New York Times interview with Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov)
Russians See Church and State Come
Russian Orthodox Church continues its ascent as a
political force, Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov stands at
the center of a swirling argument about the church’s
power and its possible influence on President
Vladimir V. Putin.
Tikhon, a former film student, presides over the 14th
century Sretensky Monastery here, near the
headquarters of the former KGB, for which Mr. Putin
worked in Soviet times. A media-savvy figure, Father
Tikhon has written a surprise best seller about
monastic life and has been described as
“Putin’s spiritual father” —
a label he coyly neither embraces nor denies.
“It would be cruel of me to answer this question, to
say yes or no and take away the bread of
journalists,” he said recently in an interview in
his receiving room, adorned with portraits of a saint and
a czar. “Although, of course, one doesn’t
answer such a question about anyone,” he added.
This week, Father Tikhon was in the news again after
reports, swiftly denied, that the police had shut down a
brothel on the grounds of his monastery. He branded the
story “unconscionable slander” and “a
vivid example of the information war against the
church.” The truth, he told the news agency RIA
Novosti, was that a brothel had been operating in a
building next to cloister grounds, and that his monastery
had demanded it be shut.
Father Tikhon, 54, took over at the white-walled
monastery, one of
Russia’s oldest, in 1995. He has since
transformed the structure, which served as a killing
ground in Stalin’s times, into a cinematically
perfect vision of Orthodoxy.
A few days later, on an idyllic fall evening, his black
monastic robes billowed in the wind as choral music wafted
through the air and a crush of bescarved women lunged for
Some critics belittle Father Tikhon as a publicity hound.
But others, who see him as a rising power broker, call him
a promoter of a rigid Orthodox fundamentalism. That is a
charge he dismissed as “nonsense.”
The old debate over the role of the Orthodox Church and
its relationship to the state broke into the open most
recently over the
conviction of members of the punk band Pussy Riot for
staging an anti-Putin stunt at Moscow’s biggest
cathedral. The performance, which was captured on a video
that circulated widely on the Internet, mocked both Mr.
Putin and Patriarch Kirill I, the head of the Orthodox
In this atmosphere, Father Tikhon’s ties to Mr.
Putin have come under scrutiny. He had already attracted
attention in 2008, for writing and narrating a television
documentary that depicted the fall of Byzantium as a
parable about the threats to modern Russia. The film was
derided by liberals as pandering to Mr. Putin’s
worldview of a virtuous Russia under threat from foreign
Now as the author of “Unsaintly Saints and Other
Stories,” a book about monastic life and the path to
faith, Father Tikhon and his Kremlin connection are even
more prominent. The book focuses on another famous
monastery that Mr. Putin visited shortly after becoming
president in 2000.
One unanswered question is whether Father Tikhon is, in
fact, Mr. Putin’s spiritual father — in
Russian Orthodox tradition, a figure who is a father
confessor and guide to salvation.
“I know Archimandrite Tikhon personally, and he told
me directly that he is not Putin’s spiritual
father,” Father Georgy Mitrofanov, a prominent St.
Petersburg priest, said publicly in September. “I
think that our president’s main spiritual father is
When pressed on the question, Father Tikhon changed the
subject to the Chinese winter watermelon grown on the farm
run by his monastery.
For all the reticence, Father Tikhon is an unabashed
supporter of Mr. Putin, saying he saved Russia from
“vulgar liberals” who nearly destroyed it in
the 1990s. During the interview, he checked the time to
make sure he would not be late to a Kremlin meeting of Mr.
Putin’s culture commission.
At the meeting, according to the Kremlin Web site, Mr.
Putin chided the monk, who is a member of the commission,
for comparing today’s young Russian women to
“a drunk girl standing by the bus stop.”
“Father, you have gone too far,” Mr. Putin
In 2007, Mr. Putin and Father Tikhon were instrumental in
the reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church and the
Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, which is based
in New York. The reunification is a centerpiece of Mr.
Putin’s efforts to stitch together the red and
white in Russian history — the Soviet and the
To mark the fifth anniversary of that reunification and to
promote an English translation of his book, titled
Saints,” Father Tikhon toured the United
States in October with the Sretensky Monastery Choir.
Fr. Tikhon's book runs 640 pages and has sold over
1.1 million copies in Russian. Millions more have been
downloaded electronically. OLMA Media Group, which
published the book in 2011, announced in August that it
was the country’s biggest best seller since the
Soviet era. The profits are going back into the Sretensky
Monastery, Father Tikhon said, to build a cathedral
honoring those killed there for their religious faith in
The book is a portrait of one of the Orthodox
Church’s holiest sites, the Pskovo-Pechersky
Monastery in northwestern Russia. The monastery stayed
open during the Soviet era, surviving first within
independent Estonia, then by the wiliness and fortitude of
the monks after the territory was absorbed into the Soviet
Georgy Shevkunov, as Father Tikhon was known
before taking his vows, became a novice there shortly
after his baptism in 1982, a sharp turn from studies at
the Soviet Union’s most prestigious film school. At
the monastery, he writes, “a new world had suddenly
opened up, incomparable in its beauty.”
Mr. Putin visited the monastery in August 2000. Russian
church Web sites say that he spent over an hour in private
conversation with Archimandrite Ioann Krestyankin, a
revered monk who died in 2006 and who served as spiritual
guide to Father Tikhon.
In the monastery’s guest book, Mr. Putin wrote:
“The revival of Russia and growth of its might are
unthinkable without the strengthening of society’s
moral foundations. The role and significance of the
Russian Orthodox Church are huge. May God protect
The New York Times