By Kadri Liik, Momchil Metodiev, Nicu Popescu*
The Russian state and Russian church have long been close: in 1722 Peter the Great abolished the position of the Russian patriarch and appointed an “ober-prokurator”, a government official to supervise the Church Synod, which led to the Synodal rule that survived until the Russian revolution. Even in Soviet times, when the authorities persecuted the church, they also made use of it: during the second world war, for instance, Josef Stalin ordered Orthodox priests to bless defence lines around the capital. After the war, the church was believed to be heavily infiltrated by the KGB and to act in the state’s interests, especially from the 1960s onwards. A special parliamentary commission created in the early 1990s vindicated this belief.
In the current era, a prominent symbiosis between the Kremlin and the Orthodox Church emerged after 2012, when Putin returned to the Kremlin amid protests by the liberal urban intelligentsia. The Russian government began to portray itself as a defender of conservative values – including religion – from the onslaught of what it called ‘decadent Western liberalism’. This fitted well with the conservative and anti-Western views held by Patriarch Kirill. During the protests, Kirill stepped in to declare the arrival of Putin to the presidency a “miracle from God”. Other occasions have seen the church lend its backing to the regime, even in deeply unspiritual matters: Orthodox priests have blessed missiles destined for Syria, as well as Crimea. And, in December 2018, the patriarch himself participated in the ‘collegium’ – something of an advisory board – of the Russian Ministry of Defence; not your usual meeting for a religious leader.
One core political message of the Russian church under Kirill – convenient for the Kremlin in its anti-Western shift – has been that the European Union is imposing secular values on Russia, making it comparable to the atheist communist state. Rejection of Christian spiritual heritage will lead to the failure of European civilisation – so the argument runs. For instance, Metropolitan of Volokolamsk Hilarion (Alfeyev) – who is also chair of the department for external relations of the Russian church, something of a foreign affairs minister for the church – regularly issues pronouncements along the following lines: “The militant secularism that is rapidly gaining momentum in today’s Europe is also a pseudo-religion. Modern militant secularism, like Russian communism, is seen as a worldview that came to replace the Christian view of the world.” This view has implications especially for other Orthodox countries that either are or aspire to be members of the EU: from Bulgaria and Serbia to Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia. In these places, the church lobbied hard against the adoption of anti-discrimination legislation, which was a precondition for qualifying for visa-free travel to the EU. These countries’ governments overcame this opposition, but it came at domestic political cost.
However, on closer examination, it is evident that the Kremlin and the church each had their own reasons for their conservative positioning. For the Kremlin, this was first and foremost an opportunistic political move: an attempt to marginalise the hostile liberal constituency at home, to build up defences against a West increasingly critical of Russia, and to erode Western unity by reaching out to anti-liberal fringe groups there. The conservative image that it chose to present to the world was not fully rooted in popular values: while homosexuality is indeed still somewhat stigmatised in Russia, in many other respects Russia is not a particularly conservative country, nor a very religious one. Just 5-7 percent of its population go to church regularly, and sociologists argue that religion plays hardly any role in Russians’ worldview.1 Indeed, in recent years, the government’s conservative thrust has slowed and even retreated. “It was [former head of the Kremlin administration Vyacheslav] Volodin who tried to market conservatism; from [current head Sergey] Kirienko we hear nothing about it”, comments one Kremlin-linked analyst.
If the Kremlin’s anti-Westernism is driven primarily by geopolitical disagreements with the West, then, for the current church establishment, anti-Western conservatism is a deeper and more genuinely values-led conviction. Many church observers attribute this to Kirill and his leadership. That said, Kirill does not enjoy universal acclaim either among Moscow elites or the wider public. If his predecessor, Alexy II, was a figure of some autonomous gravity and religious authority, then Kirill is often referred to as “the first Soviet Patriarch”, which includes a reference not only to his year of birth – 1946 – but also his character and behaviour. His lavish lifestyle is subject to frequent criticism on the Russian internet, and comes across in interviews: “When Pope Francis turned 70, he invited beggars to dine with him in the Vatican canteen”, says one figure close to the church establishment.3 “And then you look at the lavish celebrations when Kirill turned 70.”
It is notable too that, while Putin lets it be known that he is religious – he has used the tale of his secret baptism to charm Western leaders, such as George W Bush – in religious matters, he keeps his distance from Kirill. Putin is known to spend time in remote monasteries in northern Russia, or in the company of Tikhon (Shevkunov), currently Metropolitan of Pskov and Porkhov, and until 2018 superior of the Sretensky Monastery in Moscow. Many observers consider this monk-writer-filmmaker to be one of the smartest people among the current Orthodox establishment in Russia, and believe him to be close to the president.5 “Putin is truly religious”, says a Kremlin insider, who also confirms the president’s ties to Tikhon.6 But being religious does not mean Putin views Kirill as a religious guide: “Patriarch Kirill – he is like a government minister for Putin”, says Russian analyst Aleksei Makarkin, implying that the president regards the patriarch a political official more than as a religious authority.7 “Putin certainly does not confess to Kirill – then he could as well confess to [prime minister Dmitry] Medvedev or [former first deputy prime minister Igor] Shuvalov!”.
*Τhis article is part of a research for ECFR. Romfea.news will republish extracts from the paper in the following days