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A Wise Diplomat In Troubled Times

Patriarch Aleksy II (right) and Metropolitan Lavr, leader of the New York-based Church Abroad, sign the reunification agreement in Moscow in 2007.
Patriarch Aleksy II (right) and Metropolitan Lavr, leader of the New York-based Church Abroad, sign the reunification agreement in Moscow in 2007.
Aleksy II has already gone down in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church as the patriarch who settled the historic issue of the unification of the Church with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. In doing so, he healed a dramatic church split that had lasted through most of the 20th century. The wisdom and diplomacy of this patriarch -- who himself began life in emigration as the son of cleric in independent between-the-wars Estonia -- played the key role in that unification.

Aleksy II became patriarch at a complex time in the history of the Church. When he ascended to the position in 1990, the Church faced a time of enormous new possibilities. Under his leadership, many churches, monasteries, and seminaries were opened. Many Church publications began to be issued and the regular publication of liturgical literature was restarted. On the other hand, the Church faced new problems. It was shaken by disputes and internal splits, and threatened by proselytizers from abroad.

But alarmist predictions did not come to pass. The efforts of the proselytizers ultimately came practically to naught since their activity had little in common with the religious sensibilities of average Russians. None of the splits within the Church ever emerged as really serious -- and this is an enormous credit to Aleksy, who tactfully managed all the disagreements that arose. Under his leadership, various Church leaders were able to express their personal views and frequently conflicted with one another; the only thing that was out of bounds was the kind of insubordination that got Bishop Diomid of Chukotka and Anadyr deposed this summer.

The patriarch expressed his own opinions on matters concerning the faithful (and they were usually moderately conservative), but he tolerated dissent and understood the Church tradition as being quite broad, unlike many arch-conservatives who reject any innovation out of hand. In Moscow alone, one finds diverse views such as those of the liberal-intellectual parish of Kosma and Damian of Shubin and of the extremely conservative parish of St. Nikolai of Bersenevki. Followers of ecumenicalism are accommodated along with their fierce rivals. Advocates of missionary activity among youths (including using rock music) fit in alongside adherents to the strictest liturgies. Aleksy himself could participate in a service at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris without provoking reactionary protests.

Under Aleksy, there were also no splits within the Orthodox family around the world, despite the historically complex rivalry between Moscow and Constantinople. A conflict over the "parallel" jurisdiction of the two patriarchates in Estonia merely resulted in a brief suspension of liturgical cooperation that was soon forgotten. Toward the end of his life, Aleksy expended great effort to maintain the dialogue between Moscow and Constantinople, while also seeking to maintain the Russian Orthodox Church's position in Ukraine. To further that effort, the sick, elderly patriarch made arduous visits to both Kyiv and Istanbul in the last months of his life.

He was foremost a man of the Church, and he served it to the very end of his life despite his illness. This month he was supposed to host a high-level visit within the framework of the dialogue between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. Toward the end, he worked tirelessly on this issue as well -- since the autumn alone he had hosted three delegations from the Vatican.

Aleksy was also diplomatic in his relations with the state, although he insisted on the Church's independence in questions of principle. Just half a year after his elevation to patriarch, he condemned the bloodshed caused by security forces in Vilnius. The Church adopted wise positions during the August 1991 coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and the October 1993 standoff between Boris Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet. In the latter case, the Church carried out a peacekeeping effort and was not to blame that the politicians were unable to reach a compromise. A Church decision not to allow clerics to participate as candidates in elections kept it from becoming entangled in partisan politics.

Under Aleksy, the social conception of the Russian Orthodox Church was adopted. It included provisions for opposing anti-Church policies by the state, continuing a tradition begun by Patriarch Tikhon and revising the servility that led to the split with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. Just this year, after the military action in the South Caucasus, the Church refused to create its own institutions in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and continued to recognize the canonical authority of the Georgian Orthodox Church in these republics. As a result, relations between those two churches are practically the only channel of communication remaining between Russia and Georgia.

Aleksy was a tolerant patriarch who was able to steer the Church through dangerous waters -- and that was his main service to the Russian Orthodox Church. At a difficult time, he was able to consolidate the Church on the basis of common values while acknowledging the possibility of dissent. An authoritarian patriarch like Nikon under such circumstances would have been inflexible to the point of creating a crisis similar to the great schism of the 17th century. Aleksy tried, to the extent possible, to follow the tradition of St. Tikhon, standing fast on the main issues while seeking compromise on the secondary ones. It was no accident that he, when still a metropolitan, played an important role in Tikhon's canonization and that under him the Church celebrated many martyrs who served the Church during the period of state-sponsored atheism.

Aleksei Makarkin is vice president of the Center for Political Technologies. This comment first appeared in Russian on the "Yezhednevny zhurnal" website. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL