous note of shouting, “I TOLD YOU SO!” to certain unnamed naysayers.

As reported yesterday in Ekathimerini (the equivalent of Greece’s New York Times), the Russian Church, which has close ties with Putin, has heavily criticized Greece’s decision to take action against Abbot Ephraim, prompting the Greek Foreign Ministry to ask outsiders to not to attempt to interfere in its justice system. But there is even graver alarm being expressed in some quarters at this Russian pressure on behalf of Abbot Ephraim.  A conservative Greek parliamentary leader stated that detaining the Abbot after his highly publicized visit to Russia with the Belt of the Virgin has damaged Putin’s standing with his electoral base, and caused irreparable damage to Greece’s relations with Russia.

All this unexpected Russian support for Abbot Ephraim has given rise to a plethora of rumors on the depth and breath of links between Russia and the goings on at Mount Athos.  My favorite at the moment is one running around Athens (for which I have no reason whatsoever to believe is true) that Abbot Ephraim is godfather to Putin’s wife!

This drama is a long way from over and God knows what might come out next…perhaps what’s at the top of page 152 in the hardcover version of Prey on Patmos.


  1. An update: The Greek press (Ekathimerini) has published an opinion piece titled, "What the Ephraim case tells us." And the gist of its conclusion is, "The reason [for Russia's backing of Ephraim] is that Russia is eager to take on a leading role on Mount Athos and not because of Ephraim himself."

    As I said, this is far from over.

  2. As you thank your blogmates, we who look to this blog everyday, thank all of you for enlightening and brightening our days.

  3. You're very welcome, Beth, but if truth be told, without contributors such as yourself who follow and encourage our efforts to bring something different to a "writers blog," where would we be? [Tim would probably answer that with some reference to the Red Sox and wandering in a desert.:)] Happy New Year.

  4. Poor blind people, you are keen on politicization of the arrest on an Eastern Orthodox innocent priest. Shame on you! You little Barbarians, you have always been. You may never wake up

  5. Thanks, Anonymous, for your message to the Greeks that politics plays no part in religion.