By: Gretchen Allman
Russian government officials, business leaders, economic elites, oligarchs, and friends and family of Vladimir Putin all have something in common: they are being punished for their connections to Putin and the war in Ukraine through sanctions placed on them by the US, EU, and others.
However, missing from the list of hundreds of influential Russians targeted is one man with a net worth of potentially millions, and huge authority over the majority of Russians. Wearing flashy gold accessories over his garments and armed with the protection of God himself, Kirill I, Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All of Rus, remains untouched in the international sphere. Although the holiest religious leader in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), Kirill is by no means innocent in the atrocities committed over the past year during Russia’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine. His close relationship with Putin and rallying cries to convince Russians of the holy nature of this war have made him a guilty party.
Church and State have rarely been truly separate in Russia. Over the centuries, leaders of the ROC enjoyed great influence over State affairs, albeit with a brief halt during the Soviet Union’s ban on religion. Since the fall of communism, the ROC has been fighting to regain its prominence and power.
Patriarch Kirill was elected into the highest leadership position in the ROC, his current role, in 2009. At this time, Putin was not President, serving instead as Prime Minister in Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency. However, when Putin returned to the position in 2012 he strategized ways to strengthen Russia’s power. His goals aligned with Kirill’s, who wanted to return Russia to its former Orthodox glory after the Soviet Union all but wiped out the Church’s presence.
Putin and Kirill have developed a symbiotic relationship: Kirill and the ROC can use the State to regain societal importance and spread their ideals, and Putin and the State can use the ROC as a way to appeal to the general public and gain credibility to the conservative Christian majority in Russia. In all of his time as Patriarch, Kirill has faithfully followed Putin, and in return, Putin has given much needed PR to the Church.
How dangerous can this relationship be? From the American point of view, too close of a relationship between Church and State is certainly a red flag. The fact that Kirill has openly touted Putin’s ideals and actions, even when they seem to go against Orthodox values, is even scarier.
For example, at this annual speech on Forgiveness Sunday and in his response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kirill spoke of Russia’s invasion, which had only occurred a short few weeks before this religious holiday.
He called on Russia to bring justice to the nonbelievers and sinners in Ukraine, and claims that the war has “metaphysical significance”, and God is on the side of the Russians. He encourages traditional Christian values, naming homosexuality and gay pride parades as just some of the evils taking over Ukraine. In the war of Good over Evil, Russia is the Good.
About a month later, Kirill gave another, potentially more dangerous sermon. He claimed that the Russians are justly fighting fascism in Ukraine, just as they had during World War II, and boasts of a history of Russia fighting evil forces, one that effectively erases Ukraine from any role in Russian history (Ironic, as Christianity first came to the region in Kyiv). He positions Russia’s role in the war as a “peace-loving” country, defending their homeland against dangerous Western influence.
In a country where 72% of citizens identify as Orthodox Christian, a rallying cry for war from the religion’s highest leader can be massively influential for public opinion of the invasion. Support for the invasion of Ukraine has remained high since the start, with approval around 80%, and the Patriarch’s support has likely had a large part in that.
Kirill’s warmongering rhetoric gives the Russian public a way to justify their country’s actions and assuage their conscience. After all, the most important man in all of Orthodoxy is saying that God is on their side, so who are they to go against that?
After all of his hateful speech, Kirill remains unpunished on the international scene. He will remain dangerous and influential over his people, as long as he is unchecked by the rest of the world. However, after the EU failed to pass sanctions against him earlier this year and the US seems to have no plans to go after him, it feels unlikely that he will lose his influence anytime soon.
Gretchen Allman is a senior majoring in Diplomacy and Global Politics