Staunton, November 19 – Vladimir Putin, furious at Patriarch Kirill for failing to stop autocephaly in Ukraine and also for not transforming the Moscow Patriarchate into an absolutely subservient and effective ideological arm of the Kremlin, has sent a clear signal that Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov) is his man in the Russian Church.
But it has also set the stage for more serious conflicts within the Moscow Patriarchate, with some lining up against Kirill for exactly the same reasons Putin is upset about him and others calling attention to Tikhon’s shortcomings as an Orthodox leader. Many are already saying he may be a great Russian “neo-con,” but he’s not knowledgeable enough to be patriarch.
Shevkunov, long rumored to be Putin’s favorite among church leaders even though both men have been careful in the past not to make too much of that, this week received a clear confirmation that he is precisely that when Putin visited the Pskov-Pechora monastery two days ago for the first time in 18 years ( ).
That is all the more so because Tikhon’s assignment to Pskov has been widely viewed as a kind of exile from Moscow orchestrated by Patriarch Kirill. With Putin’s visit, the metropolitan is likely to find it even easier to continue his work in Moscow and even set the stage for his ultimate election as patriarch in the future.
And that future may not be as far distant as many imagine. There are many ways Kirill could be forced out and Tikhon’s installation arranged, all the more so because with the loss of the bishoprics in Ukraine which have long been Kirill’s power base – he created most of these and named their heads – Tikhon will find it easier to gain a majority.
Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, the former head of the Synod’s department for church-society relations, says that he doesn’t think Putin’s visit is something out of the ordinary but rather only an effort by the Kremlin leader to show that Tikhon must not be pushed too far from the center because he is Putin’s friend ( ).
“I don’t exclude,” Chaplin says, “that the present decided to support Tikhon” given the criticism he has been subject to recently “because this is a man of conservative convictions and charismatic.” And it is also possible, the archpriest says, that Putin may also want to make Pskov an alternative pilgrimage site given that Russians cannot easily go to Mount Athos.
Putin may like him but making him patriarch is a stretch, the archpriest says. Shevkunov was trained as a cinematographer and is good at presenting simple messages to the masses, but he is not someone with the kind of theological understanding that most Orthodox leaders expect in a patriarch.
If a patriarchal election were to take place in the near future, Chaplin says, “other people would receive many more votes,” even with Putin tilting the scales in the direction of Tikhon, including Metropolitan Varsonofy, the administrator for the Moscow Patriarchate, and Metropolitan Onufry of Kyiv.
Other expers make similar arguments, but they agree that thanks to Putin, “Tikhon represents an alternative to ‘the state corporation of the ROC of Kirill,’ an accessible, simple and understandable faith” which may fit better with Putin and others who know relatively little about Orthodoxy besides its role as a national and imperial church ( ).
“Perhaps,” they say, “in the Orthodoxy of Tikhon there is too little orthodoxy for him ever to be ‘the patriarch of the clergy,’ but his close and understandable approach is clearly sufficient for him to become ‘the people’s patriarch,’” especially if Putin is behind him. And that is a serious challenge to Kirill and his already embattled church.