With his luxury watch and murky Soviet past, Patriarch Kirill is Putin’s spiritual leader and power broker

David Castro

When Patriarch Kirill sat down with Russian Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov he might not have realised the meeting would embroil him in controversy. 

His attire was typical of a man of the cloth. His white headscarf was embossed with religious symbols and a gold cross signified his senior status within the church.

But an object adorning his left wrist would later come back to haunt him: a designer watch.

For years, rumours swirled around this flashy piece of jewellery after it was first spotted on the patriarch during a tour of Ukraine in 2009.

With the esteemed religious figure’s designer collection an object of fascination online, a doctored image of the meeting appeared on the church’s official website in April 2012.

In the photo, the $US30,000 ($43,375) Réveil du Tsar model watch disappeared under an extended black sleeve.

No-one would have been the wiser if it wasn’t for a tiny, telling detail, which gave the lie away.

Eagle-eyed bloggers were quick to pick up on a blurry reflection of the timepiece lurking just below the patriarch’s hands on the highly glossed table.

The terrible airbrushing was mocked online, calling the moral authority of the church into question and embarrassing senior figures.

An overeager staff member was blamed for the incident, and the church promised the manipulation would be investigated and “the guilty ones punished severely”.

But Patriarch Kirill was unfazed, admitting he owned the Breguet timepiece, but kept it in its box.

Expensive watches, he said, were not part of his official attire.

The mysterious leader wields enormous influence as the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, bestowing guidance to more than 100 million believers — about 70 per cent of the country’s population.

A man wearing a white headscarf embossed with a gold symbol and cross wears sunglasses in a crowd of people.
Patriarch Kirill has been the the head of the Russian Orthodox Church since 2009.(Reuters: Sputnik/Ekaterina Shtukina)

It also makes him a useful ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The pair appear to have struck a mutually beneficial alliance that offers Russia’s leader spiritual cover in exchange for the Kremlin’s influence.

The young priest who became disillusioned with the West

Born Vladimir Mikhailovich Gundyayev, Russia’s future patriarch grew up in a compact apartment in Leningrad during the Soviet empire

From an early age, his path led him to the religion of his father and grandfather.

His family suffered for their faith under the repressive Communist regime, spending years inside gulags on trumped-up charges.

Gundyayev heard these accounts and watched as authorities systematically shut down churches, but remained committed to the church, entering the Leningrad Seminary after high school and rounding off his studies at the Leningrad Theological Academy.

A black and white photo of Patriarch Kirill dressed in religious robes delivering a speech in church.
Despite the imprisonment of his father and grandfather, Patriarch Kirill pursued a career in the church.(Supplied: The Russian Orthodox Church)

By 1970 he had abandoned his childhood name and was rechristened Father Kirill after the saint, Cyril the Philosopher, a theological scholar who championed the Orthodox Church above all others.

He traded a formal education in Oxford for a real-life one in Geneva, spending the decade travelling abroad and serving as the Moscow Patriarchate representative at the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

“My work at international organisations was worth another university course and … would help me a great deal in the future,” he told TASS.

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