Smyert Shpionam — Death to Spies

This will set the mood.

“Balkan, Balkan,” they said in France of a pimp slapping a whore or three kids beating up a fourth — anything barbarous or brutal.

– Alan Furst, Kingdom of Shadows (2000)

Eleven of 15 bishops of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church currently in office were spies for the former communist regime’s Committee for State Security — the Darzhavna sigurnost or the DS — according to an inquiry carried out by the government’s Committee on Disclosure of Documents.

If you had not heard this news, I would not be surprised. While this has dominated the news in Bulgaria and in the former Soviet bloc, only the Agence France Press (AFP) among the Western wire services picked up the story. And as far as I have been able to tell via the magic of Google, only two Australian news organizations subsequently published the story — nothing so far in the U.S. or U.K.

Well what of it? Am I writing this post to capture the Bulgarian Orthodox demographic audience for GetReligion?

While the setting is Bulgaria and the characters are Orthodox clergy and secret policemen, the issues are of collaboration with evil and the battle for truth. Change the characters and the same story could be told of Vichy France, the Deutsche Evangelische Kirche and the Confessing Church in Germany, or the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the House Church movement in China.

While the canard that Pius XII was a pro-Nazi stooge continues to excite journalists — a real story of church leaders collaborating with evil is being ignored. In French there is an expression très balkan: meaning hopelessly confused with the connotation of labyrinthine or byzantine machinations. It would be easy to dismiss this story as being a très balkan intrigue more worthy of an Eric Ambler novel than hard news. However this story raises profound questions of morality and journalistic integrity.

Follow me through the Balkan labyrinth and see if we emerge in the same place.

As you might expect the Bulgarian press has been all over this story.  The English-language Sofia Echo has half a dozen stories: the initial report, what the bishops did for the secret police, popular reaction, calls for the bishops to resign, actions to be taken by the church’s synod — as well as the surprising revelation that the 97 year old Patriarch of the church, Maxim, was not a spy.

Before the report was released the country’s largest circulation daily newspaper Dneven Trud called for the bishops to seek forgiveness.

The clergy have had 20 years to prepare the faithful for this moment, to do penance and explain how they served the police as well as God: ‘To save the Church and protect you from persecution we had dealings with the secret police”, or something along those lines. But only Joseph, Metropolitan of the New York Bulgarian Orthodox Church, has shown contrition for his connections to the secret police. All the others claimed to be clean and free of blame. In view of the anticipated revelations the Church must prepare itself for a retaliation from society.

After the report was  released the daily Standart — which is Russian owned and follows a pro-Russian line — called for repentance from the bishops but forgiveness from the people.

The bishops did everything possible to prevent the files in question from coming to light. … But as the Bible says: “Nothing is concealed that won’t be revealed and nothing is hidden that won’t come to light.”  … What the bishops will do now depends on them and is a matter of conscience since the law does not foresee lustration. But now is not the time for excuses but for repentance. For God loves the sinner who repents more than the just. In this respect the disclosure of the secret service files could prove to be salutary for the Church.

The Echo noted that those debating the church’s relation to the Communist regime could not stand in isolation from the current political scene.

… the secular political element has become most obvious with the grouping of a number of left-wing intellectuals who have publicly hit out against what they described as a politically-motivated attack on the church and on ancient Bulgarian traditions (the group accuses some media of connivance in this attack). These intellectuals, in turn, have come under fire among centre-right commentators in the media as well as from other academics and theologians as including several who were State Security collaborators and avowed supporters of the communist atheist system.

A week after the story broke in Sofia, The Australian on 23 January 2012 published the AFP story under the headline “Bulgarian bishops were communist spies.” The following day the Australian newspaper chain News Limited published a story on its website entitled “Communist past catches up with bishops”.

The AFP stories run in Australia give the basic details of the case, but no background or context. They also offer the voices of commentators critical of the church — when as the Echo reported a lively debate is being waged between defenders and critics of the church. It is hard to fault a wire service story for brevity — the AFP has no control over the title or the length of the story its subscribers use — but a casual reader would take away very little from these reports.

And in America we hear? Nothing.

The tone and feel of the story also would do little to challenge Western prejudices that this is a très balkan affair taking place in the back of the beyond. Yet the Bulgarians are attempting to address their past in a way no other former Soviet state has done.

Russia has yet to examine the Stalinist era. The Moscow Patriarchate — the official name for the Russian Orthodox Church — was set up on the orders of Joseph Stalin in 1943 as a front organization for the NKVD and all of its senior positions were vetted by the Ideological Department of the Communist Party, according to reports published in the U.K. following the defection of KGB Major Vasili Mitrokhin  in 1991.

In two books written with intelligence historian Christopher Andrew, The KGB in Europe and the West and The KGB in the World, Mitokhin claimed that Russian Orthodox priests were used as agents of influence on behalf of the KGB in organizations such as the World Council of Churches and the World Peace Council.  Patriarch Alexius II was also named as a KGB agent with the codename DROZDOV, whose services earned him a citation from the regime.

The Bulgarian stories — writing it is true with the luxury of space in the paper to report and the immediacy of the issues — have also spoken to the issues of repentence. How should society judge those who collaborated with evil or who were agents of evil?

Is this an Orthodox thing? A Bulgarian thing? Or a human response?

Imagine if the New York Times devoted articles on the Roman Catholic pedophile scandal to how or why abusers should be forgiven?

Over the holidays I happened to read a new book about Gertrude Stein (yes we GetReligion writers lead exciting lives).  Written by Barbara Will the book Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma (Columbia University Press, 2011) examined the novelist’s war years.

As one reviewer put it — the question facing biographers was:

How had Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas—foreigners, lesbians, and Jews—somehow managed to survive World War II in a rural enclave in southeastern France?

The answer Will and other researchers found was that the celebrated feminist author was a collaborator, who translated Marshall Petain’s speeches into English and penned a number of articles supporting his regime — even after it was apparent what collaboration with the Nazis meant.

What is the journalist’s task in all of this? Is it too much to expect a discourse of the ethical and moral ghosts that lay behind a story on collaboration with evil — or is it enough to just report the events. Or, is the behavior being disclosed not evil? Reams of newsprint have been devoted to the pedophile scandals — and rightly so — but little to no work has been done on the fellow travelers and useful idiots that provided moral sanction to an evil regime.

I would have hoped that one of the major newspapers or serious magazine would have picked up this story. Perhaps the Balkans are too far away and the Cold War a fading memory — but I believe that the truth and journalism have not been faithfully served so far.

Bishops photo courtesy of office of the Bulgarian president.

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  • Jerry

    Of course you’re right about wanting the US media to pick up this story for all the reasons you cited.

    And I don’t have to tell you that the US media is sadly insular, more so now especially because we’re in the middle of an election year with the current three-ring circus about which Republican candidate the Republican voters dislike more.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    In every age, Caesar demands his pinch of incense. The question in this story was did these men offer it, or did they simply act prudently in hard circumstances?

    I read the links, a couple more than once, and I really don’t “get it”. Did these men really “sell their souls”? Is “collaborators” a reasonable epithet for men who wrote reports of meeting and reported on the comings and goings of people. The worst that seems to have happened to anyone was being sent to a monastery on Mt. Athos. Isn’t it a fair defense that “We were obliged to be in sync with the state for the good of the people,”? It’s tempting to bring in Donatism, but that’s a western heresy and may not be applicable here. My American blinders are limiting. What is it like to live under a dictatorship? To be freed from that dictatorship? What is life like in a culture that historically had a state church?

    Needless to say, the temptation in an American telling of this would be to tell it as an indictment of Christianity in general and Orthodoxy in particular. That would be sad, because there is much we can learn about tyranny, collaboration with evil, and human weakness in this story.

  • Mark Baddeley

    I’d be interested to see how a mainstream paper could report on this to contexts that have had no experience of an undemocratic autocratic government in living memory and do so in a way that was able to communicate any of the richness of the Bulgarian reports.

    It is interesting to see that there is an alliance here between the left and the Bishops, and it is the right who are critical of the church – different contexts different alliances.

    As for Gertrude Stein – how do you even begin discussing this within the limits of normal reports? You run the risk of either automatically discrediting her completely because “Nazis were evil incarnate” or, in the interests of trying not to do that, reducing the evil of the Nazi regime. Addressing the issue you raise needs someone who is on top of the facts, is competent in ethics and the history of ethical thinking (religious and philosophical), and the space (both word limit and a willingness of readers to sit with the issue a bit) to discuss some very nuanced issues.

  • http://www.magdalenesegg.blogspot.com Rev. Michael Church

    Although I happen to live in a formerly Communist (and overwhelmingly Orthodox) country, I hadn’t come across this story — which is interesting by itself.

    But based on my daily experience, I can say that any press reports attempting to interpret this story for Westerners would need to lay out what is commonly understood hereabouts: that in government and business as well as some religious communities, the fall of Communism did not greatly change which people held power.

    The revolutions of 1989 and thereabouts made tremendous changes in society as a whole, but the popular perception is that the new boss was and remains basically the same as the old boss. This may not be strictly true, but it is widely believed.

  • Stan

    The Getrude Stein addenda looks completely gratuitous to me. That qualifies as a “canard” far more than the story of Pius XII. They after all were subject to extermination. He wasn’t.

  • R.S.Newark

    Will – ultimately – the same thing or something similar occur in this country or is it happening now, or will it happen in the short term future.

  • sari

    This begs the same question as that of the Estonian SS, doesn’t it, except that these were clergy. Should they be held to a higher standard for that reason alone?

    I think few American journalists have the background to approach this topic in any meaningful way. And which newspaper would devote the column space necessary to provide an in-depth look while at the same time risking the antagonism of yet another segment of their readership? Does the story have relevance to American readership or is it best left to historians?

  • Sean

    Are you really curious as to why this story hasn’t been picked up in the West? Come on, Bulgaria is a country of 7.4 million people. That’s smaller than New York City. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has, according to Wikipedia, 8-10 million adherents. This is a tiny church in a tiny country far far away. Bulgaria, and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, have little to no impact on the daily lives of most Americans, or even most Westerners. And, there’s no sex. How many papers is this story going to sell? How many clicks is this going to generate online? Not many. The news is a business, and this story does nothing for the business model of most Western news organizations. Hence, it gets little coverage.

  • JWB

    I would personally love to see a good article on this, but frankly think the amount of background on Bulgaria and Orthodoxy etc. necessary to make it comprehensible would make it more of a magazine piece than a newspaper thing. I suspect Bulgaria may be the East European country with the lowest post-Communist profile in the English-language media due its lack of both charismatic dissidents on the one hand and bloody civil strife on the other. By the way, referring to this as a story about the “Bulgarian Orthodox Church” as if that were an unambiguous term is itself problematic journalism, insofar as it ignores the existence of an as-yet unhealed schism over more or less exactly this question, resulting from a perhaps well-intentioned but imprudent attempt by an early post-Communist government to force Patriarch Maxim out of office in favor of a new patriarch less tainted by compromise with the prior regime. Do any of the critical-of-the-bishops quotes come from sources affiliated with or sympathetic to the so-called “Alternative Synod”? (It might also have been good if the AFP story and/or geoconger’s summary had included the fact from one of the Sofia Echo stories that a Roman Catholic bishop and various Muslim imams were also implicated as having been information sources for the prior regime’s security apparatus.)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I offer this link as additional info, based on an interview with a Russian priest at the time of the Soviet Union’s fall.

    It’s blunt and it concerns the reality of faith among Orthodox bishops.

    There are, he said, FOUR kinds.

    http://www.tmatt.net/2000/11/22/candlestick-holders-in-russia/

  • Passing By

    Tmatt –

    Very helpful link. Thank you.

    I have no doubt those four kinds of leaders exist among all faith groups. Certainly among our Catholic bishops.

  • Bain Wellington

    The first task is to examine what these terms (“collaborator”, “spy”, “agent”, etc.) mean in the context of those former Communist regimes and of the realities of life which were imposed on everyone at that time.

    And then there is the question of the reliability and correct interpretation of documents in the files of the State security apparatus. It is a delicate issue with potential to tear apart the fabric of society. Countries with tragic histories respond in different ways to the challenge to purge memory (South Africa and Spain come to mind), and the scope for false accusations or hasty assessments is evidently wider when the security files are incomplete or fragmentary.

    The question of complicity by churchmen blew up spectacularly in Poland only five years ago, remember, with the dramatic resignation of Archbishop Wielgus at the very Mass at which he was to be installed as Archbishop of Warsaw. The contemporary NYT report was admirably even-handed (although they managed a howler over what Joseph Ratzinger was doing in Munich in 1978).

    Also at that time, the Cardinal Archbishop of Prague made a timely contribution based on his experience and the efforts made by the Catholic Church in Czecho to examine the extent of penetration by State security.

    In light of the establishment in 1998 of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, I am not sure it is fair of Geo to say:-

    the Bulgarians are attempting to address their past in a way no other former Soviet state has done

    The Church in Poland responded quickly and decisively, and maybe that helps explain why nothing much has been heard since of the issue.

  • Chris

    ” As for Gertrude Stein – how do you even begin discussing this within the limits of normal reports? You run the risk of either automatically discrediting her completely because “Nazis were evil incarnate” or, in the interests of trying not to do that, reducing the evil of the Nazi regime. Addressing the issue you raise needs someone who is on top of the facts, is competent in ethics and the history of ethical thinking (religious and philosophical), and the space (both word limit and a willingness of readers to sit with the issue a bit) to discuss some very nuanced issues.”

    In other words, we can’t handle the truth.

  • Passing By

    I think Mark is saying the ”truth” would require a complexity not found in normal media, certainly not in a newspaper. Someone suggested a magazine article ; I’m thinking a book, to include a chapter on Stein and Toklas.

  • Julia

    As Bain Wellington says – Poland has gone through this not that long ago, although the Catholic Church in Poland was not a national church. As I recall, some Catholic priests were blackmailed, some had threats of harm to family members, some were plants who entered seminaries in order to spy. One of the reasons John Paul II was able to be so brave was his lack of family -his parents and brother were all dead. I believe he acknowledged this and had compassion for others situated differently. One of the reasons he failed to understand the clerical abuse situation was said to be his experience with Communists getting rid of troublesome priests by charging them falsely with sex abuse.

    I think there are probably some book-length studies of this topic concerning the countries behind the Iron Curtain, but probably not in English. It’s a really complex subject.