Reporting from Moscow — Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II, the iconic religious leader who restored the church from a post-Soviet shell to an institution of privilege and power, died at his Moscow home today. He was 79.
The imposing, white-bearded Alexei had reigned in the Russian Orthodox Church’s top seat for the last 18 years, an era that witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rebirth of Russia as a powerful, centralized state under the steely leadership of Prime Minister and former President Vladimir Putin. Alexei was celebrated for healing a painful rift with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, a splinter faction established by White Guard Russians who fled the Soviet Union for the West. The Russian patriarch signed a pact with Metropolitan Laurus in 2007, putting an end to the bitter, 80-year schism.
Alexei had been a fervent supporter of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, whose public observance of Orthodox rites helped restore the church’s image in Russian popular culture. Under the dual reigns of Putin and Alexei, Russia moved back toward its former imperial system of a powerful, centralized authority supported by — and supporting — a national church. “Not only was he a prominent figure in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church, but also a great statesman,” Putin said today. “He did a great deal to help establish a new governance system in Russia.”
Medvedev, meanwhile, canceled a planned trip to Italy to mourn a leader he credited with turning the church into “one of the influential institutions fruitfully interacting with the state,” the Interfax news agency reported. “We deeply grieve his demise,” Medvedev said. “It is a great loss for me personally, as well. We will always remember his spiritual assistance, wisdom and boundless faithfulness to his country and people.” The Orthodox Church’s tight ties with the Kremlin raised eyebrows, especially among Russian critics raised in a staunchly secular system. In recent years, Alexei spoke out against the independence of Kosovo, endorsed the rule of Putin and appeared in a commercial for Lukoil, Russia’s largest oil company. He avoided expressing opinions that veered from Kremlin policy, and met with Putin and Medvedev.
At the same time, Orthodox priests ministered to the armed forces, Orthodox classes were introduced in some public schools and the government helped the church rebuild monuments and churches lost to Soviet rule.
“On the one hand, the authorities presented a demand for ideological support on the part of the church,” said Mikhail Sitnikov, council member of the Russian Department of the International Assn. for Religious Freedom. “On the other hand, the church received solid support on the part of the state. The patriarch began to enforce the political role of the church.”
Some Russian researchers have alleged that Alexei, who was born in Estonia, worked as a KGB agent. The patriarchy has denied these claims. The Soviet era was a brutal one for the church. Clergymen were purged, churches leveled and church properties confiscated. Many of the surviving priests were co-opted as secret agents. Alexei’s funeral is expected to be held this weekend at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, a landmark flattened by Stalin and rebuilt as a symbol of the church’s resurgent role in Russian life. He will be buried at Moscow’s Epiphany Cathedral.
ALEXEI II – PATRIARCH OF MOSCOW AND ALL RUSSIA (Biography)
Alexei II was born as Aleksey Ridiger in Tallinn on February 23rd 1929 into the family of a priest. Died on December 5th 2008 in Peredelkino, near Moscow.
In 1949 he graduated from Leningrad Theological Seminary and in 1953 – the Leningrad Theological Academy.
In April 1950 he was ordained a priest and appointed rector of the Theophany church in Johvi, Estonia.
1957-1959 – Fr.Alexius was appointed Rector of the Cathedral of the Dormition in Tallinn and Dean of the Tartu district.
In 1958 he was elevated to the rank of Archpriest.
1959-1961 – he was appointed Dean of the united Tartu-Viljandi deanery of the Tallinn diocese.
In March 1961 he was tonsured a monk in the Trinity Cathedral of the Trinity Lavra of St.Sergius.
In September 1961 he was chosen to be the Bishop of Tallinn and Estonia.
1961-1964 he was deputy chairman of the Foreign Relations Department in the Moscow Patriarchate.
In June 1964 he was elevated to the rank of archbishop of Tallinn and Estonia and became a permanent member of the Holy Synod.
1964-1986 – was in charge of Moscow Patriarchate and from 1965 – Chairman of the Training Committee under the Holy Synod.
In February 1968 Alexei was elevated to the rank of metropolitan.
1986-1990 Alexei II was Metropolitan of Novgorod and Leningrad. He was also chosen to manage the affairs of the Tallinn and Estonian diocese.
On June 7th 1990 he was chosen Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. The enthronement ceremony took place on June 10th 1990. Alexei became the 15th primate of the Russian Orthodox Church since Patriarchy was introduced in Russia in 1589.
From March 2004 he was co-Chairman of the Presidium of the CIS Religious Council.
Alexei was elected people’s deputy of the USSR.
He was chairman of the Public Council for the Restoration of the Cathedral of Christ Our Savior.
He was Doctor of Theology and member of the Russian Education Academy and the International Information Technology Academy.
Alexei II was a member of the World Council of Churches, the Conference of European Churches (1987-1992 – Chairman of the Presidium and the Advisory Committee of the Conference of European Churches).
Laureate of the State Prize of the Russian Federation for humanitarian work
He was awarded the Order of Red Banner, the Medal of Honor, two Orders of Friendship, the Orders for Merits to the Fatherland of the First and Second Categories, the Order of Apostle Andrew the First Called, the Order “Glory to Russia”, the Order of Peter the Great and the Gold Cross for Service to Society. And he was conferred with many other international awards, including the Dove of Peace Prize for relentless peace-making effort.
Alexei II was the author of more than 20 theological and church history articles, speeches and works.
Patriarch Alexius died at his residence in Peredelkino outside Moscow on December 5th 2008.
His Holiness Alexy II to be buried on December 9
Moscow, December 5, Interfax – It has been decided preliminarily that the funeral of Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia should take place on Tuesday, December 9, Patriarchate spokesman Priest Vladimir Vigilyansky told Interfax-Religion.
“The burial service for the head of the Russian Orthodox Church should take place at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. No final decision has yet been made about the burial site. It is only known that the Patriarch’s body will be committed to earth in Moscow,” Fr. Vladimir said.
On Friday night, Alexy’s body will be transported to the chapel of the Icon of the Mother of God Quick to Hearken in the patriarchal residence in Peredelkino outside Moscow, where priests from Moscow churches would read prayers all night, he said. On Saturday, the Patriarch’s body will be brought to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior for a public farewell ceremony.