Kirill's Vision of a Great Russia

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Russia is a conundrum. On one hand, it is a profoundly secularized society in which traditional religious practice is sporadic and often superficial. This abandonment of the country's traditional Orthodox faith is in part due to the period of state atheism from 1918 to 1991 and the subsequent 18 years of nihilism in which idealism is as out of fashion as religious belief. But on the other hand, Russian society longs for political idealism and religious faith.

And so Kirill, who was elected patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church on Tuesday, faces a difficult problem. Within the church, he must go beyond what his predecessor, Alexy II, accomplished over the past two decades, rebuilding the institutional structures of the church. He must fill churches, seminaries, monasteries and schools with fervent believers. Outside the church, he must persuade society to engage with the church and seek to build a post-Soviet Russia that can flourish and provide a just, prosperous life for the Russian people.

Kirill has deep convictions about the role of the Christian faith in the future of Russia and about Russia's role in the future of Europe and the world. As he has stated on numerous occasions, he is convinced that only a return to "real values" can enable Russia and Europe to confront the current economic crisis. Moreover, he believes that Russia's greatness, eclipsed in recent years, can only be restored by renewing its ancient Orthodox faith.

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Given his relatively young age, 62, Kirill could be patriarch for the next generation. He will undoubtedly set out to fulfill a double agenda. First, he will want to build on what Alexy II accomplished during the 18 years of his patriarchate, continuing the rebuilding of the church's ruined infrastructure. Thousands of churches have been rebuilt across Russia since 1991. Second, he could start a series of new initiatives to strengthen the church's voice and influence in Russian society.

The new patriarch can be expected to reopen schools, expand seminaries, renew monasteries and in general restore the outward signs of Russian Orthodox religious life. But Kirill, who was the key figure behind the unprecedented promulgation of the church's social teaching in a document in 2000, can also be expected to take bold new steps to go beyond renewing the institutional structure of the church.

One big question concerns his relations with the pope and with the Roman Catholic Church. Kirill will be looking for allies in his effort to move Russian and European society in a religious direction. But he will not strive for a theocratic state. Indeed, it is precisely his acceptance of the need for dialogue with non-Christians in a modern, pluralistic state that has prompted some of the more conservative elements in the Orthodox church to be sharply critical of him as too "progressive."

Kirill, who has been serving for eight weeks as "interim patriarch," made his thoughts clear in a sermon he delivered on Jan. 6 at a Christmas Eve service held at Christ the Savior Cathedral. Kirill invited those present, including President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, to be valiant during the current economic crisis.

The word "crisis" comes from the Greek meaning "decision," Kirill said. He said that today, decisions have been affected by attitudes such as "greed, loss of control over consumption, a bid to enrich oneself by all means and have as much as possible." He said the crisis began when people forgot true values, and that further crises could be avoided if those values provided the foundation for the economy.

Kirill has his own vision for the future of Europe. In an address to the Third European Ecumenical Assembly in Sibiu in September 2007, Kirill said that in order for Europe to survive the tribulations that have befallen previous civilizations, it must retain its Christian identity. An increasing number of Europeans -- Christians and non-Christians alike -- have come to recognize "Christianity [as] a powerful source of support for European civilization," he said.

At the same time, Kirill was careful to explain that this does not imply that "there is no room" in Europe "for people of other religions and with other outlooks on the world." 

With Kirill's appointment as patriarch, Russian society opens a new page in its history.

Leonid Sevastyanov is general director of StratinvestRu and a consultant to the Moscow Patriarchate. Robert Moynihan is president of the Urbi et Orbi Foundation.