Igor Knyazev
Igor Knyazev
Ph.D. in Political Science, Bishop at the Karelskaya Evangelical Lutheran Church
At the service of the sovereign

Throughout history, the church in Russia has been subordinated to the state, serving as an effective tool to advance the state’s agenda domestically and globally. This phenomenon held true, and perhaps even reached its apogee, during the Soviet era. 

The church, after a brief post-revolution resistance, had accepted the power of the Bolsheviks, and circa 1943, began to take an active role in promoting the interests of the USSR in foreign policy. The circumstances and the essence of such activities became public with the declassification of the KGB archives in the early 1990s.

In his September 16, 1949 note addressed to Molotov, Karpov, the Chairman of the Council on the Affairs of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) at the time, wrote that the government can effectively use the networks and capabilities of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church abroad to solve political problems facing the Soviet leadership. In the same letter, Karpov lamented that due to red tape the Patriarchate frequently couldn’t receive cash in time to implement political campaigns and proposed simplifying the process of disbursement of funds from the Council of Ministers of the USSR to the Church.

Karpov also delineated his official plans to “in the course of 1946 arrange a number of business trips”:

  1. To Istanbul to meet with Patriarch Maxim (he is being “blocked” by the British and the Turks, however, he could be with us).
  2. To the Middle East in order to deliver financial aid—$40,000 for Jerusalem, $50,000 for Constantinople.” (The government would have given this money to the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) which would then hand them out as “fraternal assistance” by the Russian Church.)

Facts of recruitment and cooperation at the highest levels at the ROC MP with the Soviet intelligence agencies such as the Ministry of State Security, NKVD,  KGB have been established by such declassified documents. One of them contains a plan to establish a regional ROC MP Cathedral. This plan, approved by Merkulov, the Head of the Soviet State Security Committee stipulated embedding of Ministry of State Security employees with the governing body of that Cathedral—its Council. The documents detailing the mechanism for implanting agents with the church suggest that all of the top patriarchs of the Russian Church of that time were also active Soviet intelligence officers.

A vast tranche of damning information on collaboration was unearthed by the Commission of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the Russian Federation set up to investigate causes and circumstances  of the 1991 coup attempt. The Commission published a report containing information from declassified KGB archives, including the infamous 4th Archive of the KGB’s 5th Division. It also released individual profiles of informants and agents employed by the State Security Ministry. Their precise identities, including names and religious titles, were then very easy to establish by cross-referencing church chronicle materials, such as records of foreign travel, meetings, hosting of delegations. The report identified several patriarchs disguised under code names of Drozdov, Svyatoslav, Adamant (Metropolitan Alexey, Metropolitan Nicodemus Rotov, Archbishop of Kaluga Clement respectively):

“The Commission would like to draw the attention of the ROC leadership to the unconstitutional use of church institutions through clergy recruitment and embedding of KGB agents by the Communist Party Central Committee and the KGB.”

It is precisely in this manner, through the Department of External Church Relations, special agents under the nicknames of Svyatoslav, Adamant, Mikhailov, Topaz, Nesterovich, Kuznetsov, Ognev, Yesaulenko traveled internationally and carried out tasks assigned by the KGB. The assignments descriptions underscore that the operations of this division were tightly coordinated by the state, overtime transforming  it into a covert unit of KGB agents in the midst of worshippers.

Agents infiltrated and operated inside international religious organizations where the Russian Orthodox Church held memberships, such as the World Council of Churches, the Christian Peace Conference, the Conference of European Churches, the Politburo of the CPSU Central Committee. KGB Director Yuri Andropov reported to Central Committee of the Communist Party that his agency was keeping the relations of the Russian Orthodox Church with the Vatican under control.

Since the collapse of the USSR, the Russian Church has been playing “ahead of the curve” by not only carrying out the state’s explicit directives, but also by attempting to intuit the intent of the Russian leadership and initiating political projects in line with its direction.

Between 2000-2008, Russia grew fixated on the newly independent former Soviet Republics, first and foremost among them being Ukraine. What has been  offered to Ukraine, in essence, amounts to the restoration of the Soviet Union – political subjugation in exchange for access to cheap energy and other economic benefits and trade preferences. This has become the new concept of statehood for Russia, and along certain directions, it has even demonstrated progress (i.e. the Russo-Belorussian Union). Simultaneously, there was a definite spike in the activity of the church in the arena of international affairs; and starting with 2010, when they came directly under the purview of the new Patriarch, such activities have undergone a significant shift from the course charted earlier. “Patriarch Kirill has been appointed the head of the Ministry for the Reintegration of Ukraine back into Russia” is a popular joke that nevertheless is not far from reality.

Throughout its entire existence, the Moscow Patriarchate  has served as a façade for intelligence operations— providing cover for spies and a platform for information gathering. Without a single exception, all of the employees of the Patriarchate sent to work abroad from the USSR had received special training and were assigned tasks to gather information and conduct covert intelligence work in the West. This work was generously funded by the Soviet State. Sadly, even the last decade of the XX century, the short period that promised Russians democracy and freedom didn’t fundamentally change that reality.  It’s fair to point out that during 1990s universal recruitment of clergy traveling abroad was not strictly enforced. Nonetheless, due to the fact that all of the key church figures were originally cultivated by Soviet special services, such liberalization was of no lasting consequence. All freedoms that sprung up inside the institution of the Russian Orthodox Church in the 90s, were swiftly rolled back in the first decade of XXI century.

The ROC MP recent move toward escalation of conflict with the Ecumenical Patriarchate over Ukraine’s bid for autocephaly establishes continuity in its policy.  By sabotaging Patriarch Bartholomew’s plans, the ROC MP attempted to establish an alternative center of power. Such developments were taking place against the backdrop of deteriorating relationships between Russia and Turkey, and therefore were fully consistent with the official position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia. By the time Russia and Turkey resolved to mend their ties, however, the hostile discourse pushed by the church had become a runaway train, heralding a major schism in the interchurch relations whose first public manifestations are becoming apparent today.

Without doubt, the Russian Orthodox Church can change its course and adopt an independent position, pursuing its own interests on the international arena. However, for this scenario to be realized, significant changes must take place throughout the entire structure and functions of the church in contemporary Russia. It would require, for example, a fundamental change of Russian laws. New laws must be adopted on the freedom of consciousness (with detailed clauses governing interactions of the state with religious organizations and explicitly prohibiting government agencies and organizations from using church structures to advance political agendas internationally). Provisions should be introduced setting up firm controls inside the church itself that would preclude church’s involvement in political projects and initiatives. Legislation should curb state financing of the church, and limit federal budget expenditures on religious initiatives, while also making such activities transparent and subject to public oversight and scrutiny.

In other words, change can be realized by establishing effective oversight of budgetary spending on the church and by strict enforcement of compliance with regulations explicitly banning intelligence agencies from using the church clergy in operative, intelligence and agency capacity. Such moves would, first and foremost, benefit the church itself. For example, having the ability to articulate and conduct an independent foreign policy, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church would be able to strike compromises and resolve numerous conflicts that have been plaguing it for decades (similar to that over the autocephaly bid by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.)

Today, having been forced into a position of a voiceless executor of state policies and decisions, the church does not possess any instruments or leverage for discussions, agreements, negotiations. Most international conflicts, after all, with interchurch relations not being an exception, are resolved through compromises, accords, articulation of acceptable outcomes for all parties involved. Today, the church is unable to make such offers, or use diplomacy. Carrying out the state mandate, the church is forced to reject all possible paths to compromise, affirm its exclusive and absolute righteousness (despite realizing the bankruptcy of such a position), and stall all substantial discussions along such directions. In contrast, during a very brief period when the state control over the church was loosened in Russia in the early 1990s, the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, in just half a year, managed to solve a long-standing crisis in relationship with the Constantinople Patriarchate regarding the status of the Orthodox Church in Estonia.  This illustrates how, under a different set of circumstances, the church can, in mere months, with its “hands free”, solve some of the most challenging and sensitive problems in church relations. This is why such changes are so needed and so critical for the Orthodox Church in Russia.

But even under the best-case scenario with such changes fully implemented, the church would likely become consumed for many years by efforts to sort out its internal political agenda, overcome inconsistencies and solve issued that have accumulated over the years. And only then, in the future far beyond our horizon of analysis, the church can embark on independent foreign policy, which will undoubtedly, benefit all of its members.

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