Mount Athos is a secretive, autonomist, theocratic region in a pocket of Greece, ran by Greek Orthodox monks, for the monks. It is also home for the biggest and most populated off-grid community in the developed world – it is completely unplugged.
Its a most difficult place to visit; you must apply for a visa a month beforehand and send in a copy of your passport. They allow 100 orthodox and 10 non-orthodox male pilgrims in per day. It is only accessible via the sea and visitors must arrive on an authorised boat where a policeman checks their visas against their passport before boarding. The visa is valid for only three nights; you have to book each night in advance and may not spend more than one night in the same spot. You may be thinking, why on Earth would Vladimir Putin, leader of Russia and ex-KGB be interested in a place like this? Which is what everyone is thinking.
Off-grid’s groundbreaking video about Mount Athos released last year is the most detailed portrait yet of this secretive community. The film takes you deep inside the world of the priests who run the mysterious mount….and leaves you hungry for more. Which brings us to Putin’s fascinating involvement with the region.
Putin made a public rapprochement with the Orthodox church after many years as a KGB agent and therefore a presumed atheist. He well knows that a significant percentage of Russians are adherents so it makes sense to use the church and Mount Athos as a propaganda tool. He has given money to the Russian monastery of Panteleimenos, which houses just 70 monks but has rooms for hundreds more. He attended a mass which was held in his honour earlier this year in May, and was seated in the bishop’s throne. Afterwards, he attended talks with the Greek president Prokopis Pavlopoulos whilst commemorating the 1,000th anniversary of a Russian monastic presence on the Holy Mountain.
“I am confident that relations between Russia and the Holy Mount Athos, and Greece as a whole, will only strengthen, while the spiritual relationship and trust will continue to determine the nature of our traditionally close and friendly relations,” – Vladimir Putin
Putin has formed an unholy alliance with the Orthodox church in order to ensure he receives its blessing. This fits with his self-image as a modern Tsar embodying church and state. For believers, the Holy Mountain is the centre of their faith, their Rome, the place where the flame of their faith connects to heaven. He also visited the mountain in 2005, making him the first head of Russian state to set foot on their holy soil.The monks who live there take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and once their final vows are sworn, become monks for life.
Mount Athos is currently one large building site in contrast to the dereliction and poverty of the rest of Greece. It seems unreal that humble monks should be employing so much specialist labour. This must be costing hundreds of millions of euros. The ancient buildings have received EU and Unesco grants, but these surely account for a fraction of the lavish expenditure. Such huge grants could not be justified given that access is so limited and entry is forbidden to women.
Russian money forms an important source of funding all over the peninsula. Donating to the church to buy favours in heaven doesn’t seem a sufficient explanation. It has people questioning, does Russia have a secret agenda to account for such largesse? Why might Mr Putin be interested in this closed, authoritarian and guarded community?
Many Russians visit and work there, but people avoid answering questions about the role of Russia on Mount Athos. Which suggests that something ‘deeper and more sinister seems to be at work.’ Some have questioned whether Russia is using Mount Athos as a listening post or centre for intelligence gathering located well behind Nato’s front line; outsiders have noticed a number of sophisticated looking antennae and dish arrays.
Others say the answer lies in the important strategic position of Mount Athos? It is close to the border with Turkey and the narrow Dardanelles, a convenient haven for Russian vessels coming from their base in the recently annexed Crimea.
The EU and Greece have questions to answer, as do the inscrutable monks of Mt Athos. Has the Greek government been party to the discussions between the monks and Putin? Greece and Nato have a responsibility to ensure that this small part of Europe remains firmly in our sphere. It is in danger of becoming a Russian satellite, if it has not become one already.
It has you wondering: what is Mount Athos doing for Russia in return for all the funding they are receiving? Does the EU know?
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