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The Russian Orthodox Church is a Servant of Putin’s Intelligence Services
A few days ago, Swiss newspapers reported that Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church since 2009, was an agent of the KGB, the Soviet secret police, from shortly after he joined the Church in the 1970s, and there is little doubt Kirill has continued this relationship with the KGB’s successor agencies under Vladimir Putin’s rule. This was not exactly a revelation, though it has added documentary evidence to something long known. Kirill’s story casts light on the broader story of the Orthodox Church as an instrument of autocracy in Russia.
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THE STORY OF PATRIARCH KIRILL
Kirill, born Vladimir Gundyayev in 1946,1 graduated from the theological seminary in Saint Petersburg (“Leningrad” at the time) in 1970. After a year of teaching, in September 1971 was promoted to archimandrite and made a Russian Orthodox Church representative to the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva. It is at this point, aged 24, that Kirill entered into KGB service.
The Swiss papers, the French-language Le Matin Dimanche and the German-language SonntagsZeitung, draw on Swiss police files to report that Kirill worked as a KGB spy in Switzerland in this period under the codename MIKHAILOV. Kirill’s responsibilities for the Soviets included “religious diplomacy, espionage, and finances”. Even Kirill’s nephew, Mikhail Gundyaev, while denying that his uncle was a fully recruited spy, concedes “he was subjected to ‘strict controls’ by the KGB”. This is to say the least of it.
That Kirill was a KGB agent is hardly a revelation. This is for two reasons. First, it has already been reported. Second, the broader context makes clear he could not have held the post he did at the WCC—or within the Orthodox Church itself—without collaborating with the KGB.
THE HISTORY OF THE RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH
To understand how the Soviets gained control of the Russian Orthodox Church after they took power, it is necessary to look briefly at the Church’s development.
The Kievan Rus, created by pagan Norsemen (“Vikings”) at the end of the ninth century, became the largest state in Europe by the mid-tenth century. In 988, the Rus was converted to Christianity by Grand Prince Vladimir Sviatoslavich (or “Vladimir the Great”) under an agreement with the Byzantine Emperor that made the Rus Church a subordinate of Constantinople.
That both Ukraine and Russia can trace their origins back to the Rus has led to Putin’s claims that the two modern states are really one, made up of a single people and, crucially, a single church. It is on the basis of these beliefs that Putin decided a year ago to begin a full-scale invasion of Ukraine to enact “reunification”. The reality is rather different.
After the Rus’ destruction by the Mongols in 1240, the lands that would become Ukraine were gradually acquired by Poland, Lithuania, and Austria, retaining the Slavic culture and ethos of the Rus while layering on their own ecclesiastical structures that were enmeshed in the theology, patterns of practice, culture, and convulsions of Latin Christendom (facts which remained even after Russia started conquering the territory in the seventeenth century).
The nucleus of what would become Russia, meanwhile, lay under the “Tatar Yoke”, with a series of vassal statelets under various Rurikid Princes. Mongol rule forced unity on the fissiparous Principalities: the Mongols needed one address to deal with to keep order and extract tribute, and the Muscovy State played the game best, coming to dominate the others by the early fourteenth century, a status marked by the Metropolitan of Kiev and All-Rus—compelled already to move from Kiev to Vladimir—transferring to Moscow in 1325.2
In a desperate bid to acquire assistance to stave off its demise, the Byzantine Empire formally agreed to “reunify” the Latin and Greek Churches in 1439, theoretically healing the Great Schism of 1054 and in effect accepting the supremacy of the Roman Papacy. The hoped-for Crusade never arrived and Muslim armies overran Constantinople in 1453. Even before that catastrophe, the Church headquartered in Moscow had been going its own way.
In 1448, Moscow appointed its first Metropolitan of Kiev and All-Rus without consulting Constantinople. Meanwhile, there had been a flow of refugees for over half-a-century into the Rus Principalities subject to the Golden Horde from Christian Slavic lands encroached on by Islam, like Bulgaria, and this had increased after the East-West “reunification”, which had been widely resented in Byzantium. These Orthodox Christians, convinced the game was up in Constantinople, the second great bastion of Christendom, as they saw it, after Rome was lost to the schismatic heretics of the Catholic Church, brought with them the idea of Moscow as the successor to Byzantium, “The Third Rome”, an ideology that it has been clear for two decades interests Putin.
The Muscovy State, by political chicanery and outright forcible annexation, had been absorbing the other Rus Principalities under the Tatar Yoke, and in 1480 it was powerful enough to throw off the Mongol-Islamic overlordship. “The Muscovy that emerged … bore hardly any resemblance to the [Rus]. Continuity had been broken, and Muscovy was a successor state of the Golden Horde”.3 The Russian Orthodox Church had been able to carve out some autonomy for itself under the Mongols and it would continue to hold independent power after Russia was independent.
Shortly after the state was reorganised in 1547 into the Tsardom under the formidable Rurikid Prince Ivan IV (or “Ivan the Terrible”), the Stoglavy Synod was held that declared state-church relations to be one of accord (symphonia), the official ruling concept of Byzantium. Reflective of this trend towards the Tsardom claiming to be Byzantium’s heir, the Church of Moscow repaired relations with Constantinople Patriarch, now living under Islamic rule, at the end of the sixteenth century, and became formally autocephalous. Symphonia, regarded in general as an unrealisable ideal, was effective in Byzantium to the extent that it left no space for even a theoretical separation of church and state, while in practice usually meaning church subordination to the state. In the Russian Tsardom, this pattern mostly held, with church-state relations theorised in Byzantine terms of a ruler drawing his basically untrammelled authority from God, and Orthodox believers coming to see obedience to the Tsar as essentially a religious duty.4 But first there was a brief interlude in which the Church made a play for dominance.
In the mid-seventeenth century, after the accession to power of the House of Romanov in 1613, the Russian Orthodox Church would reach the height of its power. Convinced the near-collapse of the state in the “Time of Troubles” resulted from God’s wrath and a revival was needed, the Church was powerful enough to drive through liturgical changes even to the point of creating a schism (Raskol) in 1666 that anathematised the “Old Believers” who refused to go along with the reforms. This process of reformation, led by Patriarch Nikon, designed to separate the Church from state power and in many ways to place the Church above the state—“the highest authority of the priesthood is not received from Kings or Emperors, but contrariwise, it is by the priesthood that rulers are appointed”, Nikon told Tsar Alexei5—had strong echoes of the eleventh- and twelfth century Papal Revolution in Latin Christendom that created the medieval Papacy that could humble and depose earthly rulers.6
Unlike in the West, however, where the Gregorian Reformers prevailed in at least creating the notion of taming autocratic power and set in train the evolution of notions of the secular, Nikon’s program half-a-millennium later failed and the Russian Orthodox Church was ultimately brought to heel. Nikon was deposed and when Alexei’s son, Pyotr I (“Peter the Great”), came to the throne he instituted a Westernising (or “modernising”) program of his own, envisioning a more centralised state that eliminated the Church as a power-centre. Patriarch Adrian was not replaced for twenty-one years after his death in 1700 and when Pyotr allowed a new Patriarch to be appointed, he was a state bureaucrat under a government department, the Most Holy Synod, “a rookery of spies and pets”.7
The Church now firmly subservient to the state, Pyotr’s successors, notably Ekaterina II (“Catherine the Great”), were free to dabble with the Enlightenment and secularising reforms, until the French Revolution showed where that path led, and Russia had to fend off the Revolution in its institutionalised form under Napoleon Bonaparte. Alexander I mobilised the Church to declare Napoleon the antichrist.8 Alexander’s son, Nicholas I, took the Tsardom to the height of its power and prestige, domestically and abroad, under the triumvirate of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality”. Nicholas’ son, Alexander II, liberalised considerably, but his murder by terrorist-revolutionaries in 1881 served as a warning for the last two Tsars to maintain a more traditional form of governance.
THE RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH UNDER THE SOVIET UNION AND SINCE
Ironically, it was after the Bolshevik coup in November 1917, which abolished the Most Holy Synod, that the Patriarchy returned in its pre-1721 form under Patriarch Tikhon. The coup had, as the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin intended,9 plunged Russia into a terrifying civil war that physically destroyed most of the old order and its elite, including the Emperor and his family. Tikhon refused to take sides, even when begged by the anti-Bolshevik resistance, the Volunteer Army (“the Whites”), to bless their cause.10 It did Tikhon nor the Church any good.
As soon as the Bolshevik regime was safe and recovered from the Volunteers’ challenge in early 1922, under the cover of a terrible famine Lenin’s economic policies had caused, a savage attack was launched against the Russian Orthodox Church. Lenin’s pretext was seizing Church property to alleviate the starving.11 The reality, as Lenin and Leon Trotsky—one of the most enthusiastic administrators of the faithful’s torments—well-knew, was that the Bolsheviks had stopped the Church doing its work to prevent the famine and once it broke out the Church had offered to give up all non-sacral property to help the Russian people. Over nine months or so in 1922, at least 8,000 Orthodox priests, monks, and nuns were murdered by the Bolsheviks, and many thousands more were shipped off to Lenin’s GULAG concentration camps to perish from overwork and the elements.12
Tikhon was placed under house arrest and a mock Synod of the Soviet regime’s “Living Church” issued a statement “deposing” the Patriarch in 1923. This was obviously not recognised by the Church. After Tikhon died in April 1925, he arranged the succession to Metropolitan Peter Polyansky, who was subject to relentless persecution until Lenin’s heir, Joseph Stalin, had him judicially murdered in October 1937 at the height of the Great Terror (Yezhovshchina). By that time, the Russian Orthodox Church had been shattered: its leadership and churches destroyed,13 its status and property stripped, its relics smashed, and the remaining believers divided by the existence of the “Living Church” and subject to a relentless ideological assault courtesy of the League of the Militant Godless, which particularly targeted children in schools with its atheistic propaganda.
What gave the Russian Orthodox Church space for a revival in even a spectral form was, ironically, Stalin, specifically his calamitous dalliance with Adolf Hitler. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 had started the Second World War a month later, and under the Pact’s terms, as the Soviets underwrote the Nazi conquests in the West, Stalin took his share in the East: by June 1940, the Nazis and Soviets had invaded seven countries each.14 The alliance was not destined to last, and Hitler struck first, invading the Soviet Union in June 1941 with a three-million-man force. American Lend-Lease provided the margins to stop the Soviets going under militarily,15 but, on the home front, Stalin needed all the tools he could to hold his Empire together. This was the context in which Stalin turned to the Church he had devastated.
In 1943, the Patriarchate was re-established, seventeen years after it had been swept away, under a leadership cadre who were conscious agents of the NKVD, the KGB’s predecessor. Several other NKVD front organisations were created through this pliant Church, notably the World Peace Council and the Christian Peace Conference, which regularly held meetings with Western naïfs and fellow travellers calling for “peace” in the Cold War—i.e., for the West to cease resisting the spread of Communism. It was on KGB orders that the Russian Orthodox Church joined the WCC in 1961 to gain another platform to spread this message that the Soviets wanted “peace”.16 Not incidentally, this was at a moment when the post-Stalin “thaw” of Nikita Khrushchev was definitively being set aside: Khrushchev had launched his “Third World Strategy”, developing the Soviets’ expansionist program since the Revolution into a truly global enterprise by supporting Communist “national liberation” movements in the Southern Hemisphere; initiated a ferocious anti-religious campaign of his own domestically, closing down most of the churches that had been re-opened after 1953; and was preparing for his showdowns with President John Kennedy over Berlin and Cuba.
The WCC was an important propaganda instrument for the KGB, so nothing was left to chance: all Orthodox clergymen sent to the WCC were agents, thus there was never any serious doubt that this had included Kirill. As a Swiss intelligence official quoted in one of the reports put it: “We were told [by our superiors]: beware of these priests, because they are KGB agents.” (This official met Kirill personally at the time and remarks that he acted like a spy: “I always had the feeling that he was looking for information.”) The KGB had remarkable success in steering the WCC away from the unmerciful repression of religious freedom in the Soviet Empire, and focusing it instead on the iniquities of Western “imperialism”.17 It did not seem to matter that Western Empires were already well on the way to being dismantled, while the Soviets ruthlessly patrolled their existing Empire and ceaselessly sought to add to it, through covert subversion from Cuba and Nicaragua to Angola and Ethiopia, and the direct conquest of Afghanistan.
The senior hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church was entirely compromised in Soviet times, and the collaboration of the clergy was extensive at lower levels, too. Very few clerics refused to work for the KGB when approached. Undoubtedly, some churchmen thought they were doing the best they could for their faith in the direst circumstances; some simply saw a career path.18 Regardless, the revelations once the Soviet Union collapsed of how thoroughgoing was the Russian Orthodox Church’s collaboration with the Bolsheviks put it beyond redemption for most Russians,19 not least because it stood in such bold contrast to the bravery of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic (or “Uniate”) Church, which paid in blood to resist Stalin’s blandishments and kept up its resistance all the way to the end.20
The behaviour of the Russian Orthodox Church in the post-Soviet period—between its earthly corruption and its persistent support for despotism—has compounded the contempt most Russians feel for the institution, killing off Christianity as a societal force in modern Russia. The attempt to break up the KGB in the 1990s was reversed by the end of that decade, and this caste of siloviki (securocrats) seized the state back in 2000 under Putin, himself, of course, a “former” KGB officer. The relationships Soviet intelligence built up with the Church did not end with the Soviet Union, any more than the relationships with Moscow’s agents in the West or the far-Right around the world were terminated. To see Patriarch Kirill stood by Putin’s side, implicating the Russian Orthodox Church institutionally as an advocate of holy war against Ukraine, is, therefore, the least surprising thing of all.
“Kirill” can—and perhaps should be—transliterated as “Cyril”, since Gundyayev took his name from Saint Cyril, a ninth-century Byzantine missionary, who, along with his brother Methodius, took Christianity to the Slavs, hence being known as the “Apostles to the Slavs”. Cyril and Methodius are Saints in both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church.
Timor Szamuely (1974), The Russian Tradition, pp. 16-7.
The Russian Tradition, p. 19.
Maureen Perrie and Andrei Pavlov (2003), Ivan the Terrible, pp. 18-9.
Roland Elliott Brown (2019), Godless Utopia: Soviet Anti-Religious Propaganda, p. 40.
Tom Holland (2019), Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, pp. 258-63.
Godless Utopia, p. 42.
Godless Utopia, pp. 42-4.
Richard Pipes (1990), The Russian Revolution, pp. 394-99.
Godless Utopia, p. 52.
In the Shuya Memo, a document kept secret even within the Communist Party, where Lenin ordered the war against the Russian Orthodox Church in 1922, the Bolshevik leader was, as ever, quite without euphemism: “It is precisely now and only now, when in the starving regions people are eating human flesh, and hundreds if not thousands of corpses are littering the roads, that we can (and therefore must) carry out the confiscation of church valuables with the most savage and merciless energy, not stopping [short of] crushing any resistance …, so as to secure for ourselves a fund of several hundred million gold rubles … [N]o other moment except that of desperate hunger will give us a mood among the broad peasant masses that will guarantee us the sympathy of these masses or at least their neutrality.” See: Richard Pipes (1996), The Unknown Lenin: From the Secret Archive, pp. 152-55.
Stéphane Courtois [ed.] (1997), The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, p. 126.
Sean McMeekin (2021), Stalin’s War, p. 177.
Stalin’s War, pp. 368-69.
Vasili Mitrokhin and Christopher Andrew (1999), The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, pp. 486-87.
The Sword and the Shield, pp. 487-94.
The Sword and the Shield, pp. 489-90.
The Sword and the Shield, pp. 506-07.
The Sword and the Shield, pp. 499-503.