Until very recently, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, was most famous for being the owner of a phantom wristwatch. It had the magical property of disappearing from sight, visible to onlookers only as a reflection.
Don’t believe me? Google ‘Kirill’ and ‘watch’ and you’ll find a photo of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’ meeting the Russian justice minister. It was taken in 2009, the year Kirill succeeded the late Patriarch Alexy II as spiritual leader of 110 million Russian Orthodox Christians.
On his head Kirill is wearing a white koukoulion, the so-called ‘helmet of salvation’, with side flaps like the ears of a giant basset hound. But his cassock is plain black and his wrist is bare. Only the polished table reveals the glimmer of his phantom wristwatch, a £20,000 Swiss Breguet.
With that sort of price tag, you’d have thought the Russian Orthodox could afford a better class of Photoshopper. At any rate, the humiliated Patriarch threw a fit. ‘There will be a thorough investigation to determine why in this instance there was a crude violation of our internal ethical code [against digital manipulation],’ said his spokesman. ‘The guilty ones will be punished severely.’
We can be sure that promise was kept. You don’t mess with Kirill, a fanatical supporter of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, who was born 75 years ago as Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev. It’s probably his patronymic that explains why for decades he was known as ‘Mikhailov’ by his superiors.
His superiors in the KGB, that is, not the Orthodox Church. As a young priest and bishop, Kirill spent years infiltrating the World Council of Churches (WCC) and other international bodies on behalf of the Soviet Union.
The evidence is set out in a paper entitled ‘The Mikhailov Files: Patriarch Kirill and the KGB’, published by the historian and human rights activist Felix Corley in 2018. His sources are documents from the KGB archives in Moscow which, he writes, ‘were seen by a number of researchers after the archives were briefly opened in the wake of the failed August 1991 coup, but access was then closed again after the Russian Orthodox leadership protested against the extent of the revelations’.
The panic was understandable. The then patriarch, Alexy, was himself a KGB agent. No religious leaders were allowed out of the country unless they were doubling as spies, and that included Catholics, Muslims and Buddhists from the USSR. So it goes without saying that Father Kirill would have been one. What’s interesting is the sinister nature of the tasks to which he was assigned.
In November 1978, the KGB drew up a ‘Future Plan’ of co-operation with its Czech equivalent to ‘deepen dissent within leading reactionary church circles’, to harass Protestant ‘sects’, to tighten its grip on the WCC and to strengthen the position of an unnamed agent in the Vatican. The KGB mentions that it wants this agent, codenamed ‘Professor’, to ‘strengthen links with Lviv vice-province’, home to most of Ukraine’s Greek Rite Catholics. Four KGB agents are assigned this task, the first of which is Mikhailov – i.e. Kirill, who was the Moscow Patriarch’s representative to the WCC in Geneva.
Corley adds: ‘The documents also reveal that the KGB was aware Kirill was corresponding with Rome-based Catholic professor Eduard Huber, rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute, even if the KGB backed away from attempting to recruit Huber as an agent.’ The now forgotten Huber was a Soviet--educated Jesuit priest; his Institute dealt with Eastern Catholic Churches, the largest of which is Ukrainian. During his time as rector, the Ukrainian Greek Rite Catholics, hated by Moscow, were an obstacle to the Vatican’s Ostpolitik. No wonder the KGB wanted him to talk to Mikhailov.
Ostpolitik (the Vatican’s normalisation of relations with countries behind the Iron Curtain, an approach rejected by Pope John Paul II) has been revived by Pope Francis. So, too, has liberation theology, an ugly hybrid of Catholicism and Marxism that developed in Latin America – well outside Kirill’s sphere of influence, you might think. Not so, according to the late Ion Mihai Pacepa, the Romanian general and confidant of President Ceausescu who was the highest-ranking defector from the Soviet bloc.
According to Pacepa, ‘Kirill/Mikhailov’s main task was to involve the WCC in spreading the new liberation theology throughout Latin America’. Pacepa also repeated a claim by Moscow News that Patriarch Kirill was worth $4 billion in 2006, partly thanks to abusing his Church’s bizarre privilege of importing duty-free cigarettes into Russia.
Joining the dots between these claims is not easy, but it doesn’t require us to believe that Kirill, any more than his friend Putin, was ever a devout communist. He has always been a nationalist who believes Russian Orthodox Christianity is superior to any other variety; he could see the morale-sapping effect of liberation theology on the Catholic Church and was happy to help matters along.
Far more important, he believes that Ukraine, where Russians first converted to Christianity, must never slip from the grasp of the Patriarchate or the Kremlin. In 2019 he took the extreme step of breaking communion with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew – the Archbishop of Constantinople and spiritual leader of all Orthodox churches – because Bartholomew had granted independence to the main body of Ukrainian Orthodox.
Kirill also despises Greek Rite Ukrainian Catholics who broke with Orthodoxy at the end of the 16th century. Why, then, has he embraced glasnost towards the Pope of Rome, to whom these Ukrainian ‘Uniates’ –a term they hate – owe allegiance?
The answer lies in an agreement that Francis and Kirill signed in Havana airport, of all places, in 2016. In the declaration, the two leaders say many worthy things – but the money quote, the reason the Patriarch flew to Cuba, was the statement that ‘Uniatism’ was not the way forward.
Now Ukrainian Greek Rite Catholics face oppression or death from Russian invaders, along with the Ukrainian Orthodox Christians Kirill excommunicated – and at the time of writing Francis has yet to say a word specifically condemning Putin.
Meanwhile, a coalition of Catholic bishops, including the Irish hierarchy, have appealed to the corrupt and bloodthirsty Kirill to intervene in Ukraine – thus inheriting the mantle of the Soviet-friendly WCC dimwits whom Mikhailov cultivated while plotting to deliver Christian dissidents into the hands of the KGB. The Patriarch’s response was to present an icon of the Mother of God to Russian troops as a gesture of support for a campaign that had just killed a mother and her unborn child in a maternity hospital.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope that Russia’s bombs may finally blow the helmet of salvation off the head of this revolting man. Some Ukrainian Orthodox churches still belong to the Moscow Patriarchy. And this month, in one of those little liturgical gestures that can cost Christians their lives, they did a very brave thing. At the moment in the service where they pray for their spiritual leader, they left out the name of Kirill.
Damian Thompson’s podcast on the biggest stories in the world of religion.