Vienna, February 2 – Like his seventeenth century predecessor Nikon whose wide-ranging reforms of the church sparked the Great Schism in Russian Orthodoxy, Kirill I, who was enthroned as patriarch in Moscow yesterday, comes from a family which has its roots in the Finno-Ugric nations of the Middle Volga.
Semyon Chernykh, a specialist on family names in that region, points out that this origin is even reflected in his civil name Gundyaev, which comes from the Mordvinian word for “native place.” And thus, the onomastician says, it is “practically a synonym for ‘landsman’ (“Gudok,” January 31 in mariuver.wordpress.com/2009/02/02/patriarh-fu/#more-5424).
Kirill himself has never played down his family background. In fact, he has regularly and proudly told people about his grandfather, Vasily, who was born in 1879 in the Lukoyanov district of what was then the Nizhny Novgorod guberniya but is now part of the Finno-Ugric Mordvin Republic.
The family had been Christianized and Russified by that time, and Vasily, although he was trained and worked as a machinist, was deeply religious, regularly made contributions to the monastery on Mt. Athos, and raised his seven children to be religious as well, including Mikhail, the father of the new head of the Moscow Patriarchate, who was born in 1907.
Following the Bolshevik revolution, “Gudok” reports, Vasily was infuriated by the closure of the local church and collected signatures on a letter of protest to the authorities. Moreover, he was convinced that the Soviet-controlled Renewal Movement was sinful, and consequently helped organize a small circle of those who kept to traditional Orthodoxy.
Soviet officials arrested him for this in 1922 and exiled him the Solovetsky Camps that Solzhenitsyn describes in the Gulag Archipelago. But he never broke down, even though in the course of his life, he passed through 46 different Soviet prisons. Whenever he was in “the big zone,” he served as a priest in the Ufa eparchate.
Vasily’s son Mikhail also was arrested and exiled in 1933 after receiving theological instruction at the Higher Theological Courses in Leningrad and the Kyiv-Pechora Monastery. While serving in a church choir, the Moscow paper relates, he met his future wife, Raisa, who gave birth to the future patriarch in 1946.
This record of suffering for the faith is obviously far more important for an understanding of Kirill than are the Finno-Ugric roots of his family, roots which after all a significant portion of ethnic Russians have. But for Kirill, these roots are not without meaning, as he made clear several years ago in a letter to the residents of Lukoyanov.
The future patriarch said that he was “convinced that the attachment of an individual to the small motherland of his ancestors has a deep meaning and is one of the organic means of preserving historical memory.” And he said he was “very glad that even today, many initiatives directed at the spiritual and material rebuilding of Russia come from Nizhny Novgorod.”
“I do not doubt,” Kirill said, that contemporary Lukoyanovites will be able to become worthy continuers of the best traditions of their heroic ancestors.”
There are three reasons that Kirill’s ethnic origin may matter. First, Kirill’s obvious awareness of this ethnic dimension of his own family’s past is likely to make him both more sensitive to such issues and more committed to missionary work among the often still-pagan Finno-Ugric nationalities of Russia.
Second, Kirill’s Finno-Ugric origins are certain to attract the attention of some Russian nationalists who will point to them whenever they are unhappy with the patriarch’s actions just as Russian nationalists in the past on occasion blamed Aleksii II’s Estonian and German links when they disagree with him.
And third, as one writer in a comment appended to the Mariuver.ru report of the “Gudok” article pointed out, Kirill’s Finno-Ugric background may have some very immediate consequences. While most Russians won’t care, many Ukrainians will because they are “not ready” to equate themselves with Finns or even more with Middle Volga Finno-Ugrics.
If she is right – and it seems a stretch at this point to believe that she is – then Kirill’s Finno-Ugric background, one that ethnographers say often takes the form of extraordinary toughness and self-confidence, could produce another schism in the Church, not between the Patriarchate and the Old Believers but between the Russian Church and a Ukrainian one.