3rd Report of the VI All-Diaspora Council – by Vadim Yarmolinets – Church Publications and the Internet-Sobor Website

Church Publications and the Internet-Sobor Website

The Pre-Council Committee assigned me to prepare a report on church publications, and particularly on the activities of Metropolitan Agafangel’s bully pulpit, the Internet-Sobor website. What gives me the right to take on such a topic? I have spent 30 years of my life working for the press, 18 of which were spent at the oldest Russian émigré newspaper, “The New Russian Word” (“Новоe Pусскоe Cловo”). After the newspaper closed, having celebrated its 100th anniversary, I now work for radio stations in New York City.

Journalism is often accused of being in the thrall of those who pay for its services. These charges are on occasion fair. Ideally, journalism’s task is the gathering of verifiable information and its objective analysis. Instead, we are often fed disinformation, the goal of which is to acquire and hold on to power. What kind of source of information can we call Metropolitan Agafangel’s platform Internet-Sobor? This site, as we know, has distinguished itself among church publications by conducting heated debates both on abstract topics, as well as current political topics.

Under the category of abstract topics, I would list the polemics prompted by the blasphemous fabrications of Vyacheslav Demin on the nature of the swastika and Hitler’s role in world history. Demin’s articles initially appeared on the site of the Moscow parish of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia of Fr. Valeriy Leonichev, but arguments on these topics then spilled over onto Internet-Sobor and The Russian Idea website, whose chief editor is the well-known Orthodox columnist Mikhail Viktorovich Nazarov, who stepped forward as the main critic of Demin.

The results of this dispute are well known. The Moscow parish split in half and the group of parishioners that supported Nazarov left. Nazarov, who transferred his criticism from focusing on Demin on to the latter’s protector, Fr. Valeriy, and then on the Metropolitan, was expelled from the Church.
Political discussions were provoked by the overthrow of the government in Ukraine, the subsequent war, and judgments on the role of Russia and the Russian people in the context of these current events. At the end of 2014 these debates resulted in a group of Russian parishes, led by two bishops and a dozen priests, leaving Metropolitan Agafangel. (A link to Fr. Sergey Kondakov’s blog post.) This case involved approximately two thousand laypeople, a huge loss, especially in light of the small size of the ROCA(A).

It was obvious to both ordinary laypeople and the Odessa Synod, that neither of these debates brought benefit to the Church.

In this regard, the minutes of the April 2015 session of the Synod are a telling document, to wit:
“An attack is being waged on ‘Internet-Sobor,’ with a petition begun to shut it down. At one time, the Chairman envisioned this site as an Internet resource accessible by everyone, where information could be presented in support of the Church, especially in cases of our parishes being persecuted. To that end, it is important that the site presents an adequate range of opinions, even including material from representatives of other jurisdictions. As a result of well-known and unfortunate events, ‘Internet-Sobor’ now contains mostly material relating to events within the Church. This has led to relative peace on the site, but the rate of visits has dropped threefold and is not growing. If there were persecutions, this web resource would not be able to provide a defense in terms of vital information.”

This is the logic of the defenders of the Internet-Sobor site: the site is needed as an important source of information, but the effectiveness of its work depends on site traffic, and a high rate of hits can be achieved by providing a sufficiently broad range of opinions.
“Providing a sufficiently broad range of opinions” in this case is understood as the publication of provocative material; works such as those of the Orthodox Hitlerite Demin, or material that, outside the borders of Ukraine, is considered Russophobic.
What stands out in this case:

First, that the Chairman, who presents himself as a stalwart fighter of ecumenism and now schismo- ecumenism, is prepared to allow his site to be a platform for representatives of other jurisdictions.

Second, while claiming political neutrality, the Metropolitan posts material that prompt accusations of Russophobia. His well-known article “Whence comes danger” (IS 11/29/14) is illustrative, as it discusses from what corner of the world the Antichrist may arise. Russia – is one of the countries on the list.

Third, the excerpt that I provided of criticism of Internet-Sobor has been deleted from the version of the minutes posted on the official site of the ROCA. I found it in the full version of the minutes on the diocesan site of Archbishop Sophroniy.

The desire of the site administrators to increase traffic is understandable, but any reasonable person can see that publishing provocative material leads to the destruction of the Church.

What is more important than for the editor in chief of the site?

As recently as September, 2016, a new article appeared by Fr. Valeriy Leonichev with the title, “Before his departure President Obama legalizes Satanism on a government level.” This announcement is totally absurd fiction. President Obama did not sign any such law, and before that, Congress obviously had not considered any such bill. Leonichev’s fanciful notion, picked up by IS, is absurd since the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits Congress from passing any law related to the establishment of any religion.

The impression is that the only reason for publishing this was to provoke another heated debate, with the usual inflaming of the audience at home and abroad, and mainly, in rebellious America, whose president presumably legalized Satanism.
In view of the destructive effects of Internet-Sobor, many in the Church consider it vital to exclude any material open to debate from their parish, diocesan or synod sites. An example of such a site is the “Western European Newsletter” on the “Karlovtchanin” site. The hit counter on the site is visible to everyone and shows that its information is viewed anywhere from a thousand to three thousand times. The consistency of the level of hits speaks to the stability of its audience and their trust, but such sites as “Karlovtchanin” will not put a stop to the discussions on blogs and social media sites such as “Live Journal,” for example.

Should the Church avoid political discussions?

To answer this, we can turn to lessons from the past. World cataclysms such as the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia or the Second World War did not allow the Church to completely stay away from events that swept up their flock. This can also be said of our time, where the Russo-Ukraine conflict did not bypass the Church, which counts Russians and Ukrainians as its members. The question is how to discuss their common plight so that neither one of them loses the feeling that the Church Abroad is their common home.

This obviously demands adherence to the most common journalistic ethics, and despite the circumstances, in war or in peace, these ethics first of all ensure that opponents are provided the opportunity to engage in discourse as equals. The truth will never be attained without it.
Such a rule does not exist for Metropolitan Agafangel. As the editor in chief of Internet-Sobor, he can attack his opponent as much as he likes, without giving the aggrieved party the chance to answer him directly. And even if an answer slipped somehow onto the pages of Internet-Sobor, it is promptly removed.
Those cut off from discussions on IS try to continue the debate on other sites, but they face the fact that the Metropolitan continues to ignore them, or that he answers selectively, avoiding those points of contention for which he has no answer.

As an example, I would like to show how the conflict between Metropolitan Agafangel and the Holy Trinity parish in Astoria, NY, has been described in the church press. This conflict served as the breaking point between the Odessa Synod and two of the larger dioceses.

Allow me a short review of the reasons for the conflict. After the passing of Fr. Vsevolod Dutikow in September 2015, Met. Agafangel ignored the many requests of the parish council to name Fr. Dmitriy Dobronravov as the rector and assigned Fr. Vladimir Petrenko from Brazil to the vacant position. The council explained to Met. Agafangel that the parish was incapable of supporting a priest and his family of four, when the priest is unable to at least in part support himself with a regular job. There were other reasons as well for why the parish could not support this appointment, but the primary reason was the real possibility of bankruptcy that this decision would threaten. Met. Agafangel ignored all the reasons presented by the council and, having arrived for a general parish meeting, tried to insinuate his supporters onto the council. This attempt fell through. Then, having returned to Odessa, he openly declared at the Synod’s May 2016 session that order could be restored in the parish if those who were a bother to him were thrown out. He then slandered parish council member Larisa Young and Fr. Dmitriy Dobronravov.

The parish learned of this from the report of Fr. Oleg Mironov, who attended the Synod session.
The parish council then sent Met. Agafangel a written request asking that he explain his words. Again, no answer to this request was received, but punitive measures soon followed.

In June 2016, Met. Agafangel banned two members of the Parish Council from taking communion and explained his actions on IS this way: “Fr. Vladimir called Vadim Yarmolinets on the eve of his planned visit to the parish for its patronal feast and, in reply, was promised that the police would be called if he dared to arrive and even his life and well-being were threatened. I have never experienced such threats to a rector in our church. As a result, Fr. Vladimir, decided, after consulting with me, to cancel his visit to avoid having the patronal feast disrupted. It is clear by their actions that members of the Parish Council, Larisa Young (she sets the tone at their meetings) and Vadim Yarmolinets are staging a rebellion against the rector, the ruling bishop and the Synod of Bishops, which assigned the rector. In other words, it is an open rebellion against our church.”

This statement, which to this day remains on Internet-Sobor, is not only slanderous, but is also an example of how to destroy the reputation of people without giving them the opportunity to answer such serious accusations. And this accusation is quite serious, as threatening the life of someone in the U.S. is a criminal offense.

Whether Fr. Vladimir’s life was threatened or not could easily be cleared up by Fr. Vladimir himself, but he has twice refused to answer this question. He has answered neither a letter from the Holy Trinity parish council or a similar written request from the Pre-Council Committee.
The story of how two members of the Holy Trinity Parish Council were slandered and banned from communion was described in detail in articles on the site “Portal-Credo” and the blog of Fr. Sergey Kondakov. Nevertheless, Met. Agafangel announced from his Internet-Sobor platform that his opponents cannot present a single, serious charge against him.

I repeat that threatening someone’s life can be a cause for criminal investigation, as is slander with the aim of seizing property for your “satchel of real estate,” which is what Met. Agafangel calls property of the parishes.
One could also mention how many times the lie was repeated on the pages of IS that the Holy Trinity parish council was throwing the widowed Matushka Irene Dutikow out on the street.

The method used by Met. Agafangel is brilliantly described by one of the best masters of propaganda in the world, Joseph Goebbels, who said “we are not striving for truth, but for effect.”
The effect is obvious. Even those who are not blind followers of the metropolitan, but are even his critics, repeat his words that the accusations made against him can be characterized as only displeasure with his administrative actions.
As recently as December 2016, M.V. Nazarov wrote in a letter to the Pre-Council Committee of the VI All-Diaspora Council that appears on his blog, “…the differences of opinion that the Committee has with the First Hierarch are administrative in nature and do not appear to many members of ROCA(A) to be convincing grounds to demand that he relinquish his authority as the First Hierarch.”

After all of this, how can you not say that the method of repeating lies and isolating your opponents does not work.
Actually, our charges do go beyond the mere administrative, especially since they coincide with the accusations that Nazarov himself has made against the Metropolitan; that he has violated the canons and moral standards, which may belie an absence of the fear of God, in other words, irreligion.

Such are the results of abusing the power of the press, in this case, by Internet-Sobor and its editor in chief.
One more requirement of the work of an editor is the maintenance of the most ordinary standards of civility. It is evident on the Internet-Sobor site how easily those who comment switch from the topic of discussion to mockery and insults, made all the more easy by the use of pseudonyms. Insult whomever and however you like, who will stop you?

Can the metropolitan, who is the administrator of IS, not monitor civility on his site? He not only can do this, but he himself established the rules for this requirement at the Synod of Bishops session in May 2014, and therefore should be one of its primary adherents.
The Synod issued the “Resolution on rules for discussions on public informational resources,” which stated, “topics that are viewed by everyone can and should be general in nature and may not impugn the honor and virtue of any one of our brothers in Christ. Discussions that eventually do relate to someone in particular may be carried out only by internal correspondence and may not be viewed by outsiders.”

The fictional account of how a member of the parish council threatened the life of his brother in Christ was made public by the metropolitan without any trial or investigation, and obviously, without allowing the accused to defend himself. The same was true of the story of driving Matushka Irene out into the street.
How can we speak of standards of decency in discussions, if the author of the rules of conduct themselves is the first to violate them?
The Metropolitan does nothing to filter out anger, insults, and slander from the discussions that he himself starts. People who have any shred of self-respect at all will not remain members of this debate club for very long. Indeed, the list of regular participants of these discussions is not long and doesn’t change; nun Vera, Hieromonk Nikandr, Evgeniy and someone who calls himself Method (Metod). Several people, including the Metropolitan himself, use the pseudonym “Internet-Sobor.” With enviable cohesion, this team of authors heaps abuse on opponents of their boss.

And the same question again arises, what is the point of these discussions, if their result is the predictable, the destruction of the church?
Any report, it would seem, should end by concluding how to adapt to the new demands of our highly technological age. All of us want to live according to exact instructions, put forth for by intelligent and good-intentioned pastors.

One thing that can be recommended with certainty is that if the owners of a site decide to open a comments section, the use of pseudonyms in these sections is not permissible. People who commune from one chalice, people who belong to one religious community, no matter where their parishes are located, should not hide from one and other. The basis for sound relations in a family, in a parish and in the whole church, is trust. If these people are hiding something, if they are pursuing personal goals, there is no place for them in church discussions.

In speaking of the peculiarities of Metropolitan Agafangel’s personality, as a publisher and an editor, it is important to bear in mind where his residence is located and in what informational context he lives. His declaration of neutrality cannot withstand any scrutiny. He sees the Kiev government as his protector against the MP, whose agents, in his words, surround him everywhere.

The Metropolitan declared as much behind the closed doors of the extraordinary session of the Council of Bishops in November 2014, when the discussion again turned to the destructive activities of IS, and he said, “I know if the territory of Novorossiya is established here, they will annihilate us, 100%.”
And further, “So, I should pray for Novorossiya? Obviously we have prayed that these wretches do not make it here. John Herbst, who is a person with experience in these matters, warned me that Odessa could be invaded. It is possible that we will have to defend our sacred items.”
And finally, “At least, the Ukraine government allows us to live and flourish.”

The impact of living in Ukraine and sharing common interests with its current government, which one would be hard-pressed to define as expressing the interests of the Russian part of the country’s population, was clearly reflected in those articles on IS that so outraged the Russians living in Russia.
Metropolitan Agafangel’s attitude towards the conflict between Russia and Ukraine would certainly be different if he were to live in New York City, where his predecessors lived, as befits the Metropolitan of New York and Eastern America. But it seems that he does not like America and for that reason does not stay there very long. America answers him in kind.

I would like to conclude my report thus; to train a professional editor or blogger is possible, just as you can prepare any specialist of any other profession, but this training needs to start with a future professional person who is honest and conscientious. The holy canons and the rules for serving in the Church are created for honest people. A deceitful person will always find a loophole to get around the rules.

Unfortunately, in our life on earth evil is inescapable and often lives next to us. Our task as Christians is to try to the best of our ability to guard ourselves from this evil and to protect those whom we love.