(RNS) — The Russian Orthodox Church has installed one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest allies as the highest-ranking church leader in Crimea.
“His Eminence of Simferopol and Crimea, the head of the Crimean Metropolis is to be His Eminence Metropolitan Tikhon of Pskov and Porkhov with his release from the administration of the Pskov Metropolis,” the church announced in a statement on Wednesday (Oct. 11).
Tikhon, whose secular name is Georgy Shevkunov, is one of the most influential church leaders in Russia. He has long been reported to be particularly close to Putin, and there is speculation that he is Putin’s confessor.
In an interview with a Ukrainian journalist last year, Tikhon gave a rare glimpse into his relationship with the Russian president, whom he described as lonesome.
“There is no one (for Putin) to talk to,” Tikhon said. “It is difficult to communicate with him, because those topics, questions that we cannot even imagine, lie with this person. So what can we tell him?”
When the Wagner mercenary group was marching on Moscow in Yevgeny Prighozhin’s short-lived coup attempt in June, Metropolitan Tikhon was alongside Moscow Patriarch Kirill as one of the most prominent religious voices backing Putin.
“Russians must rally around President Putin to prevent a division that is fatal for the country and the people,” Tikhon announced on social media. “Preserving your faith and convictions, put aside strife and discord, no matter how important they may seem to the parties to the conflict today, and be in unity with the one whom God’s Providence has put to rule Russia.
“No matter how this person is called in history: Grand Duke, Tsar, Emperor or Chairman of the State Defense Committee and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the USSR… today, President Vladimir Putin bears this burden, cross and responsibility,” he continued.
According to iStories, an investigative journalism outlet covering Russia, that support has been a two-way street. Programs and Initiatives connected with Tikhon have received more than 20 billion rubles ($332 million) from the Russian state and state-owned companies since 2015.
In March, Tikhon was seen at Putin’s side as the president made his first visit to Crimea since full-scale war broke out between Russia and Ukraine in February 2022.
Russia has asserted its control over Crimea since a disputed referendum in 2014, following Ukraine’s conflict with Russian-backed separatists in 2013.
The Russian Orthodox Church did not share its reasons for appointing Tikhon to Crimea, but in his public statements, the metropolitan did not appear enthusiastic about the job. In his first sermon since taking the role, publicized on the social media app Telegram, Tikhon compared Crimea to a Soviet gulag.
“What is Crimea? What was Crimea in ancient Greece, in Byzantium? Kolyma! It is Kolyma,” said Tikhon, referring to a region of far-Eastern Russia that was a major hub of the Stalinist prison labor system. “For us, it is Crimea, but for them it was a place where people did not live normal lives.”
Tikhon recalled that Pope Clement, the first-century saint and bishop of Rome, was exiled to the peninsula by the Roman Emperor Trajan. “To Kolyma! And now I am being sent there, too, to the resorts of Kolyma,” Tikhon said.
For most of its history, Crimea, whose Christian community dates to the Roman period, had not been considered a single metropolitanate by the Orthodox Church. The Russian Church controversially created the authority only in June of last year, a few months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Crimea’s multiple dioceses in Crimea previously fell under the authority of the Metropolitan of Kyiv. But that metropolitan separated from the Russian church when the Ukrainian church declared independence from the Moscow patriarchate and was recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in 2018.
Looking to cement its ecclesiastical influence over the province to match its political takeover, Putin put Crimea directly under the purview of the Moscow patriarch. It appointed as its head Metropolitan Lazar, a priest from the Ukrainian city of Ternopil, who had joined the Russian Orthodox Church in Soviet times and spent his early career in South America.
Now, just over a year into the role, Lazar is being replaced. “His Grace Metropolitan Lazar of Simferopol and Crimea is to be retired with an expression of gratitude for the archpastoral labors he has endured over the course of 43 years,” the Russian Orthodox Church announced in a statement.
The appointment of Tikhon over Crimea comes as Russian Orthodox clergy who break from the Russian government’s position on the war are facing increasing hostility from their own hierarchy, according to a recent report by Deutsche Welle.
At the same time, the Ukrainian Parliament is considering a bill this week that would fully ban the Russian Orthodox Church from operating in the country.