1. Mount Athos
On a chilly day in February, a small group of Ukrainian monks approached a monastery on Mount Athos, the remote peninsula in north-eastern Greece that is one of Orthodox Christianity’s holiest sites.
For more than a thousand years, monks here have spent eight hours a day in prayer and study. Women and meat are banned from the entire peninsula, clocks run on Byzantine hours, and using the internet requires the blessing of an abbot to ensure the faithful stay focused on sacred matters.
A thousand male pilgrims are granted entry visas to Athos every day, arriving by boat to tour the 20 monasteries on its coastline, attend services, pray and receive blessings.
Yet when the Ukrainians reached St Panteleimon, a gleaming monastery particularly beloved of Russian and Ukrainian pilgrims, the abbot shut the gates in their face, telling them they were not welcome.
It was the painful manifestation of a split that had been announced four months earlier. In October 2018, the man considered by most to be the Orthodox church’s highest authority, 79-year-old Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, said he would give the Ukrainian church a tomos, or holy scroll, granting it independence from the Russian Orthodox church for the first time since 1686.
In response, the Russian church severed ties with Constantinople, creating one of the biggest rifts in Christianity since the Great Schism of 1054, when the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches divided.
Far from being an arcane squabble over centuries-old church doctrine, Patriarch Bartholomew’s decision had geopolitical significance. The fallout has affected the lives of priests and politicians, of ordinary worshippers and oligarchs.
But most importantly, it was a blow to Vladimir Putin, for whom the Russian Orthodox church had come to symbolise Moscow’s sphere of influence in its near abroad. While Ukraine hailed the tomos as “an event no less substantial than our goals to join the EU and Nato”, Putin convened his security council in the middle of the night to discuss a response.
Russia and Ukraine both trace their history to medieval Rus in Kiev, where Vladimir the Great baptised his subjects into Orthodoxy en masse in 988AD. Today, there are about 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world. Russia, which accounts for a third of those followers, has long been the largest and most powerful group within the faith’s 14 jurisdictions.
That pre-eminence — which prompted some theologians in pre-tsarist Russia to call Moscow the “Third Rome” — made it a pillar of the Russian empire, a status Putin has drawn on in building his modern state.
Since he came to power 20 years ago, Russian Orthodoxy has risen in status: tens of thousands of churches have been built; oligarchs have sponsored church charities; and Putin has regularly — and publicly — sought the advice of church elders in matters spiritual and profane.
He has used religion to highlight divisions between Russia and the supposedly amoral west, and to elevate the idea of the “Russian world”, a sort of spiritual dominion bringing together Russian-speaking former Soviet citizens, that has been promoted by the church and the state.
But Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and five years of war on the eastern border turned public opinion in Ukraine firmly against Moscow. The Russian church’s closeness to Putin meant its own reputation suffered as a result of the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy.
The Russian Orthodox church declined to make senior priests available for interview. But people close to the church — who were among several dozen priests, oligarchs, theologians and officials the FT spoke to in Russia, Ukraine and Greece — say Putin’s incursion into Ukraine caused a rift between the Kremlin and the church. They add that the schism with Constantinople may have made it irreparable.
“Why would you summon the security council over a church in a neighbouring country? It shows Ukraine that Russia is interfering,” says Evgeny Nikiforov, head of Radio Radonezh, a state-funded Orthodox station in Moscow. Still, losing what remains of a former imperial dominion is like having a “phantom limb”, he adds. “Ukraine is so much a part of Russia that people don’t understand how to live without it.”
Outwardly, Putin and the head of the Russian church, Patriarch Kirill, have presented a united front. In late January, sweeping orchestral music played as the two men entered the Kremlin’s main concert hall for a celebration of Kirill’s first decade at the head of the Russian church.
Kirill, in black robes and a gold-embroidered white headdress adorned with a cross, thanked God and “especially you, Vladimir Vladimirovich […] for this dialogue between church and state” during his time as patriarch. “I would even dare say that church and state have such relations for the first time in all the history of Russia . . . Even in the times of the Russian empire, the church did not have an equal partner in the face of the government.”
The phrase “equal partner” highlighted the extraordinary way in which the church has regained some of its historic authority as one of the “three pillars” of tsarism under Putin’s rule, after suffering persecution and interference for much of the 20th century.
In the years following the Russian revolution of 1917, the communist government destroyed churches, executed priests and seized land in its attempts to erase religion. By 1946, when Kirill was born Vladimir Gundyaev in Leningrad, Stalin had adopted a new policy of allowing the church to play a limited role in public life in return for political support.
Kirill finished studying theology in 1970, by which point the church was proving useful to the state in another way: KGB files from the time reveal large-scale infiltration of the Moscow patriarchate, with some priests acting as spies. Kirill quickly rose through the church’s external relations department, which allowed him to make frequent trips abroad.
When the USSR finally collapsed in 1991, the well-travelled Kirill could use his connections to help rebuild the church financially. Meanwhile, some agents of the now-disbanded KGB — which Putin had joined in 1975 — found themselves working odd security jobs to make ends meet.
Vladimir Yakunin, one of a number of KGB veterans who befriended Putin in St Petersburg in the 1990s, when the latter was cutting his teeth in local politics, says that the church became an unlikely haven for former communists. “Even in rejecting religious faith, communists created a different, ideologised faith — a faith in the bright future of communism. And suddenly, it turned out that the only social institution where they could find sympathy and support, as paradoxical as it sounds, was in church.”
The church’s former oppressors soon found themselves improbable figures in a religious revival. It helped that many KGB officers knew the church’s leadership from their time running them as agents. Yakunin says that he first came across Alexiy, Kirill’s predecessor as Russian patriarch, through a close friend who knew him from his time heading the KGB’s Leningrad directorate.
As Putin climbed the rungs of power in the 1990s, more and more people in his inner circle took to religion. Perhaps the most devout was Konstantin Goloshchapov, a massage therapist who became close to Putin and his friends through Leningrad judo events, then later introduced some of them to priests offering spiritual advice. “He’s a very spiritual person. He helps people find the road to truth,” says Igor Divinsky, a Russian MP and close friend of Goloshchapov.
After the fall of communism, Goloshchapov co-founded SMP Bank — still a top-20 lender in Russia despite US sanctions against it over Ukraine — with Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s childhood judo sparring partner. He later reportedly played a role in determining numerous early administrative appointments in the Kremlin.
At some point in the 1990s, Putin became close to Father Tikhon Shevkunov, who ran a monastery down the street from the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the FSB, Russia’s intelligence service, that was frequented by its top brass.
Neither Putin nor Shevkunov have confirmed persistent rumours that the monk brought him into the Orthodox faith when Putin ran the FSB, and became his confessor, though Shevkunov once told a newspaper that Putin “makes confession, takes communion and understands his responsibility before God for the high service entrusted to him and for his immortal soul”. The monk has accompanied Putin on several foreign trips during his presidency, while Kremlin-run firms fund his charities and educational projects.
The power and the patriarchy
Bartholomew of Constantinople, 79
From a tiny Greek enclave in Istanbul, he is considered the ‘first among equals’ of the Orthodox church. Gave autonomy to the church in Ukraine
Kirill of Moscow, 72
Helped rebuild the Russian church after the USSR’s collapse. His patriarchy has seen Kremlin support for Orthodoxy surge; he once said Putin’s rule was ‘a miracle from God’
Filaret of Kiev, 90
Broke with Constantinople and Moscow to set up his own church in Kiev in 1992 – but refused to step down as patriarch when Ukraine finally received a tomos in 2019
Father Ephraim, 63
Rebuilt the Vatopedi monastery with support from the EU and Russian oligarchs. Then fell foul of both, went to jail before being acquitted – and lost his Russian followers by accepting Ukraine’s new church
Filaret protégé made head of the new Ukrainian church as a compromise candidate. Once referred to parts of Ukraine still loyal to the Moscow patriarchate as ‘Putin’s last outpost’
After Putin came to power in 1999, many of his close confidants were part of an Orthodox elite that would exert significant influence over Russian politics. Former KGB agents now in charge of state companies began to donate their new-found wealth to church causes: Yakunin, while head of Russian Railways, helped to bring holy relics from Athos to Moscow and ferried the Eternal Flame from Jerusalem each year in special canisters bought from Nasa.
One Leningrad contemporary recalls visiting Igor Divinsky, the Russian MP, at Gazprom, the gas monopoly where Divinsky was a senior executive in the 2000s, and seeing priests roaming the corridors. “He was a good guy. But he’d gone nuts. He’d grown this huge beard and there were icons everywhere,” the contemporary says.
Divinsky, whose office today is adorned with Orthodox icons, Gazprom plaques and a model of a gas-flare stack, plays down the influence of Putin’s religious entourage on the Kremlin, while pointing to the church’s redemptive message.
“There are so many people surrounding Putin. Every soul is important,” he says. “You start to think about your soul and what man’s place in the world is . . . Charity is one of the 10 commandments to rid yourself of sin. The holy sun won’t always warm you, so helping the church is the easiest thing.”
Under President Putin, Kremlin mandarins, security service officials and oligarchs alike turned to priests for spiritual advice. The church courted them by soliciting donations and even adjusting church doctrine, particularly after Kirill became patriarch in 2009. The state’s military ambitions took on sacred overtones.
Fyodor Ushakov, a legendary 18th-century admiral, was canonised in 2000, then made patron saint of Russia’s strategic nuclear bomber fleet. In 2015, Kirill and the head of the FSB laid the cornerstone of a new church in Ushakov’s honour to “pray for state security agents who died serving their motherland”.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin adopted a law that gave the church the right to reclaim its pre-revolutionary property from the state and sponsored a programme to build hundreds of new churches.
When Putin announced a third run for president at the end of 2011, conservative Orthodox ideology gave him a deep well of rhetoric from which to attack western governments, which he was convinced had organised huge street protests against him. A month before the election, Kirill said publicly that Putin’s rule was a “miracle from God”.
Kirill’s railing against the corrupting force of social liberalism on Russian values heavily influenced Putin’s subsequent turn towards what he called “spiritual bonds”. After the punk group Pussy Riot protested against Kirill’s endorsement of Putin by performing in a Moscow cathedral in 2012, three of the women were arrested and jailed. A new law was introduced that criminalised “insulting religious believers”.
The first member of Putin’s entourage to visit Athos was Goloshchapov, who returned spellbound after a trip in 1998, according to friends. Others began to follow suit. Putin made his first visit to the peninsula in 2005, where he attended services at St Panteleimon and climbed the monastery’s bell tower.
Goloshchapov, Divinsky and Georgy Poltavchenko — another Putin confidant from the Leningrad KGB — set up the Russian Athos Society to co-ordinate financial support for the monasteries a year later.
High-end tourism to Athos boomed. Some pilgrimage agencies began to specialise in VIP tours for Russian officials and state-run company executives, complete with luxury cells, helicopter flights from Thessaloniki, speedboats to the monasteries and one-on-one meetings with the elders.
Despite the Russian Athos Society’s support of St Panteleimon — and the fact it was one of the few monasteries not solely subservient to Constantinople — many oligarchs were wary of the monastery, which was then run by a Ukrainian abbot and heavily populated by Ukrainian monks.
Instead, the main beneficiary of Russia’s largesse was a monastery called Vatopedi. It had been taken over by an abbot called Father Ephraim in the 1980s in a state of near-collapse. Ephraim turned it into something more akin to a bucolic boarding-school campus, complete with manicured lawns, olive groves, a fish farm and high-end medical equipment for the elderly monks.
More and more prominent Russians visited Vatopedi to receive Ephraim’s blessing and advice. “He has the gift of foresight,” a regular Russian visitor says of the abbot. “I saw an oligarch prostrate himself before him in a puddle.”
The visitor adds that the monastery’s services are “like seeing God for the first time. You wind up in a world where the soul radiates.” He recalls one trip accompanying a “first-wave FSB general”, who suddenly “started crying and crossing himself — it was like a cloud had enveloped him”.
In 2011, Yakunin paid for Ephraim to bring a holy relic said to be the Virgin Mary’s belt for a tour across Russia, the first time it had left Athos in more than 300 years. Putin kissed it in Moscow’s main cathedral as crowds lined up for hours outside.
The belt travelled as far as Norilsk in the Siberian Arctic and Vladivostok on the Pacific coast before returning to Greece. On his return, Greek police arrested Ephraim and charged him with embezzling millions of euros in fraudulent land swaps with the government. After a public outcry led by the Kremlin, the monk was released and eventually acquitted in 2017.
“He brought the Holy Mother’s belt here and it healed a huge number of people. Tens of thousands travelled to see it. He physically saved hundreds of people. And that’s why they arrested him,” says the regular Russian visitor. “Heads of state come to see him, people send private planes so he can touch people and heal them.”
In the summer of 2013, Kirill travelled from Moscow to Kiev in an armoured train, ferrying a three-metre-high cross on which St Andrew is said to have died in 62AD. Yakunin had brought the cross from Greece to celebrate the 1,025th anniversary of the baptism of Rus. Putin travelled to the Ukrainian capital to pray alongside Kirill in the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra, the monastery topped with spectacular golden domes that is Russian Orthodoxy’s holiest site.
In a meeting with Ukrainian church leaders, Putin talked of the importance of the “Russian-Ukrainian friendship” that had survived many centuries of trials and tragedies. “We built and protected our common Fatherland, Great Rus, maintaining our faith, our unique historical experience and our destiny. This is due largely to the entire Russian Orthodox church.”
To some observers, Putin seemed to be positioning himself as a modern-day Holy Roman emperor, whose spiritual authority could stand in for the USSR’s lost domain over its former periphery.
“The idea was: the [Soviet] state collapsed, we think it was a geopolitical catastrophe, but look, the church is still there,” says Sergei Chapnin, a former editor of the Moscow patriarchate’s magazine, who was fired in 2015 for criticising the church’s leadership. “That’s why the patriarch here in Moscow isn’t just the patriarch in Russia, but […] the whole post-Soviet space as well. And, obviously, this meant a lot to the Kremlin.”
The Kiev trip was part of an attempt to dissuade Ukraine’s then president Viktor Yanukovych from deepening the country’s ties with the EU. On a visit to Moldova later that same year, Kirill urged the former Soviet nation to reject a similar EU agreement on the grounds that “religion is simply disappearing” in the west.
But Ukraine and its church were already restive. In 1992, the Russian church’s bishop in Kiev, a priest called Filaret, had set up his own breakaway church after losing the election to become patriarch of Moscow.
Bartholomew refused to recognise the new church and excommunicated Filaret, who lost control of the Lavra. Moscow-loyal parishes still outnumbered the new Kiev patriarchate by a factor of three to one, but by creating a rival Ukrainian Orthodox church, the seed of a threat to Moscow’s power had been sown.
In November 2013, Yanukovych backed out of the deal with the EU at the last minute, seemingly handing Putin a victory. In response, protesters set up an encampment on Kiev’s central square, the Maidan. When riot police attacked them several days later, some of the protesters took refuge inside St Michael’s, a cathedral run by Filaret.
The violence galvanised the movement against Yanukovych and made Filaret one of its most prominent supporters. When, weeks later, riot police tried to clear out a much larger encampment on the Maidan in the dead of night with bulldozers, Filaret’s churches rang bells to alert protesters to the danger.
The Maidan movement put Filaret and Kirill on opposite sides of the barricades. Though the Russian church’s Ukrainian branch operated largely independently from Moscow, its leadership was seen by ordinary Ukrainians as being close to Yanukovych and supportive of Russian interests.
The Ukrainian press frequently wrote stories about Pavel, the Lavra’s Moscow-backed abbot, highlighting his fleet of expensive cars, lavish parties and state-funded businesses, which eventually became the subject of a criminal investigation. The monk, who was not charged in the case, frequently cursed his enemies and claimed in an interview this year that at least four of them died as a result.
“The Lord says that if you do not repent, you shall perish,” Pavel told the FT. “If anyone accuses me that I said this and they died, then it’s a good thing that you’re scared of me. I have nothing to be afraid of. It’s not me doing it. It means God is shortening your life.”
Oleksandr Drabinko, a rebel priest who joined the church created by the tomos, claims Russia was using its Orthodox churches in Ukraine to influence policy. “They were using priests and the faithful as an electoral base. There’s a Russian church, so if you’re Orthodox, you have to support our Orthodox president Yanukovych,” Drabinko says. “They told us we can’t have any integration [with the EU], we should support Mother Russia.”
Kirill thought his status as post-Soviet patriarch would earn him a key role of peacemaker, according to people close to the church. But when Russia annexed Crimea in February 2014, a rift opened between Kirill’s and Putin’s conceptions of the “Russian world”. Keenly aware that Putin’s actions severely undermined his authority in Ukraine, Kirill refused to absorb Crimea’s parishes and boycotted a ceremony in the Kremlin to celebrate Russia’s annexation.
Later that year, Putin underscored the rift by declaring that the Crimean town of Khersones — where Vladimir the Great, the first Christian ruler of Rus, was baptised in 988AD — was “Russia’s Temple Mount”.
The notion has no grounding in Orthodox theology and, by implication, undermines the primacy of Kiev and the Lavra. According to Roman Lunkin, a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, it was an attempt to justify the annexation by presenting Putin as the protector of all Russian-speaking people.
The growing divide between Ukraine and Russia was underscored by the war with Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine shortly afterwards, where more than 13,000 have died. Filaret backed Ukraine’s offensive, saying the local population “must pay for their guilt [in rejecting Kiev’s authority] through suffering and blood”. Rebels in Donetsk, meanwhile, enjoyed support from Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian oligarch and prominent member of Moscow’s Orthodox elite.
After Yanukovych was ousted as Ukrainian president, his successor, the pro-western oligarch Petro Poroshenko, signed the EU deal in 2014. Ukraine argued that the church was Russia’s major remaining avenue of influence. “It was a security issue. Russia was the one interfering, and their priests would refuse to bury Ukrainian soldiers,” or deny them communion, a person close to Poroshenko told the FT.
4. The ‘tomos’
In June 2016, Orthodox church leaders were due to attend a historic meeting in Crete to demonstrate unity across their jurisdictions. The event had been 55 years in the making; the last such gathering happened in 787AD, and it was a project close to Patriarch Bartholomew’s heart. At the last minute, the Russian church announced that Kirill would not attend. Though the reasons for the snub remain obscure, Bartholomew would not forget it.
Filaret’s poor relationship with Patriarch Bartholomew had ruined earlier pleas to recognise his church: he even made a furtive attempt to reconcile with Moscow as late as 2017, though Kirill doubted his intentions were genuine. But from 2018 onwards, events began to swing in Filaret’s favour. Poroshenko, after four years in power, was polling single digits.
He seized on the possibility of a tomos as a key plank of his upcoming re-election campaign and duly joined Filaret’s church, despite having received a blessing from Pavel at his inauguration. In dozens of villages across Ukraine, villagers seized their local churches over the summer and installed priests loyal to Filaret.
In August last year, Kirill visited Istanbul himself, confident that he could avert a crisis and that Bartholomew would not readmit the Ukrainian schismatics he had himself excommunicated. To Kirill’s shock, Bartholomew told him he had already decided to give Ukraine a tomos.
According to a leaked transcript of their meeting, Bartholomew said the war had effectively ended Kirill’s ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Ukraine, and accused the Russian church of trying to undermine Constantinople’s authority.
Bartholomew signed an agreement with Poroshenko with one further condition: convince Filaret to step down, disband his church and set up a new one under an archbishop answerable to Constantinople. But when Ukrainian bishops convened in December to elect the new archbishop, Filaret arrived and demanded to know why he wasn’t a candidate, say people close to the new church.
After four hours of furious discussion — during which Poroshenko intervened to talk Filaret down — they settled on Filaret’s private secretary Epifany as a compromise candidate. To pacify Filaret, the nearly 90-year-old was made honorary patriarch of the new church and promised he could soon return to the Lavra. The Ukrainian government began encouraging parishes across the country to embrace their new leaders.
Drabinko was one of two bishops who left the Moscow-backed church for the new one under Constantinople. He has bid farewell to the grandeur of the Lavra for a newly built church on Kiev’s southern outskirts.
Inside, he has built a small museum dedicated to Vladimir, the late head of the Moscow-backed Ukrainian church, complete with his robes, priestly paraphernalia and an exact replica of his study which Drabinko now uses as an office. He says he expects more priests to join him “later, when their psychology changes”.
In the Lavra, Pavel, the Russian-backed abbot, began a state of siege that is still ongoing. “They can’t kick us out. This is our home,” he told the FT. “We have always been here for a thousand years of Kievan Rus, and always will be.” Pavel sent text messages to the two defector bishops condemning them for joining the new church. “I asked Drabinko how the blessed [archbishop Vladimir], who never ran away and never switched sides in the most difficult of times, can lie in his grave now. He didn’t reply,” Pavel recalled.
5. A divided church
In the end, the tomos did little for Poroshenko. In April this year, the comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won 73 per cent of the Ukrainian vote. But the damage to Russia’s influence had been done.
Theologians and Kremlinologists alike believe that Putin and the Russian church had for some time hoped to promote its ecclesiastical authority at the expense of Constantinople’s as part of a broader attempt to build out the Russian sphere of influence.
But the impact of the rift may have been to undermine the Orthodox church itself, forcing all its jurisdictions into the uncomfortable position of choosing between loyalty to Russia or to Constantinople.
In January, Bartholomew asked Ephraim, the abbot at Vatopedi and confessor to many prominent Russians, to attend Epifany’s inauguration as head of the new Ukrainian church in Kiev. The request put him in a bind: either offend the Russian church by legitimising the new Ukrainian archbishop, or directly disobey Constantinople and risk losing his job.
After consulting several elder monks, Ephraim made the journey to Kiev, but was felled by a heart attack before he could attend the ceremony. His supporters took this as a sign from God. He was flown to Geneva on a private jet to recover before returning to Athos.
On the Greek peninsula, the Ukrainian monks who had been barred from St Panteleimon received different treatment at Vatopedi: Ephraim welcomed them, and allowed them to kiss the monastery’s holy relics. Seven Russian-speaking monks quit Vatopedi in protest.
“The devil is working hard to divide us, and he works particularly hard against us on the Holy Mountain,” says Father Matthew, an American monk at Vatopedi. “There is great pain spiritually. People are being separated from Christ.”
In Ukraine, the schism devoured itself. After Zelensky took office, Filaret refused to dissolve his church and give up his status as honorary patriarch. He then held another holy synod to reject the tomos, claiming that he had not known what accepting it would entail when he voted for it. But when Filaret invited his former charges to pray alongside him on an important saint’s day, only four bishops showed up.
No other Orthodox churches have recognised Epifany’s authority. Some close to Russia, including the Serbian and Cypriot churches, have publicly refused to do so. But the schism between Moscow and Constantinople remains. “This could drag on for decades,” says Roman Lunkin, the theologian.
Within Russia, it has also changed the relationship between Putin and Kirill. Last year, Kirill abruptly reassigned Shevkunov, Putin’s reputed confessor, to the crumbling backwater parish of Pskov with a day’s notice. The monk felt “crushed” by the decision, according to a friend, and held a last-minute night-time farewell service. Months later, however, Putin made an unannounced visit to Pskov — a clear show of support for the monk in semi-exile.
In May this year, thousands clashed with police in Ekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth-largest city, over plans by two oligarchs to build a new church on the site of a popular park. Kirill personally lobbied Putin to push the construction through.
But the church’s rhetoric about “traditional values” seemed to have lost its use to Putin, who is facing his lowest approval ratings in well over a decade as poor living standards have wiped out the euphoria from Crimea. In a rare concession to the protesters, he ordered a halt to the plans. The church had to abandon the project.
“The state starts treating the church differently, because if the Russian church is collapsing, if some Greeks and the local president could pull this [the tomos] off, then what’s the good of the church?” Chapnin says. “The Kremlin has seen how weak the patriarch is.”
Max Seddon is the FT’s Moscow correspondent
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