Patriarch Kirill may be perceived as an established figure and a core member of Putin’s Russian“establishment”– but in contemporary Russia even his future looks uncertain.
Once a man with ambitions of wanting to restore the Church’s grandeur akin to his 17th-century counterpart Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, his prominence is slowly receding. Kirill’s ideas of transforming the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) into a pan-Slavic cultural space are likewise fading.
Since his appointment in 2009, Kirill has attempted to establish himself as the religious leader of all lands where the ROC plays a major role, including Ukraine, Moldova, and others, as well as managing to preserve friendly ties with the Georgian Orthodox Church since the war in 2008.
Expansionist and internationalist as his behavior may sound, it nonetheless does not fully correspond to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vision of the ROC’s purpose and goal – a view he made clear to Kirill in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea and instigated a military conflict in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas regions.
In Putin’s world, the ROC must assist him in his endeavors to control Russia’s “sphere of influence” directly – not through sophisticated soft power tools.
While Kirill never challenged Putin’s vision, for some time he managed to avoid implementing it, instead betting on closer links with the affiliates in the post-Soviet countries. For instance, he saw to it that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which at that time was under the jurisdiction of the ROC, called on Ukrainian citizens to restore civil peace and protect the integrity of their country the way Moscow saw it fit.
In line with this vision, Metropolitan Onufriy, the Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine, was granted full autonomy through his relations with the Ukrainian state. That preserved authority over the Crimean Peninsula despite Putin’s claim that it had become a part of Russia.
However, Kirill’s maneuvering strategy proved to be short-lived. When the Ukrainian Orthodox Church received autonomy from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in 2019, it became clear that Kirill’s plans to become one of the major religious leaders of the Orthodox world were buried deep.
Shortly after, the Crimean metropolis was subordinated directly to Moscow, leading to Kirill promptly getting rid of “malign influences” in the Church. This included his close ally Metropolitan Hilarion, the former chairman of the Department of External Relations, a second-ranking man in the ROC’s hierarchy and pro-western by Russian standards.
Could Putin turn to a new Patriarch?
Although Kirill is no longer acting as an ambitious or independent political player, it does not mean that he found a safe haven.
Enter Metropolitan Tikhon, also known as Georgiy Shevkunov, a man whose vision of the ROC has matched that of Putin’s for decades.
A scriptwriter from a much more modest background than Kirill and Hilarion, after the USSR’s collapse he chose to become a clergyman at the Sretensky Monastery, located close to the Federal Security Service headquarters and frequented by its generals.
Tikhon has always been certain that Western Christendom is a historical adversary of the Orthodox empires – from the Byzantine Empire and the Russian Empire to contemporary Russia. To prove it, he produced a documentary titled “The Fall of an Empire—the Lesson of Byzantium”, which received an award as the best Russian documentary of the year from the National Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, reminding Russia that it was the West who “destroyed” its grandeur. Hence it must overcome the consequences of western treachery.
His contempt of the West echoes that of Russian politician Nikolai Patrushev and Putin while his utterances are nothing short of audacious, such as that those fighting in Ukraine do not violate the commandment to love one’s enemies “if they kill without hatred in their hearts.”
For all his faults, even Kirill is incapable of voicing such “Christian” ideas.
Although Putin still deems Kirill a controllable figure, the fact that the “special operation” in Ukraine is producing limited gains, the current Patriarch might not be the figure he is looking for. This means that Metropolitan Tikhon could well replace him.
Being Putin’s confidant, with some speculating that he has also been his confessor since the late 1990s when his career at the Stratensky Monastery got an unexpected boost (arguably, from Putin himself who was appointed as an FSS director in 1998), he could well become Kirill’s successor in 2023, which is why Kirill is trying his best to cling to his power.
In his recent sermon in Kaliningrad, which until recently faced a blockade from the Lithuanian government, Kirill said that Western countries envy Russia because it is “different” – a message aimed at pleasing Patrushev, who also visited Kaliningrad and churned out threats to the West from there, as well as Putin.
However, these attempts to restore his master’s admiration might not be enough for Kirill to remain in his divine office. His accidental fall during a liturgy Novorossiysk in May, which many did not perceive well, further tainted his reputation.
If Kirill is indeed forced out, the ROC will get a new and even tougher chief, giving Putin’s regime increased spiritual justification he needs for new acts of aggression and endless confrontation with the West.
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