Between forty and ninety thousand believers paid their respects to the late Patriarch Aleksii II, who died on the morning of 5 December 2008, as he lay in state in the massive Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. It seems fitting that they should make their farewells to him in a church that has become a controversial and multivalent symbol of the ‘Orthodox Russia' he worked to rebuild. The patriarch is buried at the Epiphany Cathedral, however, at his own request. He lies near the relics of his patron saint, the medieval Metropolitan Aleksii of Moscow, who served a Church still dominated by the Golden Horde and engaged in fraternal strife with the neighbouring Orthodox Metropolitan of Lithuania. He lies, too, near Patriarch Sergii (Stragorodskii), whose 1927 ‘Declaration of Loyalty' to the Soviet state contributed to the schism between the Moscow Patriarchate and the émigré Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. Both churchmen would no doubt recognise the immense moral, political and spiritual challenges Patriarch Aleksii faced as he shepherded his flock into the post-Soviet era; both, no doubt, would appreciate the delicate balancing act he sought to maintain in his eighteen years of office.
Patriarch Aleksii's clerical career spanned cycles of Church repression and revival, and myriad problems within and without the Church. Born in Estonia in 1929, Alexei Ridiger was inspired by pilgrimages with his parents to follow the religious life. The son of an Estonian priest of German descent and a Russian mother, by the time Alexei reached sixteen he had lived through the annexation of his country by the Soviet Union, its invasion by Nazi Germany, and its liberation. As a teenage subdeacon, Alexei participated in the 1945 reopening of Tallinn's Cathedral of Alexander Nevsky, before studying at Leningrad Theological Seminary. He was ordained as a priest in 1950, during a period of relative calm for the Russian Orthodox Church. Shorn as a monk in 1961, at the height of Khrushchev's anti-religious campaign, Aleksii began a rapid rise through the ‘black' clerical ranks only open to monastics - Bishop of Tallinn and Archimandrite in 1961, Archbishop in 1964, Metropolitan in 1968.
During this period, Aleksii also became a member of the Synodal Commission on Christian Unity and Inter-Church Relations, and in 1964 was elected president of the Conference of European Churches. Khrushchev - while shutting churches, banning pilgrimages and incarcerating monks in psychiatric units - was acutely aware of the propaganda value of the Church, and ensured Orthodox participation in the World Council of Churches and various peace movements. The ritual dance of Soviet clerics denying problems at home whilst lobbying about problems abroad may have frustrated Western Christians, but it was one of many compromises that senior clerics made to ensure the continued functioning of the institutional church. The suggestion that Aleksii himself collaborated with the Soviet regime - in acting as a KGB informant codenamed ‘Drozdov' - has always been denied by the Patriarchate. Although some inside and outside of the Russian Orthodox Church have regretted a lack of transparency about and public repentance for collaboration on the part of senior hierarchs, in 1991 Aleksii publicly asked for the forgiveness and understanding of those hurt by the compromises the Church made during the Soviet period.
Aleksii was elected to the Patriarchal throne in June 1990, as the Church was emerging from the moral quagmire of the Soviet period into a minefield of new and re-emerging problems. Thousands of buildings were returned to the faithful in a state of disrepair. Parish churches reopened faster than priests could be trained to serve in them. Nationalist aspirations threatened schisms amongst Orthodox faithful in Ukraine and the Baltic states, while nationalists amongst Orthodox faithful in Russia raised the ugly flags of antisemitism and xenophobia. The Patriarch's moving address to rabbis in New York in November 1991 - which acknowledged a shared religious heritage and lamented antisemitism - unleashed a furious response from militant right-wing groups within the Church. Further threats to unity came from the ‘True Orthodox Church' and Moscow Patriarchate parishes re-aligning themselves with the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. The unity of the Church looked very fragile in these early years of freedom.
The Patriarch had to contend, too, with the revival of the Ukrainian Eastern-rite Catholic Church, anxious to reclaim property allotted to the Orthodox under Stalin. That, and the influx of foreign missionaries and clerics reclaiming pre-revolutionary territories or simply preaching to the ‘godless', no doubt contributed to his continued refusal to meet the Pope, and his support for the 1997 legislation which privileged Russia's ‘traditional religions'. Westerners, in particular, have judged him harshly for this, but the insensitive behaviour of missionaries (and, one might add, of politicians and entrepreneurs) in the immediate aftermath of Soviet collapse is at least partly responsible. ‘Would you like to know Jesus?' enthusiastic American teenagers would call out to Muscovites in the nineties. The assumption - that Russians did not know Christ, or at least didn't know Him as well as these adolescent interlocutors - must surely have irritated those whose Orthodoxy had survived persecution for longer than their would-be saviours had been alive.
Under Patriarch Aleksii's leadership, the Church formulated a document on the ‘Social Concept of the Orthodox Church' to articulate the basic teachings of the Church on social problems and church-state relations in a secular world. It also embarked on the massive task of researching, recording and canonizing the Orthodox victims of Soviet repression - including, controversially, the Romanov family. This latter process, painful and fraught with theological and moral problems, resulted in the elevation of Nicholas, his wife and four children (but not their servants) to the ranks of ‘passion-bearers', and removed one of the barriers to the reunification of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad with the Moscow Patriarchate. This reunification, which eventually took place in 2007, will no doubt be remembered as the pinnacle of Patriarch Aleksii's achievements. The reunion agreement was signed at a ceremony in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a double emblem of Bolshevism overturned.
To construct the original Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (completed in 1882) in commemoration of Russia's victory over Napoleon, the seventeenth century Convent of Aleksii the Man of God was destroyed. Legend has it that one of the convent's nuns cursed the site, so that nothing built thereafter would last. The pre-revolutionary Cathedral was demolished in 1931, Stalin's grandiose plans for a Palace of the Soviets came to nought, and Krushchev's open air swimming pool was eventually replaced by Luzhkov's monument to Russia's renaissance. Buildings come and go, but somehow or other, the body of the Church endures. Russia is paying its respects to a man who has helped to keep that body whole.