Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the Russian Orthodox Church has been named the religious leader of occupied Crimea. Officially, the move to name Metropolitan Tikhon as head of the Church's Metropolis of Crimea represents a second successive demotion for Tikhon (whose secular name is Georgiy Shevkunov). That should be seen as no surprise — Patriarch Kirill sees Shevkunov as his most dangerous rival. However, Crimea is a politically significant diocese and this appointment could be a springboard to regain influence within the Church.
- Officially, Tikhon holds no high office in the Russian Orthodox Church. Informally, his influence is regarded as second only to the patriarch. He is known as Putin’s confessor and while the true extent of the pair’s closeness is unclear, they have known each other since the early 2000s and certainly enjoy a good personal relationship.
- Tikhon — one of the brightest figures in the Russian church, a cinematography graduate and writer — has been a central driver behind Russia’s resurgent patriotic ideology under Putin. In particular, he promoted the creation of patriotic multimedia parks and museums throughout the country, under the label “Russia: My history” — a project to which the government allocated hundreds of millions of dollars and where Putin is a regular visitor (1, 2, 3).
- Tikhon’s previous post was as Metropolitan in Pskov, one of Russia’s oldest cities, but now a poor provincial town. He was sent there in 2018 as Patriarch Kirill sought to move him away from Moscow’s Sretensky Monastery and dilute his influence on the president. That plan achieved little: from the very start, Putin paid high-profile visits to Tikhon in Pskov, and this spring he joined the president on a visit to Crimea, where the cleric is overseeing the creation of the Tauride Chersonese archaeological park (on which the government has spent $200 million).
- Tikhon’s appointment to Crimea has experts guessing whether the move is a promotion or a push further into exile. In calculated comments, he himself compared his new role with being sent to exile in Kolyma – part of the same Siberian Gulag prison region where Volodin proposed sending enemies of the people and disloyal emigrants. In terms of the church hierarchy, Crimea is by no means an important diocese and would not normally be likely to provide the next patriarch. However, it is a hugely important political appointment. Tikhon will almost certainly fall under Western sanctions for taking the position and — along with his experience working in the occupied territories — this is a significant bonus for his future career back in Moscow. Moreover, Putin is sure to be a regular visitor to Crimea, giving ample opportunity to continue fostering and establishing influence with the president.
Why the world should care
The Orthodox Church – and Tikhon Shevkunov in particular – represents a powerful force in the development of Russia’s state-led patriotic ideology, which, in turn, is a major driver of the war in Ukraine.