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Russia's Patriarch Increasingly Becoming Major Force In Politics

  • Brian Whitmore

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill on a recent visit to Ukraine

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill on a recent visit to Ukraine

When Patriarch Kirill visited Russia's largest shipyard in late August, he was greeted with full military honors.

As a brass band played at the Northern Shipyard in Severodvinsk, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church strolled past a row of sailors in dress uniform, boarded a nuclear submarine, and presented the crew with an icon of the Mother of God.

He later said Russia's defense capabilities need to be bolstered by Orthodox Christian values.

"You should not be ashamed of going to church and teaching the Orthodox faith to your children," the patriarch told the Severodvinsk workers. "Then we shall have something to defend with our missiles."

Kirill's comments linking sacred Christian faith and secular nuclear might raised eyebrows, particularly among Russia's religious minorities. The event, analysts say, also served to illustrate the patriarch's growing political profile.

"Patriarch Kirill is very energetic and sees himself not only as a religious figure but also somebody who can play a role in secular affairs as well,” says Boris Falikov, an associate professor of religious studies at the Russian State Humanities University in Moscow.

“Since the moment of his enthronement he has energetically engaged in church affairs, and has also sought out his own role in Russian politics."

Analysts say Kirill's relationship with Russia's secular authorities is a complex dance carried out in the context of centuries of close, but often troubled, ties -- including decades in which the church was suppressed under Soviet rule.

Falikov says Kirill is seeking to strike a difficult balance in his relations with the state as he carves out his own political role:

"He is finding a common language with the secular authorities, but at the same time understands that the church must not lose its autonomy and must not become an obedient tool of the Kremlin,” Falikov says.

“But nevertheless, their interests often coincide because the church needs a lot from the state and the state is giving a lot to the church."

Soft-Power Tool

Kirill's political role was clearly on display during his recent high-profile trip to Ukraine, where he sought to unite the country's fractious Orthodox Christians who are split into parishes loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate and an autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Many observers saw political undercurrents in Kirill's trip, which came as Moscow was engaged in a bitter struggle with the pro-Western government in Kyiv -- and came shortly after a visit to Ukraine by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.

In a televised speech on July 28, Kirill implored Ukrainians not to sacrifice the common Orthodox Christian values they share with Russia in the pursuit of closer ties with Europe, a clear reference to Kyiv's efforts to join NATO and the European Union.

Father Ihor Yatsyv, press secretary for Lubomyr Huzar, the head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that Kirill sounded like "a politician from Russia...who wants to establish a sphere of influence in Ukraine," rather than a religious leader.

"The visit was not just pastoral. It was political,” Yatsyv said.

“Given Kirill's statements about two brotherly peoples that cannot be divided, one has to wonder whether he understands that Ukraine today is an independent country."

Falikov and others say Kirill had his own religious agenda in Ukraine -- uniting the Orthodox faithful -- but that this coincided with the secular interests of the Kremlin, mainly bringing Ukraine back into its sphere of influence.

"His visit to Ukraine is an example of when church politics works to the advantage of the Russian state,” Falikov said.

“I don't think he allowed himself to be used as a tool [of the state], but was rather playing an autonomous role. In this case his interests as a church official overlapped with the state's interests."

In a recent commentary published in "The Moscow Times," Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal "Russia In Global Affairs," called Kirill "a new public figure in Russia whose political weight and diplomatic skills surpass those of the secular authorities."

Lukyanov added that Kirill's ability to combine "tact and kind civility with a firmness of ideological positions" was an example "of the soft, nonstate power that Moscow has long been criticized for lacking."

A similar soft-power offensive will also likely be on display later this year when Kirill visits Georgia, a country that fought a bitter five-day war with Russia last summer and seeks to join NATO, but which also has a large and devout Orthodox Christian population.

There are also indications that Kirill's interests go beyond the former Soviet space.

Interfax reported on September 2 that Kirill supports the idea of helping ethnic Russians win election to legislative bodies in the European Union. After meeting with Tatiana Zhdanok, president of the European-Russian Alliance and a member of the European Parliament from Latvia, Kirill said he attaches “great importance to the cooperation of the Russian Orthodox Church and the political forces in Europe and are actively working in this direction.”

Spheres Of Influence

But analysts say Kirill's political role is wider than just being a weapon in the Kremlin's soft-power arsenal.

Under a recent agreement with the ruling United Russia party, he has won the right to review and suggest changes to any legislation before the State Duma that is of particular interest to the church.

Analysts note, however, that Kirill's influence does not extend across the full range of issues before the legislature, but is very strong in a few select areas:

"Kirill has already received more from [President Dmitry] Medvedev than [his predecessor Patriarch Aleksy II] got from Putin during his whole presidency,” says Nikolai Mitrokhin, a research fellow specializing in religious issues at the Center for Eastern European Studies at the University of Bremen in Germany.

“He is, nevertheless, someone who has influence over a very narrow sphere -- education, culture, spirituality -- but not more than this."

Kirill has already made it clear that he intends to use his growing influence to keep sex education out of Russia's schools.

In May, Russia ratified the European Social Charter, which calls for health education in schools, including sex education. Kirill is determined to make sure this doesn't happen when the Duma codifies the charter into Russian law.

Kirill's predecessor, Aleksy II, presided over the revival of a church decimated by communism
The patriarch is also seeking to expand the teaching of Orthodox Christian culture in Russia's public schools and to have chaplains embedded with military units. Each of these initiatives is running into opposition in predominantly Muslim regions like Tatarstan.

But Kirill has also had his differences with the Kremlin.

In a recent interview with the magazine "Ekspert," Archbishop Hilarion, who heads the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of External Relations and is a close aide to Kirill, called the Soviet leader Josef Stalin "a spiritually deformed monster" who was "comparable to Hitler" and "unleashed a genocide against the people of his own country."

Mitrokhin says Hilarion and other clergy, who were products of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost period, have strong influence over the 62-year-old patriarch.

"The priests who are dealing with administrative issues came of age in the 1980s and 1990s. This generation, who are now 35-45 years old, are very anti-Stalinist. They were very influenced by the perestroika-era critique of the Stalin period," Mitrokhin says.

To a degree, this puts the Moscow Patriarchate at odds with some elements in the Kremlin who have been seeking to rehabilitate some elements of Stalinism as part of a new, nationalistic, Russian ideology.

Troubled History

The political influence of Russian Orthodox patriarchs has varied widely over the centuries. The church provided a key component of the ideological doctrine of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationalism” that dominated Russia under the Romanov dynasty.

Most historians agree that the most powerful was Patriarch Filaret in the early 17th century, who was Russia's de facto ruler during the reign of his son, Tsar Mikhail I, the first monarch of the Romanov dynasty.

Mikhail was just 16 years old when he came to power following the Time of Troubles, a period of factional fighting and famine that nearly led to the collapse of the Russian state.

Other patriarchs have not fared so well when they tried to assert political authority. One example is Patriarch Nikon, who aspired to be a co-ruler with Tsar Aleksei in the mid-17th century. He was removed as patriarch and imprisoned as a simple monk in the Ferapontov Monastery in the northern Vologda region.

Tsar Peter I was mistrustful of church authorities and abolished the Moscow Patriarchate in 1721, replacing it with the Holy Governing Synod and bringing the church under greater control by secular authorities.

The Patriarchate was restored in 1917, but was again suspended by the Soviet authorities in 1925. It was reinstated for the last time in 1943 during World War II.

Most patriarchs have sought to accommodate Russia's secular rulers to varying degrees. The most notorious example is that of Patriarch Aleksy I, who was enthroned with the support of Stalin in 1945, toward the end of World War II.

Stalin had allowed the Russian Orthodox Church, which had been suppressed following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, to operate officially again starting in 1943, albeit under tight Soviet supervision. The move was seen as part of efforts to intensify patriotic support for the authorities during World War II and after.

The collaboration intensified under Aleksy I, whose detractors accused him of soiling the church by collaborating with the Communist authorities.

With Kirill's rising profile, there has been some speculation in the Russian media that the so-called diarchy of President Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin might become a triumvirate.

Analysts dismiss such speculation as unrealistic, but adds that Kirill's influence is nevertheless likely to grow:

"This is not going to turn into a triumvirate,” Falikov says. “But it is clear that Kirill aspires to increase the church's role not only in society but in politics as well. We can see this already in the first months of his patriarchy."

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