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.’