Influence of Kirill on Putin is not as strong as you think


Eastern Europe


Photo AFP, Shamil Zhumatov

The Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill has not the strong influence in Moscow as the West thinks. For that, Russia is too secular, a French expert says. Kirill himself wants to defend himself on the Western television.

That says the French scientist Kathy Rousselet, research director at Sciences Po and expert in post-Soviet Russia. She published the book “La Sainte Russie contre l'Occident” (the holy Russia against the West).

In an interview last Wednesday at the Christian radio station RCF, she said that Russia is still a secular country in which the Russian Orthodox Church no longer has much political influence. The relation between Kirill and Putin might seem close from the outside. They have indeed shared interests, since both of them love to point at the West and pretend to protect the traditional lifestyle. But that does not give political power to the church.


President Putin defended the invasion in Ukraine in February by saying that Ukraine hindered the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. “I absolutely don't think this is a cause of the war,” replies Kathy Rousselet. “Vladimir Putin has his own agenda, and he used a whole rhetoric, he also used the church to develop a multipolar rhetoric, against the unipolarity of liberalism.” This conflict of churches was used by the political power to justify the invasion.

The French expert does not conclude, however, that the church issue has not contributed to the political conflict. The tension has risen since in 2019 a new Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was recognised by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The desire for an independent (autocephalous) Orthodox Church in Ukraine was an outspoken political goal in Kyiv as well.


Since 2019, the two Orthodox Church bodies claim to be the only legal one. Rousselet: “It is clear that the church question in Ukraine and the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, contributed to straining relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the West".

But still, it would be wrong to conclude that the Russian church has very much influence on President Putin, the Kremlin or the Duma. The weight of Kirill should not be overestimated, the French expert says. "There is a paradox in this Russian Orthodox Church. It seems omnipresent in the public space", with the creation of thousands of temples in a few years. However, religious practice is quite minimal. "Of the population, 70 per cent say, they are Orthodox. But a third of these people say they do not believe in God." Only 9 per cent of Russians attend a religious service at least once a month. The influence of Patriarch Kirill in Russian public opinion is therefore quite weak. In a poll of the Russian population, "Patriarch Kirill was not mentioned at all among the authoritative people in society."


Patriarch Kirill himself said this week, he was available for a debate on the Western television. He was outraged by the decision to deny him entry to the European Union. According to him, such a thing had never happened before with a patriarch, even not during the Cold War. Church contacts were never restricted during those years.

"The question arises, why?” Kirill asked this week at a meeting with the Assyrian Patriarch Mar Awa in Moscow. “If they are right and I am wrong, invite me on television, start a dialogue with me, prove you are right. They are afraid of that because we are right, not they.”

The West has a “very weak position”, said Kirill. “The position of isolationism is always weak, and we are open to dialogue with those who like us and with those who don't like us”, he said. During the Cold War, “Our delegations came to the United States, the Americans visited us, we discussed theological and political issues. And now considerable efforts are being made to restrict the possibilities of our Church to have dialogue with Western churches."



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