Patriarch Aleksei Mikhailovich Ridiger of Moscow and all the Russias (1929-2008)
Patriarch Aleksei Ridiger, the man credited with restoring the influence of the Orthodox Church in Russia, died last week at his home in Peredelkino outside Moscow of heart failure at the age of 79. Many remember Patriarch Aleksei as a pivotal figure, a man with a penchant for peacemaking and reconciliation at a turning point in history. During the 18 years that he was head of the Moscow Patriarchate, he witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, strengthened the influence of the Church, and was one of the leading figures in the unification of the MP with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.
A liturgy was held Tuesday for Patriarch Aleksei at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, a huge structure on the banks of the Moscow River that was rebuilt in the 1990s. Police sources said that some 80,000 people gathered to pay their last respects at the Cathedral since Saturday, when Aleksei’s body was laid in state at the church. Meanwhile, traffic in the city centre was nearly paralysed Monday and Tuesday as police cordoned off streets in the vicinity of the Cathedral. On Tuesday, Patriarch Aleksei was buried at Moscow’s Epiphany Cathedral.
Over 150 bishops of the MP and clerics from all over the world took part in the funeral ceremonies, including representatives of other denominations. Patriarch Bartholomew I of the EP, and Cardinals Walter Kapser and Roger Etchegaray of the Vatican were present for the rites. Russia’s Catholic, Anglican, Armenian, and even Islamic clerics attended. In Rome, Pope Benedict XVI expressed his grief on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church. “I’m pleased to recall the efforts of the late Patriarch for the rebirth of the Church”, he said in a message to the Holy Synod of the MP. President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin also attended the rites Tuesday morning. Medvedev, who had postponed a planned visit to Italy over the weekend, said in a statement that Aleksei was a “great citizen of Russia”. Putin said, ”He did very much for the establishment of a new Russian statehood”.
The man who would go on to become the 15th Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia was born Aleksei Mikhailovich Ridiger on 23 February 1929 in Tallinn to descendents of Baltic German nobility. His father, Mikhail Ridiger, was a priest who served as rector of the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God in Tallinn. From 1946, young Aleksei served as an acolyte and a psalm-reader in several churches in Tallinn. He graduated in 1949 from the Leningrad Theological Seminary and then the Leningrad Theological Academy in 1953. He was ordained a priest in 1950. At the age of 39, he became Metropolitan of Tallinn and Estonia before going on to become Metropolitan of Novgorod and Leningrad in 1986.
His election to the position of Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia in 1990 couldn’t have come at a more difficult time. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was gambling on reviving the Church to boost morale in a population that was becoming increasingly disillusioned with Communist ideology. The Orthodox faith was poised to fill a spiritual gap that was growing wider even amidst reforms, and, Aleksei, who had already developed a peacemaker’s reputation, appeared ideally suited for the job. Then, the August coup of 1991 turned everything around as the world braced for bloodshed. As the Soviet Union crumbled, Aleksei issued a momentous statement, “Anybody who raises arms against his neighbour… will be taking upon his soul a very profound sin that will separate him from the church and from God”. John Gerrard, co-author of Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent: Faith and Power in the New Russia, argues that Aleksei’s “intervention” spared the Soviet Union a violent collapse.
However, Aleksei’s “transcendence” over politics at that turbulent time underlined his closeness to then-President Boris Yeltsin. In fact, Aleksei’s most notable achievement, the reunification of the Orthodox Church, would have been impossible without help from the state, because the 80-year schism he had helped end was itself a product of politics. The Revolution of 1917 had dealt such a serious blow to the Orthodox Church that disputes about the succession of the current structure continue today. Within two decades, the Bolsheviks wiped out all but a handful of churches across Russia, leaving less than 500, and executing nearly 100,000 priests. In an effort to survive under the Communist ideology, Metropolitan Sergei Stragorodsky declared the Church’s acceptance of Soviet authority. But, some descendants of exiled clerics refused to recognise this declaration, and, hence, the legitimacy of the current Church. The Revolution led to a schism that at first seemed irrevocable, pitting the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia against the Orthodox Church within the Soviet Union. It ended after decades of talks in May 2007, with the signing of the reunification pact, entitled “The Act of Canonical Communion Act”, and a ceremony at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour attended by then President Vladimir Putin.
Russians will remember Aleksei for the progress the Church had made under his leadership. According to church officials, since 1990, the number of monasteries has increased from 18 to more than 700, whilst the number of churches has risen from fewer than 7,000 in 1988 to nearly 30,000 today. Meanwhile, some 63 percent of the population now consider themselves Orthodox Christians.
11 December 2008
A reader made a cavil over my spelling of the patrirarch’s name. I’ve normally seen it given in modern Russian. If that reader wishes to use Old Slavonic, they’re welcome to it. I’m sticking to my usage, and those who use Alexei, Alexius, or Alexis are correct as well. We’re all speaking of the same great man, and simplistic pettyfogging shouldn’t get in the way of our appreciation of such a historic figure and great man (no matter how we happen to spell his name). There are greater things to attend to. It does take all kinds, doesn’t it?