“I want to tell you that the relations between Russia and Georgia have been and will always be brotherly and friendly. Russia and Georgia were like brothers in the past. Perhaps someone envied our good and artificially induced hostility. I had a meeting with His Excellency, the President of the Russian Federation, Mr. Vladimir Putin. I have had a meeting before, but the warmth, the attention that President Putin showed was special and hopeful. “I think this is that very person, a wise person, who will definitely improve the situation in Georgia and Georgia will be united,” said Georgian Patriarch Ilia II during a visit to Russia in 2013.
His colleague, the Catholicos Patriarch Ambrosi Khelaia, addressed the Genoa Conference (1922) as follows:
“My homeland suffered only severe despotism and unbearable persecution from the Russian bureaucracy for 117 years, thus, as soon as the artificial integrity of the Russian Empire was demolished in 1917, the Georgian nation declared its independence. Surely, its former master – Russia, the suppressor of small nations could not live with it and on February 25, 1921, directed the army towards Georgia and shamefully enslaved the country for a second time after a minor, cruel battle, the like of which it has not experienced in the course of centuries.”
Further on, we will tell you how the patriarchs and Patriarchate have been transfigured over the past century, and how the Georgian Church has routed its activities in favor of Russia.
Georgian Church under the Russian Umbrella
“After the Kingdom of Georgia joined Russia in 1801, the Holy Synod of Russia could not accept the fact that the Georgian Church had an independent Catholicos. Church laws are violated. An astonishing injustice has been committed, which has never been seen before in the history of the Church. So, here is the question: “did the Holy Synod have the canonical right to treat the autocephaly of the Georgian Church this way?” – said Bishop Kyrion Sadzaglishvili in 1906.
It was because of such courageous steps that the Russian secular and church authorities perceived Kyrion as a threat, which led to his persecution and abuse. First, he was deprived of bishop rank, then accused of murdering the Russian exarch and exiled to the Sanaksar desert. However, they failed to break the future patriarch spiritually.
In 1917, he became the first Catholicos Patriarch of the Independent Georgia. In 1918, Kyrion II was found dead.
In 1919-1921, Kyrion II was succeeded by the Catholicos Patriarch of All Georgia – Leonid Okropiridze. During his tenure, he was actively opposing the Russian government and together with Kyrion II, they were fighting for the restoration of the autocephaly of the Georgian orthodox church.
The annexation of Georgia by the Bolsheviks in 1921 greatly affected the Catholicos Patriarch who was being loyal to his national interests. In June 1921, he died of Cholera epidemics and rests in Sioni Cathedral.
Ambrosi Khelaia served as the Catholicos Patriarch of All Georgia from 1921 to 1927.
The Bolshevik government arrested him several times. After his death, Ambrosi Khelaia was succeeded by Christophorus III. He wanted the Soviet authorities to find a common language with the church. In 1927, Metropolitan Kristepore Tsitskishvili addressed the Central Executive Committee of Georgia. The letter says that the Georgian Orthodox Church refused to confront the Soviet government and supported the cooperation.
Christopher III served as the Catholicos Patriarch of All Georgia until 1932. He was succeeded by Callistratus Tsintsadze. The Catholicos Patriarch was benevolent to Stalin, he even sent him a letter of thanks in 1948. In the early years, Callistratus Tsintsadze was an ally of Kyrion and Ambrosi and fought for the restoration of the autocephaly of the Georgian Church. He ruled the Patriarchate until 1952.
From Callistratus to Ilia II, there were three heads of the Patriarchate of all Georgia: Melchizedek (1952-60), Ephraim II (1960-72) and David V (1972-77).
Melchizedek did not show much opposition to Soviet power. Mose Mekvabishvili, the then representative of religious affairs, characterized Melchizedek as loyal to the Party and the Government explaining that the patriarch supported the Soviet government in establishing and keeping the peace.
Initially, Ephraim II was unacceptable to the Soviet authorities; he was considered a reactionary clergyman. Bishop Ephraim spent eight years in a Soviet concentration camp in Siberia. After he returned, he stopped his reactionary activities against the Government.
David VI continued the path of Melchizedek and was not in conflict with the Government. He was even a member of the Soviet Peacekeeping Committee.
Moreover, Eduard Shevardnadze, then high-rank soviet official and Georgian president in the future, explained that the Communist Party was deciding who would be the Catholicos-Patriarch. Thus, no wonder that the catholicos-patriarchs were benevolent towards the government of that time.
Catholicos Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II
Ilia II was born as Irakli Shiolashvili in 1933 in Vladikavkaz. The family was close to the clergy. The godfather of the future patriarch was Archimandrite Taras, the secretary of the Catholicos Patriarch Kyrion. Ilia met the then Patriarch Kalistrate Tsintsadze at the age of 3. In 1952, he completed the school in Vladikavkaz and as he was 20 years old, he continued his studies in Moscow Theological Academy, in the town of Sergiyev Posad (Zagorsk), Moscow Oblast.
Giorgi Tiginashvili, theologist says that this Theological Academy was under the command of the Committee for State Security (KGB).
“In 1952, Ilia II was credited alias ‘Iverieli’, because his diploma thesis was about the Athos Monastery in Iveria and its history,” Tiginashvili tells us.
Irakli Shiolashvili became a monk in 1957, at the age of 24 and Hierodiacon in the same year; in 1959, he became the hieromonk with the blessing of the Russian Patriarch.
After graduating from the Theological Academy in 1960, he was proposed to stay in Moscow and lecture, but instead, he returned to Georgia. He started to serve in Batumi Cathedral.
In 1961, he was promoted to hegumen and later to archimandrite. From 1963 he was also the head of the first and only Theological Seminary, he led “Theological Courses”.
In 1963, he was chosen to be the bishop of Batumi and Shemokmedi and was appointed as patriarchal vicar.
In 1967, Ilia was consecrated as the bishop of Tskhumi-Abkhazeti and elevated to the rank of metropolitan in 1969. From 1963 to 1972 he was also the first rector of the Mtskheta Theological Seminary.
After the death of the Catholicos Patriarch David V, he became the incumbent of the Patriarch. On 23 December of 1977, he was named as Ilia II and on 25 December he was elected as the new Catholicos Patriarch of Georgia. In 1979-83, Ilia II was the President of the World Council of Churches.
Ilia II could escape the Soviet past and Russian influence and change the course of the Patriarchate. However, following events show a different picture.
- 1997 – Georgia withdrew from the WCC (Ecumenical Council). As theologists explain, it is the same as to withdraw from the UN. Withdrawal from the Ecumenical Council was in the interests of Russia, as they want to prove the exceptional and unique character of the Russian Church.
- 2016 – Pan-Orthodox Council held in Crete, where Georgia reversed its decision two weeks before departure and refused to participate in the Council, being an act against the World Church in Constantinople and a benevolent act against the Russian Church. The leadership of the World Patriarch of Constantinople in the Orthodox world would be clearly visible at the Council of Crete. Whereas, Russia itself has the ambition to be the first. Archpriest Ilia Chighladze says that at that time Orthodoxy was divided into two wings, the Pro-Moscow and the Pro-Constantinople. Thus, not attending the Council meant to disrespect the World Patriarch and be on the side of the Russian Church: “Moscow tried to disrupt the Council meeting because the leadership of the world Patriarch would be visible. This is the most unacceptable for the Russian Church. “The wing that supported non-attendance, the rejection of the throne of Constantinople, the disrespect for the historical and canonical rights of the World Patriarchate won in the Georgian Church, and this was, of course, benevolent for Russia.”
- 2018 – Georgia has not recognized and still does not recognize the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church. In 2019, Hilarion Alfeyev, the head of the Department of External Church Relations, Russian Orthodox Church, warned that the Georgian Church should well understand what it faces if it recognizes Ukrainian autocephaly.
In addition to making decisions in favor of Russia from time to time, the Catholicos Patriarch also maintained close relations with both the Russian Orthodox Church and representatives of the Russian government.
4. March 4, 2007 – Ilia II attends the presentation of the Orthodox Encyclopedia in Moscow. At the official meeting, the Catholicos Patriarch said: “We have arrived at a very crucial time when the relations between Russia and Georgia are significantly complicated. We hope that these relations will improve in the near future and we will realize that the relations between the neighboring states should be stable and friendly. We need each other. There is a wonderful saying: In the morning, first, you see your neighbor before the sun rises… Georgia needs a united friendly Russia, Russia must need a united friendly Georgia… ”
5. December 9, 2008 – Ilia II meets Medvedev in Moscow. The Catholicos Patriarch said the President shows a good will to solve problems in the relationships, I think we will achieve a good result;
6. December 25, 2008 – Medvedev’s special envoy Mikhail Shvydkoy visited Georgia. He congratulated in the name of Medvedev on the jubilee of the Catholicos Patriarch and also handed over gifts sent by Lavrov to Ilia II;
7. July 28, 2011 – Ilia II, accompanied by Russian Catholicos Patriarch Kirill, visited Kyiv, Ukraine, where the Day of Christianization of Russia was celebrated in Kyiv. The Georgian delegation was accompanied by a famous pro-Russian businessman, Levan Vasadze;
8. November 19-20, 2011 – The Catholicos Patriarch of all Georgia visited his Russian colleague on his birthday and met with President Medvedev;
9. January 22, 2013 – Ilia paid a second visit to Russia, met with Vladimir Putin, during which he mentioned the 2008 occupation as a “mistake”, saying that we should forgive each other everything, hoping that Russia and Georgia would be brothers again. During the same visit, Russian Catholicos Patriarch Kirill said that political change in Georgia would change relations between our fraternal nations and states. Ilia II, together with Patriarch Kirill, held a service at the Church of the Assumption, where a year earlier, the inauguration of Vladimir Putin was held.
10. July 2013 – Catholicos Patriarch visits Russia for the second time. He attended the 1025th anniversary of the Christianization of Russia.
11.November 2016 – Ilia II visits Russia and personally congratulates Patriarch Kirill on his birthday.
12. The Catholicos Patriarch of Georgia rarely visited other orthodox countries. In 90s, Ilia II visited Orthodox Churches of Romania and Bulgaria. In 1987, 2000 and 2012, he visited Jerusalem. Also rarely, but he received the delegations from Greece, Bulgaria, Jerusalem, Romania, Albania, the World Patriarch of Constantinople also visited once.
Unlike other orthodox churches, the Russian Patriarchate has the official representative in Georgia – archpriest Vladimir Alexandrov. He was appointed to this position on 14 May 2018. Russian clergyman serves at St. Alexander Nevsky Church, Tbilisi. Official representatives of the Russian Church are being appointed in Georgia since 2009. First, archimandrite Roman Lukin was sent. He was supposed to be a priest of the Russian community, but if necessary, he was to express the positions and opinions of the Russian Orthodox Church.
As the theologist Mirian Gamrekelashvili says that in settling the issue of autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church, Russia needed to control the positions of the Georgian Church and the appointment of Vladimir Alexandrov was related to it as well:
“From the very beginning, this fact was covered with a diplomatic veil. At first glance, he was the eye and ear of Kiril in Georgia and the exarch as well. The Russian Patriarchate considered the moment if Georgia risk and support the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church. One of the functions of this priest was to keep a close eye on the inside situation. This man is not for preaching pro-Russian Christianity in Georgia; it is perfectly done by the church itself; one cannot preach more Russophilia than that. ”
Like the Catholicos-Patriarch, part of the Synod members and clergymen are benevolent to Russia, having voicing the Russian opinions in their churches.
Benevolence to Russia induced the fact that the influence counting from the Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union continued in the tenure of Ilia II, depicting and rooting in every single detail of the routine activities of the Church. The theologists outline several directions being common for the Russian and Georgian orthodox churches.
Archpriest Ilia Chigladze underlines that the icons of the Russian saints are more popular in Georgian churches then the icons of the Georgian saints. Theologist Zurab Jashi tells us how the Russian breviaries, created in 18th century, were rooted in the Georgian churches. Moreover, some of the present clergymen even perceive it as Georgian and cannot see the difference.
Financing from Russian business
The Georgian Orthodox Church is also financed with Russian money. Russian businessmen are involved in the construction of the churches. Trinity Cathedral in Batumi was built with the financial support of Russian businessman Shalva Breuss.
Shalva Breuss held government positions in Russia. In 2000-2003 he was the Deputy Minister of the Property Management of Russia, and in 1998-99 he was the Deputy of Alexander Lebed, governor of the Krasnoyarsk Krai. General Lebed led the April 9, 1989 suppression of demonstrations in Tbilisi. He was the commander of the Soviet Army division.
In 2002, Ilia II awarded Breuss with the Golden Order of St. George – the highest award of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia. In 2015, during the blessing of the church, Metropolitan Dimitri publicly thanked Shalva Breuss for building the church.
Soso Orjonikidze, a Georgian businessman in Russia, built a church in the center of Borjomi. Soso Orjonikidze was the Deputy Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, in 1992-2007.
Ivane (Shengelia) Savelich also supports the needs of the Georgian Church financially. He built a church named after three priests in Tbilisi. Savelich operates in the oil and gas business in Russia.
Elguja (Buba) Keburia is another Georgian, having gained his fortune in Russia. He runs hotel and restaurant business in Moscow. He actively helps the Georgian church. In May of 2009, he financed the construction of the orthodox church in Paris. Ilia II thanked him publicly.
Ilia II has a close relationship with Russian businessman Gocha Dzasokhov. They met twice, in 2009 and 2013 in Moscow. In January of 2013, Anatoly Pliev, the Secretary of the Security Council of so-called South Ossetia also attended the meeting.
In 2009, Gocha Dzasokhov said about the War of August”: “The armed conflict was the tip of cynicism from the side of the Georgian authorities. They deviated from the chosen historical path. The confrontation with Russia will be devastating. Partnership and good neighborhood with Russia are the main guarantees of restoring territorial integrity.”
Businessman Dzasokhov is the president of the “Assembly of Georgian Peoples” in Russia. In 2013 he said that he would work actively to popularize Russian schools in Georgia. In 2018, his wife Natalia Dzasokhova opened a Russian school “Intellect Plus” in Tbilisi. The school building and 4,683 sq.m. parcel of land were transferred by the government through direct sale. In 2015, they taught from a book that referred to Abkhazia and Samachablo as independent states.
In 2013, Gocha Dzasokhov congratulated the Patriarch on the anniversary of his enthronement in an open letter and spoke about his public activities. Dzasokhov thanked Ilia II for the prayers and blessing of the establishment of the “Assembly of Georgian Peoples”.
What is the Patriarchy doing in Georgia today?
Representatives of the present Patriarchy openly support pro-Russian groups operating in Georgia. Support includes their physical presence or moral-verbal support at rallies. For example, we have seen clergymen speaking at rallies organized by Georgian March or Levan Vasadze’s groupings, who do not oppose even the call for physical violence by the organizers of the rallies against others.
Recently, Ioane Gamrekeli, the Metropolitan of Kutaisi-Gaenati, provided the Alliance of Patriots – a political party run and financed by Russia, with the yard of the Bagrati Cathedral to meet with the party activists.
And Gerasime Sharashenidze, the Metropolitan of Zugdidi, welcomed Levan Vasadze and his entourage with the feast in the marquee.
Giorgi Jamdeliani, the Metropolitan of Marneuli and Hujabi Eparchy, often hosts Dimitri Lortkipanidze, the head of the Primakov Foundation established by the Russian government in Georgia. Members of the Georgian March often visit Jamdeliani.
The Catholicos Patriarch is no less than others and he often hosts the leaders of the “Georgian March” in his native village of Sno. According to the Estonian intelligence, the “Georgian March” is a Russian-led force.
The Georgian March, the Alliance of Patriots, and Levan Vasadze all are running the anti-west campaigns in Georgia and serve the anti-government goals. They often oppose NATO and the European Union, spreading messages and misinformation acceptable to Russia.
Whereas, the Patriarchy, the most trusted institution in the country, openly supports these forces. And the Georgians support the Patriarchy benevolent to Russia and its high hierarchs.
There seems to be little hope for the transfiguration of the high-ranking hierarchy of the Georgian Patriarchate in favor of Georgia.
In 2017, the Catholicos Patriarch Ilia II announced an appointment of Shio Mujiri, Metropolitan of Senaki and Chkhorotsku, Australia and New Zealand as the patriarchal locum tenens. Mujiri received his theological education in Russia. That is why some theologians think that Shio was an acceptable candidate for Russia.
On top of his Russian education and years spent at the Moscow Cathedral, Shio Mujiri has a particularly close relationship with pro-Russian businessman Levan Vasadze. They have been friends since childhood. Vasadze sponsored the publication of Shio Mujiri’s book and often attends events with him.