By John Helmer, Moscow
In this week’s address to the Federal Assembly – Russia’s equivalent of the State of the Union speech to the US Congress, and the Queens’s Speech to the House of Lords – President Vladimir Putin has removed the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill (Vladimir Gundyayev), from the seat and rank he has occupied for the past decade next to the Prime Minister.
The political downgrading of the Church is unprecedented. In its compilation of the official photographs of the Assembly on February 20, the Kremlin website displays no picture of Kirill at all, nor of any other representative of a religious organization.
Last year, in the Assembly of March 3, 2018, Kirill was seated in the front row, before the podium from which Putin was speaking. Beside Kirill to his left were Valentina Matvienko, Speaker of the upper house of parliament, the Federation Council; Prime Minister Medvedev, and Vyacheslav Volodin, Speaker of the lower house, the State Duma. Behind them in the second row were the senior ministers of state, Minister of Interior Vladimir Kolokoltsev, Minister of Defence Sergei Shoigu, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
March 2018: source -- http://en.kremlin.ru/
In 2017 the Assembly was not formally convened. The year before, on December 1, 2016, the Patriarch was seated on the Prime Minister’s left, beside Speaker Volodin.
December 1, 2016, left to right: Anton Vaino, Chief of the Kremlin staff; Matvienko; Medvedev; Volodin; Kirill. Source: http://en.kremlin.ru
At the assembly of December 3, 2015, the Kremlin website introduced the audience by reporting “those present for the Address included members of the Federation Council, State Duma deputies, members of the Government, heads of the Constitutional and Supreme Courts, regional governors, heads of regional legislative assemblies, heads of Russia’s traditional religious faiths, public figures, including heads of regional civic chambers, and the heads of Russia’s biggest media outlets.”
The seating protocol that year placed the Russian Orthodox Church ahead of the other religious denominations. Visible in the centre of the front row were then-Chief of the Kremlin staff Sergei Ivanov; Federation Council Speaker Matviyenko; Prime Minister Medvedev; Speaker of the State Duma Sergei Naryshkin, and on his left the Patriarch.
December 3, 2015: source -- http://en.kremlin.ru/
The Federal Assembly of December 4, 2014, seated the Patriarch in the front row, his distinctive helmet visible above other heads. He was two places to the left of Medvedev.
December 4, 2014: source -- http://en.kremlin.ru/
The consistency of the seating protocol of the state ranks can be checked at each of the federal assemblies back to 2009 when Medvedev was president and Putin prime minister.
This makes the break with the seating protocol this year a dramatic one, and politically significant. Here is this year’s front row, with the prime minister in the centre, and to his right, Chief of Staff Vaino and Speaker Matviyenko. On Medvedev’s left, Speaker Volodin and in a promotion to political priority, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak.
February 20, 2019: source -- http://en.kremlin.ru/
The Kremlin website presentation of seventeen photographs reveals that Kirill was nowhere to be seen, officially.
Two weeks ago, in a speech of his own at the Kremlin, the Patriarch declared in Putin’s presence that the Church is now the equal of the state for the first time in Russian history; for that story, and its challenge to the secular articles of the Russian Constitution, read this. It has taken a fortnight for the Kremlin seating arranger to cancel Kirill’s claim.
Kirill’s press spokesman was asked if the Patriarch attended the Federal Assembly, and what reason there was for his not taking his customary seat in the front row. The spokesman refused to answer on the telephone; requested the questions by email; and then did not reply.