Vienna, December 5 – The death of Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksii II announced earlier today creates serious problems both for the church he headed and the Russian government with which he worked not only within the Russian Federation but in the former Soviet space and indeed around the world.
Aleksii, who had been patriarch since 1990, bridged the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, who work worked as an agent of the KGB within the church under the code name Drozdov” and followed the Kremlin line but who was actively involved in the revival of Orthodoxy after the fall of communism. (For a description of his career, see religare.ru/2_36977.html).
And because he had a foot in both camps as it were, he was more successful in guiding the Church through this period than almost anyone else would have been, even though he attracted critics from both those who felt he was too slavish in following the government line and those who felt he was too independent.
Now, with his passing – which was not entirely unexpected given his age –79 – and ill health – he frequently missed official functions -- but which nonetheless came as a shock because he had officiated at a church service in Moscow only yesterday – the Russian church and the Russian state must choose a successor who will be able to cope with three pressing problems.
First, there is the issue of the Moscow Patriarchate’s control over Orthodox bishoprics and congregations in the former Soviet republics and particularly in Ukraine. Aleksii defied the Kremlin in refusing to accept the transfer of Orthodox groups in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in order to maintain the principle that canonical borders do not follow political ones.
The number of Orthodox in those two breakaway republics is small, but the issue of the Moscow Patriarchate’s control over Orthodox institutions in Ukraine and other post-Soviet states is critical: If those groups would leave the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate to form a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Russian Orthodoxy would suffer a major blow.
On the one hand, the Moscow Patriarchate would cease to be the largest Orthodox Church with a consequent decline in its influence not only in the Orthodox world but also in increasingly important ecumenical discussions. And on the other, the value of the Church to the Russian government as a foreign policy instrument would decline as a result.
Aleksii understood these issues perhaps better than any other Russian Orthodox hierarch. Born in Estonia and the bishop of Tallinn at one point in his career, where he is still remembered positively for having introduced the use of Estonian in church services, he had to deal with the intervention in Estonia of the Universal Patriarch of Constantinople.
While the Moscow Patriarchate lost that struggle, Aleksii was able to contain it to the relatively small number of Orthodox parishes in that Baltic country. Now, the issue is Ukraine, and it is far from clear whether any of the likely candidates for his successor – including Metropolitan Kirill, who many consider to be the odds’ on favorite – will be equally skillful.
Second, Aleksii’s successor must navigate through a minefield inside Russia itself. Not only has the upsurge of religious feeling among Russians of the 1990s ebbed, but many Orthodox are questioning both the business activities of the Patriarchate and its slavish following of the state on most issues.
Aleksii engineered the purge of Bishop Diomid who had raised questions about church governance. Diomid himself appears to be a spent force at present, but the issues he raised about the need for the church to follow its own rules rather than be run by “a power vertical” working hand in glove with the state are not.
Moreover, ever more Orthodox lay groups, like the Union of Orthodox Russians, are striking out on their own, some even organizing popular militias and arming themselves to defend Russians against guest workers – with the apparent support of some in the hierarchy, including subordinates of Kirill.
The new patriarch will have to cope with what is perhaps the most unpleasant reality of all. Orthodoxy may be the traditional religion of Russia, but it is being challenged in terms of the congregations and intensity of faith by Protestant, Catholic and Muslim groups, all of whom most Russian have viewed as marginal.
The temptation to move even closer to the state is thus going to be great for Aleksii’s successor, but the risks of doing so as Aleksii knew well are extremely high. A church that is nothing more than a propaganda arm for the Kremlin will quickly lose its standing among those who believe the Church should be primarily a religious organization.
And third, the new patriarch will have to figure out how to work with Orthodox groups in the “Far Abroad” with whom Aleksii arranged a rapprochement but many of whom are now at odds with Moscow and how to help promote Russian government ideas like an expanded Orthodox presence within the European Union and the United Nations.
Given his background and his enormous authority both within the Church and the government, Aleksii was able to combine the interests of the Church and the interests of the state in often sophisticated ways. But it is far from clear that any successor will be able to do the same and instead will be forced to make a clear choice between the two.
These issues are going to inform the succession struggle which will now begin in earnest. Once the Patriarchate officially announces Aleksii’s death, the Russian Orthodox Church, if it follows its own rules, will have approximately six months in which to assemble a synod to select a successor.
But there is at least one reason to believe that the Kremlin will want to move more quickly than that: the church hierarch who church law says should act as locum tenens in the interim is Metropolitan Vladimir of Kyiv, an arrangement that many in the Russian capital are likely to find extremely uncomfortable.