Feb 3rd 2009

The Kirill Appointment: Russia’s Orthodox Revival

by Binoy Kampmark

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge and history lecturer at the University of Queensland

Sunday's enthronement of Russia's first patriarch since the fall of the Soviet Union, Patriarch Kirill, was a moment of some reflection for those present. Alexey II's successor finds the Russian Orthodox Church in a healthier state than his predecessors, a crucial agent in the Putin-Medvedev model of cultural revival. Russians identify with its faith, even if only some five percent claim to be regular churchgoers. The location of the ceremony was also auspicious - the revived and restored Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, blown up in 1931 with Stalin's blessing.

What do we know of the new Patriarch? Opponents have been quick to point out his affiliations with the former KGB, for which he allegedly served under the agent codename 'Drozdov' (thrush). The role apparently earned him a 'certificate of honour' in 1988.

This would not be surprising in itself, given the periodic infiltration by the Church hierarchy of the secret services, a point attested to by those consulting KGB archives, including a Parliamentary committee headed by Father Gleb Yakunin in 1992. Nor can Kirill himself be accused of being exceptional on that score - his rivals for the position of Patriarch may well have been agents, as working in the external affairs section of the Church was often not possible without KGB collaboration.

Opponents also pick on another aspect of the Patriarch's past -his associations with the importation of billions of duty-free cigarettes in the mid 1990s, a role that earned him the name of the 'Tobacco Metropolitan'. Ostensibly, this remarkable importation was a humanitarian one, designed to raise aid.

His ambition and skills as an operator within the church and as Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kalinigrad were striking, earning him considerable respect within the institution. His nearest opponent, Metropolitan Kliment of Kaluga and Borovsk, received a paltry 169 votes to Kirill's 508. It is worth noting on this score that sources in the Kremlin have suggested that the more traditionalist Kliment, the key figure behind the church's economic affairs, was their preferred candidate.

Watchers of church politics have noted Kirill's willingness to modernize, though this remains speculative at best. Certainly, he has shown signs of being a 'modern' man of faith - an image he bolstered while heading the church's department of external affairs. Television viewers would also get a chance to view 'The Pastor's Word', a program hosted on Russia's Channel One. The Moscow Times (28 Jan 2009) sees Kirill as 'a long-standing church diplomat and skillful orator', the institution's 'point man in often-difficult negotiations with other churches'.

Of considerable significance is whether this election ushers in the prospect of a potential rapprochement with Rome. Kirill has met with Pope Benedict XVI before, promising greater conciliatoriness towards an archrival. This, in itself, may not mean much, given Kirill's new role. 'You cannot start your reign with a meeting with pope - you can end it with that,' argues one church commentator Andrew Zolotov, Jr. So much for the initially optimistic note on that score, despite the Pope's goal of seeking 'that fullness of communion' between the two churches.

Kirill's address before the vote also had its traditional targets. It was particularly pointed on the issue of Catholic missionary work in Russia, which has gathered some momentum in recent years. 'We have noted with bitterness that members of the Catholic clergy and monastic orders are among the newly formed enlighteners of Rus.' Protestants and the 'assault' of Western secularism were also the object of the new Patriarch's ire. He finds the former responsible for making unnecessary revisions to 'the teaching of Christianity and evangelical morality.'

The wounds of a thousand years between the Orthodox Church and Rome are considerable, but only as difficult as the functionaries will make it. Kirill's election promises much but will remain limited to the politics of his station. He is very much a product of an organization in transition. Observers will be keeping an eye on the proximity between an over-eager, traditionalist Kremlin and a potentially reformist church over the next few years.

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