The Russian Orthodox Church is known as the biggest Autocephalous Church in the world. Thus, when its Patriarch, Aleksy II died on December 5, 2008 at the historical Danilov Monastery in Moscow, about 135 million followers of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) held their breath until the announcement of the new Patriarch. As one of the key determinants of Soviet and Russian identity during and in the aftermath of the Soviet Union, the ROC is deemed as among the founders of the new Russian Federation. Therefore, the death and succession of the first Patriarch of the ROC is seen as a critical process, since the Church has always meant more than a religious institution in Russian politics.
Soviet ideology defined religion as a tool for class hegemony and the resulting exploitation; while Marxist ideology envisaged the gradual decline of the role and influence of religion to be replaced by the emergence of the ideal communist society. On the other hand, despite increasing suppression and control over religion, during the Soviet rule the Marxist interpretation of religion became a more and more controversial subject. Thus, the ROC is one of the most intriguing examples of the theory versus practice dichotomy apparent during Soviet rule. Ultimately, the ROC has been and still is one of the key actors in Russian politics, both in domestic and international issues.
Religion and the Russian Orthodox Church during the USSRDespite widely held belief, the attack on religion neither began nor intensified under Stalin. Long before him, all religions experienced suppression until World War II, when religion began to be seen as a mobilizing factor for Soviet war efforts. The ROC played a key role during the war as a unifying force behind the resistance against Nazi invasion. After Stalin, the ROC and all religions under Soviet rule began to suffer the ideological and political consequences of Soviet policies on religion. Thus, it is argued that the number of existing churches after Stalin’s death far exceeded (i.e. three times more) the number when Gorbachev died. Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign (1959-1964) resulted in the mass closure of places of worship, most of which were composed of mosques and churches. Soviet state ideology attacked religion by suppressing religious elites, closing religious education institutions, decreasing the number of clergy, destroying religious life and imprisoning the “believers”.
After Khrushchev, the anti-religious campaign was abandoned. During the Brezhnev era, the ROC stood among the increasingly organized and persistent human rights movement. During Gorbachev, the Soviet state seemed to change its attitude towards the ROC, adopting a more tolerant and even supportive stand.
This era of tolerance under Gorbachev emanated from the Millennium of Eastern Slav’s conversion into the Christian faith. Gorbachev could no longer ignore the increasingly vocal demands for religious and human rights. In 1986, he granted pardon to one of the most famous victims of anti-Semitic propaganda, Anatolii Shcharanskii and the famous nuclear scientist and human rights defender Andrei Sakharov was permitted to return to the USSR. Irina Ratushinskaya, the young poet and Christian convict was released from prison and permitted to emigrate. But the Chernobyl disaster prevented the Soviet state from implementing a coherent religious reform program. Still in 1987, all those who were imprisoned for religion, human rights and nationalist crimes were pardoned.
The ROC had its golden year in 1988 when Gorbachev surprisingly permitted the millennium celebrations for the adoption of Christianity. The celebrations were taken to mean Holy Russia’s revival, and inevitably gained political importance for Soviet rulers. Gorbachev asked for the Chruch’s support for his rule in return for the restoration of the Danilov Monastery, the centre of the Holy Synod of the ROC in Moscow. It is not a coincidence that the monastery’s opening ceremony was attended by the then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Gorbachev’s Soviet state was trying to exhibit its newfound tolerance for religion in the new era, while the ROC was celebrating its rebirth.
The revival of the ROC during the final years of the USSR did not occur despite the Soviet state, but rather because of it-involving a process that was tolerated by the state which was eventually strengthened by it. In this way, Perestroika also revived the institutional basis of the ROC. By the year 1990, 11,940 regional churches (parishes) joined the mandate of the Patriarchate of Moscow. Even in Kazan, after a new cathedral was opened in 1990, nearly 10,000 individuals applied for religious education. In 1991, the Council of Religious Affairs, responsible for the organization and control of religious activities in the USSR, was dissolved.
The Life of Patriarchate Aleksy IIIn 1990 when Patriarchate Pimen I died, Aleksy II was chosen as the new Patriarch of the ROC. As the USSR neared its dissolution, the Church began to become more and more influential in political life. Thus, the Church tried to maintain the solidarity against the secessionist threat. This new mission of keeping the USSR intact required a new ideology which would strengthen and even replace Marxist ideology in order to save the USSR. The Church played a key role in the formation of this new ideology, and although it failed to keep the USSR intact, it constituted the back bone of the new Russian Federation.
Aleksy II’s rise in the ROC and his contribution to the new Russian Federation as the Patriarch has its roots in his personal life. He was born in 1929 at Tallinn-a city which is defined as central to Orthodox Christianity-into a Russian speaking Swede and German origin family who immigrated to Estonia in 1917. His father was an Orthodox priest, and Aleksy II (Aleksey Ridiger) followed in his footsteps, graduating from the Leningrad Theology Academy at the age of 21. His graduation thesis was on Filaret Drozdov, the Moscow Metropolit of the 19th century. After his graduation he began to work for the KGB with a code name “Drozdov” as he was appreciated for his patriotic ideas and his family tree. The KGB mission provided him a steady rise in the ROC. He was appointed as Bishop of Tallinn by means of KGB reference, and also encouraged to take part in international missions. Ridiger was promoted as Archbishop in 1964 and Metropolit in 1968.
Aleksy (he was renamed in 1961) was promoted as the Chancellor of Moscow Patriarchate in 1964 and became a member of the Holy Synod
the major administrative organ of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1968. Until his promotion as the Patriarchate, Aleksy continued his Chancellorship, which was a clear sign of the Soviet state’s trust. Thus because of his close relations with the Soviet state he was criticized for his support for the anti-religious campaign carried out by the state. In 1992, when the KGB archives were opened for a short time, it became clear that Aleksy was a trustworthy informant as he fulfilled his duties, i.e. suppression of clergy protests against the state in the churches. Moreover, during his international assignments, Aleksy became a member of the Central Committee of the Council of the World Churches in 1961,where he would become president in 1972 and general secretary in 1987. During these international assignments, he was recognized as the most loyal bishop to the USSR in 1974 and was rewarded by the KGB in 1988 for his cooperation with the KGB and the Council of Religious Affairs of the USSR.
Aleksy appointed as Leningrad and Novgorod Metropolitan (1986) during Gorbachev’s term in office, was one of the first hierarchs who demanded that the Church have more say on public life. He was elected to the new USSR Congress of People’s Deputies, formed by Gorbachev in 1989 and remained in office until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. In June 1990, he was named the 15th Moscow and Russian Patriarch after Patriarch Pimen’s death.
During the office of Aleksy II the Russian Orthodoxy assumed the mission of filling the ideological gap that had occurred in the post-Marxist era. Interestingly, Orthodox Christianity became the religion of the state. While the ROC grew as a power on its own, the growing power of the Church turned out to be an advantage for the state. During the Yeltsin era, the ROC handed support to the state in return for the fulfillment of certain expectations. When Yeltsin launched an offensive against the parliament in 1993, Aleksy warned against the risk of a civil war, expressing his deep concerns over bloodshed and proposed to act as a mediator. This initiative by Aleksy was welcomed and gained the respect from both sides. However, after clashes during the demonstrations held on September 3 and the subsequent harsh response of the army, Aleksy II and the Holy Synod made statements in which they merely accused the instigators of these events and made no criticism about Yeltsin.
The Chechnya War was yet another critical event of the Yeltsin era. Aleksy II spoke out against the Chechnya War, which was seen as lacking public support in general. In a written statement, Aleksy II called out for the cease of the military intervention and the resolution of the issue on the negotiation table. However, in another statement issued two months later, Aleksy II called on young Russians to enlist and join the army to defend their country.
In the same vein, Aleksy II endorsed Yeltsin in the Presidential election of 1996. The ROC was provided with large sums of funds to be used for the restoration and construction in return for this endorsement. Furthermore, the bill on the further enhancement of religious freedoms was approved without delay in 1997 and such entities as Orthodox Russia, Union of Orthodox Citizens and All Russian Christians received broad support. Yeltsin seized every opportunity to benefit from close cooperation with the Church, which was one of the most prestigious institutions in Russia, second only to the army.
Aleksy II supported Putin in the war in Chechnya when he became president. Putin’s power and influence caused the Church to limit its actions on the political scene. But both Putin and Medvedev reaped benefits from Aleksy II and the ROC on many matters, and particularly the public sphere.
The Russian Orthodox Church under Aleksy IIAleksy’s promotion as the Patriarch coincides with the rise of the Soyuz and other nationalist movements in the USSR. However, the ROC was viewed as the key institution with the capacity to resolve the challenge of solidarity and maintain unity against these nationalist movements and the political elites by replacing the degraded Marxist ideology with a new one. Which is why the ROC tried to promote religious rights and the sense of historical Russian identity as a bulwark against the dissolution of the Soviet state. Still, Aleksy II’s relations with the state cast doubt on the role of the Church during this critical period.
Aleksy II was educated in accordance with the Sergianstvo ideology , which assumed that the interests of the State and the Church are in full congruity. Thus, Aleksy II’s attempts to keep the Union Republics from seceding aimed to maintain the State unity. He was among the parties who signed the famous 53s Letter, which called for harsher precautions against secessionist and anti-state movements. Aleksy II also denounced the failed coup attempt in 1991 and called the army to keep calm. Nonetheless, his devotion to the Soviet state was not enough for the Church and other institutions to prevent the dissolution of the USSR.
Following the break-up of the USSR, the ROC gained more independence from the state and intelligence institutions. The Church played a key role in defining the new state ideology during that period. Defined as four major policy contributions, the Church:
a) Reclaimed its role as the integral element of Russian national identity,
b) Acted as a unifying factor for the Russians living in the ex-Soviet space,
c) Attempted to re-unify the Russian Federation, Belarus and Ukraine,
d) Ensured that the Russian influence in the ex-Soviet space would continue and promoted integration in that area.
The First All-Russian Assembly convened at the Danilov Monastery in 1993 and identified key areas of influence for the new Russian Federation. Sponsored by the ROC, the Assembly defined the political role of the Church under the Russian Federation. The Eurasianist approach was prioritized by the Church; there were even proposals for the establishment of a Eurasia Orthodox-Muslim Union. The Church was also in favor of establishing a Commonwealth of Independent States Government, as the Church prioritized a process of re-integration among the ex-Soviet states. There was also an interest in the Orthodox peoples and churches residing in Lebanon, Syria, Greece, Crete, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria.In that context, the results of the Assembly laid down the foundation for Russian foreign policy and the Church’s role in defining this policy.
1. Prioritized defining Russian identity, asserting that “the term Russian is a generic, collective concept that includes Great Russians, Little Russians, and Belarusians.”
2. Called for the recognition that Russians were a divided nation and that the right of the Russian people to unite be solemnly proclaimed. Essentially, the Church was declaring that the Russians outside the Russian Federation should also be a priority for the state. A strategic declaration at the time, this continues to be relevant to Russian foreign policy today, legitimizing Russian intervention where interests are threatened.
3. Declared that the separation of powers was a Western invention unsuitable for Russia, and that it would never take hold on Russian Orthodox soil promoting instead “All power to the Soviets!”
4. Asserted that the Russian army and its martial traditions must be maintained.
5. Called for a struggle with crime and corruption.
The Russian Orthodox Church in the Near AbroadIn this context, the most important issue is to define the term “Russian” and to create relevant spheres of influence. According to this, defining Ukraine and Belarus as “Russian” seemed an appropriate and necessary tool which was needed by the Church and state to create a new empire and continue its role in the region efficiently. However, reality has not been able to keep up with this objective.The demands of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to leave Moscow had begun even before the collapse of the Union. Ukrainian nationalists emphasized that an independent Church was a pre-condition for an independent Ukraine. As a matter of fact, the level of commitment of the ROC to Moscow was interpreted as a sign of what would come: that the Russian influence would persist unless the Ukrainian Church severed its ties with the Moscow Patriarchate. Leading authorities of the Ukrainian Church and Ukrainian nationalists stated that the Church had to become Autocephalous so that Ukraine could safeguard its own independency. On the other hand, Alexi II had purged the secessionists in the Ukrainian Church by changing the status of the Church to an autonomous level. In the nineties, Leonid Kravchuk, Head of State in the Ukraine at that time, was under Russian pressure to refuse the idea of a separate church. Furthermore, there was an undergoing crisis which was the underlying rationale behind the decision that relations with Russia had to be restored. At the present day, three different Orthodox Church exist in the country. One of them is affiliated with the Kiev Patriarchate, the other to the Moscow Patriarchate, while the third one is named “Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.” This last one shows nearly no presence and receives limited aid from the Ukrainian Diaspora in the U.S. and elsewhere. There had been an attempt to unite the Ukrainian Orthodox Church with the Orthodox Church in Istanbul, however the result was failure.
Similarly in Latvia, there are four separate churches: those bound to the Moscow Patriarchate, to the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, to the Autocephalous Latvia Orthodox Church and to Latvia Orthodox Church-in-exile. In Moldova, there has been a more problematic situation compared to the Ukrainian case, as Russia supports the Trans-Dniester. Besides, Romanian Catholic Church has been more successful than the Russian Orthodox Church in Moldova after the dissolution of the USSR. Although the Ukraine-Istanbul merger was successfully prevented, the ROC failed to prevent the Moldova-Romania connection.
Unification of the ChurchesAleksy II’s last success had been the unification of the ROC and ROC Outside Russia in 2007. When in 1917 the Bolshevik’s confiscated the Church’s properties, the Romanov family and the Moscow Patriarchate was killed, and clergy emigrated to Yugoslavia and founded an Orthodox Centre. The Russian clergy outside Russia took an oath not to come back until religious freedom was fully established in Russia. After the dissolution of the USSR, the two separate churches tried to be brought together, until Putin’s initiative and Patriarch Aleksy II proved successful in 2007.
The unification brought prestige to the ROC against the Western Orthodox Church, namely the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of the Fener. In the aftermath of the USSR, when the churches in the Baltic, Ukraine and some CIS countries decided to separate themselves from the ROC, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Istanbul had tried to penetrate these countries, which the Russian Church considered a Russian Orthodox space. Thus, unification also was a victory against the Vatican, which had been sending missionaries to the ex-Soviet space which the ROC took as a direct threat. This struggle between the churches in the post-Soviet space can also be seen as a manifestation of the Russian and Western attempts to gain political influence in this strategic region.
The Russian Orthodox Church experienced a renaissance during the Patriarchate of Aleksy II who was influential in the foundation of the Russian state and national identity. After the dissolution of the USSR, the ROC helped strengthen the power of the state and the Church in the transition period. When the competition between Russia and the West began to simmer again at the end of the 1990s, the ROC also found itself at the core of a struggle for influence in the ex-Soviet space. Like his processor, the new Patriarch Kiril is also known to have close ties with the state, which indicates that the role of the ROC will not break from the past and will continue to be in harmony with the Russian state. The global economic crisis will curb Russian power, which will require the Church’s support in maintaining political and social solidarity. New struggles in the post-Soviet space will also propel the role of the Church in Russian foreign policy.