Meet Kirill, Putin’s Personal Patriarch


Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church has been a strong supporter of the war in Ukraine. Now he faces sanctions from the European Union. Here’s everything you need to know:

Who is Patriarch Cyril?

Kirill was born Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev in Leningrad – now Saint Petersburg – on November 20, 1946. His older brother, father and grandfather were also priests. Her grandfather spent time in a Soviet gulag for his opposition to the pro-communist Living Church movement.

Young Vladimir worked as a cartographer before entering the seminary in 1965. In 1969 he was tonsured a monk and took the name Kirill, named after one of the saints who brought Christianity to the Slavs and helped to inventing the precursor to the modern Cyrillic alphabet.

He became bishop in 1976, archbishop a year later and metropolitan in 1991. In 2009, following the death of Patriarch Alexy II, Kirill was elected head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

What is his role ?

Unlike Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy does not have a single, universal leader. Instead, the Orthodox Church is made up of 14 to 16 autocephalous – or “self-ruled” – churches. The Russian Orthodox Church is by far the largest, comprising about half of the world’s 220 million Orthodox Christians.

Kirill’s claimed jurisdiction as “Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus'” extends beyond Russia to encompass territories previously controlled by the Tsarist and Soviet empires, including Belarus, Estonia, Moldova and Ukraine.

Moscow has held ecclesiastical authority over Ukraine since the 17th century, but after the fall of the Soviet Union, a group of believers formed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and began calling for autocephaly. The OCU comprises a majority of Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, while about a quarter still belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP).

Fearing that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s incursions into Ukraine could push members of his flock into the arms of the OCU, Kirill initially opposed the annexation of Crimea. The churches there remain under the jurisdiction of the largely autonomous UOC-MP.

The closest Orthodoxy has to a pope is the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (the city now widely known as Istanbul in Turkey), who is considered first among equals by the other patriarchs. He holds this position because of his seat in the former capital of the Byzantine Empire, which fell to the Turks in 1453. Bartholomew’s herd is relatively small, and his power is limited by a hostile Muslim-majority government.

For Kirill, this shift represents an opportunity. In 2004, he relied on the age-old theory of Moscow as the third Rome, saying that the Russian Orthodox Church “holds de facto first place among all the other Orthodox churches” and that the Russians “are the legitimate heirs of Byzantium”.

In 2019, Bartholomew declared the OCU fully independent, saying the Ecumenical Patriarch has the power to unilaterally grant autocephaly. Kirill disagreed, arguing that Bartholomew had made an illegitimate incursion into the canonical territory of Moscow. This dispute led the two patriarchs to break off full communion. After Putin’s invasion, Kirill’s hold on Ukraine became even more tenuous. About half of the UOC-MP’s 12,000 parishes reportedly expressed their intention to sever ties with Russia, and some 200 UOC-MP priests signed a letter calling for Kirill’s removal.

What is his relationship with Putin?

Kirill enjoys a close and symbiotic relationship with Putin. On Tuesday, the two reportedly spoke by phone when the president called the patriarch to wish him “good health and success” on his name day (the feast day of his patron saint).

Putin describes himself as an Orthodox Christian, is frequently photographed at religious rites and even claims Kirill’s father secretly baptized him as a baby. Like the czars of old, Putin derives much of his legitimacy from the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian nationalism with which it is closely tied. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, just over 30% of Russians claimed affiliation with the national church. In 2017, more than 70% identified as Orthodox.

This change enhanced the cultural cachet of the church and caused a boom in church building. What he didn’t do was fill those churches. Moscow time reported in 2019 that only 6% of Russians regularly attend services, and that figure continues to drop.

To help shore up the church’s religious market share, Putin has used state power to crack down on “illegal” missionary work by Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious movements that may be stealing sheep from the herd of Kirill. He also directed public funds to the church, banned “gay propaganda”, and enforced anti-blasphemy laws.

Kirill’s relationship with Putin may even bring material benefits. In 2006, The News from Moscow estimated Kirill’s net worth at $4 billion. In 2012, the patriarch was photographed wearing a $30,000 wristwatch.

In exchange for his support for the church, Putin can count on the almost unfailing support of Kirill. The patriarch described Putin’s rule as a “miracle of God” that put Russia back on track. He also publicly endorsed Putin’s re-election bids in 2012 and 2018 and backed Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Kirill lent his full support to the invasion. In March, he delivered a homily describing the war as a clash of civilizations between traditionalist Russia and the godless liberal West. Ukraine and its Western masters, Kirill said, were trying “to destroy what exists in Donbass” because the pro-Russian breakaway republics embodied “a fundamental rejection of the so-called values ​​that are proposed today by those who claim world power”. These “so-called values”, he said, are “excess consumption” and homosexuality.

Can he be influenced?

Earlier this month, the European Union included Kirill on a recent list of potential sanctions targets. A diplomat said Reuters that the sanctions would likely result in “an asset freeze and a travel ban”.

Religious leaders have also condemned Kirill for supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Pope Francis said he told Kirill not to “turn into Putin’s altar boy” during a Zoom call in March, while Bartholomew said in an interview that Kirill was wrong to “pretend to be the brother of another people and to bless the war that your state bet on.”


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