The Russian Orthodox Church under Patriarch Kirill

Under Patriarch Kirill, the Russian Orthodox Church has become an integral element of the hegemonic narrative that has been created in Putin’s Russia, to inoculate the country from pernicious outside influences.

Victoria Hudson
31 March 2015

Enthroned as Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’ in 2009 by the Synod of Bishops, Patriarch Kirill has presided over a period of dynamic change and development in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). Under his leadership, the Russian Church has increasingly carved out a role as an influential and engaged actor in Russian society, asserting the place of tradition and spiritual values as essential components on the road toward a sustainable state and societal modernisation.

Countering the perceived national humiliation and chaos of the 1990s, Russia under President Vladimir Putin gained in strength and international standing. Yet for all the increased socio-economic well-being, there emerged a sense that such pragmatism was insufficient to truly stem the centrifugal tendencies pulling Russian society apart, rooted in separatist divisions, elite disorientation, and a lack of consensus about the identity and direction of the post-Soviet nation. Both Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill have compared the post-Soviet period to the ‘Time of Troubles’ [smutnoye vremya]; the decades of the seventeenth century characterised by an undermining of spiritual identity, state weakness, and overshadowing external influences. Prohibited by the 1993 Constitution from having an official ideology, the state lacked a sterzhen [lit. backbone, ground]; a sense of the shared meaning and unifying rationale that bind a society, and provide stability. Self-interest trumped collective endeavour, guided by a prevailing mood of cynicism and breezy utility, which disparaged talk of values and cultural worth as naive and delusional.

Hegemonic narrative

Sections of the Russian elite became persuaded that a modern civil society needs a coherent and consolidated sense of itself and its boundaries; an hegemonic narrative that can inoculate against political and ideological threats, which might destabilise a state and set it loose from its moorings when faced with challenges. A state needs to win the loyalty and esteem of its citizens by standing for ‘something’ with which the citizenry can identify; that is capable of inspiring creative engagement with political ideas, transcend pragmatism and return ‘meaning’ to national life.

Increasingly moving towards implementation in recent years, this sentiment has found expression in official policy documentation. An underestimated element of Russia’s ‘sovereign democracy’, this need for ‘spiritual security’ or ‘spiritual sovereignty’ is reflected in calls to protect Russia’s ‘cultural and spiritual-moral legacy’, found recurrently in national security and foreign policy concept documents over the past 15 years. So, the ancient Russian Orthodox Church – together with the three other religions designated as the traditional confessions of Russia by Boris Yeltsin in 1997 (Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism) – has, perhaps paradoxically, in its renewal of tradition, a crucial role to play in the state’s modernisation.

Patriarch Kirill and Culture Minister Medinsky at a new interactive exhibition 'Orthodox Rus of the Romanovs.'

Patriarch Kirill and Culture Minister Medinsky at a new interactive exhibition 'Orthodox Rus of the Romanovs.'

The ancient Russian Orthodox Church has a crucial role to play in the state’s modernisation.


Despite concerns sparked by recollections of Patriarch Sergei’s declaration of loyalty to the Soviet state in 1927, it should not automatically be assumed that the relationship of the church to the state is one of instrumentalisation and subservience akin to those troubled years. Vladimir Legoyda, head of the Synodal Information Department of the Moscow Patriarchate, has declared that the Church has never been so independent from the state, while a number of leading scholarly observers describe the relationship as one of mutuality between the two. While the state looks to the church for active political support, the church has sought and received assistance from the state in furthering its own goals.

Asserting its political influence, in December 2009, the ROC, with the support of the ruling party United Russia, announced its expectation that the government would not merely consult with the Church as asserted in the 2000 Social Concept, but ‘must jointly decide … what their common values are and what modernisation tasks must be accomplished.’ Russia’s leaders appear to have signalled their acquiescence to such an approach, with President Medvedev using a speech on the day of Patriarch Kirill’s inauguration in 2009 to promise that ‘the special, trustful relations with the [ROC] will be kept and further developed to the benefit of the Fatherland.’

Furthermore, Vladimir Putin has spoken, with reference to the deprivations of the communist period, of the ‘debt’ owed to the Church, and has acted accordingly; not only granting the church various long strived-for opportunities, but signalling a broader movement in policy, with support for the construction of 200 new churches in Moscow alone, as well as assistance with the re-acquisition and construction of churches abroad.  Significantly, the Russian Ministry for Economic Development and Trade has submitted a draft bill on the restitution of property confiscated by the Bolsheviks; and now held by the state. The bill would turn the ROC into one of the largest, and therefore most powerful landowners in the country, thereby helping to underwrite its financial independence and secure the Church’s future as a steady force of societal influence, independent of shifts in party political conjunctures.

In order to make its voice heard, the Church under Patriarch Kirill has reinvigorated its mechanisms for communication and interaction with most key state institutions by establishing new consultative organs, and appointing senior clergy to existing ones; in short, linking in to the networks of influence within the Russian state. Such fora of interaction include the Presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Associations that brings together senior clerics and Kremlin insiders; the Working Group for Cooperation between the MFA and ROC, which has been rather active and fruitful in its work on compatriots, church property abroad, and inter-religious and inter-civilisational dialogue; as well as the Government Commission for Religious Associations, headed by influential ideologue, Vladislav Surkov. Other bodies include the Synodal Department for Church-State Relations, founded shortly after the enthronement of the new patriarch, and headed by Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin; and the Expert Council of the State Duma Committee for Public Associations and Religious Organisations.

The Church under Patriarch Kirill has reinvigorated its mechanisms for communication and interaction with most key state institutions.

Linking in to such networks has not only enabled the Church to reinforce its de facto privileged position vis-à-vis other religions and outlooks, but has also placed it in an advantageous position to disseminate its values among the opinion-formers who compose these bodies. Apparently, this strategy is bearing fruit, as Blitt has observed Vsevolod Chaplin comment, the phenomenon of the ‘podsvechnik’ (slang for politicians who pandered to the Church but lacked an understanding of Orthodox faith) ended under Putin’s rule, and that more politicians are actively practising their faith. It would be too much to suggest that the constitutionally secular Russian state might be assuming a religious motivation, but certainly a neo-Slavophile, spirituality–infused discourse is being referenced by senior government officials. While Putin does not elaborate on the references to spirituality that pepper his public speeches, he remains in regular contact with the Patriarch. The extent and effectiveness of church-state communication is evidenced by the dovetailing of the discourse of sovereign democracy with the narrative of Russia’s cultural specificity espoused by the Patriarch.

Modernisation with traditional values

Speaking in 2009, the Patriarch stressed that Russia should modernise on the basis of fundamentally moral principles and historical experience. Although reportedly about 1,000 churches and chapels have opened since the fall of communism, plus new monasteries and seminaries, the church’s role in modernisation is more deeply embedded in Russian society than its architecture. Indeed, Patriarch Kirill has breathed new life into the process of church renewal, presiding over the Church’s gaining of long-desired access to influential socialising agencies in Russian society. Specially selected chaplains are now active in prisons and the army, while school children are now offered optional courses in religious education in the form of the module ‘Foundations of Orthodox Culture.’ Furthermore, where the Russian Orthodox Church had previously eschewed a more extensive pastoral role, it now seeks to engage with taboo social problems in Russian society. Recent years have, for instance, seen a new focus on implementing the strategy developed in 2004 for engaging with victims of Russia’s HIV/AIDS epidemic, in the spirit of ‘hate the sin, love the sinner.’ Moreover, the Church and its representatives have a visible presence in mainstream Russian society, appearing regularly on TV chat shows and even at rock concerts.

The Church and its representatives have a visible presence in mainstream Russian society.

The modern ROC

Yet while a spirit of cooperation characterises church-state relations, the ability of the church to position itself as a credible societal actor in modern times also depends on maintaining a certain distance from state structures and politics. A division of labour is, in principle, outlined in the social concept. Thus, while Patriarch Kirill appears to have endorsed Vladimir Putin as ‘a miracle of God’ in the run up to the 2012 presidential elections, he did not shy from implicit criticism in urging him to listen to protesters. Indeed, some clerics, such as proto-deacon Andrei Kurayev, have not only criticised the state but also the Church itself.

While speaking out for the restoration of traditional values in contemporary Russia, the Patriarch has taken the lead in initiating reforms to equip the church to deal with the demands of the modern era. He initiated reform of church governance by creating the Supreme Church Council, formed of the heads of all of the approximately 20 synodal departments (effectively the ‘ministries’ of the ROC), so they might more effectively communicate amongst themselves and better coordinate their work. As well as internal restructuring, reform has also included reviewing the face the church shows the world, including its political stance.

Historically, Russian Orthodoxy has brought together individuals with a broad swathe of views.

Historically, Russian Orthodoxy has brought together individuals with a broad swathe of views, ranging from pan-Slavism and neo-Eurasianism to Orthodox Communism and Russian Nationalism. Public pronouncements coloured by such thinking have at times produced counterproductive inconsistencies with the Church’s official message, with anachronistic chauvinistic or imperialistic narratives undermining the image of the church. Thus, in recent years, the activity of Kirill’s team has focussed on co-opting clerics themselves into the renewed discourse, and modes of speech and behaviour. Aiming to phase out off-discourse materials that damage its credibility, the Church has sought to raise the intellectual level and professional sophistication of its media products, and to end church sponsoring of dubious literature on the extremist fringes. Likewise, clergy are asked to work under the guidance of the diocesan authorities in their cooperation with the media, but where opinions diverge from the Church’s teaching, they are instructed to make clear that this is a privately-held view.

Emphasis is also placed on ameliorating the spirit in which Church representatives engage with the wider world, with the Patriarch exhorting clerics to conduct their ministry, bearing in mind ‘not self-promotion or trying to achieve weight and recognition in society, but the feeling of responsibility for the future of the people, [and] the execution of his vocation in the world’. Clergy are likewise asked to avoid attracting negative attention through unjustified refusals to allow journalists access to information or by over-sensitive reactions to criticism. 

However, while senior clerics may have committed to the official ‘politically correct’ discourse, as a reformer, Kirill’s positions are still controversial in some ecclesiastical circles, not least with regard to his perceived interest in missionary activity, and his putting worldly concerns over spiritual matters. For instance, opinion among hierarchs in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC (MP)), which is under the ecclesiastic jurisdiction of the Russian Church, is not homogenous, but rather as diverse as Ukrainian society as a whole.

Thus, while clerics in eastern and southern Ukraine tend to be loyal to Moscow, the legitimacy of the influence of the Danilov Monastery on the UOC (MP) has been questioned by MP clerics in the western and central region. Yet while some clergy have been removed from their posts for criticising the Patriarch’s manner of societal engagement, the fact that priests might defect to the Ukrainian Autonomous Church or the Kyiv Patriarchate if dissatisfied has pushed the Russian hierarchy to develop ‘softer’ means of ensuring unity. This has entailed positive incentives, rather than threats, such as granting more freedom to UOC (MP) priests relative to their Russian counterparts, in the form of turning a blind eye to involvement in politics, as well as stressing what the MP has to offer; the ideas of canonicity, the Third Rome theory, and simple inertia.

Establishing itself as a powerful opinion-former in these and other ways, the Russian Orthodox Church thus reasserts a narrative of universal spiritual values as a foundation for a meaningful national identity. This in turn informs a coherent view of the political world. In supporting the renewal of tradition, the Church seeks to contribute to the consolidation of post-Soviet Russian society, thereby lending the state the perceived stability and strength necessary for its modernisation.


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