The solitude of the patriarch: Kirill of Russia stands alone in the Orthodox world

Kirill’s appeal to all the heads of the Orthodox Churches against the ban on Russian jurisdiction of Orthodoxy in Ukraine sanctioned by the Kiev parliament has gone unanswered. While the sending of Metropolitan Tikhon to Crimea, the most contested front line, many are wondering whether this is yet another punishment or a possible ecclesiastic and political exaltation.

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Stefano Caprio

(ZENIT News – Mondo Rosso / Rome, 10.23.2023).- While President Vladimir Putin tried to console himself with his «big brother» Xi Jinping in Beijing, after receiving some affectionate embraces from the ex-Soviet leaders in Bishkek, the Patriarch of Moscow Kirill (Gundjaev) has recently underlined his state of isolation both within the Russian Church itself and in the entire Orthodox world.

After the Verkhovnaja Rada, Kiev’s parliament, voted in recent days for a ban in Ukraine on the activities of the Russian jurisdiction of Orthodoxy, the UPZ Church, the patriarch launched a heartfelt appeal «to all the heads of the local Orthodox Churches ” and to a series of other religious leaders from around the world, also transmitting it to international institutions, to “intervene in support of the Ukrainian Orthodox faithful”, without receiving any declaration or promise of help.

Moreover, even the spiritual guide of the UPZ itself, the almost eighty-year-old Metropolitan Onufryj (Berezovskij), remains in a position of painful detachment and silence, having long ago harshly criticized Kirill for his support for the invasion of Ukraine, and deferring to decisions of civil authorities in a spirit of obedience and sacrifice.

Almost all the Ukrainian priests of this Church have stopped commemorating the Muscovite patriarch during the liturgies since last year, even if the historical ties with Russia remain indelible in the souls of many faithful and hierarchs, creating an ambiguity that is now unbearable after almost two years of war.

Onufryj became a monk in 1970 in the Lavra of the SS. Trinity, the very one in which Kirill now celebrates his version of militant Orthodoxy by exhibiting the ancient icon of Andrei Rublev, torn from the museum case in which it was exhibited.

The two have known each other since the time of Brezhnev, although Kirill, a year younger, was then in his native Leningrad, becoming bishop before the age of thirty to act as a testimonial for the «fight for peace» of the Soviet regime in all ecclesiastical and diplomatic assemblies around the world, obtaining recognition and praise even from the KGB security services.

Onufryj instead respected the monastic silence in which he is still immersed, although in recent years he has been seeking an impossible balance between his old Russian friends and the new leaders of Ukraine facing the West.

The patriarch today lashes out in an increasingly radical form against the «Ukrainian Nazis» who forced Russia to «defend the Russians of Donbass from genocide», and more generally to resist Western hegemony in the name of true faith. In recent days, on the occasion of the award ceremony of the Russian physicist Radij Ilkaev, Kirill went so far as to say that «Russia has remained a free and independent country thanks to nuclear weapons, created with the protection of Saint Seraphim of Sarov», to which he contributed “this great scientist who directs a nuclear center decisive for the existence of our country, near the places of the saint”.

The center to which the patriarch alludes is located in Arzamas in the Nizhny Novgorod region, not far from the Diveevo monastery, the destination of the great pilgrimages to the remains of the saint canonized by Tsar Nicholas II shortly before the war with Japan in 1904-1905, in search of patriotic inspiration.

At the time of the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Onufryj was bishop in Ukraine, his native land, in the eparchy of Ivano-Frankivsk, and was among the signatories of the request for ecclesiastical autocephaly, which accompanied the country’s declaration of independence from Moscow.

It was the beginning of Ukraine’s history as a free state, and the Church was willing to accompany the civil institutions; the metropolitan of Kiev was Filaret (Denisenko), now ninety-four years old, who had been among the consecrating bishops of Kirill, only to later oppose him with an irreducible, personal and ideological enmity, which can certainly be cataloged among the historical and symbolic causes of the conflict between Russians and Ukrainians.

Kirill had supported another candidate for the patriarchate in 1990, Aleksij II (Ridiger), whom he himself succeeded in 2009, while Filaret counted on the guarantees of the friends of the KGB who until then had controlled the life of the Russian Church, thanks also to the collaboration that was more or less forced by the hierarchs themselves, starting with Filaret and Kirill.

When Denisenko proclaimed himself patriarch of Kiev in conflict with Moscow, the gentle bishop Onufryj was among those who remained faithful to the bond with the Russian Church, which granted «loyal» Ukrainians a certain autonomy without severing ties, the reason for the current political decision to close their almost 12 thousand churches in Ukraine, forcing them to disappear or join the new autocephalous Church of Metropolitan Epifanyj (Dumenko), Filaret’s ex-secretary, left alone as «patriarch emeritus» with his faithful.

The lack of reconciliation between Filaret and Kirill has caused such a profound division between Russians and Ukrainians, and also between the various internal factions of the Ukrainian Church, that it now appears impossible to reconcile, and beyond legislative decisions and war solutions, it will continue to torment the Ukrainian Orthodox for many more years.

Yet there were those who worked to find a compromise until the end, when in 2018 the Patriarchal Synod of Moscow then expressed its condemnation of Ukrainian autocephaly sanctioned by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.

Among these mediators, Metropolitan Tikhon (Ševkunov), then still vicar bishop of Moscow and superior of the Sretensky monastery inside the historic KGB buildings in Lubyanka Square, stood out.

Tikhon, now sixty-five years old, is one of the most prominent figures in the Russian Orthodox Church, known as the «spiritual father» of Putin himself, writer and director, and did everything possible to avoid the definitive fracture, even convincing the elderly Filaret to write a conciliation letter to the Synod, contemptuously returned to the sender by Kirill.

The Muscovite patriarch therefore decided to chase Tikhon as far away as possible, and not being able to exile him to some remote Siberian eparchy, given the great influence he enjoyed, he sent him back to the metropolis of Pskov on the border with Lithuania, where Tikhon had become a monk as a young man , converting to the variant of “Soviet-Christian orthodoxy”.

Since 2018, Ševkunov has continued to exercise this influence even from afar, also holding the position of head of the patriarchal department for culture, although maintaining a less striking profile; if before he did interviews and published books and articles with an incessant rhythm, from Pskov he limited himself to a few appearances and statements, which were always followed closely by the general public.

Now Metropolitan Tikhon has been sent by Kirill to Crimea, on the hottest front line, and many are wondering to what extent this is yet another punishment, or rather a possible exaltation of his figure, on an ecclesiastical and political level.

While Kirill needed to demonstrate his support for Putin’s war, after decades of ideological and diplomatic slalom, Tikhon remained calm, intervening as little as possible, so no one could doubt his loyalty.

As the authentic inspirer of his «spiritual son», Tikhon had publicly expressed his beliefs on the «imperial destiny of Russia» since the 1990s, justifying it with wide-ranging historical, theological and cultural rereadings, without invoking wars and invasions like many others “Putin’s ideologists”, including Kirill.

On March 18 this year, on the «sacred» anniversary of the annexation of Crimea, Tikhon appeared by surprise alongside Putin on a visit to the peninsula, praised by the local governor Sergei Aksenov as «one of the greatest intellectuals of Russia», evidently arousing strong resentment in the patriarch’s soul.

Taking leave of his faithful in Pskov in recent days, instead of directly celebrating himself as the «new apostle» of Crimea, the metropolitan slyly defined his move as «exile to the beaches of Kolyma», comparing the seaside region of Sevastopol to the concentration camps Stalinists in the cold of the great north, recalling that even Church fathers such as Clement of Rome and John Chrysostom had been sent into exile in the Crimea, and assuring that «my heart remains in the monastery of the Pskov Caves».

Kirill’s move, as often happened in his patriarchal government, rather than driving away his adversaries, made his own figure even more isolated and detestable, and not happy with this, he took another very controversial decision, liquidating another metropolitan, Leonid (Gorbachev), whom he himself had exalted in recent years by entrusting him with a number of roles, and above all that of exarch of the Russian Church for Africa.

The exarchate was created in December 2021, on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine, as a consequence of another rupture at an ecclesiastical level, the one with the Greek patriarchate of Alexandria which historically has jurisdiction over Africans, while now it is considered schismatic from Moscow for aligning itself with Constantinople in recognizing Ukrainian autocephaly.

Leonid recently complained that he was no longer able to manage the Russian-African churches as in previous months, and in response Kirill retired him, without explaining the reasons for the decision.

However, everyone in Russia knows the close relationships that linked the metropolitan, a former Red Army soldier, to Yevgeny Prigožin’s Wagner company, which dominated the entire black continent before his death last August 23rd. His removal therefore appeared to be Kirill’s alignment with Putin’s overcoming of the most warmongering extremisms, demonstrating at the same time his subservience to the Tsar and his inconsistency as a spiritual guide, capable only of evoking «metaphysical-nuclear» wars, but not of governing truly his Church, reducing it to an instrument of power games and the ideologies of the moment.

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