Monastery of St Panteleimon: A ‘singular seat of Russian culture in the Balkans’

Russia has strong links with Mount Athos that go back centuries under both the czars and the Bolsheviks. For the faithful of Russia, Athos has always served as a beacon of Orthodoxy. For the Kremlin, it is an unsinkable beachhead in the Mediterranean. According to a confidential Soviet Communist Party document published here today, the Holy Monastery of Saint Panteleimon was seen as a «singular seat of Russian culture in the Balkans.» In the past, there had been conflict between the Russian Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul’s Phanar district over the latter’s suspicions that Moscow was trying to «Russianize» Mount Athos through efforts to buy up monasteries and by sending a drove of monks to alter the ethnic distribution of the monastic community members. Russian monks first appeared on the Holy Mountain in the 11th century, but only came in large numbers in the mid-19th century, when the Russian state was using the Russian Orthodox Church as an instrument of foreign policy. The Russian presence on Mount Athos has been focused on the St Panteleimon Monastery but also the hermitage of St Andreas in Karyes, where about 3,500 monks, out of a total of 6,000 on Mount Athos, settled just before the Russian Revolution. Thousands of Russian Orthodox have made pilgrimages to the mountain; until the Bolshevik Revolution, there was a weekly passenger ship service between Odessa and the little port of Daphni. Under the Soviets, the pilgrims stopped coming, but the Communists’ interest did not wane. As is apparent from the Soviet Communist Party document shown here (from a book on the archives of Russian history by the former civil director of Mount Athos, Costas Papoulidis), Moscow was more interested in the cultural aspect of the Russian monastery, in light of maintaining the Soviet’s strategic presence in the Mediterranean.