Beans, Cabbage, Courgettes, and Olives

Mount Athos, one of the most holy sites in Eastern Orthodoxy, is the home of 20 monasteries, mostly Greek Orthodox, but one Russian Orthodox. In the late 19th century, Athos was a popular pilgrimage destination for Russians, around 25,000 of whom visited each year. One of the most famous Russian residents was the conservative philosopher Konstantin Leontiev, who took monastic vows and moved to the Russian monastery on Mount Athos in 1871. Russians also gave the monks large amounts of money.

This made the Ottoman authorities, who then governed the area, extremely anxious. Fearing that the Russians might be using Athos to spread Pan-Slavist propaganda and to incite insurrection, they raided the Russian monastery. However, as one Greek newspaper recorded, ‘no weapons were found in the monastery other than ecclesiastical books … no ammunition other beans, cabbages, courgettes, and olives.’

Fast-forward 100+ years, and Russian money is once again flowing into Athos, as are Russian visitors – about 11,000 a year. And once again, this is stoking fears that Russia is using Mount Athos for nefarious political and military purposes. In this week’s edition of The Spectator, Jeremy Norman writes of a recent trip he made there:

We were told that 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. 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 quite a number work here, but I found that people-avoided questions about the role of Russia on Mt Athos. Something deeper and more sinister seems to be at work. Maybe Russia is using Mt Athos as a listening post or centre for intelligence gathering located well behind Nato’s front line; we noticed a number of sophisticated looking antennae and dish arrays.

Could the answer lie in the important strategic position of Mt 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. Should the Turks decide to blockade the narrow channel between Europe and Asia, this place might become a safe haven, even a Russian Gibraltar. … Does the EU know and approve of the price that Mt Athos is paying in return for Russian money?

Vladimir Putin has visited Mount Athos. So too has Prince Charles. According to The Guardian, the Prince’s numerous visits there are ‘shrouded in secrecy’ and the monks have sworn ‘never to speak of them.’ That doesn’t mean that there is a British spy station there. In any case, as the picture below shows, the Russian monastery is at the bottom of a mountain, which would prevent the Russians from intercepting communications broadcast from anywhere other than the Dragoudeliou protected natural park 20 kilometers to the south west. From an espionage point of view, it is very badly located.

As a symbol of the Orthodox Church, Athos’s importance is religious, nothing more. The idea that it is a ‘Russian Gilbraltar’ is absurd – a symptom of the extraordinary paranoia about Russia which has gripped the Western press. Having not myself searched Mount Athos from top to bottom, I cannot of course say for certain, but I am pretty sure that if the Greek authorities chose to raid the Russian monastery to find the secret ‘listening post’, they would find instead nothing other than ‘beans, cabbages, courgettes, and olives.’

Russian spy station, Mount Athos – otherwise known as St Panteleimon Monastery. Note the suspicious antennas.

9 thoughts on “Beans, Cabbage, Courgettes, and Olives”

  1. The article ie eerily beautiful in its valiant, Forrestol-like insanity:

    “I have just returned from one of the world’s most secretive states. I had to apply for a visa a month beforehand and send in a copy of my passport. There is no way into this place by road; you have to arrive on an authorised boat and a policeman checks your visa against your passport before you board. Private boats must keep well offshore and may not land. 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 place. Only ten visas are granted a day.

    Women have always been forbidden here — this rule remains strictly in force. A secretive body of Elders governs here and all citizens are bound to total obedience. They wear identical floor-length black gowns and are not permitted to shave — the style of dress favoured by zealots everywhere. And guess what? This state is in western Europe.


    And I thought that the stereotype of failing geogrphy applies only to the Americans!

    “Donating to the church to buy favours in heaven doesn’t seem a sufficient explanation.”

    What a typically Western outlook! Could they found someone with at least some knowledge of Orthodox Christianity? Of course they couldn’t! That would zir automatically susceptible to Vlad Putin – Sauron of Russian Mordor – evil gaze! That’s why we have passages like this:

    “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.”

    And this:

    “Why might Mr Putin be interested in this closed, authoritarian and guarded community?”

    This “authoritatian” community is not only a monastery (i.e. anathema for any modern liberal, kreakl and proponent of the Universal/Western/American values) – it’s also the last remnant of the Eastern Roman Empire.

    Yeah, so totalitarian for Westies tastes – totally lacks lesbian bishops or agnostic pastors!


    1. “Born in 1947, Jeremy Norman belongs to the first generation of homosexual Englishmen able to express their sexuality openly and without fear of prosecution, courtesy of the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. As his entertaining memoir attests, Norman has certainly made the most of his freedom. Not only has his life been ‘a frenzied dance and feast of pleasure’ but, as an astute businessman, he has plundered the pink pound in a succession of enterprises including Heaven, the world’s most famous gay nightclub. And, perhaps most remarkably of all, he has lived to tell the tale.”

      That expalins evverything!

      P.S. Mark – soon, I’ll be back!


    2. “It must also be said that for one so keen on outing, and so quick to denounce the hypocrisy of other homosexuals, Norman is curiously reticent about his own private life other than to tell us that he has enjoyed ‘a lifetime of requited love’ with his partner (registered) Derek Frost, with whom he shares a seaside cottage on Lord Montague of Beaulieu’s Hampshire estate on that bit of the coast the locals call Buggery Bay.

      ha ha ha ha ha haha!


  2. Dear Professor Paul:
    Thanks for this piece, it made my day! Except for one disappointment.
    As I was reading the Jeremony Norman piece, I started getting my hopes up, like maybe the Russians really are just pretending to be religious and using Mt. Athos as an anti-NATO radar center, or something like that.

    And then you dashed my hopes by pointing out that the Russian monastery is at the foot of the mountain. So, no good for a radio-listening post. So, a cigar actually just is a cigar. Dang!


  3. It’s all part of Putin’s evil plan of moving Russia towards its role as the Third Rome. Obviously. Went past Athos once. The priests riding on mopeds and small cars look like something out of a comedy film. It’s absolutely brilliant, as is Greece.

    It’s 506 years since:

    …The idea of Muscovy as heir to Rome crystallized with a panegyric letter composed by the Russian monk Philotheus (Filofey) of Pskov in 1510 to their son Grand Duke Vasili III, which proclaimed, “Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth. No one shall replace your Christian Tsardom!” Contrary to the common misconception, Filofey[6] explicitly identifies Third Rome with Muscovy (the country) rather than with Moscow (the city), although the term “Muscovy” was considered synonymous with the Russian lands at the time. Somewhat notably, Moscow is placed on seven hills, as were Rome and Constantinople.

    Now that’s a conspiracy theory I would like.


  4. Paul, cabbages, courgettes (zucchinis?) and olives are perfect objects to hide spying equipment. You just scoop out the stones in the olives, the seeds in the courgettes and the inner leaves and stems (or the bits that taste like mustard) out of the cabbages, stick the little listening and transmitting devices inside and cover them up. Better still, you roll up your spook devices in minced meat or rice and stuff the courgettes – as long as you remember not to bake them.


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