This not very glorious nickname sticks to her tiara. Spiritual leader of 150 million Orthodox faithful around the world, Patriarch Kirill has been given the (ironic) title of “metropolitan of tobacco”. His flirtatious fortune, the religious leader fond of skiing and fine watches, at the head of the Russian Orthodox Church since 2009, built it in the 90s, according to the best experts, on the traffic of cigarettes. And this with the blessing of the Russian authorities and by taking advantage of the tax exemptions from which the Church benefits. Belonging to the restricted circle of prominent personalities of the regime, the 75-year-old patriarch Kirill is in turn threatened with sanctions by the European Commission.
Since the start of the conflict, the religious leader, whose real name is Vladimir Gundiayev, has multiplied declarations of support for “Special Operation”, term devoted by the Russian power to the invasion of Ukraine. On February 27, Kirill evoked a confrontation against the “forces of evil” who “fight unity” history between the two countries. On Forgiveness Sunday, March 6, which marks the beginning of Lent in the Orthodox liturgy, he delivered a sermon with an apocalyptic tone, invoking spiritual reasons to justify war, also attacking the organization of gay prides, a symbol in his eyes of the decadence of the West. “What is happening today is not only a matter of politics but it is about the salvation of man”, he then shouts.
“Miracle of God”
Unlike his grandfather, an Orthodox priest who suffered Stalin’s ire, the patriarch is a pure product of the Soviet religious nomenklatura. At the age of 19, he entered the seminary of his native city, Leningrad (Saint-Petersburg), and became a monk four years later, the condition for climbing the hierarchy of the Orthodox Churches; only monks become bishops there. Before taking the head, in 1989, of the department of the external relations of the patriarchate of Moscow, the metropolitan Kirill is the representative of the institution to the Ecumenical Council of the Churches which sits in Geneva, the most important world organization of Christian Churches. Kirill, KGB agent? In view of the responsibilities he exercised before the fall of the Soviet empire, it is very highly probable. His spy code name: “Mikhailov”, according to articles published in the Russian press during the 1990s. According to recurring reports, the patriarch is the proud owner of a chalet in Switzerland and a luxurious apartment in a posh district of Moscow.
In 2009, Kirill took over as head of the Moscow Patriarchate, succeeding Alexis II. For the past ten years, he has been one of Vladimir Putin’s great supporters, calling him “miracle of God”. “In the nationalist vision, Orthodoxy is the basis of Russian identity and Putin has clearly established a continuity between communism and Christianity. It is also called upon in the fight against the West, for example in the defense of the values of the traditional family. explains researcher Kathy Rousselet, a specialist in religions in the post-Soviet era.
“Inability to influence the political course”
Even if he has taken up the cause of the war in Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill does not belong to the circle of direct influence with the master of the Kremlin. He could even, according to some specialists, have experienced a period of disgrace after the annexation of Crimea. And would have competitors already ready to drop it. In fact, another cleric, Metropolitan Tikhon Chevkunov – some people whisper, probably wrongly, that he would be Putin’s spiritual guide – plays a major role: he is one of the inventors of the Russian nationalist novel. A documentary filmmaker, he designed the exhibition “La Russie, mon histoire”, which toured 23 cities.
“On Soviet representations are superimposed nationalist narratives which closely articulate Russian imperial history with that of the Russian Orthodox Church, continues Kathy Rousselet. The current attitude of the patriarch towards this fratricidal war testifies to his weakness and his inability to influence the political course of Russia. It is also explained by the adherence of some of the members to Vladimir Putin’s policy. In short, the patriarch is probably an instrument in the hands of Putin. This does not in any way exonerate him from his responsibility. For Yves Hamant, specialist in Russia, “by taking up the cause of the aggressor, Kirill risks losing much of his authority in the Orthodox world”.