The Head of the Russian Church Has Enormous Power - The West Has Nothing Similar

Few in the West understand the extraordinary role the Patriarch, and the Patriarchate as an organization, plays in Russian religion, politics and society. In a way, it is similar to that of the Pope, in the sense that the Patriarchate is almost like a state within a state. In Russia's case, a large state within a large state. Its vast holdings and institutional heft make Christian attitudes present in Russian life in a way that has no comparison in the West.


The Patriarchate manages a sprawling administrative and economic enterprise, complete with banks and factories. It owns most of the ecclesiastic properties in Russia - over 800 monasteries, farmland, woodlands, and over 35,000 churches and cathedrals, some of them all over the world. It has a kind of government - a minister of finance, a "foreign minister", and public spokesman who is something of a celebrity in his own right. It has large press departments, book publishing houses, and a major mainstream Christian TV channel, one of several large Christian TV channels in the country.

Beneath them is a host of various committees mostly staffed by monks and priests. A committee for the family, for culture, for monasteries, for the armed forces, for relations with youth, for missionary work, for prison pastoring, and much more. All of these organizations have offices and staff. The church has its own academic world - seminaries, institutes, libraries, research centers and museums. The Patriarch has his own plane, train, and palatial residences and halls for public functions. He is ferried to and from in a limousine, often with an accompanying cortege, including security typical of a head of state.


To get a sense of this extraordinary activity, head over to an excellent photo site maintained by the Patriarchate's press department. The quality of the photography gives National Geographic a run for their money.

All this differs from the role of the Pope in that the Pope serves the entire Catholic world, whereas the Patriarch is mostly focused on Russia and Belarus, and in friendlier times, Ukraine. For this reason, there is no equivalent in Western countries, in Germany, France or England, much less even the US, with their competing confessions, as opposed to the dominance of Orthodoxy in Russia.


Another difference with the Papacy is that the church works in close harmony with the government. Whereas the concept of "separation of church and state" has become the standard in the Western democracies, Russia has revived the Orthodox idea of "symphony", i.e. close cooperation, as practiced in the Byzantine Empire. Thus, when it wants to make a diplomatic point, the government can send the Patriarch on a diplomatic mission, or the Patriarch can raise political themes in his public pronouncements and sermons. What it comes down to is that the Russian church is an important and influential partner of the government, but not directly controlled by it.

In reality, the Patriarch has more power than most ministers and governors. To begin with, the President can neither nominate, appoint, nor fire a Patriarch, whereas in Russia, both ministers and governors serve at the pleasure of the President. Even the President has to consider the wishes of the Patriarch, because publicly disagreeing with him could be politically lethal. The Patriarch operates at the very top of Russian political power, often in a ceremonial function, and is imbued with the respect society has for religious authority.


In the Orthodox churches, monks have to be celibate (whereas parish priests are required to be married - in contrast to Catholic priests), and only monks can rise to senior administrative positions in the Patriarchate. Therefore the Patriarch can devote himself fully to his office, without family distractions.

The current Patriarch, Kirill, despite his relatively advanced age of 75, maintains a grueling schedule similar to a head of state. Like the Pope, he travels incessantly, and his interactions with heads of state and representative of churches in other countries inevitably have diplomatic consequences, which are coordinated with the Russian government.

Kirill stands out from previous Russian patriarchs in terms of how much work he is able to shoulder. It is quite unusual, and he is renowned for his seemingly inexhaustible energy.


The first media-savvy Russian patriarch, he is constantly surrounded by a scrum of in-house media people, photographers, videographers, and journalists, in addition to non-church media. Every sermon he makes is immediately transcribed and published on the Patriarchate website, as are many of his other public speeches and statements.

Judging from media about him, his life is a non-stop whirl of serving long services (typically 2.5 hours), giving press conferences, criss-crossing the vast Russian lands, consecrating new buildings, churches, and cathedrals, meeting with VIPs, chairing working meetings concerning Patriarchate business, headlining conferences, attending parades and concerts, giving speeches, addressing the Russian parliament, and giving one-on-one interviews to the media. In almost every service he serves he gives a sermon, typically about 20 minutes long, which are all professionally filmed and broadcast on YouTube and other social media platforms, captioned into dozens of languages, and often on mainstream TV. He seems to be able to speak extemporaneously on a vast array of subjects. He typically serves at 2-3 services per week.

He is a permanent presence in the Russian public eye and an important part of Russian state life. Because of the pomp and ceremony of much of Orthodox pageantry, his role often adds color and glamour to the usual blue and grey suits. At public functions he stands out in his white head garb topped by a gleaming gold cross, and flowing robes.

One result of this institutionalization of the church in Russia is that Christian culture is felt much more strongly in public life. Is a new law being discussed? - the Church might well weigh in if it concerns social, family, and moral issues, able to provide expert input from it's army of black-robed functionaries. A military parade on Red Square? - the Patriarch is usually there in a place of honor, covered by the cameras. The latest political sensation of the week? - it is actively discussed on the Church's TV channel, which by the way, is very popular.


A promotion for Spas's popular morning show, co-hosted by a priest with a good sense of humor.

In fact, the channel, called "Spas" (Savior) is a good microcosm of how this sheer institutional heft brings Christian culture into the public sphere in a way that does not exist in the West, where religion is very much the province of private activity. Because of its funding and resources, Spas is able to churn out content of a far higher quality than one will find in Western Christian broadcasting. Beautifully made documentary films show the glory of all aspects of Russian Christianity. Superbly educated professors from Church academia give commentary on every aspect of religious life. Multiple large TV studios inherited from the Soviet era provide professional visuals for a whole range of shows. Show hosts are genuine celebrities, attracting excellent talent. High-profile political and public figures gladly come on shows to discuss daily events from a Christian perspective. Leading celebrities from secular life host shows. The most charismatic and telegenic priests and monks from the entire country are eagerly anticipated guests on talk shows, and often become celebrities in their own right. The pomp and ceremony of the elaborate Russian services and choirs are professionally captured by skilled cameramen and video editors. The end result is that Christian broadcasting in Russia is on an entirely different order of magnitude than in the West, both in terms of quantity and quality. Because of this, it can hold its own in competing for viewers, and Spas is routinely one of the most popular channels in the country.

This phenomenon is repeated in all areas of Russian life, which has an outward perception of being much more Christian than in the West. Atop this whole colossus presides the Patriarch. There is nothing in the West like it.