Russian dissident priest who refused to stop services during pandemic seizes monastery by force

Sergei Romanov was banned from giving services in April after claiming social distancing restrictions were part of a satanic plot

Oliver Carroll
Thursday 18 June 2020 15:30 BST
Sergei Romanov in the Sredneuralsk monastery, near Yekaterinburg
Sergei Romanov in the Sredneuralsk monastery, near Yekaterinburg (Darya Shelekhova/

A controversial cleric in the industrial city of Yekaterinburg, defrocked after dismissing quarantine restrictions as a “satanic plot”, has forced his way back to the altar by seizing his former monastery with the help of Cossack guards.

Father Sergei Romanov, whose spiritual journey has taken an unorthodox route – via 13 years of prison, reportedly for murder – was due to defend himself in front of an ecclesiastical court on Monday when he disappeared and took over the Sredneuralsk monastery on the edge of town.

By Tuesday, several thickset men in black T-shirts had appeared at the entrance of the monastery, and were blocking the grounds from journalists and representatives of the local church management. It was reported that Father Sergei had “overturned” the leadership of the women’s monastery to take control.

In an address to his followers, the cleric said that local church leaders would have to storm the monastery to get him to leave.

Father Sergei is a well-known figure locally, the figurehead of an eccentric cult within the church called the “tsar worshippers”. Paying homage to Russia’ final tsar, Nikolai II, assassinated by the Bolsheviks in Yekaterinburg a year after the 1917 revolution, the “tsar worshipper” movement is driven by secrecy, masonic conspiracy theory, and visions of the apocalypse.

But Father Sergei enjoys many powerful political backers, including, perhaps most prominently, Natalya Poklonskaya, the Russian MP and former Crimean prosecutor. Some reports describe him as the spiritual confessor to Timur Sverdlovsky, a relative of “Grandpa Hassan”, who headed Russia’s criminal underworld until his death in 2013. Links to the ongoing Ukrainian conflict, army and Cossack paramilitary forces also run deep, as a 2017 dispatch on these pages showed.

Father Sergei’s controversial activities — including demonstrating exorcisms to visiting schoolchildren — often caused disquiet. But he was largely left to operate as he pleased. All that changed in April, when Romanov’s Covid-19 dissidence put him in direct conflict with the leadership of the Church.

In an angry sermon on 25 April, the unorthodox cleric railed against proposed restrictions on worship. “By closing churches,” he said, “our spiritual leadership is working with the forerunners of the Antichrist, covering up their shallowness and cowardice with an offer to communicate with God online.”

Local church authorities responded by banning Father Sergei from holding services. For a month, he complied and kept a low profile, but he broke his silence in early June with a tirade claiming Covid-19 had been invented to insert “surveillance chips” into the population. The plan was to trick Russians into taking a vaccine “with a special chip”, he insisted; for most people this would prove “fatal”, leaving shadowy powers to govern using artificial intelligence "without pity or compassion”.

As paranoiac as Father Sergei’s stance seems, his underlying anxiety speaks to a reasonably large constituency on the fringes of the Church, who are fearful of a return to Soviet-era restrictions of practice.

“For these people, the closure of churches has connotations of both communist practice and apocalyptical prophesy,” said Geraldine Fagan, author of Believing in Russia – Religious Policy after Communism. “It is so alarming to them they are now choosing to self-organise, with all previously hidden tensions being suddenly and dramatically brought to the fore.”

The cleric’s open rebellion also served to demonstrate the eroding authority of Patriarch Kirill inside the church. The coronavirus crisis has not treated the leader of the Orthodox Church well. Seen to dither before eventually backing quarantine, Kirill has come under fire from both government officials and church hardliners.

By Wednesday evening, reports suggested police and security officers had entered the Sredneuralsk monastery compound for talks with Father Sergei. The same reports also said followers of the renegade priest were being encouraged to offer support in numbers – raising the prospect of a drawn-out conflict.

Speaking on a YouTube video released on Wednesday afternoon, Father Sergei warned his parishioners included “33,000 military officers”, and that it would be down to them to decide his fate.

“I stayed in the monastery, in the house of the mother of God, so that the children would not be left without a father,” he said.

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