“Putin’s Patriarch”

Church unity was the refrain of Alexy’s rule; in reality he danced to the Kremlin’s tune

“I expect the new president of Ukraine will have enough wisdom to go the way of unity and not confrontation,” said Alexy II, patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, after Victor Yushchenko became president in January 2005. A few weeks earlier, Yushchenko’s staff had reportedly found 10,000 leaflets in a Russian Orthodox Church declaring their candidate “a partisan of the schismatics and an enemy of Orthodoxy.”

These are the two sides of the Russian Orthodox Church’s revival under Alexy, who died on Dec. 5 at the age of 79. In rebuilding the church after decades of Soviet repression, he also reinvigorated its traditional role as the Russian state’s spiritual prop and political ally. For Ukraine, this meant promoting closeness with Russia in the name of “Orthodox unity” and “Slavic brotherhood,” which dovetailed neatly with the Kremlin’s policies.

When Vladimir Putin was handed the presidency by Boris Yeltsin on Dec. 31, 1999, he was quick to harness the church’s authority by asking for Alexy’s blessing. The patriarch shared Putin’s KGB past, having been recruited in February 1958 “on the basis of patriotic feelings.” His rise up the church hierarchy – impossible without support from the Soviet authorities – demonstrated his ability to be a reliable state collaborator.

Under Alexy’s and Putin’s stewardship, the relationship between church and state in Russia returned to its historically established position as two sides of the same coin. According to the Byzantine ideal of “symphonia,” the church is the nation’s spiritual guide, while the state administers human affairs. These roles are mutually supportive – the church needs the state’s protection to ensure its survival and growth, while the state can use the church’s authority to support its political goals.

As Putin led a revival of the power of the state, so Alexy rejuvenated the power of Orthodoxy as the nation’s “spiritual force.” Their alliance is summed up neatly by the slogan of 19th-century conservatism: “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationhood.” Both were resistant to reform and modernization, and continued Russia’s centuries-old fear of outside influence from the West. The church explained its position as opposition to Catholic proselytism and “moral degradation;” for Putin it was defense against malign Western attempts to undermine Russia and its role in the region.

The role of church leader has always been highly politicized. Orthodoxy came to the Rus – an East Slavic people who inhabited principalities across modern-day Russia, Ukraine and Belarus – in 988 with the baptism of Grand Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv. When Metropolitan Peter moved his residence to Moscow in 1325, the burgeoning city-state secured the church’s widespread, cross-border influence as a unifying and centralizing force, aiding its expansion and eventually allowing its leaders to stake the messianic claim that it was the Third Rome. The fight for control over church leadership was central to Moscow’s battles for regional supremacy against the Principality of Tver and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

As with church leaders throughout Russian history, Alexy was always much more than a religious figure. When Putin remembered him on Dec. 5 as “a great statesman,” he perhaps had in mind the unique scope that Alexy’s cross-border role gave him, as his predecessors, to promote the Church’s message, which frequently tallied with the Kremlin’s, across the lands of the Rus.

The presidential election campaign of 2004 in Ukraine is the prime example. Ukraine was being penetrated by a message unacceptable to Putin and Alexy – Western ideas such as democracy. When Russian political technologists persuaded the Victor Yanukovych campaign team to frame the elections as an existential battle against harmful Western influence, the church was in a unique position to promote the message. Its weight was thrown behind the Kremlin-backed candidate, to portray the West and its “agent,” Yushchenko, as a menace to traditional Orthodox civilization, a threat to the “brotherhood of Slavic peoples.”

Church leaders came out in favor of Yanukovych and in opposition to Yushchenko. “I view him as a truly faithful Orthodox person, worthy of becoming the head of our state,” said Volodymyr, Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine. He also said that Yanukovych received a blessing from Alexy and that “no other presidential candidate received our blessing.”

Russian fears of “losing” Ukraine resurfaced in a more direct manner for the church earlier this year when Yushchenko used the 1020th anniversary of the conversion of the Rus to push for canonical recognition of the Kyiv Patriarchate as the national independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, free from Russia. This has been a sore topic since Ukraine gained independence in 1991, as Alexy’s Moscow Patriarchate has co-existed with the Kyiv Patriarchate and a third group, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Alexy was vigorously opposed to the move, saying, “We must cherish the unity of our Slavic brotherhood. It’s more important than any political aims.”

But “Slavic brotherhood” and Orthodox unity were, in fact, Alexy’s and Putin’s political aim and an essential part of the Russian playbook in Ukraine. In reviving the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexy strengthened its traditional role as a centralizing force, promoting Moscow’s will throughout “All Russia.”

James Marson is a staff writer at the Kyiv Post.