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Patriarch Alexy II: Priest who stayed close to the Kremlin while guiding the Russian Orthodox Church into the post-Soviet era

By Felix Corley
Saturday, 6 December 2008

Alexy during a service at his residence in Moscow in 2005


Alexy during a service at his residence in Moscow in 2005

Patriarch Alexy II headed the Russian Orthodox Church at a difficult time in its history as it managed the transition from semi-official but restricted Church in an atheist state to semi-official Church in a half-reformed, unsettled post-imperial state.

As patriarch he tried to hold the ring between conservatives, suspicious at any sign of abandoning old values, and reformers, who believed that only by changing itself could the Church make its voice heard to a secularised generation raised under atheist rule.

Alexy was born Alexey Ridiger in 1929 in Tallinn, the capital of independent Estonia. His family was Russian-speaking, of Swedish or German origin, only coming to Estonia in 1917 from the turmoil of Petrograd. A former neighbour in Estonia remembered that they considered themselves Russian. His father, an Orthodox priest, was known as a Russifier in the pre-war Estonian Church.

After the wartime Soviet annexation of Estonia, Ridiger became a Soviet citizen. He entered the Leningrad Theological Seminary in 1947, graduating two years later. He was ordained priest in Leningrad in April 1950 at the age of only 21 and appointed to a parish in Johvi in north-eastern Estonia. While there he continued his external studies at the Leningrad Theological Academy, graduating in 1953 with a thesis on the 19th-century Metropolitan of Moscow Filaret Drozdov. In July 1957 he was appointed to a parish in Tartu as local dean.

He had married in Leningrad on 11 April 1950, just a week before his ordination, though the marriage was to remain shrouded in mystery. His wife was Vera Alekseeva, daughter of a priest who later became Bishop Ioann of Tallinn. The service was conducted by their fathers (tradition says that this would bring bad luck) and took place in the immediate aftermath of Easter, when Orthodox custom does not normally allow weddings. It was rumoured that the wedding and ordination were rushed forward to prevent Ridiger being called up into the Soviet Army. However, the marriage was soon dissolved, apparently on the grounds of non-consummation. This then made Ridiger eligible to rise into the ranks of the episcopate.

Ridiger's pedigree and his brilliant studies drew him to the attention of the KGB, which determined religious appointments in the Soviet Union in collaboration with the government's Council for Religious Affairs (CRA). He was formally recruited in February 1958 "on the basis of patriotic feelings" and given the code name "Drozdov". The KGB described their new recruit as "punctilious, energetic and personable" and praised him for his "willing attitude" to co-operation. He was earmarked to become Bishop of Tallinn and recommended for international work, a sign of the authorities' trust.

Ridiger's career did indeed take off from there. He was tonsured as a monk at the monastery in Zagorsk in March 1961, taking the name Alexy, and that September was consecrated Bishop of Tallinn (and temporarily of Riga) in Tallinn's imposing Orthodox cathedral. He was upgraded to Archbishop in 1964 and Metropolitan in 1968.

But Alexy was destined to play a leading role in the wider Russian Church and abroad. He joined the Church's governing body, the Holy Synod, and became chancellor of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1964, a jobhe held for the next 22 years. This powerful position – impossible withoutthe trust of the Soviet authorities – led to accusations that he was too closely identified with implementing the government's anti-religious policies. Documents show he fulfilled KGB commands in quelling protests among monks at the Pskov Monastery ofthe Caves.

The Soviet authorities also viewed Alexy as reliable in foreign work. He became a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches in 1961, the year he became a bishop and the year the Russian Orthodox Church joined the WCC. Later he would be heavily involved in the Conference of European Churches, of which he became president in 1972 and chairman in 1987.

After each trip abroad he reported back fully to the KGB and the CRA, giving them information on events and individuals. In 1974, in a secret assessment, the deputy chairman of the CRA put him in the category of bishops most loyal to the Soviet state. His reporting and implementation of the state's wishes brought him a secret KGB award in February 1988.

In 1986 Alexy was appointed Metropolitan of Leningrad and Novgorod, traditionally the Church's second most important diocese after the patriarchal diocese, while retaining his post in Tallinn. His time in Leningrad coincided with Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, which considerably loosened the restrictions on religious groups. Alexy was one of the first hierarchs to speak out for a greater Church role in public life.

Indeed, soon after Gorbachev became general secretary in 1985 (and before he had been named to Leningrad), Alexy had written to the new leader offering the Church's services in tackling some of the country's problems by improving the people's spiritual and moral health. Officials told Alexy not to interfere in politics.

In 1989 he was nominated as a member of the USSR Congress of People's Deputies by the Soviet Charity Fund and took an active part in the Congress until it was abolished in 1991 with the end of the Soviet Union. Following the death of the reclusive Patriarch Pimen in May 1990, Alexy was elected the following month as 15th Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus.

The failed coup attempt of August 1991 posed his first major test. While a number of priests rallied to the democratic cause at the White House, Alexy prevaricated, merely dropping the traditional prayer for the government from the liturgy he served in one of the Kremlin cathedrals on the first day of the coup (during which the advancing tanks could clearly be heard). When he saw the coup crumbling – though the fear of a last-ditch violent assault on the White House was still present – Alexy issued a strong condemnation of violence, calling fratricide a "grave sin". In the 1993 crisis, when President Boris Yeltsin turned guns on his own parliament, Alexy tried to mediate, but with little success.

Despite opposing extreme nationalism, condemning bloodshed in solving disputes and supporting dialogue, Alexy's record – whether on Lithuania or Chechnya – often seemed closer to supporting Moscow's imperial tendencies. As leader of the Russian Church, Alexy had to deal with a host of problems. He rejected any renunciation of past collaboration between the Church and the Soviet regime, preferring not to rake over the events of the Communist era. This failed to please church reformers like Father Gleb Yakunin, who called for thorough repentance and a fresh start.

Alexy did all in his power to prevent Ukrainian Greek Catholics, whose church was banned between 1946 and 1989, returning to their ancestral faith and to prevent the Orthodox Churches absorbed by the Russian Church in the wake of the Soviet conquests, including those of his homeland Estonia, Ukraine, Moldova and Latvia, reasserting their independence. Within the Church he was caught between conservatives – led until his death in 1995 by Metropolitan Ioann of St Petersburg – and liberals. Under extreme conservative pressure, Alexy disciplined a number of liberal Moscow priests but fell short of backing their excommunication. In a powerful speech to New York rabbis in 1991 he condemned anti-Semitism, but he was bitterly attacked by the conservatives and back-tracked.

Alexy turned away from his earlier promotion of ecumenism, fiercely attacking non-Orthodox Christian groups, singling out the Roman Catholic Church on several occasions for its alleged "proselytism" in Russia. One of the sharpest attacks came during a visit to Lambeth Palace in 1991, rather embarrassing his hosts. He twice called off proposed meetings with Pope John Paul, once in 1996 in Pannonhalma in Hungary, once in 1997 in Vienna. At times he also seemed to be challenging the traditional primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarch – the most senior Orthodox bishop – among the Orthodox Churches. Alexy strongly supported moves to tighten up Russia's liberal 1990 law on religion to make it more difficult for foreigners to play a role in Russia's religious life, a goal achieved in 1997.

At home he remained close to the Kremlin, often appearing in public with President Yeltsin. When Vladimir Putin was sworn in as acting president in January 2000, Alexy was on hand to bless him. He was vigorous in his defence of the Russian government's attempts to suppress Chechen separatism and during the brutal wars rarely expressed much sympathy for suffering Chechen civilians.

At one time close to Moscow's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov – Alexy was pleased that Luzhkov's pet project of rebuilding the city's massive Christ the Saviour cathedral was successful – he backed away when Luzhkov fell from Kremlin favour.

In his final years, Alexy could take comfort over achieving the long-desired reconciliation with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which had broken with the Moscow Patriarchate in the early Soviet years in response to government persecution of the Church. However, as with the campaign to crush the independent spirit of the Patriarchate's diocese in Britain in 2006, most of the running was done by Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk as Alexy looked on.

Alexy could have been a great patriarch in less political times. He was intelligent, well-educated, diplomatic and hard-working, and was assiduous in making pastoral visits to dioceses and parishes throughout Russia. He had the qualities to discern the issues the Church needed to tackle. His long experience of working with anti-religious authorities gave him some skill at promoting what was possible in a difficult climate. But he lacked the conviction to follow through the vision the Church needed in troubled times. The compromises he felt obliged to make in the post-Communist era to keep a disparate Church together made him look weak and vacillating.

Alexey Mikhailovich Ridiger, priest: born Tallinn, Estonia 23 February 1929; ordained priest 1950; tonsured as a monk 1961, taking the name Alexy; Bishop of Tallinn 1961-64, Archbishop 1964-68, Metropolitan 1968-87; Metropolitan of Leningrad 1987-90; Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia 1990-2008; married 1950 Vera Alekseeva (marriage dissolved 1950); died Moscow 5 December 2008.

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