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The Triumph of Hierarchy

Andrey Pertsev sums up the week (October 9 -13)

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The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church has appointed Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov) of Pskov and Porkhov as head of the Metropolis of Crimea. Formally, the transfer of the bishop, who is sometimes called «Putin’s personal confessor», or in any case a cleric close to the president and one of the contenders for the Patriarchal Throne, can be seen as a promotion. The annexed Crimea is richer and more populous than the Pskov region (and therefore has a richer congregation).Moreover, this territory is considered important and a priority for the country’s leadership and for Vladimir Putin personally, which means that the Crimean bishop will always be on the radar of his (mainly civilian) superiors and will be able to milk the opportunity to communicate with them for his own advantage. But when it comes to Metropolitan Tikhon, things are never as simple. Firstly, he began his monastic career at the Pskov-Caves Monastery, which later became his residence in the Pskov Metropolitanate — this region is close to his heart, unlike the Crimea. Secondly, the Pskov region is home to numerous historical monuments of church architecture of federal significance, and the funds meant for their restoration are administered by the diocesan authorities. The annexed Crimea does not have a lot of such monuments. Thirdly, Metropolitan Tikhon was de facto the most influential person in the Pskov region: he lobbied for the allocation of federal funds to the region and could organise a meeting between the local governor and federal officials. A case in point is the launch of the «Lastochka» high-speed commuter train line connecting St Petersburg and Pechora. It is obvious that Tikhon will not be the most influential person in Crimea: the region rests firmly in the hands of Ukrainian-era officials Sergei Aksyonov and Vladimir Konstantinov.

There are other factors to consider as well. The Pskov region is close enough, just a few hours’ drive from Moscow and St Petersburg, where Metropolitan Tikhon’s acquaintances live: not only Vladimir Putin, but also high officials of the FSB, Igor Sechin, head of Rosneft, and other notable representatives of the power vertical. In order to lobby for the interests of his domain (above all, the Sretensky Monastery in Moscow, but also the Pskov Metropolis), it was important for the bishop to have easy physical access to his patrons. Finally, Tikhon’s transfer from Pskov to neighbouring St Petersburg was a logical step in his career. Rumours of the Metropolitan’s transfer to Russia’s second most populous city were indeed circulating, while he himself was busy preparing for the celebrations of the 800th anniversary of Prince Alexander Nevsky, who was buried in St Petersburg. He only had to take a few last steps to bridge the distance from the cathedra of the Metropolitan of St Petersburg to that of the Patriarch, and these steps were nothing too extraordinary. The distant Crimea, now also under constant shelling, is a clear sign of Metropolitan Tikhon’s demotion, taking him further away from his patrons.

This is actually the second time that Patriarch Kirill has tried to drive a cleric closely affiliated with the president further away from Moscow: the first time he sent him to Pskov, which is not so far away and is a region favored by Tikhon himself, and this second time he is sending him to the much more distant Crimea. Thus the head of the Russian Orthodox Church is struggling with his immediate rival for the Patriarchal Throne, or rather a rival for his potential successor, whom Kirill undoubtedly wants to put on the Throne before he retires. Despite Tikhon Shevkunov’s closeness to Vladimir Putin (the latter has visited the Pskov-Caves Monastery twice in recent years alone), the ecclesiastical vertical, which is embedded in the overall power vertical, and Kirill is beating him. This is probably because the president prefers not to challenge any official hierarchy and not to dismantle it to please his cronies. The bishop’s case is not unique here. Since last autumn, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a long-time acquaintance of Putin’s from St Petersburg, had been attacking the leadership of the Ministry of Defence: Minister Sergei Shoigu and the head of the General Staff, Valery Gerasimov. For a while it seemed that the criticism of the founder of the Wagner Group was about to achieve its goal: after all, in Putin’s system of power, proximity to the body of the first person has long meant much more than official positions. But now Prigozhin is dead and Putin has clearly sided with the hierarchy. This is what happened to Metropolitan Tikhon. The ageing president is tired of following the status trajectories and needs of his favourites, and rather prefers to deal with the ranks in the vertical. As a result, personal acquaintances and close ties to Putin are gradually being devalued, and the top bureaucracy is growing increasingly technocratic with an official position becoming its main asset, guaranteeing influence.

Of course, it is far from certain that this appointment to Crimea will spell the end of Metropolitan Tikhon’s career. He has already survived his «Pskov exile», and is quite likely to survive the Crimean one as well. But it is clear, though, that the Metropolitan will face difficulties in the first phase of the administration of his new domain: prior to 2022, the Crimean Metropolis was part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, whose priests lived by their own laws and are now unlikely to welcome an outsider. Taming them promises to cost Tikhon much nerve and time. The unspoken status of «Putin’s personal confessor» could not shield the Metropolitan from problems and failed to reliably guarantee his career. Thus, we can clearly see a trend: the era of president’s favourites is over and we are witnessing the rise of the new era of executive favourites in office, such as the head of the Kremlin’s domestic political bloc, Sergei Kiriyenko, or Deputy Prime Minister for Construction and Regional Development, Marat Khusnullin.

Grudinin 2.0

A few weeks ago, the Vedomosti newspaper reported that the presidential administration was considering nominating a «liberal» sparring partner for Putin in the 2024 presidential election. On Wednesday, Boris Nadezhdin, a former SPS party official, former MP and current councillor in the Moscow region town of Dolgoprudny, announced his intention to run. To become a real candidate, he must collect 300,000 signatures if he nominates himself, or 100,000 if he is nominated by a non-parliamentary party (parliamentary parties, whose candidates are not allowed to collect signatures, will not nominate Nadezhdin). Of course, it is too early to call Nadezhdin a 100% self-nominated «liberal candidate» for president: he is an experienced politician who senses that one of the camps within Kremlin is looking for such a figure, so he was the first to show up for the casting. Most of the pro-democratic voters have either left the country or chosen to keep quiet. The last season’s offer in the form of TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak was not really appreciated by the public: Sobchak barely managed to get 1% of the vote. An emergence of a liberal «alternative» to Putin will clearly boost the turnout, especially as his KPI follows Putin’s 80%-20% formula. The Kremlin does not need opposition figures to participate in the election campaign: theoretically, they could disrupt the numbers. But there is a purely pragmatic reason for the presidential administration’s desire to nominate a «liberal»: political technologists close to the Kremlin’s political bloc can make good money from the campaign of such a spoiler. Apparently, making money is the main goal of the hypothetical nomination of such a candidate. Boris Nadezhdin is aware of the possible benefits of participating in this venture, both financial and political (for example, a guarantee of being elected in the State Duma in 2026). One can also indulge in conspiracy thinking: Nadezhdin is a relatively recent associate of the head of the Kremlin’s political bloc, Sergei Kirienko, and he works at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, where Mikhail Kovalchuk, a long-time friend of Putin, is a professor. But so far these connections have not helped Boris Nadezhdin’s political career in recent years.

Nadezhdin is widely regarded as a weak candidate: he has not been elected to deputy councils above the municipal level in a long time, and he frequently participates in political talk shows on Russian TV (and therefore does not look like a real opposition figure). Nevertheless, if nominated, he could repeat the 2018 local success of Communist candidate Pavel Grudinin. A similarly little-known municipal deputy from the Moscow region, who appeared on political talk shows, was able to gain more than 10% of the vote thanks to a populist campaign and the effect of his sheer novelty as a political player that his voters found refreshing. For the majority of Russian voters, Nadezhdin will be a new face as a politician. As for his rhetoric, it has currently moved beyond a few liberal ideas. The former co-leader of the SPS party has criticised migrants and in a recent interview said that Russia should become the new European leader instead of the increasingly weak US. In other words, instead of a «liberal candidate», the Kremlin may get a centrist one who does not really deviate much from the Kremlin mainstream line and only proposes to end the war (and there are many Russians who want it to end). This is Grudinin 2.0, but with a right-wing rather than a left-wing tilt. Of course, Nadezhdin will not impede Putin’s victory, for which the entire administrative and corporate machine has already gone into high gear, but he may well spoil the incumbent president’s handsome figures. The politician will split the pro-government electorate and attract the moderate part of it. That is why his registration is unlikely to happen, and if it does, it will be one of the tools to make the campaign even more lucrative for all those working on it. This was the case with Grudinin — a lot of effort and money was spent on countering his growing rating. Nadezhdin can be a sparring partner to be fought in the same way, and will receive praise and honours from Putin himself.

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