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Moscow church destroyed
Roman Zhukov
Moscow church destroyed

Wreckage by night

International | Destruction of a Moscow church is a new sign of Putin-era repression

Issue: "Reassessing the genome," Oct. 6, 2012

It was in the early hours of the morning on Sept. 6 when Pastor Vasili Romanyuk’s phone rang. A group of men backed by local police were demolishing his Holy Trinity Pentecostal Church, housed in a three-story building nestled in a Moscow suburb. As word spread, congregants arrived at the scene hoping to save the building, but their efforts were futile. By dawn the church was in ruins and some of its most valuable contents were missing. 

An isolated incident? A misunderstanding? Analysts watching the current climate in the former Cold War country don’t think so: “This destruction of the church is about as concrete of evidence as you can get that something very bad and very troubling is taking place,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “This could not have happened without the backing, support, and implicit blessing of the police.” 

The incident is just one sign of deteriorating freedoms in Russia, and behind the scenes a cozy relationship between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church has raised more than a few eyebrows. As President Vladimir Putin digs into his third term, a number of Kremlin crackdowns involving vague interpretations of the country’s extremism law and other human-rights abuses are troubling signs that the country has slipped into a familiar, repressive era.

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“When you have unknown people backed by the police coming out at midnight to begin tearing down a church, you know something doesn’t smell right,” Lantos Swett told me.

Officials evicted Holy Trinity Church from its original building in 1995 and relocated the church to the eastern Moscow suburb. The congregation used its own funds to construct a new building and repeatedly battled officials over permits. The church demolition and its history reflect an emerging pattern: Authorities confiscate land from non-favored religious communities and force the congregation to relocate to a remote suburb, the religious leaders apply for permits that are subsequently denied, and officials confiscate (once again) or demolish the relocated congregation, citing lack of proper documentation.

Pastor Romanyuk and a small group of the church’s 550 congregants arrived on site around 3:30 a.m. as about 45 men claiming to be civil volunteers blocked them from the building and threw stones. “When I arrived, I just burst into tears,” 25-year-old Natalya Cherevichinik told The Moscow Times as she surveyed the destruction. “I couldn’t believe that something that had been built over several years could be destroyed in a few hours.”  

Police arrived but did nothing to stop the razing. Furniture, instruments, computer equipment, and chalices for the Eucharist were among the items taken from the church.  

Romanyuk has been fighting an uphill battle with the public prosecutor of Moscow’s Eastern Administrative District. According to Forum 18, a Moscow-based news service covering religious liberty in the region, the prosecutor filed suit against the church in 2010, demanding it vacate the site despite the fact that the congregation was originally given permission to use the land.

“I couldn’t believe that something that had been built over several years could be destroyed in a few hours.” —Natalya Cherevichinik

City officials told Romanyuk last month that the church would be destroyed by Sept. 15, but delivered nothing official about what was to take place. “We didn’t believe they would just do this,” Romanyuk told Forum 18. According to a report in The Moscow Times, the city plans to build a giant sports complex on the land.

The pastor didn’t let the crippled building halt worship plans. About 300 to 400 congregants gathered among the rubble for a two-hour church service the following Sunday, but police detained Romanyuk and took him to the police station after the service for questioning about the “illegal rally.” Police said the detention order came from “above,” according to one eyewitness. 

A new law passed in the wake of anti-Putin demonstrations—over allegations of election rigging following Putin’s return to the presidency last March—requires a permit for outdoor gatherings. 

Other changes make it easier to target non-Orthodox churches. Authorities arrested and sentenced to two years in jail three women from a Russian punk band over anti-Kremlin activities, provoking an international outcry. The group performed an anti-Kremlin song at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and was charged with “hooliganism driven by religious hatred.” 

The sentence sparked condemnation from a cadre of Hollywood stars, and on Sept. 12 Russian Prime Minister and former President Dmitry Medvedev came out in support of the group’s release. Medvedev clarified his apparent turn-around: The incident still makes him “nauseated” but the band’s six months in jail were “fully enough to make them think about what happened,” he said during a press conference. 

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