When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the start of the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, religious leaders around the world were quick to comment on what had happened. On the same day, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, head of the Orthodox Catholic Church, telephoned the Primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine to express his “deep sadness at this flagrant violation of every notion of international law and of legality” as well as its support for the Ukrainian people, victim of an “unprovoked” attack.
Metropolitan Onufry himself, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church linked to the Moscow Patriarchate, defended “the sovereignty and integrity of the country”, calling on the Russian president to “immediately stop the fratricidal war”. “The war between these peoples is a repetition of the sin of Cain, who killed his own brother out of envy,” condemned the priest.
Pope Francis, for his part, personally appeared at the Russian Embassy in the Vatican to offer peace talks, called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and announced that he would consecrate both countries to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. , a very symbolic gesture which, for Catholics, dates back to the battle against communism in the 20th century.
The severe reprimands addressed to Putin were known only to Cyril of Moscow himself, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. On the contrary: as soon as the Russian president began the invasion, the Orthodox leader spoke out asking for peace, but without hiding his alignment with the head of state’s religious discourse. First, he asked that “God forbid a terrible line of our brothers to be drawn between Russia and Ukraine” and that he “protect Russian land from external enemies.”
Then he turned against the West saying that “to join the club in these countries, you have to do a gay pride parade”. In a letter to the World Council of Churches, he blamed NATO for the situation in Ukraine: “This conflict did not start now. I am firmly convinced that its promoters are not the peoples of Russia and Ukraine, who are united in a common faith and share a common historical destiny”. According to him, the war is “part of the geopolitical strategy developed, in the first place, to weaken Russia”.
The patriarch’s speeches sparked a series of criticisms from religious leaders – and even the beginning of a split within the Russian Orthodox Church itself, given the opposite reaction of the Ukrainian Church to him. (understand, here, the history of the two churches). According to Crux Now, since the start of the war, at least 15 Russian Orthodox dioceses have authorized their parish priests to stop mentioning Cyril’s name in liturgical celebrations.
In the multiple analyzes that followed the controversy, the primate is singled out as a loyal ally of Putin – some say he is able to influence the president. But who, after all, is Cyril of Moscow and what is his power in Russia?
From Leningrad to luxury
Born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1946, Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev was elected patriarch in 2009 by the synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, receiving the title “Kyril I, Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus” (i.e. from all over the world).Territory of former Rus’: Russia, Ukraine and Belarus).
He was the first patriarch to be elected after the fall of the Soviet Union, inheriting from his predecessor, Aleksei II (1990-2008), a church which regained its central role in the country after the end of atheism in state in the Soviet Union.
“He had his own weekly television program on religious subjects, and he has a reputation of being, in that sense, a more modern type of religious. Although he cannot be considered an ecumenist, he has agreed to meet Pope Francis, causing a scandal in certain more conservative sectors of the Orthodox Church,” explains journalist and iconographer Daniel Sender, a specialist in Eastern religions.
Indeed, within Orthodox circles, Cyril is considered a man relatively open to dialogue: he met and kissed the hand of Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, and he does not share the common opinion of his audience that Catholics Romans are heretics – a classification that only applies to Orthodox dissenters (as is the case with the Church of Ukraine, separated from Moscow and recognized in 2019). He met Francis in Havana and, last Wednesday (16), he spoke with the pontiff by video about the war in Ukraine.
In his lands, Cirilo has his own list of controversies: in the 1990s, his name appeared in a series of reports on companies allegedly linked to the Orthodox Church, but nothing was confirmed. From time to time there are rumors about a mansion in Switzerland and a palace in Russia.
In 2012, a photo of the patriarch circulated online as he sported a Breguet watch – valued at over $200,000 – on his left wrist. At the time, the primate even said he “knew nothing” about the prop, and suddenly a version of the photo without the object began to appear in the press. In the reflection of the table, the clock was still visible.
Anti-Communist, Anti-Capitalist and Pro-Putin
Regarding political-economic systems, Patriarch Cyril of Moscow condemns both communism and capitalism. In an interview with French Forbes published in October 2021, he said that “the transformation of capitalism and Marxism into some sort of new quasi-religion is equally unacceptable”.
“We, who have passed the era of communism, are well aware that the idea of social justice, transformed into an aggressive ideology, destroys everything around us. Hundreds of thousands of illegal executions for their faith, the creation of a social ghetto for the hostile classes – this is the reality of the ‘communist paradise on earth'”, added the priest, then stressing that “the gospel capitalist is no less dangerous”. , which considers the fall of communism as proof of its irreproachability and without alternative”.
Regarding Vladimir Putin, Cyril said ahead of the 2012 presidential elections that the prosperity and stability enjoyed by Russia since Putin came to power in the 2000s was a “miracle of God”. Five years later, the former KGB agent would deliver a speech to the Council of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, discussing the role of the Orthodox Church since the baptism of Saint and maintaining “stability and unity “.
On the same day, however, Patriarch Cyril criticized the state’s excessive influence on internal church affairs throughout its history, thanking the government for not interfering in church affairs.
“Although the terms of the two speeches were friendly, one can see that there is a kind of warning to the state not to interfere in ecclesiastical affairs that do not concern it,” says Sender. “In general, the Putin government considers, from a political point of view, the Orthodox Church as an important organ inspiring national identity and patriotism, where the clergy should lead the Church, and the Church should help and to be a partner of the state”.
The primate, for his part, as demonstrated from the start of the war, shares Putin’s impressions of the “spiritual destiny” of Ukraine. What we see in the words of Patriarch Cyril is that he considers the division between the current countries of the old Rus’ – Ukraine, Russia and Belarus – as a tragedy sown with outside, namely by Western countries which, throughout history, have sought to eliminate these three brotherly peoples in order to weaken them”, adds the expert.
“It is probable that pragmatic questions prevent him from seriously considering the rapprochement of the three countries into a single body, a single state – a new and resurgent Rus’ – but no doubt there is the idea that if there has a common and manifest destiny between the three nations, spiritually supported by the Patriarchate of Moscow”.
Contrary to what some observers boast, however, Cyril’s influence over Putin is not so great: according to Harvard University analyst George Sokora, although the Orthodox Church has regained prestige and possessions since the fall of the Soviet Union, the institution “has surprisingly little success”. in the pursuit of his political goals when these do not coincide with the interests of the Kremlin.” In other words: in the end, it is Putin who decides.
“It is therefore wrong to consider the Orthodox Church as a kind of Russian state; similarly, it is naïve to assume that he has a lot of power to achieve political goals despite the state,” says Sender.
“In general terms, it can be said that the truth lies somewhere in the middle of these terms, since the Russian government relies on the Church as the founding and legitimizing element of Russian national identity, and the Church relies on the state to defend its paramount position as the moral arbiter of Russian society”.