Home > Features > Alexei II: Russian Patriarch who saw in big changes – Obituary

Alexei II: Russian Patriarch who saw in big changes – Obituary

Patriarch Alexei II of the Russian Orthodox Church

Patriarch Alexei II of the Russian Orthodox Church, who died on 5 December at the age of 79, will go down in history as the cleric who presided over Russia’s "second baptism" – the post-communist era which saw the liberation of the Russian Orthodox Church, as well as the restoration of battered church buildings and, even more important, of the church’s status as an institution at the very heart of the nation’s cultural and political life.

Much had to be done in the 1990s as the church, with no experience of a modern pluralist democratic society, struggled to preserve its traditional theology and practices in a rapidly changing nation. The Patriarch approached the challenge cautiously, making the unity of his church his priority, and steering a careful path between the reforms advocated by progressive clergy and the deep-rooted conservatism of others.

Alexei’s ability to balance forces within the church was seen as perhaps his greatest asset. But, in the eyes of some of his critics, it was the root of his inability to provide strong leadership for the church.

In 1988, Christianity’s 1000th anniversary in Russia and a watershed signalling the start of more liberal attitudes among the Soviet authorities, the church had 67 dioceses and about 6900 parishes. Almost two decades later it had 133 dioceses and about 25 000 parishes.

Under Alexei, the Patriarch’s authority reached levels only dreamed of by previous church leaders. Alexei had Russian and visiting foreign dignitaries queuing up for audiences at his residence. He appeared alongside Russia’s post-Soviet presidents at almost every major national event, and was ceremonially greeted by local governors at airports across Russia when he arrived. He made more than 70 pastoral trips in a decade to various dioceses. Soviet restrictions had previously made such behaviour unthinkable.

Despite a perception in the West that the Russian Orthodox Church remained too closely allied to the Russian state, Alexei was a firm opponent of the idea of a "State Church". He preferred a more subtle and complex relationship based on what Orthodox know as the Byzantine symphonia. This meant cooperation with the authorities in areas useful for the church, combined with insistence on absolute independence from the government in internal church matters.

When war broke out in mid-2008 between Russia and Georgia over the disputed territory of South Ossetia, Patriarch Alexei urged negotiations that would "respect the traditions, views and hopes of the Georgian and Ossetian peoples", and said that the Russian Orthodox Church was ready to work with the Georgian Orthodox Church in a peace effort.

Alexei’s political and diplomatic skills showed success in a socially and politically divided society, in that he remained a national figure respected by both liberals and communists. From the 1990s, his slowly delivered, sing-song speeches became familiar to almost every Russian with access to a radio or television set, as did the Patriarch’s insistence on tolerance and cooperation with Russia’s other "traditional" faiths.

At the same time, he carefully promoted the view that his church had a "special role" in Russia, and he sought to stem a tide of foreign missionaries arriving in the country after the collapse of communism. Hence his strong support for a controversial 1997 law on religious associations, which tightened up the procedures for the registration of religious organisations.

Alexei himself described his years as head of the church as "very hard". Under his leadership, there were victories, but also disappointments. Though 50 to 60 per cent of Russians describe themselves as Orthodox Christians in polls and censuses, only a tiny proportion – between one and five per cent – attend church regularly. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of nationalism in its former republics led to painful schisms, particularly in the Ukraine, where the Russian Orthodox Church was first established in 988.

Still, under Alexei’s leadership, the Moscow Patriarchate was in 2007 able to heal a schism with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, an émigré church that broke away in 1927 after the Bolshevik Revolution.

The Patriarch was criticised, particularly in the Western media, for communist-era connections with the Soviet security agency, the KGB. But in Russia, even the church’s critics agreed Alexei was the best leader the Russian church could have hoped for at this crucial time in history.

Alexei’s early life was spent in Estonia. His father, a Russian of Swedish descent, had emigrated in 1917 from Petrograd (St Petersburg) to Tallinn, capital of Estonia, where he worked as an engineer. He joined the Russian Students’ Christian Movement, which brought young Russian intellectuals into the church. Alexei’s father was ordained a priest in 1940.

Alexei Mikhailovich Ridiger was born on 23 February 1929 in Tallinn. Throughout his childhood, Alexei and his family enjoyed a vibrant community and religious life in Estonia (an independent nation at the time), where the Russian Orthodox tradition had escaped the violent Soviet anti-religion campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s.

Pilgrimages to monasteries, in particular to the Island of Valaam (Valamo) on Lake Ladoga, then part of Finland, helped determine Alexei’s future. "When I was 10 years old, the Valaam monastery, with its traditions of monastic life, left on me an indelible impression, one that still remains with me today," Alexei recalled decades later.

In the Second World War era, as Estonia shifted from Soviet to German occupation and back again, Alexei served as a sacristan and sub-deacon in Tallinn. In 1947 he was accepted into the Leningrad Theological Seminary, and in 1950 he was ordained as a celibate priest, taking up his first parish in the Estonian coal mining town of Jyhvi.

In March 1961 he took monastic vows, and later that year he was consecrated Bishop of Tallinn and Estonia. Within a few years he became archbishop and then metropolitan, serving as deputy chairperson of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations, and as head of the educational committee which supervised seminaries. From 1964 to 1986 he held the post of chancellor of the Moscow Patriarchate under two patriarchs, Alexei I and Pimen.

Even when he was appointed to the Russian Orthodox Church’s third most important see – Leningrad – in 1986, Alexei continued to administer the Tallinn diocese, which he relinquished only after his election as Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in June 1990.

In the mid-1990s, his loyalty to Estonia suffered a blow when, under pressure from the newly independent Estonian government, many Orthodox parishes in his homeland switched their allegiance from Moscow to the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

The conflict prompted a temporary break in communion between Alexei and the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomeos I. Though the disagreement was partially patched up, it continued to smoulder. It led in 2008 to the Russian church suspending its membership of the Conference of European Churches, of which Alexei had once been president, over the non-admittance of the Estonian Orthodox church linked to the Moscow Patriarchate.

In the 1960s Alexei was rising through the hierarchy during a post-Stalinist thaw in the Soviet Union. Still, the church suffered a new wave of Soviet persecution in this period. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev promised that one day he would put the Soviet Union’s "last priest" on display on television.

The hierarchy felt it had to make painful compromises to protect the church and its members. Under the guidance of an enthusiastic and resourceful "Westerniser", Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov) of Leningrad, many top church officials made the most of links with the ecumenical movement abroad in order to protect the church at home. This diplomatic strategy was often controversial. It still causes unease to some Western church historians and Russian church activists as it allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to prove useful to the Soviet authorities by sharing Russian views with ecumenical organisations such as the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (which the Russian church joined in 1961). At the same time, ecumenical contacts and pressure helped protect Russian churches and monasteries from closure.

Whatever views historians take of such tactics, the ecumenical connection brought the Russian church out of its isolation and groomed a generation of leaders who later – in the 1990s – were able to put the church back on the path to revival and to defend ecumenism.

From the 1960s, Alexei was a vigorous supporter of ecumenism. He played a major role in theological dialogue with Protestant churches in Germany and Finland, and held a seat on the World Council of Churches’ governing body, its central committee. But his most important ecumenical contribution was as a member of the presidium of the Conference of European Churches, and its president from 1987 until 1992.

Despite Alexei’s enthusiasm, and that of other intellectual leaders within the Russian church, many Russians remained deeply hostile towards ecumenism, viewing such links as heretical. In the 1990s, when many clergy and lay people demanded the church’s withdrawal from the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches, Patriarch Alexei reminded them of the support the ecumenical organisations had given to the Russian church in the days under Soviet rule. At the same time, he, along with other Russian church leaders, called for the Orthodox churches to have a greater voice in these international church organisations, which they often saw as too dominated by Protestant thinking.

Throughout the 1990s, there were often questions from Western media about Alexei’s previous dealings with the KGB. Many Russians recognised that Alexei’s position as a high-ranking church official and ecumenist required a certain amount of cooperation with the Soviet authorities. But some tried to suggest that early in his career Alexei had been an active agent for the KGB, entirely different from the routine handing over of information required of most church officials in the communist countries of Eastern Europe.

The Patriarch explained his activities in an interview with a Moscow daily newspaper, Izvestia, in June 1991, offering a public apology: "Defending one thing [the Church], it was necessary to give somewhere else. Were there any other organizations, or any other people among those who had to take responsibility, not only for themselves but for thousands of other lives, who in those years in the Soviet Union were not compelled to act likewise? Before those people, however, to whom the compromises, silence, forced passivity or expressions of loyalty [to the Soviet state] given by leaders of the church in those years caused pain, for these people, as well as before God, I ask forgiveness, understanding and prayers."

For the majority of Russian Orthodox Christians, Alexei had done what the protection of his church required, and they believed he had not crossed the fine line between required cooperation and sinful treachery.

Many observers noted the balancing act between religious leadership and political influence was a complex and challenging task after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Yeltsin era began with a blessing from the Patriarch at the presidential inauguration at the Kremlin in 1991. A month later, during an attempted coup against Yeltsin, Alexei came out firmly in support of the president, urging peace and condemning the coup in posters displayed on trolley buses and buildings near the seat of the Russian parliament, the White House. Yeltsin’s successor as Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was known for a close relationship with Alexei, and he praised the Russian church for helping to contribute to the promotion of moral values in society. The current president, Dmitry Medvedev, was inaugurated in the Kremlin with pomp, circumstance, and prayers from Alexei.

Within the church itself, Alexei as leader had to deal with a crisis in Ukraine in the early 1990s. Thousands of parishes, mainly in the western part of the country, broke away from the Moscow Patriarchate, some to join the Vatican-affiliated Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, others to join one of the three self-proclaimed independent Ukrainian Orthodox churches.

This development contributed to a deteriorating relationship between the Russian church and the Vatican. The difficulties were a major obstacle to one of Pope John Paul II’s greatest desires – to visit Moscow in a sign of reconciliation with Orthodoxy.

Every few years there was a report of a potential papal meeting – none materialised. In 2002 Vladimir Putin even said he expected during his time as head of state to host a visit by Pope John Paul II, a suggestion quickly criticised by Alexei.

Most recently there were media reports that Patriarch Alexei and Pope Benedict XVI might meet in 2009 at an interfaith gathering at the Azerbaijani capital of Baku.

As leader of his church, Patriarch Alexei lived mainly in a Peredelkino suburban residence, 40 kilometres from central Moscow, and had few personal friends. A celibate monk, he had no immediate family and he seems to have had few of the comforts of family life. His practice of relying heavily on a close circle of loyal aides also stoked occasional controversy. Despite suffering for many years from a weak heart and lungs, as well as mild diabetes, he was a tireless worker and preacher. Nothing prevented Alexei from taking part in extended church liturgies, during which he gave communion to congregations that sometimes included thousands of worshippers.

World Council of Churches information on Russian Orthodox Church: www.oikoumene.org/en/member-churches/regions/europe/russian-federation/russian-orthodox-church.html

[Stephen Brown contributed to this article, which was prepared by Andrei Zolotov while a correspondent for Ecumenical News International.]

(c) Ecumenical News International

Photo : Patriarch Alexei II of the Russian Orthodox Church