Russia: The Death of the Patriarch and the Struggle Ahead

4 MINS READDec 5, 2008 | 16:46 GMT
Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images
The Dec. 5 death of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II opens the door for a battle for his church's soul.
Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, aged 79, passed away Dec. 5. Alexy had been suffering from a variety of ailments for months. At more than 20 years older than the average life expectancy for Russian males, his death was not unexpected. The body he led, the Russian Orthodox Church, claims a flock of more than 100 million worldwide, most of which lives in the Russian Federation. For the time being, Metropolitan Yuvenaly will lead the church until the election of a new patriarch, which is expected in May 2009. Alexy became the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1990. His tenure has been at times an extremely tense affair. Charged with resurrecting the role of the church in Russian society, the evolution of the church since the Soviet period is almost wholly a result of Alexy's direction and his relationships with the various powers within the Kremlin. At first, Alexy was most successful at restoring the power of the church in Russia under former Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin was ambivalent at best over the issue and ideology of religion. But Yeltsin knew that with the fall of the Soviet Union and the church's subsequent freedom to lead the people of Russia publicly — nearly 70 percent of Russians consider themselves Russian Orthodox — that he must reach an understanding with Alexy so the church would not challenge the president's power. At that time, the newly open Russia was seeing floods of "foreign" faiths coming into the country — something that worried both Yeltsin and Alexy. Yeltsin was concerned that those foreign religions could be part of a plan by foreign governments to undermine his rule, while Alexy saw those faiths as a threat to the entire future of the church. A deal was struck in 1997 between the two that closed out any other religion from Russia other than Islam, Judaism, Buddhism or Russian Orthodoxy. As a result, thousands of missionaries and fledgling churches in Russia were purged. But it is the evolution of the relationship between the church and the Kremlin under former Russian President and now Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that has proved key to the future and direction of the church. Alexy's relationship with Putin ran hot and cold over the years. Putin's consolidation of power involved capturing all elements of civil society as tools of the state, and the church was no exception. Whereas Yeltsin did not seek to promote his ties into the church, Putin sought to enforce laws to maintain the church's dominance in Russia. In turn, Alexy championed Putin and Putin's successor to the presidency, Dmitri Medvedev. Alexy and Putin clashed over the patriarch's efforts to protect his turf when Putin attempted to use religion to pry open cracks in the West. For example, Putin wished to improve relations with the Vatican to weaken Italian resolve to ally with the United States, whereas Alexy referred to the Roman Catholic Church's proselytizing efforts as "poaching." Putin and Alexy have, however, successfully pushed ahead with plans for a reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia — which has an estimated 650,000 members worldwide — extending the reach of both the church and Kremlin across the globe. The two have also been very active in ensuring that other Orthodox churches that fall under the Moscow Patriarchate, such as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, do not split off. But the most lasting impact of Alexy and Putin's relationship has been a consolidation of the relationship between the church and Russian intelligence, specifically, the FSB. Russian intelligence has always been deeply enmeshed in the church's structure, a legacy of the era of Soviet control. As a result, the church is not only politicized, it has been involved in many activities — trafficking of all kinds comes to mind — that its critics decry as unbefitting of a major religion. Alexy himself (along with most of the church's hierarchy) was accused of either belonging to the KGB or at least collaborating with it. Central control of all things is still tightening in Russia, and institutionally the FSB is most certainly on the rise. The church's reach is wide, and its role in the Russian identity central. With Alexy gone, the combination of these two relationships ensures that there will now be a battle for the soul of the church.

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