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Analysis & Opinion
12.12.08 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: The Role Of The Patriarch
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

The head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, died at the age of 79 last week of heart-related illnesses. Alexy II helped restore the moral authority of the Russian Orthodox Church following decades of repression under communism. President Dmitry Medvedev made an emotional televised statement from India, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called the patriarch’s death a "great loss." But has Alexy’s policy of closely aligning the Church and the state been good for the Church and for Russia as a society? Has his rule contributed to religious tolerance and freedom to worship in Russia? Why would the Church want to be an international agent for the Russian government?

Contributors: James Jatras, Andrei Tsygankov

Born Alexei Ridiger in a Russian Orthodox family living in Estonia in 1929, the future patriarch rose swiftly through the ranks of the Church, having studied theology in St. Petersburg. Alexy II became the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1990, shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union. He has been instrumental in the spiritual revival of Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under his leadership, the Orthodox Church reestablished its moral authority and even played a crucial role in preventing a flare up of a new civil war in 1993.

Alexy II insisted on his Church's right to be the sole national Church of Russia, bringing the scattered branches of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, whose members fled to escape the Bolshevik Revolution, back under the control of the Moscow Patriarchate. The ending of this 80 year-old schism within the Church has been a major achievement for the patriarch.

He also closely aligned himself with the Kremlin’s foreign policy stances, particularly in the former Soviet Union, while the state actively supported and promoted the reunification with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (president Putin, an ardent believer himself, was personally involved in negotiations between the Churches).
On certain foreign policy issues, the interests of the Church and the State have been intertwined – for example, the Russian government strongly defends the Church’s interests in Ukraine, where the Moscow Patriarchate is under pressure from the Ukrainian branch of the Church, actively supported by the Ukrainian government as an essential element of the Ukrainian nationhood.

But has Alexy’s policy of closely aligning the Church and the state been good for the Church and for Russia as a society? Has his rule contributed to religious tolerance and freedom to worship in Russia, or has it led to diminished religious freedoms? Why would the Church want to be an international agent for the Russian government? Has the Russian Orthodox Church been an agent of modernization for the Russian society, or has its influence been to restore traditional values and impede influences from abroad? Are the Church and its senior clergy the real beacons of moral authority in Russia, or have they been tainted by corruption? Who of the current Church leaders is seen as the most likely successor to Alexy II? And what are the ideological differences within the Church’s leadership?

James George Jatras, Director, American Council for Kosovo, Washington DC:

The recognized godfather of modern Orthodox-inspired Russian patriotism, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, once characterized Bolshevism as a promethean effort to rub off the age-old face of Russia and to replace it with a new, ersatz Soviet image. Historians will argue for years if that monstrous experiment was doomed to failure, when and how that failure might have occurred at critical historical junctures, and especially who the indispensable figures in communism’s eventual demise were. But there is little question that in the chronicles of Russia’s restoration as a recognizably Orthodox Christian country, the late Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia will figure high on that list.

While few realistically could expect the end of communism to entail the reinstatement of dispossessed noble families’ lands and estates, or a formal reestablishment of the Church and the monarchy, “restoration” is indeed the right term. After the long, sub-rosa civil war that constituted the communists’ decades-long efforts to overcome Russians’ obstinate unwillingness or inability to conform their lives and consciences to the insane, alien scribblings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin, Americans and other Westerners familiar with Russia today can only be astounded at the miraculous – there is no other word for it – degree to which the Orthodox Church has become the national moral conscience, including in state, and especially military affairs. While Americans, with our history of government neutrality among churches, might be a bit taken aback at state officials’ participating in Orthodox services to bless the launch of a new nuclear submarine or to celebrate the patron Saint’s Day of a military unit, given the degree to which Christianity is being ruthlessly purged from our own public life we might feel just a twinge of envy.

That this state of affairs came into being relatively peacefully during the dangerous days of the Soviet regime’s final agony is largely Alexy’s doing, most critically during the failed August 1991 putsch, when Soviet diehards sought to overthrow the government of the Russian Federation headed by President Boris Yeltsin. Alexy’s stern anathema against the shedding of civil blood is credited for the fact that the Soviet military refused to take action in support of the coup, and that the death toll was kept to just three persons:

“Every person who raises arms against his neighbor, against unarmed civilians, will be taking upon his soul a very profound sin which will separate him from the Church and from God. It is appropriate to shed more tears and say more prayers for such people than for their victims. May God protect you from the terrible sin of fratricide. I solemnly warn all my fellow-citizens: the Church does not condone and cannot condone unlawful and violent acts and the shedding of blood. I ask all of you, my dear ones, to do everything possible to prevent the flame of civil war from bursting forth. Cease at once!”

The success of Alexy’s warning, issued in response to an appeal by Yeltsin, is all the more remarkable in that it would be heeded by officers and men of the Red Army, originally created to crush Russian resistance to an earlier Bolshevik coup d’?tat in October of 1917. The army’s response did not materialize in thin air, but reflects Alexy’s amazingly deft cultivation of the armed forces, and even elements of the KGB, well before his rise to the patriarchate.

During the 1980s, first as Metropolitan of his native Tallinn (Estonia) and of Leningrad, Alexy was remarkably successful in securing the Soviet authorities’ acquiescence to the restoration of the Church of the celebrated Danilov Monastery – now once again official headquarters of the patriarchate – and the KGB’s return of the relics of the famous military saint and champion of Orthodoxy against the Roman Catholic Swedes and Teutonic Knights, Prince Aleksandr Nevsky. His masterful use of the 1988 celebration of the millennium of the Baptism of Rus’ under Saint Prince Vladimir of Kiev was a major milestone in the Church’s assumption of its current commanding role. At the same time, it must be noted that little of this would have been possible if Alexy had not himself been a longtime operative of the KGB.

Perhaps Alexy’s crowning accomplishment was his central role in the 2007 reunion of the branches of the Russian Church abroad and at home, of which then-President Vladimir Putin was hardly less a champion than Alexy. The reunification, together with glorification of the Royal Martyrs Nicholas II and his family, the return to Sarov of the relics of Saint Seraphim, and the veneration of warrior saints such as Nevsky and Prince Dmitry Donsky, signaled the reconsolidation of what had been ripped apart in 1917. Its counterpart in the civil sphere is Putin’s careful and deliberate amalgamation of White and Red symbolism, such as keeping the old Soviet melody for the Russian national anthem, but with new noncommunist words, and the restoration of the St. Andrew’s ensign to the navy, while keeping the red star on military vehicles and aircraft. This synthesis lends itself to the vision articulated by the later General Aleksandr Lebed: “The Church strengthens the army; the army defends the Church. And on this restored spiritual axis – the two forces of our great power (dyerzhava) – we can begin to feel like Russians again.”

Andrei Tsygankov, Professor of International Relations, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA:

The death of Patriarch Alexy II is a very sad occasion to reflect on the Church’s role in the present and the future of Russia. His legacy, especially judged by the standards of our tumultuous time, is very impressive. It includes preservation of the Church’s unity, a strong dialogue with other confessions at home and abroad, a remarkably balanced position in regard to secular authorities, a spiritual guidance and blessing given to the beginning of reconciliation between the “internal” and “external” Orthodox Church, and – above all – increasingly hopeful signs of Russians’ return to their traditions and beliefs.

Under Alexy II, the Church has provided contemporary Russia with important lessons to follow. There are reasons why the number of self-identified believers in Russia has grown three times since the early 1990s, why the number of churches multiplied to 30,000 and the number of monasteries to 700 from 18, and why the Orthodox Church has remained by far the most trusted institution in the country. These reasons have to do with a deep spiritual crisis in Russia, and pessimism that many Russians feel regarding the state’s ability to formulate a long-term vision of national recovery. The state record in developing a coherent response to important ideological and spiritual questions of our time has been less than satisfactory, which, in the Russian context, has translated into rapidly developing phenomena of corruption, street crime, and violent ethno-nationalism. Even though state officials avoid and even occasionally ridicule Russia’s search for a national idea, Russians can hardly move forward without answering their big or existential questions. As a civilization it its own right and a country with a rich spiritual history, Russians won’t settle for a technocratic vision and will continue to be thirsty for a newly incarnated national idea.

Historically, the Orthodox Church has been a critically important contributor to the Russian idea, and it would be essential to let it be a legitimate part of the process of forming such idea in the future. The Church has simple solutions to problems of Russia’s state disintegration, and they are in the area of ethics and morality, and not in that of increasing the level of GDP and living standards. No economy and the political system will function without the people’s agreement to follow simple moral rules. Patriarch Alexy II understood well that Russia’s solutions would come from reviving families, social traditions of mutual help, charity and religious education, and he was doing his best to facilitate a dialogue with the state regarding these issues. His successor must continue to act on Alexy’s message and encourage completion of the spiritual break with the Soviet era by restoring Russia’s historic moral traditions. Russian idealism requires it.
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