12/05/2008, 00.00
RUSSIA
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Alexy II, the contradictions of Orthodoxy and of Russia

The deceased patriarch lived through the period from Stalin to Khrushchev; from Gorbachev to Putin. He worked for the expansion of the Russian Orthodox Church, sometimes in conflict with Constantinople. He also admitted periods of "compromise" with the Soviet government. Condolences from Putin and Medvedev.

Moscow (AsiaNews) - Alexy II, patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church for 18 years, guided his community through one of the most difficult periods in his country. His personality reveals contradictory traits.

Born in 1929 in independent Estonia, Alexy Ridiger was a supporter of those who wanted to absorb the Church of Estonia into the patriarchate of Moscow. In 1947, when Stalin tried to use the Orthodox Church to crush the Catholics, the young Alexy entered the seminary in Leningrad. In 1950, he married and became a deacon (it is said he did this to avoid military service). Years later, he divorced in order to undertake monastic life, which led him to the episcopate. In 1961, he became bishop of Tallin. His episcopal ordination took place under Khrushchev, together with other bishops who - according to scholars of Orthodoxy - had the task of leading the Orthodox Church to a "soft death".

Beginning in 1961, his career continued to advance: vice president of the department for external relations in 1961; archbishop in 1964; that same year he became chancellor of the patriarchate of Moscow and a permanent member of the synod. From 1963-1979 he was also a member of the synod commission for Christian unity and relations among Churches.

When he was elected patriarch of Moscow in 1990, many saw him as a man of perestroika ("reconstruction," "reform"), since he had long supported the openness of Gorbachev, expressing the hope that the Church would also undertake the same reform and that a clear distinction would be made between Church and state. Given his long experience as a representative for ecumenism and inter-Christian relations, many hoped that he would give a strong impulse to ecumenism and to unity among the Churches. Instead, this did not happen, or happened only within the Orthodox world of the Russian tradition.

Patching Russian Orthodoxy back together

Alexy II had to face the collapse of the USSR, with the consequent proliferation of Churches that declared themselves autocephalous in the former republics that had become independent. In order to maintain his sphere of influence over the communities of faithful belonging to the Community of Independent States, he had to come to terms with the national (or nationalistic) character of each Orthodox Church. His work to unite with Moscow the various denominations that had been created beginning in the 1990's permitted Alexy II to bring the Church of the third Rome into the top spot, by number of faithful, among all Orthodox Churches. But still today, the result is not definitive.

The case of Ukraine is the most paradigmatic, with the Orthodox faithful today divided into three different Churches. In 1990, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was created, which remained connected to the patriarch of Moscow (COU-PM), as well as the Autocephalous Ukrainian Church (COUA), which was nationalist in character. In 1992, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Kiev (COU-PK) was created, at the initiative of Metropolitan Filaret, who was removed from leadership of the COU-PM and was excommunicated by Moscow in 1997.

This fragmentation was one of the areas of conflict between Moscow and Constantinople, another real testing ground for the leadership of Alexy II. After the years of marginalization suffered under the Soviet regime, Moscow raised its head up again and began to contend with the second Rome for primacy within Orthodoxy.

The accusations of collaboration with the KGB

During his leadership, various sources often accused him of collaborating with the KGB. These also included Fr. Gleb Yakunin, an Orthodox priest who fought for religious freedom during the Soviet years. The patriarchate of Moscow has always denied these accusations. But Alexy II himself once admitted the existence of compromises: "In order to defend one thing, it was necessary to say something else. Were there other organizations, or other persons, who had responsibility for them and for the destiny of thousands of others, who in those years in the Soviet Union were not forced to do the same? In any case, before these people who were wounded by compromise, silence, forced passivity, or by the express loyalty permitted by the leaders of the Church, before these people and not only before God, I ask for forgiveness, understanding, and prayers" (cf. "Izvestia" no. 137, June 10, 1991).

There remains the question of the relationship with the former Soviet power. Alexy II sought guarantees from the state - on religious education and economic support - but also distinction from it. Many analysts today see Russian Orthodoxy as the "glue" (possibly one of the few remaining forms) of Russian society, and the government of Moscow as the servant-master of Orthodoxy. Alexy himself was one of the main architects of the reconciliation between the Church and Putin, and now with Medvedev. Commenting on his death today, the Russian president said: "[he] was a great citizen of Russia, whose destiny reflects the greatest trials that marked our country during the 20th century." And Putin, for his part, said that the death of the patriarch is a "tragic event" and a "great loss."

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