He was with the KGB, has billions and is considered Putin’s sharpest ideological sword. Nevertheless, Kirill is not sanctioned. Who is the man?
A Sunday in early April, Patriarch Kirill is standing at the altar with his hands raised. “Defend your country as only Russians can!” he calls out to the soldiers. The floor they are standing on is made of metal, it was melted down from Nazi weapons. The walls are covered with battle scenes from World War II, angels fly over Kalashnikovs. Kirill says: “We broke the backbone of fascism back then. God will help us this time too.”
What the head of the Russian Orthodox Church is saying in the “Church of the Armed Forces” seems like mockery. At the same time, 800 kilometers away, the mutilated, tortured bodies of those people who are said to have been murdered by Russian soldiers in Bucha are discovered. The world is speechless about this horror.
Who is the man preaching war and destruction here in the name of God? Whom the West has long wanted to put on the list of those who support Putin’s war, but who has so far escaped this punishment thanks to Viktor Orbán’s blockade in Brussels?
The story of Kirill I, whose real name is Vladimir Gundyaev, could not be more classic Soviet. Having grown up in a family of priests in Leningrad, the 75-year-old, like most churchmen at the time, was with the KGB after his ordination. However, not only as an informant: he served as an officer under the alias Mikhailov.
The cigarette metropolitan
After the collapse of the USSR, he skillfully exploited the Kremlin’s new friendliness to orthodoxy; somehow the ideological void of communism had to be filled. Kirill, equipped with the best contacts above, became the liaison man for foreign relations, and as such filled the church’s coffers, which were tight after years of Soviet oppression: Yeltsin had allowed the church to trade in cigarettes and alcohol tax-free. It is said that millions flowed over Kirill in this way.
The Novaya Gazeta estimates that up to eight billion dollars have grown from this to date – money that does not just come from the sale of candles and icons. Kirill is involved in deals with oil, jewels, cars, stumbled upon such scandals as a 30,000-euro watch on the wrist, which the church awkwardly retouched from photos. For observers, there is no question that he amassed his fortune at the grace of Putin: not just because that is the case with all oligarchs, but because Kirill is doing Putin good service.
Ever since he took office, Putin has tried to transform orthodoxy into his corrupt spiritual arm, feeding it state money and having other religious communities persecuted. Kirill erected monuments to him – in monstrous sacred buildings such as the Church of the Russian Armed Forces, Putin’s likeness was emblazoned next to Stalin’s.
Even if Putin had his picture removed because it was too much for him: Kirill, who called Putin’s rule “a miracle of God”, gives him a divine blessing. He legitimizes his politics and his wars – just as it was with the tsars.
Kirill made so few friends in ecumenism. He has not spoken to the Patriarch of Constantinople since 2019, when he recognized the split-off Ukrainian Orthodox Church as independent; Pope Francis accused him of being an “acolyte of Putin”.
This hardly seems to affect Kirill. He lives by the belief that Moscow is the “Third Rome,” the last bastion against the depravity of the West that wants to “re-educate” Russia. Orbán, his savior, is his spiritual brother: he also calls himself the defender of the West.
He does not comment on possible sanctions from the “sin dump” in Brussels. They shouldn’t matter to him at all. Because his assets, which would be frozen, are not stored in “holy Russia”, but in Italy, Switzerland – and Austria.