Russia's Holy Power Play

Most people know President Putin but few have heard of Patriarch Kirill.

The Russian patriarch, who often has the same objectives as Putin, operates with less attention and in many ways fewer restrictions.

Both men employ what can be broadly described as a three-pronged approach: strengthen the homeland, grow Russia's regional power and increase its international influence.

Their strategy is fueled by a common Russian World perspective which is remarkably analyzed by Sergei Chapnin who was recently fired by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) for criticizing its leadership. In this model, Kirill supports and is often subordinate to the will of Putin.

Upwards collaboration includes ROC efforts to promote certain domestic policies, as well as tactics to strengthen its role in religious affairs -- especially in Ukraine -- which includes stymieing efforts of global Orthodoxy.

The ecclesiastical organization of the Orthodox Church can be confusing; unlike Roman Catholicism, for instance, Orthodoxy uses a system of synodality without a single person in charge such as the pope.

The Orthodox Church is administratively comprised of 14 autocephalous churches (see full list below) who tend to their flocks, both at home and in the diaspora, based on local needs and traditions. Through their individual synods, autocephalous churches oversee affairs without any formal oversight. While quarrels between local churches arise from time to time, their faithful share in the unity of the faith and together constitute the Church and are joined to Christ.

When pan-Orthodox issues arise, primates from the 14 jurisdictions gather to deliberate and make decisions for the whole Church. It is here that the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople occupies an unparalleled primacy of honour with its head, the Ecumenical Patriarch, first among equals.

Orthodoxy's ecclesiastical organization of local synods and church councils is well-defined and affords the Church certain advantages (e.g., checks and balances in decision making). This system also presents certain challenges, particularly when an autocephalous church employs parochial tactics to advance a politically-inspired agenda.

Enter Moscow.

The ROC under Kirill has closely aligned itself with the political machinery of the Russian state. The church has leveraged its relationships with government officials to construct parishes and monasteries, as well as gain financially. The Kremlin, on the other hand, uses the church to advance certain legislative goals and even defend military action in Ukraine.

While Putin and Kirill promote Russian nationalism within the political arena, its promotion within the Church -- although not without historical precedent from Greeks, Russians and others -- is contrary to Orthodox teaching.

The ROC attempts to influence church affairs in the region, such as in the Czech Lands and Slovakia (which in theory is autocephalous) and, of course, in Ukraine where the relationship between the church in Kiev and Moscow is zealously protected by Kirill.

Russian clergy have in the past withdrawn their participation in pan-Orthodox meetings and used Russian embassies to conduct church services, consistent with a Russian World viewpoint.

The bond between state interest and church affairs was crystallized following the downing of a Russian military jet by Turkey last November. The heated public spat between Putin and his Turkish counterpart affected Constantinople-Moscow church relations.

For example, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the skilful chairman of the ROC's Department for External Relations, immediately cancelled a planned trip to meet with His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Moreover, the ongoing meeting of Church Primates had to be relocated to the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy, Geneva, because the ROC delegation, led by Kirill, refused to visit Turkey as originally scheduled.

It is one thing for ambassadors to be recalled or ministers to cancel bilateral visits during times of conflict, but applied to religious leaders is troubling -- unless of course they are an extension and under the control of the state.

The historically volatile church-state relationship in Russia is beyond the scope of this essay but suffice it to say that the present-day actions of the ROC frequently resemble more Vatican-style political activism than the ascetical and mystical tradition of the Orthodox East.

Kirill's relationship with the Kremlin is at a minimum prima facie counter to the position taken by one of his recent predecessors, St. Tikhon, who, after emerging from prison in 1923, stated:

The Russian Orthodox Church is non-political, and henceforward does not want to be either a Red or a White Church; it should and will be the One Catholic Apostolic Church, and all attempts coming from any side to embroil the Church in the political struggle should be rejected and condemned.

This year has the potential to be a historic one for the Orthodox Church as primates have agreed to hold a 'Holy and Great Council' to be convened by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and presided by Bartholomew.

More than 50-years in the making, this Council is in many ways a proxy-battle between Constantinople and Moscow where the Mother, who historically birthed and nurtured the daughter, is now trying to be gently supplanted for the leadership of global Orthodoxy by her offspring.

The ongoing deliberations between primates in Chambésy have apparently resulted in agreement to move the June 2016 Council from Turkey to Crete in Greece -- a small but symbolic victory for the ROC. The Russian delegation continues to hinder progress -- not based on theological arguments or Orthodoxy's rich tradition but instead on technicalities like the working definition of consensus.

A major concern of the ROC and in many ways the Russian state is the potential granting of autocephaly to Ukraine. Not wanting to have its own independence interfered with, the ROC suffocates the freedom of Ukraine's church and the irony abounds.

Lingering in the background will be Kirill and the interests of Russia. Still, if the Holy and Great Council takes place, regardless of location, it will be a truly momentous achievement for Bartholomew but more importantly for the whole Orthodox Church.

  • Note: the 14 Patriarchates and Autocephalous Churches are: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem (the four Ancient Patriarchates); and, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania and the Czech Lands and Slovakia.

Evagelos Sotiropoulos holds a B.A. and M.A. in political science from the University of Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter @evan_sotirop