Meet Kirill, Putin's personal patriarch

Who is the man who has blessed Moscow's war in Ukraine?

Putin and Kirill.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

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

Who is Patriarch Kirill?

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

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

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

What's his role?

Unlike Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy does not have a single, universal head. Instead, the Orthodox Church is made up of between 14 and 16 autocephalous — or "self-headed" — churches. The Russian Orthodox Church is by far the largest, comprising around half of the 220 million Orthodox Christians worldwide.

Kirill's claimed jurisdiction as "Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus'" stretches 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 Orthodox Church of Ukraine and began petitioning for autocephaly. The OCU comprises a majority of Ukrainian Orthodox Christians, while around a quarter still belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church — Moscow Patriarchate (UOC–MP).

Fearing that Russian President Vladimir Putin's incursions into Ukraine would drive 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 self-governing UOC–MP.

The closest thing Orthodoxy has to a pope is Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople (the city now widely known as Istanbul in Turkey), who is viewed as 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 flock is comparatively small, and his power constrained by an unfriendly, majority-Muslim government.

For Kirill, this mismatch presents an opportunity. In 2004, he drew on the centuries-old theory of Moscow as the Third Rome, claiming that the Russian Orthodox Church "holds de facto first place among all of the other Orthodox churches" and that the Russians "are the rightful heirs of Byzantium."

In 2019, Bartholomew declared the OCU fully independent, claiming that the ecumenical patriarch has the power to unilaterally grant autocephaly. Kirill disagreed, arguing that Bartholomew had made an illegitimate incursion into Moscow's canonical territory. This dispute led the two patriarchs to break full communion. Following Putin's invasion, Kirill's hold on Ukraine has grown even more tenuous. Around half of the 12,000 UOC–MP parishes have reportedly voiced their intention to cut ties with Russia, and some 200 priests from the UOC–MP have signed a letter calling for Kirill to be deposed.

What's 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 that Kirill's father secretly baptized him as a baby. Like the tsars of old, Putin derives much of his legitimacy from the Russian Orthodox Church and from the Russian nationalism with which it is closely intertwined. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, just over 30 percent of Russians claimed affiliation with the national church. By 2017, more than 70 percent self-identified as Orthodox.

This shift has boosted the church's cultural cachet and prompted a boom in church construction. What it hasn't done is fill those churches. The Moscow Times reported in 2019 that only 6 percent of Russians attend services regularly, and that figure continues to decline.

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 might steal sheep from Kirill's flock. He's also directed state funds to the church, banned "gay propaganda," and enforced anti-blasphemy laws.

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

In return for his support of the church, Putin can count on Kirill's near-unwavering support. The patriarch has described Putin's rule as a "miracle from God" that put Russia back on track. He also publicly backed Putin's re-election bids in 2012 and 2018 and supported Russia's intervention in the Syrian civil war.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Kirill threw his full support behind the invasion. In March, he delivered a homily casting the war as a clash of civilizations between traditionalist Russia and the godless liberal West. Ukraine and its Western masters, Kirill said, were attempting "to destroy what exists in the Donbas" because the pro-Russian separatist republics embodied "a fundamental rejection of the so-called values ​​that are offered today by those who claim world power." Those "so-called values," he said, are "excess consumption" and homosexuality.

Can he be swayed?

Earlier this month, the European Union included Kirill on a recent list of potential sanctions targets. One diplomat told Reuters that the sanctions would probably "entail 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 "transform himself into Putin's altar boy" during a Zoom call in March, while Bartholomew said in an interview that Kirill was wrong to "claim to be the brother of another people and bless the war that your state is waging."

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