Vienna, January 27 – The new patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church will pursue a nationalist and authoritarian approach within his faith and his country while seeking a rapprochement with the Vatican and some other churches abroad, each course a reflection of his desire to increase the power of the Moscow Patriarchate at home and abroad.
Kirill I, as he will be styled, following his selection as the new head of the Moscow Patriarchate yesterday, has laid out his views on these and many other subjects not only during his long career as a senior metropolitan and head of the Patriarchate’s powerful external affairs department but in the course of his successful pursuit of the church’s top job.
His combination of authoritarianism at home and ecumenism abroad is intended to guarantee that he will enjoy the support not only of conservatives within the Church but more importantly of the Russian government and that, at the same time, he will escape criticism in the West because of his apparent openness to expanded ties with the Vatican.
While that combination may work to his advantage most of the time, it carries with it serious risks. On the one hand, many in Moscow will be upset by Kirill’s efforts to boost his own power and that of the Church. And on the other, his pursuit of an accommodation with Rome will offend many within Russian Orthodoxy, possibly triggering a new split in the Church.
But Kirill’s career, his past approach to key issues, and perhaps especially the way in which he managed his coming to power in a deeply divided Church suggest that he is likely to achieve many of his goals but quite possibly to fail spectacularly if he runs afoul of top leaders of the government, the prelates of his Church, and public opinion in Russia and the West.
Born in Leningrad in 1946, the new patriarch, whose civil name is Vladimir Gundyaev), came from a family of churchmen. Soviet “bezbozhniki,” as Kirill has frequently recounted, sent his grandfather to the Solovki camps for resisting their anti-religious efforts. And Kirill’s father, a priest, apparently suffered for his faith as well prior to his death in 1974.
After finishing the 8th grade, the future Church leader drew maps for the Leningrad Complex Geological Expedition of the Northwestern Geological Administration before returning to finish secondary school and then entering the Leningrad Theological Seminary and subsequently that city’s Theological Academy.
Even before graduating with distinction, he became a monk and took the name Kirill. He then worked as the representative of the Moscow Patriarchate at the World Council of Churches in Geneva (1970-74), rector of the Leningrad Theological Seminary and Academy (1974-84), and in a series of increasingly important administrative posts within the Church (1984-89).
Then, in November 1989, he became head of the Patriarchate’s Department of External Relations, a position he retained until his selection as patriarch. That post is traditionally the number two position in the church and while in it, he laid out his views, recruited and advanced his supporters within the Church, and oversaw much of the Church’s economic activity.
A little over a year after his appointment, Kirill was elevated to the rank of metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, conforming to the Moscow Patriarchate’s tradition of having its most senior administrators in Moscow also having responsibility for a group of bishops and parishioners elsewhere.
Kirill has written and spoken so often and, when possible taken action to promote his views, that is impossible to describe them all in a brief article. But three of his positions and three of his actions seem certain to play a key role in defining his approach to his responsibilities as patriarch and thus merit particular attention.
With respect to his views, Kirill first of all has rejected the idea that there is anything like a universal code of human rights. While some rights may be universal, in his view, many are nationally specific, and consequently, he has actively promoted the idea that Russia must not be measured according to international standards.
Second, for all his outspoken support for ecumenism abroad, Kirill has opposed boosting the standing of Catholics and Protestants within Russian. Instead, he has been the chief promoter over the last decade of the idea of Russia’s “traditional religions,” arguing that Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism are naturally part of Russia’s social fabric but the others are not.
And third, Kirill has long insisted that Russia must be an Orthodox country, a view that sometimes he has appeared to define as meaning that his church will enjoy the status of primus inter pares but that more often he has said means that Orthodoxy should define the way in which the state behaves in a wide variety of areas, including education.
With respect to his actions, Kirill has maintained extremely close relations with Russia’s security agencies. Like his predecessor and like the two other leading candidates for patriarch he defeated, Kirill has a long history of working with the KGB. For churchmen of his generation, it could not be otherwise, but he has appeared more comfortable with that than some of the others.
Indeed, it was his closeness to the security agencies that almost cost him his shot at the top position in the Church. When Vladimir Putin was vetting people to succeed him as president, Kirill openly backed the defense minister rather than Dmitry Medvedev, a position from which he had to retreat, albeit with a clear if temporary loss of face.
Second, Kirill has been actively involved since 1990 in the Church’s extensive economic activities. Indeed, he has been known in some circles as the “tobacco metropolitan” for his role in promoting the sale of cigarettes from which the Church has profited. As a result, his opponents in the Church and religious rights activists often have accused him of being corrupt.
And third, in boosting himself and his supporters within the church, Kirill has not been shy about using “administrative resources,” including those of the security agencies, against anyone who opposes him or even has different ideas, ranging from sectarians against whom he has railed and Diomid and other bishops who dissent from the Patriarchal line.
That willingness to use force against his opponents has led some to conclude that he will use such “resources” against his opponents (www.babr.ru/?pt=news&event=v1&IDE=50264). That proclivity was very much on view during the last few weeks preceding his elevation and even more during the church conclave that selected him.
Unlike his predecessors chosen in Soviet times – the late Aleksii II was elected in 1990 – Kirill was selected via a far more public process. But instead of highlighting what many had hoped would be a more democratic and more independent process, Kirill’s selection highlighted precisely the opposite (korrespondent.net/russia/724340).
Not only did Kirill come out on top because he had over the years packed the episcopate with his own supporters and because he enjoyed the backing of Vladimir Putin and the votes of United Russian Party members in the nomination process, but he was quite prepared to use “administrative resources” that recalled the Soviet past.
The government-controlled media backed him all the way, giving him time and space far greater than any of the other possible candidates, and web sites, like Portal-Credo.ru which have opposed him, were blocked during the meeting of the Moscow conclave. (Happily but certainly not coincidentally, that site is again accessible now that Kirill is in.)
But it was the voting itself which was the most dramatic indication of the way in which the past has returned. The vote, which as several media outlets have noted Kirill won by Putin-level margins if not yet those of the leaders of Turkmenistan, proceeded far more rapidly than one would have expected it to.
The reason? Because the participating electors did not bother to go into the voting booths but simply made their marks in public and dropped their ballots into the boxes, in much the same way, as one Russian commentator observed today, that Soviet voters were encouraged to do in the past (www.kasparov.ru/material.php?id=497F5188DE17D).
Obviously, despite all this widely available information about him, no one can be certain about how Kirill will behave in the future or how his relations with the government, the Church and others will turn out, but one thing is certain: As “Nezavisimaya gazeta” pointed out today, his patriarchate will not be boring (www.ng.ru/columnist/2009-01-28/100_kirill.html?scroll).