The church has been at the forefront of Russia’s unprovoked, all-out assault against Ukraine, with the 76-year-old Patriarch Kirill, a vocal supporter. He has told his 90 million followers that “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins” and has painted Russia’s assault on Ukraine as a holy war. The message has an old-fashioned, almost medieval ring — die for Russia, go to Heaven.
Over the past 10 months of the war, the church has been a solid source of support for the Kremlin’s aggression, blessing the operation even as casualties have soared and remaining silent on the Ukrainians targeted, tortured, and killed by Russia’s army. It’s worth remembering that Kirill once described Putin’s rule as a “miracle of God”, and — perhaps more rationally — is still smarting from the loss of a third of his flock following the breakaway of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Kirill and his aides may hope that a Russian victory would see the return of these believers to Moscow’s spiritual fold.
Some critics have suggested that the Russian Orthodox Church has little option but to support Putin, but this is surely over-generous. Kirill, a Soviet-era cleric with extensive ties to the KGB, the President’s former employer, is absolutely dependent on the state, politically and financially. This does not seem to cause him much discomfort. Kirill was granted a Kremlin residence in 2004, the government in 2010 returned huge swaths of land and other property seized by the Soviet Union, and the state makes grants in the hundreds of millions of dollars to the organization. In June, his deputy, the intellectually impressive Metropolitan Hilarion, often described as the church’s foreign minister, was removed from his post by Putin after failing to endorse the invasion.
Those who do conform are blessed. The pro-Kremlin Orthodox billionaire, Konstantin Malofeev, runs the country’s largest private charity, the St Basil’s Foundation. His ties to Putin are unclear — he is certainly a close friend to his spiritual adviser — but he has been sanctioned by the US for his role in the 2014 invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.
The Russian: “Played a leading role in supporting Russia’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine, continues to run a pro-Putin propaganda network, and recently described Russia’s 2022 military invasion of Ukraine as a ‘holy war’,” the FBI said.
Malofeev once employed Igor Girkin, nom de guerre Strelkov, a former FSB agent who played a significant military role in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014. Strelkov said he was employed by Malofeev in the run-up to the invasion of Eastern Ukraine, but an official Dutch investigation published evidence that he was in fact taking direct orders from a FSB colonel during that period. Strelkov did not respond to questions on the issue posed by the Bellingcat investigative website.
Malofeev has long financed the Kremlin’s drive to spread so-called “family values,” including last year’s US-Russian summit of right-wing Christians who oppose same-sex marriage and abortion. He also set up numerous Orthodox right-wing outlets, including Tsargrad TV, with the help of a former Fox News producer, who was indicted by the United States last year.
In the last few months, the Russian Orthodox Church is said to have taken an even more active role in Russia’s full-scale assault on Ukraine. According to some media reports, the church created a mercenary group, St. Andrew’s Cross, and began actively recruiting to send a volunteer battalion to Ukraine. In an interview, Vladimir Khilchenko, coordinating director of St. Andrew’s Cross group, stated that this is “in fact the first PMC [private military company] under the Russian Orthodox Church.” The church later said it was a “tactical training center” for several PMCs and was not specifically church-run.
The role of the church as an unquestioning cheerleader for the Russian state is not new. During czarist rule, the Orthodox Church was often unable to raise funds from parishioners living in profound poverty, especially in rural areas. Clerical funds were sometimes derived from priests offering intelligence information on their parishioners to the security services. They counseled the peasantry to endure the torments of everyday life and said that the czar, having been enthroned by God, must be obeyed.
For these reasons and more, the church was loathed by the Bolsheviks, and brutally repressed. Its churches were looted and desecrated, and its clergy were arrested, tortured, and murdered. It was a surprise to many, therefore, when the atheist Joseph Stalin rehabilitated the Church during World War II, and yet again, put it under the control of state and security services, this time the NKGB (predecessor to KGB.)
This meant the Orthodox Church was heavily organized and penetrated by security services, and that its prime function became its role in stoking patriotism for the Soviet Union as part of the war effort following the German invasion.
The depth of its degradation by the communists became clear after the Soviet collapse. The dissident Russian Orthodox priest, Gleb Yakunin, who became a member of Russia’s State Duma, charged the church with not only being compromised by the Communists but also by the KGB.
The KGB opened its archives to a commission of members of the Russian parliament, and investigators found extensive reports detailing the activities of high-level agents and informers within the hierarchies of the Orthodox Church and virtually every other recognized religion in the Soviet Union.
“Only the deepest underground unregistered churches were not infiltrated,” according to Yakunin. Furthermore, he asserted that agents within the churches attempted to influence foreign organizations, including the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Conference of European Churches, and even the Vatican. Yakunin traveled to Washington DC to warn America that the Russian Orthodox church had “not made one single move” to stop the infiltration. “We are trying to warn the churches in Russia and in the West . . . [of what] went on before and might go on again,” he said.
And happen again it did. After a brief period of relative freedom, Putin’s Kremlin was keen to restore the Soviet-church relationship albeit in an amended fashion. Patriarch Kirill, a zealous supporter of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, was a KGB agent codenamed “Mikhailov”, first mentioned in the secret police archives in 1972, when he was a 25-year-old priest. Kirill spent his years infiltrating the WCC and other international bodies on behalf of the Soviet Union. His predecessor, Patriarch Alexy II, was also a KGB agent, according to a Soviet-era document uncovered in Estonia, operating under the code name “Drozdov.”
It was hardly surprising then that the independent Ukrainian state took a dim view of this organization, which had an enormous presence in its midst.
In 2018, the-then Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed a law requiring the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate to change its name to one that revealed its affiliation with Moscow’s Russian Orthodox Church. Also that year, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was formed, breaking away from its Russian sibling.
The pressure grew after Putin ordered the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The church was accused of cheering on the invasion, and the Ukrainian security services warned that it was a subversive organization and posed a threat; the charge sheet included allegations that it had engaged in disinformation operations, and that priests, monks, and nuns may have aided the Russian war effort. Andriy Pavlenko, an Orthodox church abbot in eastern Ukraine, was convicted as a spy, after evidence suggested he worked actively to kill Ukrainian soldiers and activists. These included documents allegedly sent to the Russian Army. He was recently traded with Russia in a prisoner exchange. In December, Ukrainian intelligence raided Russian Orthodox premises, and accused an archbishop of supporting the invasion in social media posts.
The church’s critics say the West should realize that the Russian Orthodox Church is so subverted that it is just another weapon in the Kremlin toolbox. Despite his role, Patriarch Kirill has only been sanctioned by the UK and Canada, and the church remains part of the WCC. It is time to step up the effort.
Olga Lautman is a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), the host of the Kremlin File podcast , and an analyst/researcher focusing on Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.