Putin, orphans and the ‘Cadaver Synod’

Cadaver Synod 1870

More curiosity from Russia. Just days after President Vladimir Putin pushed a bill which would result in an end to US citizens adopting neglected Russian orphans, the nation opened a fraud trial against a man who’s been dead for more than three years.

And, as can seemingly only happen in Russia, the two are connected.

This made-for-Dostoyevsky case goes back to at least 2008, when Russian Sergei Magnitsky was arrested.

Before his arrest, Magnitsky, according to his lawyer, had uncovered a tax scam worth $235 million being perpetrated by interior ministry officials against the company he worked for, investment fund Hermitage Capital.

However, Magnitsky was then charged with the very crimes he claimed to have uncovered and was placed in pre-trial detention, according to Agence France-Presse.

He spent nearly a year in squalid prison conditions, dying at the age of 37 of untreated illnesses. A report by the Kremlin human rights council last year said he was tortured and handcuffed in his final hours, the wire service reported.

Even though Magnitsky is dead, he and his former employer – the head of Hermitage Capital, William Browder – are accused of tax evasion.

Thursday, the Magnitsky family’s defense lawyers refused to participate in what they termed an “unconstitutional” process against a dead man, and the judge was forced to adjourn the hearing until Jan. 28.

Browder, currently based in London, is being tried in absentia.

So how did Russian orphans became pawns in this bizarre tale?

In the years since Magnitsky’s death, all of his alleged tormentors are still free and nearly all of them have either kept their government jobs or been promoted, according to Time magazine.

“As a last resort, Magnitsky’s friends and colleagues took their pleas for justice to Western capitals, and Washington has now banned the implicated officials from traveling to the US, owning property in the US, or holding US bank accounts,” the publication reported.

The US Magnitsky Act was passed this month by a huge bipartisan majority in both the House and the Senate.

“Putin called the act ‘unfriendly’ and pledged that it would get an ‘adequate’ response from Russian lawmakers,” Time reported.

So, as a result, the Russian parliament has passed a law banning adoptions of Russian children by Americans. The measure now awaits Putin’s signature.

Ah, what better way to stick it to the Americans than by leaving unwanted Russian children to waste away in miserable orphanages, right?

Surprisingly, putting an individual on trial posthumously – while ridiculous – is not unheard of in history.

Examples include Pope Formosus, who led the Roman Catholic Church from 891 to 896. His reign, like the time he lived in, was troubled. When he died in April 896, he was succeeded by Boniface VI.

The latter ruled for barely two weeks before either dying or resigning (the medieval papacy was considerably more turbulent than that of today: in addition, its record-keeping left much to be desired), and was followed by Pope Stephen VI.

It should be noted that the period from the middle of the ninth century to the middle of the tenth century is often referred to the Iron Age of Popes, according to Richard P. McBrien’s 1997 book Lives of the Popes. The term is not one of endearment.

Stephen was apparently no fan of Formosus because he had the latter dug up and put on trial in 897, at least eight months after Formosus’ death, in what became known as the delightfully titled Cadaver Synod.

Eamon Duffy, writes in Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (1997) that the Holy See attracted individuals with a lust for power.

“The chair of St. Peter became the prize of tyrants and brigands and a throne fouled by fierce tides of crime and licentiousness … (and) the papacy became the possession of great Roman families, a ticket to local dominance for which men were prepared to rape, murder, and steal.”

Yet, in what has to be one of the lowlights even for this period, the corpse of Formosus was disinterred, clad in papal vestments, and seated on a throne to face charges of “transmigrating sees in violation of canon law,” perjury and of serving as a bishop while actually a layman.

A deacon was appointed to answer for the deceased pontiff.

Surprise of surprises, Formosus, or what remained of him, was found guilty.

His corpse was stripped of its papal vestments, the three fingers of his right hand used for consecrations were cut off and thrown in the Tiber River, and all his acts and ordinations were declared null and void.

His body was first re-interred in a graveyard for foreigners, only to be dug up once again, tied to weights, and cast into the Tiber.

Apparently, all of the above was too much for even the jaded populace of Rome.

A public uprising led to Stephen being deposed and imprisoned, and in the summer of 897 he was strangled while behind bars.

A decade later, Formosus was “rehabilitated” during another Church synod, and he was reburied in Saint Peter’s Basilica, garbed in pontifical vestments.

In light of the above experience, let us hope the Russians know where to draw the line when it comes to posthumous trials.

(Above: Jean-Paul Laurens’ 1870 work showing the Cadaver Synod.)

4 thoughts on “Putin, orphans and the ‘Cadaver Synod’

  1. I went to Russia for the first time on a church mission trip in 2003 when everybody in the free world was still so high on Putin; the Russian Methodist pastors and church leaders and church orphanage connections over there, at least the younger ones from late 30-40 or even something age ranges, said they didn’t trust him as far as they could throw him and always reminded his of all the blood on his hands from his KGB days. This was right after W had famously said he “looked into his soul” and saw a great man and was so impressed with him. They couldn’t believe how naive American leaders, and especially the Prez, could be. And of course he’s in bed with the Russian Ortho Church leaders who’ve been in bed with the long line of nasty dictators in Russia forever. Not all the church guys, but church/state corruption is an old, old and very old story there for sure. Russia has millions of orphans still, btw, living underground in the tunnels and literary starving in old parts of Siberia. Mostly orphaned by the rampant alcoholism and the ax murders that the drinking leads too routinely. another old story–strong drink, chop mom or dad’s head off or somebody else. It’s a dark, bizarre country and probably always will be.

    • Solzhenitsyn, who I had great respect for, said Russia was different because of its history, geography, philosophy, etc., and that, in essence, one could not expect it to embrace a western-style Democracy with its inherent freedoms because such a system runs counter to so much of the nation’s past.

      The Russian Orthodox Church only survived at all because of World War II. By 1939, as I understand it, the church officially had one bishop and four active priests. The rest had been killed or sent to the Gulag. Stalin recognized the value of religion once the war began, and realized he had to let up on the people to a degree if he was going to be able to get needed support. This included allowing the Orthodox Church to come back out into the open to a degree. Of course, the church was also allowed to survive because some members secretly worked for the state.

      I understand the concept of political expediency, but have never grasped why US presidents feel the need to puff up individuals who are obviously problematic. I’m sure the CIA was well aware of Putin’s background by the time Bush met with him and had briefed him of it. You would have thought we’d learned our lesson with Duvalier, Batista, Pinochet, Saddam (prior to 1990), etc.

      As for Russia’s orphans, the scene you describe hardly surprises me. The country and its people are trapped in some sort of Dickensian time warp, or rather, seem about 175 years behind much of the west. The difference being, the technology is there to wreak great havoc should it get in the wrong hands, unlike London or New York in the 1840s.

      • All right on. Stalin was a seminarian for a bit, you know; he made friends in the church, or called on old friends in that dictatorial way, I suppose.

      • I have read that he was a seminarian, and apparently used the experience to great advantage later on. The more I’ve read about Stalin, the more convinced I am that he was as evil, if not more so, than Hitler. I suppose, of course, that you reach a point at which you can’t get any worse, and those two are right there neck and neck, but Stalin was a bizarre individual in every sense of the word.

        One wonders how world history would have been changed had Stalin stayed in seminary: It would likely have been not so good for the town he served as a priest, but inestimably better for Russia and the rest of the world.

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