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Spying for the KGB: A Russian priest in Switzerland

  • By The Swiss Times
  • 7 February 2023
A Russian Orthodox priest who lived and worked in Switzerland in the 1970s was sent by the KGB to influence the Swiss Federal Council, according to declassified government papers. 
Spying for the KGB: A Russian priest in Switzerland

Patriarch Kirill (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) in 2019 (Credit: University of Oslo).

A wolf in sheep’s clothing?

A Russian Orthodox priest who lived and worked in Switzerland in the 1970s was sent by the KGB to influence the Swiss Federal Council into denouncing the U.S. and its allies, according to declassified government documents.

Patriarch Kirill, who used the code name “Mikhailov,” worked as the religious head of the Eglise Orthodoxe Russe in Geneva during the 1970s, according to both Swiss newspapers Tages Anzeiger and Le Matin Dimanche. The newspapers gained access to the declassified documents in the Swiss national archives.

While living in Geneva, one of “’Monsignor Kirill’s” missions was to persuade the Swiss Federal Council to ease its criticism of the lack of religious freedoms in the then-Soviet Union, with hopes that other western nations would follow suit.

Spying for the KGB: A Russian priest in Switzerland

Earlier this year the Russian Embassy in Switzerland threatened to sue a local newspaper over a caricature of Putin.

The Kirill connection

Kirill also served as the Russian Orthodox Church representative at the World Council of Churches (WCC). Today Kirill’s nephew, Mikhail Gundyaev, holds the same position. Gundyaev told Le Matin Dimanche that his uncle “was not an agent, although he was subjected to ‘strict controls’ by the KGB.”

Kirill’s involvement with Soviet intelligence “did not affect the sincerity of his engagement in ecumenical work with other churches,” according to Gundyaev. The Russian Orthodox Church has refused to comment on Kirill’s spying activity in Geneva. Moreover, the WCC says it has no information about the case.

“Between religious diplomacy, espionage and finances, Kirill has continuously been drawn to the Alps and the shores of Lake Geneva,” Le Matin Dimanche notes. According to the newspaper, Kirill has visited Switzerland at least 43 times and is a passionate Alpine skier – even breaking his leg on Swiss slopes in 2007.

Kirill was in Switzerland as recently as 2019 when he met with the president of the upper house of the Swiss parliament. At that time he said “Of all the countries in the world, it is possibly the one I have visited the most often.”

Spying for the KGB: A Russian priest in Switzerland

The Église Orthodoxe Russe in Geneva is a popular tourist destination for its traditional Russian architecture (Credit: Religiana.com).

What remains

Today, Kirill is the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia. He is also a fervent supporter of President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, and they are often photographed together. According to The Moscow Times, Kirill told Putin on his 70th birthday last year that “God put you in power so that you could perform a service of special importance and of great responsibility for the fate of the country and the people entrusted to your care.”

As for Kirill’s Russian Orthodox Church in Geneva – a famous architectural site built in 1866 – it suffered vandalism in October of last year, likely in response to Russia’s invasion into Ukraine. The Russian embassy protested the act and sent a message to the Swiss Federal Department for Foreign Affairs demanding that police find and punish those responsible for defacing the entrance of the church with splattered paint. Geneva police announced an investigation, but have yet to announce the arrest or punishment of anyone for the crime.

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