Saturday, December 6, 2008

Patriarch Aleksii II Dies, Russia Loses Prominent Nationalist Voice

BOULDER, Colorado -- The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Aleksii II passed away in Moscow Friday at the age of 79. Aleksii had been in the post since 1990 and oversaw a resurgence in the church's popularity and political influence.

Since the rise of Vladimir Putin to the presidency in 2000, the patriarch was a reliable ally of the Kremlin, especially on issues related to foreign policy. Nationalism and religion have always been closely paired in Russia, as Orthodoxy is seen as part of the bedrock of Russian national identity. Despite the current regime's communist pedigree, Putin and his cronies have always voiced strong support for the church, and the church has returned the favor.

Despite this newfound prominence for the church, Russia remains a largely secular country. More and more people claim to be believers in the Orthodox church - estimates range from a third to a half of the population - but regular church attendance hovers around eight percent.

Under Aleksii, the church espoused a rather narrow political agenda, preferring to perform a more social function, at least officially, and efforts to introduce church doctrine into state policies, such as in schools, remain hotly contested. Abroad, however, the church has actively promoted Kremlin policy. Here is a quote from a speech the patriarch made in 2005 echoing Russia's staunch opposition to an independent Kosovo and its affinity with Serbia. He drew direct parallels between Serbia’s foundational myth – the Battle of Kosovo, fought against the Turks in 1389 – and Russia’s, the Battle of Kulikovo Field in 1380 against the Golden Horde:
Many peoples hold sacred memories of their great battles and of events that led to the formation of their states, nations, and cultures. We recall how in Serbia they revere the Battle of Kosovo, which, regardless of the difficulties they faced in that period, became the spiritual foundation of the unification of the Serbian people.
Just as Russia would never surrender Kulikovo, the Serbs should never be asked to leave the land on which their nation was supposedly formed. Thus, Kosovar separatism threatens all of Orthodoxy because it threatens the foundational myth of Serbian nationalism. If the bond between church, nation and state is broken there, it can be broken elsewhere.

The Moscow Patriarch was in many ways actively engaged in contemporary political discussions, while at the same time found his position overwhelmed by other voices both within his church and in the wider arena of Russian politics. The relationship between the church and the state has been characterized by cooperation, confrontation, and co-option, stripping the patriarch of his ability to become of voice for political change and leaving him with a largely symbolic role.

Clearly the church leadership is willing to live with this compromise. Not only does the Russian Orthodox Church lend its image and symbols to the state – Orthodox religious ceremonies have become an important component of civic political events, like presidential inaugurations – but in exchange it receives a host of benefits, such as a privileged and protected status as the recognized official church of Russia, often to the detriment of other religious groups.

It remains unclear who will succeed him as patriarch, but the Kremlin will likely have a hand in the decision. This is not without precedence - Aleksii II was supposedly elected without the interference of Soviet authorities as the first patriarch since the Bolshevik Revolution, but he never fully answered accusations that he had colluded with the KGB throughout his career. The likely leading candidates are Metropolitan Kirill Gundiaev of Smolensk, who is known for his support of a strong church authority and anti-ecumenical views, and the more centrist Metropolitan Kliment Kapalin of Kaluga and Borovsk.

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