Patriarch Kirill: The politically influential head of the Russian Orthodox Church

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Born Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev, Kirill has been the sixteenth patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church since he was enthroned in 2009. He has attracted international scrutiny with open declarations of support for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine in February 2022.

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On January 5, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow called for a ceasefire along the front line between Russian and Ukrainian forces in Ukraine so that opposing forces could celebrate Orthodox Christmas on January 6 and 7. A few hours later, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a 36-hour truce, the first since the conflict began, although artillery fire continued on Friday and Saturday from both sides.

Does Patriarch Kirill exert such influence in Russia that he could impose a ceasefire on Putin? Here is a look at the man and the role he plays.

KGB connections

Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev entered seminary in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) at the age of 19 and was ordained a monk at 23. Less than a decade later, he was already a bishop. “He was quickly noticed by Metropolitan Nikodim, who was head of the external relations section of the Moscow patriarchate during the 1960s and ‘70s. Kirill was made a bishop at the age of 30 from within that section,” explains Professor Antoine Nivière, a specialist in Russian cultural and religious history at France’s University of Lorraine.

This external relations section was “extremely political and in direct contact with the KGB, because it was regularly involved in communications with religious figures and political authorities in other countries”. The clergymen working in the section had to “make full reports whenever they return from travels abroad and after any contact with foreign delegations”, says Nivière.

Following the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s, a Russian parliamentary commission investigating the KGB’s activities deemed it highly probable that the agent then known as “Mikhailov” is the man now known as Russian Patriarch Kirill. “These elements all lead to a strong suspicion of ties between the KGB and a Russian Church that was, during that period, very much under control and surveillance”, says Nivière. Patriarch Kirill’s father and grandfather, both clergymen, had been interned in the Soviet labour camps.

On February 25, 1991, Vladimir Gundyayev was elevated to the dignity of Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad. He was elected and enthroned as Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia on February 1, 2009.

Then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev (R) congratulates Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Kirill (L) in Christ the Savior cathedral in Moscow during his enthronement ceremony on February 1, 2009.
Then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev (R) congratulates Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia Kirill (L) in Christ the Savior cathedral in Moscow during his enthronement ceremony on February 1, 2009. © Mikhail Klimentyev, AFP

‘Top-down’ authority

Patriarch Kirill “has a major influence on civil society, Orthodox worshippers, and Russian government in the sense that he is a public figure who has long been involved in the hot-button questions of Russian society. He has been active in public debate since the Soviet era, especially over the past ten years,” says Cyril Bret, research associate on Russia and Eastern Europe at the Jacques Delors Institute and a lecturer at Sciences Po Paris.

As such, he is extremely influential in Russia, but not only: “He leads the largest Christian Orthodox community in the world and the richest Orthodox clergy in the world. He therefore also has incredibly strong international influence,” says Bret. 

“Very much like Vladimir Putin at the state level, Patriarch Kirill has imposed a top-down power structure in the Russian Orthodox Church since 2009. He makes all the decisions which are then passed down to the bishops. He imposes his will and his choices,” says Nivière.

>> ‘Sacred goal’: Russia paints Ukraine assault in spiritual terms

The 76-year-old Kirill has carved himself a place among the Russian establishment. “He doesn’t have any official power at the Russian state level, properly speaking. He is not the ‘spiritual guide’ of the regime. He is nonetheless part of the system because he represents the main traditional religion in Russia,” says Nivière.

“Patriarch Kirill is someone who is very intelligent, brilliant, capable. He has a sense for politics and he expresses himself extremely well in public. For people with the same mentality as the KGB, like Putin, he is one of them.” Kirill is part of the “Putinian” system and the Russian establishment “for having made many pledges to them and for having rendered ‘good and loyal’ services to the state.”

Proximity to Putin, ‘but not a strong complicity’

Patriarch Kirill has “close ties to government circles, particularly with the conservative branch of the United Russia presidential party. He has a very close relationship with [former Russian president and prime minister] Dmitry Medvedev. He has a real proximity to Vladimir Putin, even if it is not a personal sort of relationship,” says Bret.

“Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill have regular meetings. They have sometimes made brief stays in Russian monasteries together. There is a certain closeness, but not a strong complicity between them. It’s a subtle game of mutual interest,” says Nivière.

As Bret points out, Kirill “supported the government’s family policy as well as Russia’s military campaign in Syria from 2015”. 

Since Kirill’s ascension to the head of the Russian patriarchy, he has been the subject of several scandals in the press which have somewhat tarnished his image. “We’ve seen photos of him cruising aboard a luxury yacht, and in another photo he was shown wearing a watch worth between €20,000 and €25,000 that had been poorly blurred out,” says Nivière. “His image is not very positive for a part of Russia’s Orthodox worshippers.”

For Nivière, “he gives the impression of being a man of power who enjoys being surrounded by a certain level of comfort. Despite being a monk, as all Orthodox bishops are, he does not have that reputation for asceticism – contrary to Pope Francis, for example.”

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Patriarch Kirill has fervently supported the Russian president’s choices. He has given several sermons along these lines, giving his blessing to Russian troops while denouncing Ukrainian authorities.

In a homily delivered on February 27, 2022, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church qualified those fighting against the “historical unity” of Russia and Ukraine as “forces of evil”. At the end of September, he asserted in a sermon that those killed while fulfilling their military “duty” have “committed a sacrifice that washes away all sin”.

“The call for a truce [for Orthodox Christmas] allows Patriarch Kirill to improve his image which has been greatly damaged since the beginning of the conflict, especially among Orthodox Ukrainians. It’s also an attempt to improve his image on the international scene and in the ecumenical relationship with other Christian churches,” explains Nivière. “This gesture also allows him to show that he’s not the warmonger he has been described as over the past several months.”

This article was adapted from the French original by Nicolette Bundy