The church of the regime: Russian Orthodox Church and long tradition of clerical espionage

13:48 Nov. 4, 2016

Russian Orthodox Church and long tradition of clerical espionage

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill (Gundyayev) with Vladimir Putin (by

Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko on the story of complicated and eventually mutually beneficial cooperation between Russian church and KGB

Last month's developments in the life of what we know as the "international community" produced a number of political curiosities. Their disorderly ranks included the official opening of a peculiar enterprise presented to the slightly bored public as the ‘Russian Spiritual Centre' in Paris. Its ‘administrative buildings', the accessorial Orthodox cathedral, and a moderate birch grove are to be henceforth entrenched in the ostentatious proximity to the renowned Eiffel Tower. After almost a fortnight, this event still sparks all sorts of comments – from pompous praising in the Russian Federation to predominantly dismissive witticisms beyond the dystopian borders of this Eurasian polity.


A caricature by Jan Blazicek published in 2009. (Source:

Vladimir Putin is shown with Vaclav Klaus, the then president of the Czech Republic. The cartoonist had a laugh about the new Russian trend of Putin icons – a clear sign of a religious cult.

Having graced the capital of France with its perdurable presence, the new foundation may be seen as a Cyclopean monument to the uninterruptedly ardent intercourse between the state and the church in Russia. It was the Kremlin that bought the very expensive patch of Parisian land and covered the formidable expenses for the construction of the Centre. Despite its formally religious character, this establishment is nothing else than an external representation office for Putin's regime.

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The intimate unity of the latter with the long-bearded (and, for some reason, often overweight) orthodox priests inspires one to use some very interesting historical analogies. Those will definitely allude to such phenomena as political or state religions, imperial cults, and the cults of personality – the definitive elements of usually despotic stately systems. The priestly order that functioned under their auspices had all the features of a typical governmental agency with a list of particular duties – administrative, propagandistic, and, finally, clandestine. This trinity, along with traditionally high level of clerical education, transformed the mainstream religious institutes into the fully valid security and intelligence organizations. 


Remembered for his reform of the Julian calendar, Pope Gregory XIII (reigned in 1572-1585) was the architect of the whole web of priestly spies covering not only Europe but other parts of the world. (Source:

The ‘spying priests' were notorious anti-heroes of all civilizations in the past. In Europe, the learned clerics served various monarchs as secret emissaries or security strategists. Many of them were double-agents working for the lay sovereigns and the papacy at the same time. The Early Modern period with its intense religious wars brought even more complexity into the world of clerical espionage. The networks of Catholic spooks coordinated by priests or monks from Rome were operating throughout the lands that had accepted Protestantism. In England under Elizabeth I and later, in the 17th century, those ‘plotting papists' enjoyed the same reputation as that of today's terrorists. 


Cardinal Mazarin, engraving by Robert Nanteuil, c. 1656  (Source: Wikipedia).

Cardinal-Duke of Rethel, Mayenne and Nevers (1602-1661) served as the Chief Minister to the King of France between 1642 and 1661. While trying to counteract the Vatican's plans to control the affairs in France, he created a spy-web of his own. The real-life counterpart of Alexander Dumas' chevalier d'Artagnan, Charles Ogier de Batz de Castelmore d'Artagnan (c.1611-1673), was one of Mazarin's spooks. 

During the French Revolution, the church functionaries diligently kept the Vatican and other foreign powers informed of the situation inside the newly born Republic. All the conflicts that followed, including the clashes of the Napoleonic Age or the American Civil War, involved numerous men of cloth lurking around, scheming, and gathering information. The great wars of the 20th century could not do without them as well.

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Thomas Nelson Conrad (1837-1905), one of the most famous spooks of the American Civil War. (Source:

He was a preacher who spied for the Confederate Army, from which he held the rank of captain. Captured by the northerners, Conrad was pardoned later on. After the war, he became the third president of Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College. Having retired, the former Confederate spy wrote his wartime memoirs, which appeared to be very popular throughout the USA.

 Of course, it was the system of caesaropapism (with its unquestionable subjugation of ‘spiritual' authorities to secular government) that begot the most effective secret-and-intelligence service under the cover of religious structures. The monks of the Byzantine Empire had quite a reputation in this area along with an excellent bureaucratic apparatus and an impressive specialized training.


Justinian I, Byzantine Emperor from 527 to 565 and a saint of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The mosaic in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. (Source: Wikipedia).

Justinian, who is depicted here with his Court and archbishop Maximian, steered a formidable intelligence service comprised of numerous clergymen. One of its most triumphant operations took place in the 550s, when two Christian monks reportedly smuggled silkworm eggs into the Byzantine Empire from Chine. This act, dubbed by many historians as an early example of industrial espionage, became the beginning of Byzantine silk industry.

Having proclaimed itself the ‘Third Rome' in the 15th century, Muscovy borrowed the tradition of clerical spying from increasingly decadent Constantinople. Since then, the Russian Orthodox Church played a very significant and a KGB-like role in the whole imperial project. Unsurprisingly, in the USSR the Church became a KGB-run institution. Its dignitaries, including the metropolitans and at least one patriarch, worked for the ‘organs'. 

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Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (in office between 1964-1982) with the heads of religious institutions celebrating the anniversary of the October Revolution. (Source: 

The man between Brezhnev and the then patriarch Pimen is metropolitan Aleksiy Ridiger, the future patriarch Aleksiy II. He is believed to have been the life-long KGB agent ‘Drozdov'.

KGB had its assets in the Vatican, and even the private secretary to Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) was a Soviet agent. His efforts allowed Moscow to uncover about 200 spies sent by the ‘Holy See' to the Soviet Union. According to some claims, KGB and its turbulent priests even invented the so-called liberation theology – an interpretation of Christian doctrine that became especially popular in Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s... 

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Jesuit Father Robert Graham pictured in 1992 (1912-1997). (Source:

Father Graham was a WW II historian of the Catholic Church and the head of the Vatican counterintelligence during the Cold War. He revealed a great number of bishops and priests who were KGB agents. 

As for our own day, one may be inclined to reflect on the power of traditions. Some would suggest that the Russian Orthodox Church simply inherited all its functions (including that of an intelligence agency) from the epoch of the USSR. Such thoughts seem quite natural due to almost ritualistic imitation of the Soviet Empire's political and power practices in contemporary Russia.

In this connection, the activities of the ‘Russian Spiritual Centre' in the neighbourhood of the Champ de Mars should become an intriguing object for, let us say, academic observation.

Read also ‘USD 187 mln pastiche in UNESCO-protected site': media on Russian ‘spiritual centre' in Paris


Vladimir Gundyayev a.k.a metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad pictured under the portrait of Lenin. (Source:

Elected Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in 2009, Gunyayev is a man of dubious reputation even in the eyes of many Russian citizens. His current nouveau riche wealth coexists with his Stalinist pro-USSR views and his KGB past. The support of secret services is seen as the foundation of his ecclesiastical career.

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