Many Westerners know little about the new Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Father Kirill. Many Russians know him as a great orator and a host of a weekly TV show "Pastor's Word." However, very few know that Kirill (Vladimir Gundyaev by passport), a billionaire and a former KGB operative, made his fortune in tobacco, alcohol, and oil sales. His activities were among the main reasons why not-for-profits in Russia lost tax-deductible status. The new Orthodox leader is fond of playing with stocks, car racing, downhill skiing, and breeding exclusive kinds of dogs. He owns villas in Switzerland and a penthouse with a view of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.
After Patriarch Aleksiy II died, the Orthodox Synode, made up of spiritual, business, and social leaders, took up the evening news and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior to elect a new leader. After Mitropolits Filaret and Kliment withdrew their candidacies, Kirill won the position. When it became too obvious that Aleksiy was at the end of his life, Mitropolit Mephody, who had been considered the strongest candidate for the Patriarch's post, was sent to lead the Orthodox Church in Kazakhstan. Maybe just a coincidence, but rumors and articles in local newspapers suggested a different scenario. I heard all the stories from friends while witnessing the historic events in Moscow. Later, I took time to research whether or not they were true.
Kirill graduated with honors from Leningrad Spiritual Academy in 1969. In 1970, he earned his master's degree, and after several minor positions was appointed a personal secretary to Mitropolit Nikodim, chief of the external church relations. Since that moment, Kirill became the face of the Orthodox Church in all foreign trips to Western Europe. According to vlasti.net website, Kirill's colleagues and competitors linked all his travels to his work for the Soviet KGB where he was known by nickname "Mikhailov." Starting in 1972, Kirill/Gundyaev/Mikhailov became more involved with the countries of the Middle East. In 1975, at a forum in Nairobi, he defended the Soviet Union and downplayed dissidents' letters by making historic claims that people of faith were not persecuted and there were no human rights abuses based on religion in the Soviet Union.
Kirill is progressive, speaks foreign languages, worked on the issues of unarming the USSR and the US, and advocated usage of the modern Russian language (instead of old Slavic) during the services. In 1991, the year the Soviet Union fell apart, he earned the title of Mitropolit. The new era of capitalism brought new achievements to Mitropolit Kirill's life. In 1996, Kirill became a board member of bank "Peresvet" that is responsible for servicing the financial interests of the Russian Orthodox Church. The 1996 September issue (#34) of the Moscow News reports that Kirill, now for two years, had been organizing imports of highly taxable products, mostly tobacco, under the tax-exempt non-profit banner of the Orthodox Church. The claims were supported by other respectable news sources, including the Moskovsky Komsomolets.
The soon-to-be Patriarch confirmed the import of the highly unchristian products. By 1997, Kirill admitted the import of alcohol and tobacco, but claimed that the Russian Orthodox Church could not refuse the "humanitarian help." The Russian Orthodox Church and Kirill's private foundation "Nika" were not-for-profit organizations, and in 1996 alone they imported eight billion cigarettes to Russia. Kirill's "church" business took off like a snowball, as the legal competitors could not compete with his low prices for tobacco and alcohol. The importers were naturally pushed off the market as they could not match Kirill's prices after paying the necessary government dues.
In 2001, Kirill purchased the penthouse in Moscow, and people familiar with the matter claimed that Kirill shifted his interest into real estate, oil, and stocks. According to the research of the Russia's shadow economy conducted by the Russian State Humanitarian University in 2004, Kirill's fortune eclipsed at four billion US dollars.
I hope that Father Kirill's managerial gifts and smooth communication abilities will help strengthen the Orthodox Church and streamline the issues inside of this gigantic and complicated structure. However, shouldn't the Christian leadership start with the faith and not with the semi-criminal wily money-making techniques?
Yuri Mamchur is the director of the Real Russia Project. The views expressed here are his own.