ENGLISH VERSION: Clock watchers in the Russian blogosphere call time out
Facing a scandal over photographs of its leader wearing an expensive watch, the Russian Orthodox Church worked a miracle: it made the offending timepiece disappear.
Editors doctored a photograph on the church's website of the leader, Patriarch Kirill I, extending a black sleeve where there once appeared to be a Breguet timepiece worth at least $US30,000. The church might have pulled off the ruse if it had not failed to also erase the watch's reflection, which appeared in the photo on the highly glossed table where the patriarch was seated.
The church apologised for the deception and restored the original photo to the site, but not before Kirill weighed in, insisting in an interview with a Russian journalist that he had never worn the watch, and that any photos showing him wearing it must have been doctored.
The controversy, which erupted when attentive Russian bloggers discovered the airbrushing, further stoked anger over the church's lavish displays of wealth and power. It also struck another blow to the moral authority of Russian officialdom.
Over the past decade, the church has grown immensely powerful, becoming so close to the Kremlin that it often seems like a branch of government. It has extended its influence into a broad range of public life, including schools, courts and politics. Kirill backed Vladimir Putin in last month's presidential election.
Recently, church officials stoked the ire of Russian liberals by seeking the imprisonment of members of a female punk rock group who held an impromptu concert inside Moscow's main cathedral in February to protest the church's political ties. Three members of the group are now in jail awaiting trial.
Then there is the question of the church's wealth. Russia's blogosphere has been bubbling with rumors that the patriarch has a country house, a private yacht and a penchant for ski vacations in Switzerland, though none of this has been proved.
The watch has been an object of fascination for years, and there is little question of its existence. It was first sighted on the patriarch's wrist in 2009 during a visit to Ukraine, where he gave a televised interview on the importance of asceticism.
Russia's often acerbic blogosphere reacted to the scandal with glee. Bloggers have been uploading their own altered photographs of the patriarch, including one in which he has been erased and only the watch remains.
''The church can, of course, inspire fear or evoke respect, and even make mistakes,'' Vladimir Varfolomeyev, a prominent liberal commentator, wrote on Facebook. ''But it cannot be funny. Before our eyes we are witnessing the destruction of this institution.''