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December 14, 2009

St. Joseph of Volotsk, Patron of Orthodox Businessmen

The Moscow Times
11 December 2009
By Alexandra Odynova

A joke tells of a wealthy businessman who goes to a Russian Orthodox church, gives a generous offering and lights a candle in front of the icon of his favorite saint.

A moment later, he looks out the open doors of the church and sees a dirty truck slam into his sleek Mercedes, turning it into a heap of metal.

Bewildered, the businessman turns back to the icon, only to see another wealthy businessman lighting a candle there.

“Stop!” the first man cries out. “This guy doesn’t work.”

Now, however, Orthodox businessmen will no longer have to guess about which Orthodox saint works.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill announced this week that after carefully weighing all potential candidates he has selected St. Iosef of Volotsk as the patron saint of entrepreneurs.

The patriarch acted after Orthodox businessmen, hit hard by the financial crisis, appealed to the church to select a patron saint. The selection of St. Iosef of Volotsk, who lived in the 15th and 16th centuries and had no obvious link to business, sends a clear signal to businessmen that the church expects them to contribute generously to receive the saint’s favor, religious scholars said.

“With his choice, the patriarch says only those businessmen who share with the church will be favored by St. Iosef,” said Alexander Soldatov, a scholar and editor of the religious web site

Iosef, a prominent Orthodox ideologist and defender of the notion that an Orthodox tsar was an embodiment of God on Earth, supported the idea of strong and thriving monasteries, while his opponent Nil Sorsky, who is also an Orthodox saint, believed that the church should be modest and not possess lands.

Kirill raised Iosef’s beliefs in announcing that he would be the patron saint of businessmen on Monday. “He was deeply concerned that it was important for the church to draw material resources and to pass them over to the people. The reverend saw the church as a great instrument to hand over national treasures from the rich to the poor,” the patriarch said in a statement.

Wealthy Orthodox businessmen have openly contributed to the church’s needs since the Soviet collapse, and many once-dilapidated churches restored through their donations bear plaques with their names. Perhaps most famously, SBS-Agro Bank founder ­Alexander Smolensky personally gilded the gold domes of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in 1995 by donating 50 kilograms of gold ingots in a garish gesture that flaunted his own crashing success. SBS-Agro, once the country’s largest private bank, collapsed just three years later in the 1998 financial crisis.

The current crisis has raised interest among businessmen in religious issues, particularly in the naming of a patron saint for business, businessmen and religious leaders said.

“There has been a range of requests from businessmen recently, and we told the patriarch about it,” said Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s economy and ethics council, which includes a number of businessmen.

The naming of the saint “speaks about the re-establishment of spirituality in Russian society, which includes entrepreneurs,” said Nikolai Nikolayev, an official with Opora, the country’s largest small and midsize business lobby group.

“It reflects a good tendency that businessmen are thinking about spiritual basics,” he said.

He noted that an Opora working group called Business and Christianity had become quite popular among members recently.

Nikolayev praised the patriarch for responding to businessmen’s request for a saint, saying it showed that he recognized “the significant role of entrepreneurs in modern society.”

Patriarch Kirill, who succeeded Alexy II after his death last December, is considered a more liberal leader and has a somewhat controversial reputation as a businessman in the past. He was dubbed the “Tobacco Metropolitan” in the 1990s when the church became a leading importer of foreign cigarettes after being granted the right to import tobacco duty-free. Kommersant and Moskovsky Komsomolets accused him of profiteering and abusing the duty-free privilege, although no evidence surfaced to back up the claims.

St. Iosef beat out two other candidates to patronize Orthodox business: St. Serafim Vyritsky and St. Vasily Pavlo-Possadsky, Chaplin said.

His relics are kept in the Monastery of Iosef Volotsky, located 120 kilometers west of Moscow.

Businessmen are not the first group to be patronized by an Orthodox saint. St. Varvara the Martyr has been a patron of the Strategic Missile Forces since their creation in 1995. St. Serafim Sarovsky was named the patron for the nuclear researchers in 2007, presumably because the Russian Federal Nuclear Center is located in the town of Sarov, where Sarovsky used to serve in a monastery that now bears his name. Prophet Elijah is the patron of paratroopers.

A Moscow Patriarchate spokesman said businessmen are not obligated to pray to St. Iosef for their needs. “Any businessman can pray to any other saint,” said the spokesman, Alexander Volkov.

One prominent Orthodox businessman said he would rather pray to God.

“It’s a good illustration of how empty faith turns into empty superstitious beliefs,” said German Sterligov, one of Russia’s original commodities traders and first multimillionaires.

“From the point of view of an Orthodox believer, which I am, I don’t understand when they start blessing banks and casinos. It’s just another way to earn money,” he said. “These dressed-up church servants are again cheating poor entrepreneurs.”