ORTHODOX SPIES

by Anthony Georgieff

Communist-era State Security turns out to be higher than God, literally

Bulgarian Patriarch Maxim.jpg

The facts are simple: 11 out of the 15 members of the Bulgarian Orthodox Holy Synod were agents for the Communist-era secret police, according to an official statement by the state agency responsible for the declassification of Communist files. Bulgaria's senior clergy had been almost completely infiltrated by, and become subservient to, one of the most feared organisations of the 20th Century, the local equivalent of the KGB.

The names revealed include those of Galaktion, bishop of Stara Zagora, code name Misho; Dometian, bishop of Vidin, code name Dobrev; Ignatiy, bishop of Pleven, code names Penev and Germanski; Grigoriy, bishop of Veliko Tarnovo, code name Vanyo; and Natanail, bishop of Nevrokop, code name Blagoev.

Simeon, the Bulgarian Orthodox bishop to Western and Central Europe, based in Berlin, was a State Security staff officer, code names Hristov and Toris. Yosif, the bishop to the United States, Canada and Australia, was an agent code named Nikolov and Zografov. Father Yosif had previously admitted his collaboration with State Security and issued an apology to all affected by his activities.

The list of Orthodox agents prominently excludes the name of Patriarch Maxim, the nonagenarian head of the Bulgarian Church, though he is largely thought to have been a collaborator with the Communist regime. Despite the promulgation of documents thought to be genuine that prove his collaboration with State Security, the declassification commission said they did not fulfil the requirements of the law.

Aside from Orthodoxy, both Nedim Gendzhev, the former chief mufti of Bulgaria, and Mustafa Hadzhi, the current mufti, were agents, along with five members of the Muslim leadership in Bulgaria. Reflecting concerns that State Security sometimes listed unsuspecting individuals as agents, Hadzhi said he had never been one, but had been interrogated on numerous occasions for his "illegal" activities in preaching Islam at the time of the so-called Revival Process in 1985-1989.

Just one senior cleric of the Roman Catholic Church, Georgi Yovchev, was revealed as a spy.

One of the things both expats and visitors to Bulgaria usually find particularly fascinating is the mainstream Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Markedly different from anything in the West, with its charming if dilapidated churches and monasteries, and its bearded, black-clad clergy, it still embodies the spirit of Eastern Orthodoxy following the split with Western Christianity in AD 1054. It evokes mystery rather than common sense, piousness rather than rationality, and the importance of its incomprehensible liturgy, rather than reaching out to the people and teaching them what to do in their everyday lives.

After you have visited a dozen or so churches and monasteries around the country, you will have noticed that there is something even more unusual about Bulgarian Orthodoxy. The priests are decidedly less welcoming than their Greek or even their Serbian peers (also Orthodox), in a sullen, standoffish way. They will rarely speak any foreign language, and if they do they will usually proselytise rather than explain, forbid rather than try to convince. The fairy-tale world of Eastern Orthodoxy where grotesque devils boil sinners in buckets of tar, while a gleaming charcoal-eyed God administers justice from the signs of the Zodiac, has become rather stuffy.

One's spiritual voyage in Bulgaria will probably end with the image of the prime minister, the president and a hoard of senior politicians vying to be caught on camera kissing the hand of some octogenarian bishop, thus asserting the supremacy of Orthodoxy and their own power in what has become perhaps the most important building block of Bulgaria's post-Communist national identity. Forget the Bulgarian Muslims, Jews and other "non-believers." Bulgaria in AD 2012 is perhaps the only country in Europe where priests are part-and-parcel of every official ceremony, from the inauguration of a new president to a state visit, from the purchase of a new office block to the opening of a new shopping mall.

So how did the mystery of Orthodoxy go hand in hand with the repression of the Communist State Security apparatus?

Few Bulgarians with first-hand memories of pre-1989 Communism would have any doubts about the omnipotence of the Communist government's system and its most feared arm, State Security or Darzhavna sigurnost ‒ the Bulgarian equivalent of East Germany's Stasi, Czechoslovakia's StB and Romania's Securitate. The DS, as it was commonly referred to, penetrated all areas of public and often private life. Its officers ruthlessly catalogued information gathered by paid and unpaid agents spying on colleagues, friends, relatives and family. Getting in trouble with the DS led to political repression, a ruined career and often incarceration. Modelled on the Soviet KGB, the Bulgarian DS was everywhere at all times. Significantly, it was completely subservient to its Moscow masters, to the extent that historians now openly speak of the lack of any independent Bulgarian policy in the period 1944-1989.

Unlike other former Warsaw Pact countries, however, Bulgaria failed to come clean of its Communist past. While the former GDR, along with Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary established committees, as early as 1990, to research and expose the crimes of Communism, the Bulgarian establishment kept strangely silent. The reasons are many and varied, but the result was that the DS files, "The Files" as they became known, were only opened selectively, usually to discredit individuals thought to be political opponents or business competitors. At first the general public was interested and excited to learn who had spied on whom and what major "businessman" or gangster of the 1990s had been a Communist stooge in the 1980s. This interest continued through the 2000s but the real issue – that of the moral responsibility of the system and of those who had created it – had already been obfuscated by the usual mixture of half-truths and half-lies that the Bulgarian media have become so used to.

It is not too difficult to imagine why many Bulgarians enrolled in the former State Security: some were forced to do it through threats and blackmail, others did it in order to keep their jobs and social positions. Yet others volunteered in the hope that they would receive money and promotion. Like elsewhere in the former Warsaw Pact, Bulgaria had created a whole new class of doctors, lawyers, journalists and other professionals with a footing in the repressive Communist system.

While it is understandable that secular professionals might opt to ally themselves with Darzhavna sigurnost in order to maintain and advance their careers, the case of Orthodox priests is somewhat different. Who would an undercover State Security agent report to ‒ God or his commanding officer? In what way could the Church canon, which preaches obedience to moral rather than political values, interact with the avowedly atheist Communist police? What happened to the seal of confession? Would a State Security-controlled Church be able to accomplish the great civil deeds of its past, such as the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews from the Holocaust?

The official exposure of the allegiance of Bulgaria's Church leadership has caused a media stir, but has prompted few explanations by the bishops concerned, and even fewer apologies. Yoanikiy, the bishop of Sliven, code name Kirilievich, who otherwise likes to be in the spotlight, especially when former Minister for Bulgarians Abroad Bozhidar Dimitrov is making statements about supposedly saintly bones unearthed in Sozopol, called on his parishioners not to listen to the what was being said about the Church, as it was designed to "denigrate" the clerical leadership. Kiril, the bishop of Varna (code names Kovachev and Vladislav) was unavailable for comment.The bishop of Vratsa, Kalinik (code names Rilski and Velko) asked for forgiveness.

The Roman Catholic bishop, Georgi Yovchev, said he had been forced to become an agent through threats and physical violence.

Some commentators have remarked that, compared with most of the Bulgarian Church's senior leaders, Nikolay, the current bishop of Plovdiv (known for his penchant for expensive German cars and Rolex watches) looks like a very saintly man. Nikolay's name was not on the list of former State Security agents.

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