Russia’s ambitious new Patriarch

Geraldine Fagan
12 February 2009


St Fidel, Equal-to-the-Apostles might be Castro's title in the Russian Orthodox Church. The communist crusader's signature is one of two gracing a gold-embossed deed buried deep beneath the foundations of Cuba's first ever Russian Orthodox church. The other belongs to the new Russian Orthodox patriarch, Kirill.

Mindful of militant atheist sensibilities when meeting an ailing Castro in 2004, then Metropolitan Kirill was astonished to hear him give his personal pledge to be "commissar" of the church's construction. In subsequent "Reflections by Comrade Fidel", the Cuban leader explained that the church was his idea; Kirill, he was reassured to find, "is not an enemy of socialism and does not condemn to eternal fire those who struggle for a better world on the basis of Marxism-Leninism."

Alexy II, Kirill's predecessor, will be remembered for delivering an unprecedented rebirth of religious life inside his country. Churches shuttered by seven decades of Soviet rule burst back into life as millions rediscovered their faith, even inside the Kremlin. But the late patriarch also leaves an overlooked, if no less significant legacy: the revival of Russian Orthodoxy around the world.

Over the past 20 years, a network of dozens of Russian Orthodox parishes has sprung up from Dublin to Reykjavik to Barcelona to Ulaanbaatar. Even the last bastions of militant atheism are falling, and not just Havana. "Isn't it a miracle that, in our time, people in a communist country can be converted to the Orthodox faith?" Russian rappers Komba Bakh recite in their Orthodoxy in North Korea. "Respect to Kim Jong-Il!" The reclusive North Korean leader - who fears flying - made a stop-off in Siberia as he rode his train to Moscow in 2002. Entranced by the glinting domes of a local church in Khabarovsk, he requested a visit. Soon, four North Koreans were dispatched to an Orthodox seminary outside Moscow, and work began on a similarly onion-domed church in Pyongyang.

Patriarch Kirill is the Church's man behind this overseas revival. As head of the Department for External Church Relations since 1989, he has been tirelessly jetting across the globe, hobnobbing with foreign dignitaries and pressing for Orthodox churches as far as the Antarctic. For him and the handful of post-War generation bishops who have experience in top Church positions under the Soviets, such activity is second nature.

One of the very few things the Soviet government ever encouraged the Russian Orthodox Church to do was promote national interests abroad. Once it entered the World Council of Churches in 1961, substantial condemnations of US aggression could be heard in a new arena. For the Church, involvement in ecumenical circles was largely superficial; a way of maintaining an international public profile at a time when its position under atheist rule was still tenuous. It also allowed Kirill - just 24 on his appointment as official Moscow Patriarchate representative to the World Council of Churches in Geneva in 1971 - to hone his formidable diplomatic skills.

Now the reverse is true. The modern Russian state is interested more in the symbolic importance than the activity of the Church overseas. When, on a visit to New York in 2003, then President Vladimir Putin encouraged the Moscow Patriarchate's fledgling dialogue with the émigré Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, he saw it primarily as proof that "Russia is re-entering the family of civilized nations."

The Russian Orthodox Church is now keen to pursue an agenda of substance, and Kirill is its main compiler. He is behind the Church's extensive 2000 Social Doctrine and 2008 Human Rights Concept, which emphasizes collective over individual rights. Such projects have so far contained little dramatically at odds with state policy, but Kirill's independent and unpredictable mind is in itself a worry to the controlling Medvedev-Putin regime. It was no accident that Kirill's main challenger for the patriarchal throne, Kliment, was the sole Orthodox bishop to be handpicked by Putin for membership of Russia's new Public Chamber in 2005.

Symbols of friendship with Russia," the new churches in Cuba and North Korea are a curious result of this contradiction at the heart of the nation's church-state relations. While greatly exaggerated, the perception of a Moscow Patriarchate in cahoots with the Kremlin, it seems, still leads some foreign governments to assume that pleasing the Church will automatically win the patronage of the Russian state.

As patriarch, Kirill's main task will be to juggle such different perceptions. At home, there is an almost complete absence of enthusiasm among grassroots Orthodox for any shift in the Church's theological position towards that of non-Orthodox Christians. If he is to win their trust, Kirill will have to allay their suspicions about his ecumenical past. Days before his election as patriarch, addressing students at the thriving St Tikhon's Orthodox Humanities University in downtown Moscow, he was doing just that. Their revered Fr Vsevolod Shpiller, a popular conservative priest who died in 1984, was prepared to discuss ecumenism with him, recalled Kirill, only once ascertaining that they shared a "sober-minded" attitude towards non-Orthodoxy.

A papal visit to Russia thus remains off the cards. But formal dialogue with the Vatican will continue - and may even be said to be warm. Benedict might clinch a meeting with Kirill on neutral ground overseas - but not yet.

If there is anyone in the Russian Orthodox Church who can pull all this off, however, it is Kirill; one of the most complex - even contradictory - figures in Russian public life. Growing up in Leningrad, the man who the archives suggest had the KGB codename "Mikhailov" defiantly refused to join the patriotic Soviet youth organizations, the Pioneers and Komsomol. Not characterized by the faithful - unlike his predecessor - as a molitvennik, or man of prayer, Kirill played at being a priest from age three and knew several services by heart at five. Exuding ambition and long tipped for the job, he was also once asked by a young monk what he would do if he became patriarch. "Go skiing," he replied.

Geraldine Fagan is Moscow correspondent of Forum 18 News Service www.forum18.org

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