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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Church Is More Democratic Than Government

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Kirill was enthroned on Sunday as patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Although most Russians consider themselves Orthodox, only about 13 percent of them regularly attend church. Nonetheless, the election of a new patriarch is truly an historical event, no less significant than the election of a new president.

The patriarchate was restored in 1917 following the fall of the Russian monarchy. Russia was proclaimed a secular country with a division of church and state. Since that time, the Local Council, a congress consisting of clergymen and laypersons from all over Russia, has gathered only six times to elect the head of the church.

It is interesting that in 1917, Tikhon of Moscow, the first patriarch elected in the 20th century, was chosen by the old custom of drawing lots for one of the three candidates receiving the most votes from the Local Council. Of the three, the favorite at the time was Archbishop Anthony -- extremely active and popular in religious circles and stridently opposed to the Bolsheviks. But when an elder, blind monk drew the winning name from a special urn, it was the outsider Tikhon who took the throne. Then, for many long decades under the communist regime, the Kremlin essentially appointed the patriarch, selecting individuals for their loyalty to the Soviet authorities. Only under former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was the late Patriarch Alexy II chosen by a somewhat more democratic election process.

There are conflicting opinions regarding Kirill's election. Some say it was a profanation of the electoral process and that everything had been decided in advance. Others claim that Kirill's win was the result of a protracted struggle that began long before the former patriarch had left this world.

The liberal opposition members of the church claim that the Kremlin is still pulling the strings of the Moscow Patriarchate and that the Kremlin still decides who will become the new patriarch. But "the Kremlin" is a conglomeration of various groupings, not a homogenous entity. Demonstrations by the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth group, which took place outside Christ the Savior Cathedral as the Local Council was electing the patriarch, proves that Kirill relied on Kremlin resources -- to be more precise, he relied on the Kremlin's spin doctors.

Some observers sincerely felt that Kirill was actually a liberal and a modernist. Skeptics caustically said Kirill was merely skillful at packaging conservative church ideology in a glamorous wrapper. Others justly pointed out that the Orthodox community -- particularly in the outlying provinces -- is so obscurantist that even the slightest trace of liberalism would be considered anathema.

And that was precisely Kirill's biggest problem. He came across as too modern, too erudite and too Western. It is no coincidence that the Russian church has "orthodox" as its middle name. It stands upon the pillars of traditions and rituals that have remained unchanged for centuries. Adherents of traditional orthodoxy assert that, if those rituals and traditions were eliminated, if the church services now delivered in the old Slavic language were translated into modern Russian, the church as an institution would surely die. This is why Kirill constantly repeated in his election campaign, "I am opposed to any church reforms."

Metropolitan Kliment was Kirill's main rival for the patriarchal throne. Kliment is the manager of the Moscow Patriarchate's affairs, a graying cardinal, church apparatchik and a favorite among church fundamentalists -- in particular, Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, abbot of the Sretensky Monastery. Rumor has it that Shevkunov is Putin's closest religious adviser and confidant. Shevkunov is also thought to have very close ties with top leaders of the siloviki, including Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, Federal Drug Control Service chief Viktor Ivanov and Russian Railways head Vladimir Yakunin, as well as conservatives such as State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov.

One interesting fact: Of all the people in the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin chose only Kliment to be a member of the Public Chamber. What's more, there was a lot of talk that first lady Svetlana Medvedeva favored Kliment. So, although Medvedev and Putin both distanced themselves from the struggle for the patriarch's throne, Kirill's main rival clearly enjoyed support from top-ranking authorities.

Kliment received 169 of the 702 possible votes cast by the Local Council. In addition, a close associate of that electoral body suggested in all earnestness that the patriarch be chosen by lots, as Tikhon was in 1917. That was a last-ditch effort to level the playing field in the face of Kirill's clear lead.

Kirill was the favorite in the race. First, he dominated the television airwaves. It was more Kirill's longstanding connection with the world of television than assistance from the authorities that helped. Kirill has hosted the weekly "Pastor's Word" program on state-controlled Rossia television since 1994. But this was not his only advantage. Kliment and his supporters stepped out of the public eye to get involved in backroom intrigues, where they also lost. The Church Synod elected Kirill as the interim leader after Alexy II passed away. This reminded me of the Soviet era, when the person chosen to oversee the burial of the deceased Communist Party general secretary invariably became the next general secretary himself.

Second, Kirill's supporters convinced Metropolitan Vladimir, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the division of the Ukranian church that is subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate, to step out of the race. In theory, Vladimir could have garnered one-third of the Local Council's votes because the Ukrainian delegation was the most numerous. Kirill apparently promised Vladimir something in return, perhaps greater autonomy from Moscow.

Finally, Kirill managed to convince the other candidate, the aging Metropolitan Filaret of Belarus, to withdraw from the contest at the last minute. Filaret's votes swung to Kirill.

In short, Kirill won like a politician and a skilled apparatchik. It is a curious side note that during these elections, the Russian Orthodox Church, with all its shortcomings, appeared more lively and democratic than the secular government. The battle for the patriarchal throne was incomparably more dramatic than the race for the presidential post in the Kremlin, and therefore it attracted greater public interest.

It is interesting that in his first speech from the patriarchal throne, Kirill, contrary to all of his pre-election promises to resist reform, strongly urged the church to get in step with modern life. Now this is possible under Kirill's leadership.

Kirill won the contest decisively. But more important, Kirill has returned the sense of what it means to be a public politician.

Yevgeny Kiselyov is a political analyst and hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.