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“Church journalism is ordinary journalism. That’s what I’m trying to prove to everybody, but nobody listens to me.”

28.05.2008, 13:39
“Church journalism is ordinary journalism. That’s what I’m trying to prove to everybody, but nobody listens to me.” - фото 1
Interview with Vasyl Anisimov, the head of the press service of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP).

anisimov.jpgInterview with Vasyl Anisimov, the head of the press service of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP).

The press service of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) is considered the most active church press service in Ukraine. Vasyl Anisimov is the head of the UOC-MP press service. He is a journalist with 30 years of service, a medal winner and an order-bearer.
Vasyl Anisimov talks about his “being” and “living” as a secular journalist in service to the church in a special interview for RISU.

Mr. Anisimov, you have already had great enough experience of working in the church press service, so how would you describe its role in service to the church?

Service? That’s a very high conception of our work. We are just an information resource of the church. An information resource means setting church activities in words – in news, reportage, interviews, reports and other journalist genres. Our task, as well as of other mass media, consists in the accessible presentation of information for the widest circle of readers. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC[-MP]) has many thousands of parishes, and of course, there is a need for this kind of information. Therefore, we work as an ordinary mass media – we receive, create and spread information.
During church journalist meetings and conferences, which take place quite often now, they often talked about “the proclamation of the Good News” through the Internet, TV and the printed mass media. For me this seems too arrogant and unjustifiedly exalted. Our work is creative – it consists of daily, fully-crafted work, successes and failures. Sometimes information turns out so torturous that I am astonished myself. Therefore, every trade should not be called something exalted. Certainly, the church events that we enlighten are often the Good News by themselves, but even here our duty is secondary – to report to the reader information, if not in a profound way, then just in a competent way.
We had a discussion in the National Association of Journalists whether press-services are mass media? We decided they are mass media. This is fair. Usually, a press-service has its own web site; moreover, it is not only for prestige, not representative, but informational, in other words it works as an information agency. When seven years ago we were creating the press-service, the church site was with Archbishop Ionafan in Kherson. We moved it to Kyiv together with the person who was responsible for it and placed it on a serious level. Formerly we presented three to five news per day. Now our norm is not less then twenty. We started to write a lot of analytical, polemical materials. At the same time we started to publish a monthly magazine-newsletter “Messenger of the press-service of the UOC,” which reflects church life in Ukraine in news, events and problems. For the 81 months of the press-service’s existence we published 81 numbers of the magazine. Like any other publication, we live in a regime of constantly being not on time, with creative, publishing, financial and other problems.

What is the particularity of a church press-service?

In addition to informational work we prepare different materials for the head of the church, we ourselves carry out and help other church structures in carrying out presentations, press-conferences on different church questions. We help secular publications and television channels, Ukrainian and foreign, to prepare interviews, plots, materials, commentaries about the UOC[-MP] on a very broad circle of questions. The particularity consists in our involvement with the church.

But involvement is synonymous with lack of freedom…

Once a famous Kyivan, Mykola Berdiajev, wrote about the difference between a European intellectual and our intellectual. The philosopher indicated that a European intellectual can easily speculate on different themes of Nietzsche, but if you ask our intellectual to think about the theme “Shall we push one who is falling down?”, he will call you a scoundrel, avert his face from you, and will even refuse to speak with you. The Orthodox church, its teaching and saving mission, is such a categorical imperative for us. This is indisputable and doesn’t require any proof for us. Of course, it is involvement which is specific, transparent and understandable. It is a disaster when our mass media, “the fourth estate,” which should be independent, providing people their right to trustworthy information, but in reality it is partisan, servile, busy with serving the authorities and various political-financial groups. They declare that they are objective and unprejudiced, but in reality they are blowing on their comparative fife.
We are working in the frame of our free speech and mass media laws, holding polemics with opponents including the authorities, criticizing the president for interference in internal church affairs, which is, of course, not acceptable for many people. We criticized also the previous president, moreover, when he was in power, not after. It seems honest for me. I talked about this with Leonid Kravchuk as well as Leonid Kuchma – they respect such a position. It is a shame when people are dancing before you a polka-butterfly and later, when you are no more in power, call you a “criminal.”

What are your claims to authority?

-They are well-founded and the same for 16 years. In our country, where during the time of independence officially 30 million abortions were performed, where the population yearly reduces by 400,000 people, where there are more than 300,000 homeless children who die without medicine and bury each other, where there is an epidemic of tuberculosis, drug addiction, industrial traumatism, and so on, there is a structure which on principle cannot reconcile itself to all of these, because it hasn’t reconciled itself to this for 1000 years. This is the church. It will struggle against all of these without any state expenses and budgetary funds, because the meaning of its social service consists in this. His Beatitude Metropolitan Volodymyr [(Sabodan), head of the UOC-MP] called preservation of the nation our national idea around which everyone and all must be united. It seemed it is necessary to meet it halfway, help it in realization of this mission. All the more so, it has the greatest trust from the citizens. Here it was wrapped in swaddling clothes as a baby from Soviet times and so nobody is going to untie these chains of totalitarianism. It can’t have back its status of a juridical person, receive back its properties, it is not allowed to go to schools and has no support in its social work. On the other hand, it is a favorite occupation of some people to interfere in internal church affairs, to create divisions and to initiate negative moods, although this contradicts both the Ukrainian Constitution and laws. They invited a delegation from Constantinople, made a series of statements which can bring nothing for the church besides problems. Who needs it? It would be great if all the state problems, political, economic, social, would be resolved and there would be nothing to do. But no, there is only one problem – the church, it is necessary for them to cause quarrels and to divide anew all. Why shall we conceal it? We are writing about it and expecting the authorities and the public will consider our opinion.

How do you collect information? Is there an already-existing network of regional correspondents?

How do we work? The territory of Kyiv is covered by our own resources, that is, thanks to collaborators working here. Once we asked His Beatitude Metropolitan Volodymyr to recommend creating informative structures in the eparchies. Now they exist; in some places they are working better and in others, worse, but nevertheless they are working. We get regional information from them. It can be of a differing quality, however it allows us to get information from the scenes. If there is a need, we send our correspondents to other cities. The regional press-centers, as well as we, are working not only as a press-service, but also as regional informational agencies: they publish their own newspapers or magazines and often have their own web-sites.
Our press-service relies on such a network. We would like not only the church mass-media to write about the church, but the secular mass-media as well. In many of our eparchies the local secular newspapers (regional and district) invite priests to have their own columns. In general, there are pastoral materials dealing with the sense and meaning of Orthodox feasts and various church events. However, of course we would like them to worry about the problems of their region and give their commentary concerning different social events and problems. Because the church has to give appraisal for happenings and defend its values not only inside itself but also in society.

Collaboration with church hierarchs: Is it easy to get information from them?

I work with His Beatitude Metropolitan Volodymyr. He is a member of the National Association of Journalists and an editor with 35 years of service. In the 1970s already the metropolitan edited in Kyiv the magazine “Orthodox messenger,” then the theological publications of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Moscow Theological Academy, which was headed by him. A lot of people were impressed by his homilies transmitted on the USSR’s First Channel during Perestroika. He is a brilliant homilist and excellent writer. You know, it is very nice to work under the guidance of a person that writes much better than you do. It’s true and I am not singing praises to him just because he is my chief. For example, one of the first works that we read in the press-service before the publishing of his voluminous book was named “Christians are always liars.” These are reflections about the sense of Christian testimony through the prism of the ancient theater from the times of Emperor Nero. Such a comparison of a Christian with an actor is present in the Apostle Paul’s letters. There really “was the ending of the art” and “the absolute death indeed.” Read it – these are two pages of highly artistic text saturated with theological, culturological and historical reminiscences. At the same time, the style of His Beatitude is ascetic and modest from the exterior. I call it “French.” Once Chekhov said that one should learn how to write only from the French. By the way, the metropolitan reads French. He avoids banalities, pompous phrases and ponderous constructions. He moves to a point as if on “waves”: from one side, from the other side, from the third one, and finishes it with a high phrase which gives an acute sense to everything that has been said before. The main sense of his works is not in the sentence, it seems to be behind it, in the fusion of the sentences and contents. It is a remarkable art.
He also understands us, as his collegues, with half a word. Giving him the materials, I know beforehand what he can block or accept at once. Of course, there is great pressure applied to His Beatitude. They demand that those church scribblers hold their tongues and not annoy the mighty people. So, this system hasn’t disappeared at all and we will feel this belch of the totalitarian regime for a long time. Though there is already a law that defends the journalist and forbids any kind of oppressions of freedom of speech. His Beatitude understands this, because he remembers well the times when for decades not only the press but also the church were forced to keep their mouths closed. Apart from this, those scribblers are not children at all; they are professional journalists and know perfectly their rights and responsibilities.
I have never had any problems with other church hierarchs. I am a secular journalist. The hierarchs are acquainted with my work in the secular press. I have been writing on church themes since the end of the 1980s and today there is perhaps no hierarch from the older and medium generation whom I haven’t met, interviewed, or described his eparchy. We maintain warm and friendly connections with them to the present and we have no problems with sharing information.

There was a synod of the Orthodox church held in April. Among the other resolutions of this synod, a department was created, “Mission of Spiritual Education.” The press-service which you head was included in the structure of this department. How has this change influenced your activity?

-The press-service itself is a synodal mission and is subordinated to the metropolitan. Obviously, behind this decision there is a big wish to strengthen educational work. At the moment no changes are observed in our work. We are not always able to do our work properly, not even talking about strengthening someone else. Three people work in the press-service, including the head. Others are freelancers who are busy publishing the magazine. We have a big lack of workers. It seems to me that in every matter, as Mykhail Gorbachev said, one should “dance from the person.” If I am not talented in writing, you and he as well, whatever combinations would be done out of us, our writings will be untalented anyway. In the Soviet juvenile newspaper “Komsomolskoe znamja” (“Komsomol flag”) – “Independence,” where I worked for a long time, there were around 70 journalists. All were highly qualified, having finished the universities of Moscow or Kyiv – the most prestigious at that time. If there appeared in Kyiv a young talented journalist in some factory newspaper, in a local or regional newspaper, he was enticed and attracted with all possible means. He was given a good position and salary. In Soviet times there were even 15 flats given to employees per year. They created such conditions that a creative person had no need to think about some everyday problems or any other kind of posers, he had only to work for his own newspaper. I think that we should look for talented journalists for our work or train our own. However, no one is doing anything about this. Everyone thinks that there will suddenly appear a bright mind, he will come and say: “Hi, I’m Nestor the Chronicler!” But that’s impossible. Even he, the father of our chroniclers, literature, history and journalism, didn’t appear from nowhere. Before him there was Blessed Nikon the Great and the entire chroniclers’ school of the lavra [Kyivan Monastery of the Caves].
In the past, at the time when we had just started to organize ourselves, seminarians used to come to us. They were learning how to write, travelled to make reports and just trying to work with information. Many of them who went through the school of the press-service are working now in Orthodox informational structures. Then students were not sent to us and we started to accept secular journalists. But in this case a lot of time is needed for them to learn church topics and gain proficiency in the vocabulary. However, it is difficult to compete with the secular mass-media, with their financial possibilities and honorariums. Apart from this, there is a lack of professional journalists everywhere.
I think it would be useful to introduce journalism courses in our spiritual academy. There is an experience of such training at the seminary of Warsaw, where future priests are taught to write, participate in television programs, and so on, by lecturers of secular universities. It is very interesting and important. That will be a new generation of young, smart and talented people with new ideas and vital potential.

How do you estimate the quality of elucidating religious topics by the secular mass media?

I think that these subjects are not very interesting for the secular press. And theoretically it should be so. Just imagine, you open a newspaper and all you can see there is information about the church from the first to the last page. Nevertheless, the press at least sometimes has to write about the church; after all, it represents the spiritual component, something sacred both for person and society. But we even haven’t this. Our secular press can’t live without constant scandals, sensations and denouncements. Scandals and corpses must be right in the headlines of the first page, and then it’s not so important what to write. Our readers have been accustomed to this. If there is a chance to exaggerate a scandal, the reporters fly like moths towards light. Just one example: everyone, besides those who are lazy, wrote about the arch that collapsed. Nearly 20 cameras were working during the press-conference dedicated to that incident. And when we had a unique chance to meet the patriarch of Alexandria in Kyiv, almost all possible TV channels and newspapers were invited, only five people were present during the meeting with him. It turned out that there are more serious affairs and that one was an internal affair of the church, not very interesting for both readers and TV viewers! Not so long ago three publishing houses at once tried to get information from us about the church’s financial affairs. They were interested in the church’s income, from whom that income is, how it is spent, and so on. Unfortunately, nothing else can be interesting for their readers. Sometimes scandals and obscenity are entire fabrications. I remember a curious incident when one reporter of the newspaper “Kyiv Style” wrote about a holy day at the lavra, veneration of the relics which were brought over to the monastery. During the Divine Liturgy she learned that the faithful receive wine in holy Communion. Therefore, she wrote that it had been a real holy day for local homeless people who could receive holy Communion several times, and as we know church wine is famous for its delicious taste and strength! I had a talk with the editor-in-chief of that newspaper, an old friend of mine, and he could only spread his hands. His only answer was that he had no other journalists. I can give a lot of examples of such nonsense. Not so long ago even the Presidential Press Service called the Holy Fire the “fire of Bethlehem.”
Some publications are interested in fighting against the church rather than elucidating its topics. To these publications belong some religious periodicals, Evhen Marchyk’s newspaper “Den” (“Day”) and the pro-American “Dzerkalo tyzhnya” (“Mirror of the Week”). After Ukraine failed to join NATO the latter wrote in the first column that now it would be more difficult to do that, as almost 80% of Ukrainians were against it. And in a few paragraphs they were claiming that the Kremlin will call and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will be against NATO again. They consider that in general all events in Ukraine take place either by instructions of the Kremlin or on demand of the USA. Why can’t they suppose that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church expresses the position of those 80% of the population? In a word, we are suffering from a foolish malice. But many things appear just because of our ignorance or lack of knowledge.

How can we overcome that?

It seems to me that we should come back to the practice of problematic journalism. For example, let us assume I was charged to lead the heading about the Chornobyl problems in one of the newspapers. It means that I had to participate in conferences and congresses dedicated to this problem, although these events wouldn’t even be mentioned in this newspaper. I had to participate in these meetings in order to get a better idea of the problem and to get acquainted with other people. All that is important for me. After all, a journalist can’t know everything; he is taking from what he has seen and experienced, he is improving his competence constantly by reading books. He can ask people several times to explain to him the same problem and it’s not a shame. In the course of time he’ll become a real expert. It concerns also other themes you are charged with. The later practice says that a journalist mustn’t go too deeply into the problem; he must be able to write skillfully and operatively about everything. He must act in the way came-saw-wrote. No matter whether he writes about gardening, fishing or music. With a rare exception, different people always call or come from various TV-channels and newspapers. I met with one of them, had a talk; at last it seemed to me that we had cleared up the difference between archangel and archdeacon. Next time you meet with another journalist – and you have to start everything from the very beginning. One day two different people from two newspapers, for example “Komersant” (“Businessman”) and “Segodnya” (“Today”) can call and ask about the same church problem. It might seem that it would be much easier to appoint one person responsible for church questions. And then you will work with him and not with the whole editorial staff. In addition to this, our mass media go through the process of rejuvenation with an incredible personnel rotation. Once two journalists came to us to write a report. As it turned out they had neither journalistic nor philological education. That was the policy of those editors: they took on only those whom they didn’t have to re-teach! In a word, it’s more difficult for us to understand the present-day press than for the press to understand the church.
But still we have to cooperate with our press and encourage it to publish materials about the church. Once Archbishop Theophanous of Stavropoul visited the lavra and he was saying that they announced a competition in their eparchy among the different secular mass media for the best material about the church. Two winners of that competition every year get a unique chance to go for a two-week trip to the Holy Land. It was a great initiative, wasn’t it?

Absolutely. Can you name journalists writing about church topics in an interesting and at the same time objective way?

The problem is that we all live in certain spaces of understanding, which is limited to some frames. If somebody gets into these frames, it is pleasant for us, if not – then it irritates us, we become angry and say: “There are a lot of books dedicated to this problem. Why still don’t they understand it?...” That’s why I like to read materials written by like-minded people – they don’t need any explanation. These old friends in writing are Sviatoslav Rechynskyi, Sergii Geruk, and also my old wonderful Moscow friends-publicists, Deacon Andrii Kuraev, Oleksandr Dvorkin, and Vladislav Petrushko.
By the way, all of them have Ukrainian roots. I like to read Kirill Frolov, although he is a very hot-tempered person and many people criticize his style. But I like his reckless fighting spirit. With great pleasure I also read works of lecturers of the KSA (the Kyiv State Academy), namely Archimandrite Nestor (Somenko), Victor Chernyshov and Archpriest Dionisii Martyshyn. In my opinion, Yevlohii, the bishop of Kremenchuk, also writes very profound investigations, Archpriest Andrii Tkachov is also very interesting…
My favorite periodical is “Foma” (Thomas). It worth mentioning that in Ukraine the quality of regional publications is often even better than of those of the capital.

Why do you think capital publications sometimes are inferior to regional in quality?

From the time of the heroes of Stendhal, provincials always were more energetic, talented and full of initiative, that’s why they managed to conquer Paris. We have the best eparchial newspapers in Zaporizhzha, Poltava and Crimea; the best press services in Dnipropetrovsk and Lutsk; the best parochial newspapers in Transcarpathia and Vinnytsia, and the best periodicals in Donetsk, Kharkiv and Odesa. Although their creative potential is just incomparable with the capital’s. But Kyiv loses, because the capital is always inseparable from arrogance and abnormal pride. Here all minor people seem to be major. It’s our laziness, because we possess all necessary life and work conditions, while other people just dream about them. But we should possess real strength, not fabulous efforts. We mustn’t be lazy, we have to work hard. After all, any creative work always has a special element. Journalism is a creative profession. At the same time, it is a tragic one. How long does the newspaper, the so-called “one-day butterfly,” exist? Only one day. Then everything is forgotten and lost. First the name of the author is forgotten. All that means that it is a self-burning profession. The pains are incredible, the results ephemeral.

The church journalist. Can you describe him?

Church journalism is ordinary journalism. That’s what I’m trying to prove to everybody, but nobody listens to me. Many people think that if they write something about the church, it automatically has some value. We have to study. During Soviet times we suffered from both official and unofficial censorship. Every document before it was published had to pass through many hands. At last we got something like a bird’s skeleton without feathers. Nevertheless, even in those times you had to be good not only at mastering journalistic genres, but in the first place you had to know also the language well, and to be good at using language means: colorfulness, expressiveness and folklore. Ivan Bokii is a living classic of Ukrainian journalism. His Ukrainian language is very colorful and rich. There are also the Russian classic journalists Vasyl Peskov from “Komsomolka” and the famous Melor Sturua. One can study a lot from them. Nowadays journalism is becoming more dynamic and culturological, therefore knowledge in the sphere of culture and literature, and not only our own, is necessary. Everybody is trying to make a phrase paradoxical, to play on parallel word and phrase meanings.
As well as others we must be able to write in a contemporary way. Moreover, to write about important, profound and positive things.

What do you mean by that?

It’s much more difficult to write about something good and positive than about something problematic and polemical. It’s a real art to write in such a way to be able to touch one’s soul, by writing only to make people do good things. Every journalist experiences such successes during his life. Once I was asked to write a newspaper column dedicated to Victory Day; so, I rummaged in my old notebooks and decided to compose an article with three short stories, each consisting of 150 lines dedicated to the fates of women living during wartime. It took place during the catastrophic 1990s, when people were suffering from poverty and irregular, scanty pensions. One of the novels was dedicated to an old peasant woman from the Vinnytsia Region. She lived together with her husband, a former war-participant, they had no children, then her husband died and she found herself alone. Now she lived with a cat, a dog and three hens. She sold her refrigerator as she had nothing to put into it; besides, she had a cellar. She bought a full car of firewood and hired people to chop it. Now she had something to heat the house. She also sold her TV-set: there was no use for it, because she almost lost her sight. In addition, she needed money for medicines and a complicated operation, which she had in a district center. Once she had a radio, but the wind damaged the radio-line and nobody repaired it, so she was without any connection with the outer world. While she was in the hospital some bad people hung her dog and stole her three hens. There was no policeman in the village, only in the district center, so nobody investigated that case. Now she was alone with her cat and had serious problems with her legs. But still one thing made her anxious: her husband left a lot of war orders and awards after him. So, she decided to bring them to school. The reaction of the people from that school was unexpected: they just banished her, saying that nobody needs them. The poor woman decided to bury them in the grave of her husband and she asked the journalist if it is correct to do this.
A year later after these materials had been published I visited that village again. I met that old woman. She showed me several striking letters. One of them was from a priest from some monastery. He also sent her forty hryvnias. His very long letter was written in a comforting and instructive manner. The priest wrote that she wasn’t alone and God Himself was with her. He wrote her other letters of support, and she read them with the help of a magnifier. One more letter was from a village in the Zhytomyr Region. One family read about this poor woman and decided to invite her to live with them. They had a farmstead and a nice house. Nearby they had one more house, but a smaller one, where their mother used to live. Now she had passed away and the house was vacant. It was a good house: warm, cozy, with an orchard. Nobody would disturb her there. They had a cow and cattle. There were no problems with food. They promised to look after her. They wanted her to visit them, to take a closer look at their premises. In the letter they promised to bring her with all her possessions to their village, if she would like to move. They planned to live together. A similar letter was received from a woman who lived in the Rivne Region. That woman had a two-room flat, a lot of vacant space there, and such modern conveniences as gas and central heating. She earned enough money to provide herself and somebody else with all necessary things. And there was one more similar letter. I hadn’t published the address of that old woman and all the letters were sent to the village government and all these letters were given to her.
What I’d like to say is that Ukraine “is still alive,” and not thanks to our presidents, prime-ministers, politicians and other “saviors of our motherland,” but thanks to such priests in monasteries and other kind people who are ready to help a single 80-year-old woman. This communion in an invisible way unites us into one nation. It’s a real achievement if even accidentally by this publication we are able to inspire people to support each other, to write letters, awake in people something exalted and creative. All that proves that our material was really positive. But do we often read and write such articles?
It’s important to learn how to write about ordinary people. Metropolitan Volodymyr once said: “The interesting people are not those whom we see on TV, but those surrounding us in our everyday life.”

Do you have new promising projects? What are their prospects?

- A project is a combination of something planned and possible. Unfortunately, it seems to me that now we are in degradation a little bit. Our first “Messengers” were much more interesting. Of course, now we also have a lot of interesting ideas, but the problem is in the human factor. We are short of talented journalists who can make these ideas a reality. We need people who are in love with the poetic word and creative work, but not with themselves.

Thank you very much for an interesting talk!

Thank you also. There is something avant-garde when journalists interview each other. It’s the same when an actor plays the part of another actor, and a man reproduces his own shadow. But we must remember that it is much easier to talk about something than to do it.

RISU’s Ukrainian-language site posted the text on 28 May 2008. Interview conducted by Svitlana Yaroshenko in Kyiv, on 19 May 2008.