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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