|The Cheshire Patriarch disappeared, leaving only the watch visible.|
For years, according to writer Michael Schwirtz, critics of Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) have known about a Breguet wristwatch he occasionally wears that’s worth a cool $30,000. It’s the only substantive evidence shown to prove that Kirill is wealthier than a churchman presumably dedicated to poverty ought to be:
Russian bloggers have published rumors that the patriarch has a large country house, a private yacht and a penchant for ski vacations in Switzerland, though none of this has been proved.The watch, on the other hand, has been an object of fascination for years, and there is little question of its existence. It was first sighted on the patriarch’s wrist in 2009 during a visit to Ukraine, where he gave a televised interview on the importance of asceticism [That, ladies and gentlemen, is irony].
The watch is merely a hook on which Schwirtz hangs a Church in Decline story. The watch had been airbrushed out of a photo on the ROC website. Schwirtz writes, “The controversy, which erupted Wednesday when attentive Russian bloggers discovered the airbrushing, further stoked anger over the church’s often lavish displays of wealth and power. It also struck yet another blow to the moral authority of Russian officialdom, which has been dwindling rapidly in light of recent scandals involving police abuse, electoral fraud and corruption.”
How does the ROC become lumped in with “Russian officialdom”? “Over the past decade, the church has grown immensely powerful, becoming so close to the Kremlin that it often seems like a branch of government. It has extended its influence into a broad range of public life, including schools, courts and politics. Patriarch Kirill publicly backed Vladimir V. Putin in last month’s presidential election.”
Watches, particularly those of the high-end Swiss variety, have been problematic for the Russian authorities. Many officials have come under fire after being photographed wearing timepieces with price tags far exceeding their annual salaries. Vladimir Resin, a former deputy mayor of Moscow, was once photographed wearing a DeWitt, the Pressy Grande Complication, reportedly worth more than $1 million.But the patriarch has presented himself as the country’s ethical compass, and has recently embarked on a vocal campaign of public morality, advocating Christian education in public schools and opposing abortion and equal rights for gay people. He called the girl punk band protest at the cathedral “sacrilege.”
We could say that Schwirtz’s story is a hit piece, except that it has too much truth in it to completely blow off. That the ROC is almost as much of a state church as it was prior to the Russian Revolution of 1917 is perhaps an exaggeration. Ironically, though, it was just such a union that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had hoped to achieve: a socialist caesaropapism in which Danilov Monastery was simply a wing of the Kremlin.
Even today, eighty-five years after the Metropolitan Sergei declared Soviet authority over the Church to be legitimate, five years after the restoration of communion between the ROC and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), it’s a matter of tense debate whether any patriarch between Sergei (elected in 1943) and Kirill (enthroned in 2009) held that position of right. For an illegitimate Church, the ROC suffered quite a bit under successive régimes. However, as in any totalitarian state, the KGB was able to recruit clergy as informants and moles, and later to further infiltrate the hierarchy in order to subvert what hadn’t been repressed.
The Church draft [i.e., the internal recruitment of KGB officers to become priests] was a result of the KGB’s penetration of the Soviet Orthodox Church. It had started years before, with the KGB originally recruiting agents and informants from among the Soviet clergy. The program had developed [by 1979] to the point at which full-time KGB officers were placed in critical Church positions immediately after graduating from the Church’s university, the Spiritual Academy in historic Zagorsk, and were guaranteed an amazing career in the Church. Although all legitimate candidates for the clergy had to pass rigorous entrance exams, the KGB had its own entry quota for the Spiritual Academy.
Asked about the KGB connections, Fr. Vsevold Chaplin, who is a senior priest of the hierarchy and a common spokesman for the ROC, has called the claim of “specially planted KGB workers” a “myth”. But Sergei Kovalyov, a Soviet-era dissident who spent time in a gulag, directly accused in 2007, “Our patriarch [Alexei II] and our president have the same background. They are from the same firm — the KGB.” And this was backed up by research done by the Keston News Service in 2007 as well.
The near symbiosis of the Russian government and the Orthodox Church is an historical irony, considering that those who set out to achieve it did so in the name of a revolution that was itself overthrown. The irony is deepened when we consider that the cynics who set the subversion in motion were themselves atheist in the main; the current relationship is much closer to theocracy in spirit than is the influence of Christian churches on American voters, despite the claims of certain radical secularists.
Nevertheless, the ROC’s difficulties with the Russian press and in the Russian blogosphere are instructional for those who wish the Catholic Church in the US to have a closer relationship with the government. Such relationships are almost always corrosive and corruptive, and the side not carrying the swords usually gets the worse of the bargain. Both the Church in the US and the ROC have a ways to go to regain their spiritual and moral authority.
But at least the Church in America doesn’t have to shake off the dead hand of Feliks Dzerzhinsky.
 Sheymov, Ivan (1993). Tower of Secrets. New York: HarperPaperbacks; p. 239. Sheymov was a KGB major who defected to the US in 1980.
 Higgins, Andrew (2007, December 18). Putin and Orthodox Church Cement Power in Russia. Retrieved April 7, 2012 from Wall Street Journal Online: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB119792074745834591.html?mod=hpp_us_inside_today.
 Corley, Felix (2007, September 22). Confirmed: Russian Patriarch Worked with KGB. Retrieved April 7, 2012 from CatholicCulture.org: http://www.catholicculture.org/news/features/index.cfm?recnum=13868.