A white-brick church with a blue dome stands on the outskirts of Slavyansk-on-Kuban, a district centre 80 kilometres from Krasnodar in the south of Russia. In February 2023, Archbishop Viktor (his last name is Pivovarov) of the Russian Orthodox Church delivered a sermon here, speaking about the injustice of Russian invasion of Ukraine. On the same day, the police raided his house. Valeria Shustval, reporting for Novaya Vkladka and Govorit NeMoskva spoke to the 86-year-old priest.

The original piece was published in April 2023.

Skinny old man in a black cassock

Sloviansk-on-Kuban is a small town west of Krasnodar on the way to the Azov Sea. About 65 thousand people live there and a few tens of thousands more in the larger villages around. The locals grow wheat and vegetables, but the labour market is not limited to agriculture — many work at the local oil and gas plant. Other large factories in the town are gradually closing down. Locals call Slavyansk-on-Kuban a quiet and peaceful place, perfect for family life. But students often move to bigger cities.

The Holy Protection of Tikhon Church is a blue-domed building hidden behind a fence. It’s hard to notice it from the street due to its modest appearance, unlike other Orthodox churches in town. On Sunday morning after sermon it’s empty, if not for a woman tying a shawl in front of the entrance.

“Looking for Father Viktor? Check the building behind the church, he might be there,” she says, almost whispering.

Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko for NV
Locals living in the streets closest to the church are unaware that its bishop is being persecuted for his anti-war stance

An old soviet car “Lada” is parked in front of a small brick house, hidden behind the church. I knock on the door. A middle-aged woman wearing a long skirt, her hair covered with a shawl, appears on the doorstep. At first, she suggests I wait for the bishop inside the church, but once I say I am a journalist, she invites me in.

There are a few rooms in the house. An old woman, scarf tied on her chin covering her head, sits in the corridor. Behind the wall I can hear women rattling with dishes. I am invited to take a seat on a blue bench by a window in an empty room. There is a washbasin next to it, an iconostasis and a fridge in the corner across the room.

A couple of minutes later, a thin, short old man wearing a black cassock appears before me. Quietly, he asks me to sit on his left, so he can hear me: he is deaf on one ear.

“A lot of people come in to just have a look.”

Viktor Pivovarov was born in 1937 to a peasant family in the Altai mountains in southern Siberia. His father died in the first year of the Second World War. When Pivovarov was 14 years old, a man named Yakov moved into their house. He was part of the Catacomb Church: the members of the Orthodox church who in 1927 refused to obey the Patriarch and denounced the the Soviet regime as antichristic. The movement took its name from the early Christians, who would gather for worship in the catacombs, the underground graveyards of Roman cities.

It was Yakov who introduced Viktor to Christianity. “I had a mentor who led me to faith, but he worked his way to salvation alone,” Pivovarov recalls. Under Yakov’s influence, as a teenager, Viktor dropped out of technical school to avoid joining the Komsomol. He then entered the Moscow Theological Seminary, and later the Moscow Theological Academy. He was expelled from the latter though for participating in the “little opposition”. That name was given to the group of believers who, at the 1971 Local Council of the ROC [Russian Orthodox Church], demanded “not to elect any current members of the Holy Synod, who have sold out to the authorities, as the patriarch”.

Father Viktor later served in various churches, including some across France and Canada, assisting the First Hierarch Vitaly (Ustinov) of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR). But today the archbishop reluctantly talks about his relations with the West. His assistant, who was around when he heard our journalist’s questions about the service abroad, got suspicious and said that five years ago that was the topic that piqued the interest of the security services. 

Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko for NV
At 86, Father Viktor continues to preache and interact with the parishioners

In the late 1990s the ROCOR asked Father Viktor to be ordained and to serve in the Krasnodar region. Since then he has been living in Slavyansk-on-Kuban, but he also has parishes in Murom, Vyatka, Vitebsk, St. Petersburg and Kalyazin.

Archbishop Viktor has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine in his sermons from the beginning. Some of his sermons were never even published on the church website to avoid trouble with the authorities. In the church Father Viktor is assisted by Hieromonk Iona, who prefers to keep a low profile. The tall young priest with glasses says that many people stop by “just to have a look”, aware of Father Viktor’s anti-war stance.

“Soon I’ll be gone to the other world”

On the morning of February 19, 2023, the archbishop was celebraing mass at his church. A woman came in, who neither he nor any of the parishioners had ever seen before. As Father Viktor recalls, she ran out into the street in the middle of the sermon, without waiting for it to end, shouting that the church will be in trouble for political preaching.

“The thing is, soon I’ll be gone to the other world, I have to warn my parishioners in Slavyansk not to lean to the left or to the right. So I had to answer a question on of whether the war we started against Ukraine was righteous. I had to tell them directly that there are different wars: there are holy wars, defensive wars, when enemies attack, and, on the contrary, wars of invasion. There’s only one way to distinguish between them: if there are foreign tanks, foreign soldiers in front of our windows, it means that we are defending ourselves. If our tanks are in their country and our soldiers are committing atrocities, it means that we are the occupiers,” — the archbishop explains.

Photo: Alina Desiatnichenko for NV
40 thousand rubles have been collected to pay off the bishop’s fine

That same day, in the evening, the police came to the church and said that the parishioners made an official complaint against the archbishop under Part 1 of Article 20.3.3 of the Administrative Code of the Russian Federation (“public actions aimed at discrediting the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation”). Father Viktor believes that the woman who he suspects, denounced him, was “deliberately planted” by the authorities.

The archbishop’s assistant specified that no one has seen her since and no one knows who she was. Maybe she worked for the police, or maybe she just walked in — parishioners say there have been a lot of new people in the city lately, especially Ukrainians.

“Maybe she is just a Z-patriot, and she also exaggerated what the archbishop said at the sermon,” one parishioner says.

Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko for NV
Inside, The Holy Protection of Tikhon Church is quite small, a few dozens of people usually gather for service.

The archbishop speaks softly, staring at something right in front of him. Sometimes he pauses to catch his breath. When sitting down, the old man slouches, and I have to lean towards him. In those moments I notice the small holes in his black cassock from years of wear and the grey hairs that fall from his beard to his clothes.

“The investigators, the police — they are clearly on my side deep down, they all see that we are waging a war of conquest, a colonial war. Ukraine hasn’t done anything bad to Russia. They will now send agents my way all the time. Because they promised that after the second warning they will put me behind bars,” the priest says.

On March 24th, 2023 the Slavyansk city court judge Nikolai Mironenko found the archbishop guilty of discrediting the Russian army and ordered him to pay a 40 thousand rubles fine. The whole sum has already been collected and the fine has been paid. It wasn’t just the  parishioners who made donations, but also concerned townspeople, the church officials admitted.

Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko for NV
Slavyansk-on-Kuban: this year local authorities opened the embankment at the entrance of the town after reconstruction

According to Father Viktor, the church lives on donations, it has no other sources of income. When the archbishop was ordered to pay the fine, many people decided to express their anti-war stance by giving a donation and supporting him.

“Strangers who hadn’t been here before started coming from the city. They would say: we’ve read about the fine, here is money, pay it. They understood everything,” says the archbishop’s assistant Iona.

At the same time, locals from nearby streets say they don’t know anything about the archbishop’s case or about what goes on inside his church.

A woman working in a shop across the street from the church says she heard about the case on TV, but didn’t get into the details: “So what is it that happened there? Hmm… What do you mean by “discrediting”?”

“Their sacraments are invalid”

The archbishop describes himself as “a true priest, enjoying God’s special protection”, a follower of Metropolitan Vitaly (Ustinov) of the Russian [the country] Orthodox Church.

As the priests working in the church explained, in 1918 the Local Council of the Russian [the country] Orthodox Church elected Patriarch Tikhon. However, after the Communists came to power in 1927, it was Sergiy who took over the church. According to Father Viktor’s assistants, from 1927 the church was placed under the control of the Joint State Political Directorate [the intelligence and security service in the early years of the Soviet Union], so they put their agents everywhere, Sergiy was one of them.

Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko for NV
The Assumption Cathedral surpasses the church where Archbishop Viktor serves both in size and richness of decoration

Sergiy’s arrival divided the church: one part followed Tikhon, the other followed the new head. Sergiy was never recognised by many Orthodox believers both inside and outside of Russia, but at home Tikhon’s supporters were considered dissidents and shot, says Hieromonk Iona. Since the Russian Orthodox Church only received its name in 1943 (before that it was called “Russian [the country] Church”), Patriarch Tikhon’s modern followers have decided to call their church by the old model – the Russian [the country] Orthodox Church.

“I am under God’s special protection. And I was sent by God Jesus Christ by revelation, sent specifically to fight against Bolshevism, I have no right to retreat. I was sent by Christ, that’s who I am,” explains the archbishop.

Back in 2011, in a magazine that Father Viktor used to publish, an article read: “The Church should not engage in politics. However, being completely apolitical should not be consideried a virtue of a spiritual person. It often means non-participation in the needs of neighbours, indifference to the good, fear of the authorities and acceptance of evil”.

Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko for NV
Most of the buildings in Slavyansk-on-Kuban are built privately, Father Viktor’s church is located in one of those areas

On Palm Sunday in 2023, several dozens of people gather inside the church. Some have been coming here for a long time, others are here for the first time. Parishioners say they didn’t get into details of the legal differences between churches, but chose “with their hearts”.

“This church works just is like was in the old times, when nobody asked for money. Even on the outside it’s quite modest, as you can see, and inside there is no “tax”: you can give however much you can. Whereas in the new churches you have to pay for everything, I don’t like it. This one is closer to my heart,” says a young woman as she leaves the church.

Other Orthodox churches in the city consider The Holy Protection of Tikhon Church as schismatic. Overall, there are about ten Orthodox, and a few Protestant and Evangelical churches in the city.

The new Orthodox Church of the Presentation of the Saint Virgin in Slavyansk-on-Kuban was opened two years ago. The modest-looking brick building is empty, if not for a lonely old woman who has heard about Father Viktor, but has never met him personally.

“It’s a private church, and private churches, well, you know… Whereas we’re a state church. We don’t know anything about them, we have no business with them”, says the woman in a friendly manner, before “slapping” us (me and the photographer) on the shoulders with a willow branch.

Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko for NV
At the entrance to Archbishop Viktor’s church parishioners can buy candles for 10 rubles or leave a prayer request 

Inside the main Orthodox church in Slavyansk-on-Kuban, the Assumption Cathedral, which recently celebrated its 110th anniversary, the mood is more radical. Roma women are sitting on the sides of the path leading to the church, offering willow branches for sale and asking for money to feed their children, whom they have allegedly brought from Ukraine.

A man in a black neatly pressed cassock with a brown leather purse is standing near the cathedral. When asked about Father Viktor, he calls him a schismatic.

“There is an organisation that has the right to perform worship and the sacraments and all that goes with it, and then there are those that have no legal or canonical status. They do not have any rights. If we take the spiritual component, schismatics have not been blessed, their sacraments are invalid”, — the priest says, before leaving the church and getting into the Toyota Land Cruiser parked nearby.

“Now we are expecting a nuclear war”

When talking, Archbishop Viktor often jumps from topic to topic, but the main point he is trying to get across is that he has been fighting the Bolsheviks since 1964. He is convinced  that Lenin, Stalin and now Putin were all possessed by Satan and that they are messengers of the Apocalypse. He also calls the president a “top-tier magician” and a shamanist, because it is rumoured that shamans came to see Putin and the Minister of Defense Shoigu in the taiga to perform secret rites.

Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko for NV
Most of the parishioners are elderly people. But many bring their children to mass

The priest from Slavyansk-on-Kuban is convinced that the Chekists have been tracking him down for years and causing problems on purpose.

“—– it turned out I was all by myself. Not one step in the wrong direction. When our entire episcopate was taken away to join the Moscow Patriarchate, I had to fight against it. It was just me and Metropolitan Vitaly (Ustinov) left, I helped him during his service in Canada, he was already weak, he was more than ninety years old,” Father Viktor recalls.

For almost 20 years, the archbishop has continued to push against the Moscow Metropolis, practically single-handedly. After everything he’s been through, the administrative case for discrediting the army didn’t frighten the priest, and he considers the verdict good PR. Father Viktor admits that even in court he said that he needed publicity so that the world would learn about his ideas.

Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko for NV
The parishioners like The Holy Protection of Tikhon Church because it’s “like in the old times”: here nobody asks for money, and everyone can donate however much they want

“I believe that a big red dragon serpent was thrown out of heaven, fell down to the Earth and established in 1917, the kingdom of the red Bolsheviks. The kingdom of Satan. That’s who our true church is at war with. So I wished for it and asked: “Lord, let my works reach the people.” But the Lord would not let it happen. And now we are expecting a nuclear war that Putin menaces us with. And it will definitely happen,” says Father Viktor, who has spent his whole life interpreting the Apocalypse, studying the scriptures and biblical parables about the end of the world.

“We invaded Ukraine, we invaded Crimea.”

The church has previously gotten in trouble over the archbishop’s remarks about Crimea joining Russia. In his sermon in April 2014, Father Viktor recalled the biblical story of the apostles Jacob and John, who asked Christ to let them sit to his right and left sides when he came to the throne. To which Jesus responded that in the world princes rule over the people, but it should be the other way round.

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave,” the archbishop quoted from the Gospel of Matthew. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”.

In his sermon, the priest called the annexation of Crimea to Russia a “lawless conquest” involving “agents of influence from the Kremlin” and “militants in the guise of self-defence”. In his opinion, the referendum had no right to be held without the consent of the Ukrainian authorities.

After that mass, members of law enforcement visited the church for the first time.

“Since 2014, they’ve been filing complaints at the prosecutor’s office against us. The chief then said openly that Ukraine had been invaded, in Crimea. An article was published in the local newspaper, condemning the chief and calling the Ukrainians scoundrels. Someone wrote to the prosecutor’s office, but nobody followed up on it, since there wasn’t a law back then. And now they’ve introduced the law… so that’s it,” says one of the church’s priests.

“I told the investigators that had Ukraine attacked us, I would have thrown my weight behind the fight against Ukraine. But since there was no attack, that’s exactly what I think,” father Viktor says.

Photo: Alina Desyatnichenko for NV
The archbishop sees the administrative case against him for discrediting the army as the much needed publicity for his ideas

Father Viktor still lives in Slavyansk-on-Kuban and serves in his church. His health, however, is already failing him: he is deaf in one ear and is partially blind. His legs are getting stiffer and stiffer and moving around is difficult. But he says he has no fear and is he won’t keep silent, not only about the war but also about the most important work of his life, the interpretation of the Apocalypse.

The archbishop believes that the current government will soon launch a nuclear war, he saw it in his dreams. His ultimate aim, he believes, is to warn people about the coming catastrophe: “No one has yet explained the Apocalypse before me, and I have received two teachings from miracle workers, I myself have seen many miracles. I have put it all, about 200 articles, on my website, a few books on the mystery of existence and the future. These mysteries — everything the world cannot explain — have been  revealed to me”.

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