Orthodox Fury: Not-So-Subtle Politics of Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’

Russia's Patriarch Kirill
Russian Patriarch Kirill celebrates a Christmas service in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow early on Jan. 7, 2015. Photo: AFP

Recently, quiet Bulgaria made the news as the subject of a rare outburst by otherwise staid Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. The unusual outburst of the Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’ came as an awkward and unpleasant surprise for his Bulgarian hosts amidst a highly symbolic celebration of the 140th anniversary of the signing of the 1878 San Stefano Treaty, which ended the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78 and created a path to Bulgarian independence.

On his three-day visit to Bulgaria to commemorate the event, the Patriarch repeatedly departed from protocol to deliver sharp, politically-charged and public remarks during a meeting with Bulgarian President Rumen Radev, as well as in a public statement on Bulgarian soil prior to his outbound trip to Moscow. The inspiration of His Holiness’ fury was the rhetoric of the Bulgarian high officials during the public speeches commemorating the anniversary.

The speech that the Bulgarian president delivered on March 3, acknowledging the gratitude of Bulgarians to Romanian, Ukrainian, Belarussian, Russian, Finnish, Polish and Lithuanian soldiers who fought and sacrificed their lives in the course of the war, was perceived by Patriarch Kirill as historical revisionism and depreciation of the primary role of Russian state power and sacrifice.

Obviously, even the public praise of non-Russian nationalities’ sacrifices should have mentioned that they served under Russian command. The Patriarchate used these “outrages” as a pretext for publishing a six-minute long video rant and lecturing the Bulgarian head of state in his own office in the presence of his staff and the Russian ambassador.

In addition, the official Russian Orthodox Church’s website and social media account have published selected bits of the official meeting and the following press conference to highlight and endorse main points of his strategic messages.

The titles of these segments drive the point home quite forcefully: “No political correctness can excuse false historical interpretation,” We stand for historical truth, as we have earned it by our blood” and “Russia has liberated Bulgaria.” 

The content of the captured monologues is quite blunt and revealing for native speakers of both languages, as the selection of examples and choice of words aggressively push the Russian nationalist agenda in a straightforward style, in a way that even the Russian Foreign Ministry avoids when dealing with what it considers “friendly” nations.

Precisely because of the messages’ tone and aggression, elements of the Russian press celebrated the incident, labeling it “The Patriarch has arranged seven minutes of shame for Bulgaria” and pointing out that the Head of the Russian Orthodoxy leaves Bulgaria with “mixed feelings” believing that “the only real historical bridge between the two nations today remaining are the two sister Orthodox churches.”

Russia’s Alternative Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Real Meaning of its Messages

But the Patriarch’s outburst was not a one-off tantrum, but rather part and parcel of Russia’s growing political warfare campaign in Eastern Europe. The timing of the Patriarch’s visit was not coincidental, nor was his behavior or messaging.

The Patriarch’s actions were timed to heavily resonate within the Slavic and Orthodox universe and strike emotional chords. All of them fall within the pattern of the Kremlin’s “weaponization of culture” and values through alternative channels, such as the Orthodox Church, to mobilize support for its foreign policy agenda and desired global public image.

In this particular case, what one might observe is the repetitive pattern of utilizing clerical authority to deliver a message that typically should be delivered by the Russian state, such as the in-your-face statement that the “brightest memory of the visit of the Patriarch was at the Shipka Pass, where his delegation did not see any Finnish, Polish or Romanian flags, only the ones of Russia and Bulgaria flying.”

This rhetorical pattern of elevating Russia and belittling the role of others (something one expects more from the Russian government), can also be found in the Patriarch’s remarks that “neither in the history of Poland or Finland such page exists,” or his lauding the improvement of the Bulgarian President’s public speaking talent, as “during Soviet times, the Bulgarian comrades were considered to be the absolute worst orators, who could not speak in public without prepared notes.”

Such messages hit multiple “target audiences” simultaneously, as they elevate the role and might of Russia and belittle the role of others while harkening back to rude humor about the status of different national elites within the ex-Soviet bloc.

A Very Orthodox (Psy-Op) Operation

A signature feature of such maneuvers is how messages from supposed higher moral authority are deployed to breed discontent, amplify divisions, draw symbolic boundaries and restate invocation of desired public image projections for domestic and foreign audiences alike.

On closer scrutiny of the content delivered by the Patriarch, it becomes painfully clear that the messages conveyed are purely political in nature. They relay the Kremlin’s discontent and disappointment with current Bulgarian elite, one that “Mother Russia” always treats as part of the Slavic brotherhood and integral part of the Christian world, in constant need of protection and care.

As repayment, the unthankful “traitors” are siding with the historic Anglo-Saxon enemy and rewriting their history on top of that. But if the accusation generalized about the whole Bulgarian nation, it would immediately alienate large portions of Bulgarian population. And so, the Patriarch skillfully blames “the politicians” and not the ordinary folk, who sympathize with his cause.

In broader symbolic terms, the Patriarch’s goal is to portray Russia in its traditional self-image as the sole protector of the Christian world against the decadence of the West and the “invasion” from the Islamic East. In this role, Russia is a “besieged nation” that has to shoulder these burdens alone despite a “diplomatic embargo” from a “united Europe.”

The Patriarch drew a direct parallel between the Crimean War and its aftermath, as another instance in which Russia endured an embargo from Europe in the service of brotherly love, in a speech delivered emotionally to strike a chord of Slavic and Orthodox sympathy.

The next layer of meaning is intended to press on internal fissures, accentuating on deep existing divisions within Bulgarian society along the Russophile-Russophobe cleavage that can be traced back to pre-independence days. Curiously, the staff of the Bulgarian Head of State noted that during the meeting between Radev and the Russian Patriarch, the representatives of Russian media’s cameras kept rolling during the blunt rant, recording it in its entirety, while stopped and did not broadcast the reply of the Bulgarian.

If their allegations are correct, then there is yet another proof that the whole operation was planned well ahead and was not “spontaneous emotional outburst”, but rather a move similar to the well-known Soviet active measures.

Last but not least, the propaganda operation was simultaneously targeting audiences at home. The main idea being the stimulation of ultra-nationalism and reinforcing key narratives designed for Russian internal consumption via the media chamber echo effect by highlighting the event coverage at arguably one of the most popular Russian evening talk shows called “Evening” with close to Kremlin host journalist Vladimir Solovyev at prime-time on state “Russia- 1” television station with multimillion auditoria in Russia and abroad.

For almost an hour the topic debated is “Why has Bulgaria forgotten the Russian Blood?” where the opening is dedicated to repetition of Patriarch’s messages delivered in Sofia and the guests composed of politicians, experts, and academics engage in lengthy discussion about who are the real allies and friends of Russia today and where and how Bulgaria and scores of other countries fit into this “matrix.”

Operation goes to a full circle when almost near consensus emerges that a) Russia being imperial great power does not have any real or true allies and cannot rely on “traitors”, even if they share similar faith and ethnic composition; b) the “traitors” are the unthankful liberal pro-Western elites, just as the ones ruling Bulgaria who have sold their faith and consciousness to the U.S. and NATO and are worshiping “another Deity”, namely “the U.S., as a country of Sodomites;” and c) thus the degenerate political elite of Bulgaria that has sold out their “souls” to the ungodly West is at odds with the ordinary people who are feeling deep attraction to all things Russian and Orthodox and have nostalgia for the state of bilateral relations from Soviet times.

The key strategic message, however, is clearly verbalized and reinforced by one of the “experts” when he reiterates the theme of the Bulgarian and Ukrainian “bad political leadership” and “the good ordinary folk” and spells the need to help the Bulgarian and Ukrainian people to change their leadership.

In sum, the operation Patriarch Kirill has executed on his visit to Bulgaria bears the features of the best examples of the Soviet active measures in terms of discrediting and polarization within multiple audiences by delivering multilayered messaging aimed to create doubt and division on one side, while mobilizing on the other.

It was done under the “cover” of organized religion that delivered a purely political message in total accordance with Kremlin’s current foreign policy agenda. In other words, it was a classic and very “orthodox” piece of political warfare based on the rich Russian and Soviet traditions in that field.