Alexy II the Peacemaker

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The Soviet Union was born in civil war. Most Russians expected it to die in a similar blood bath in August 1991. Yet the collapse of the Soviet Union was not accompanied or followed by large-scale, neighbor-on-neighbor violence like the kind we saw in the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s or the collapse of Iraq into Sunni-versus-Shia mayhem following the U.S. invasion. For that, Russians can credit Patriarch Alexy II more than any other person.

It was Alexy who intervened during the coup crisis, taking his life in his hands by issuing a statement to the nation at 1:42 a.m., Aug. 21, 1991. It was just 18 minutes before the KGB's order was expected to be issued for tanks to advance and seize President Boris Yeltsin and the courageous lawmakers barricaded in the White House. Alexy's words warned that, "Every person who raises arms against his neighbor, against unarmed civilians, will be taking upon his soul a very profound sin that will separate him from the church and from God."

It is impossible today to determine if it was then-KGB head Vladimir Kryuchkov who issued the order. If this were the case, no surviving member of the junta will now admit to it. What is undeniable is that 90 minutes after Alexy's address was heard, Kryuchkov called Yeltsin and told him that there would be no attack. The tanks were ordered to retreat at 6 a.m.

This is only one of Alexy's history-making decisions, the significance of which is best seen in hindsight. Compare his success in handling the issue of church collusion with the disastrous example of Poland's Catholic Church with the same problem. Polish Catholicism was subjected to exactly the same devil's bargain that Soviet authorities exacted from Russian Orthodoxy. The Vatican could have imitated the Russian Orthodox Church's by acknowledging the issue, pleading penitence and seeking forgiveness. Instead, the Catholic Church remained silent for years until the inevitable trickle of information from the Polish Security Service files became public. The recognition that this collaboration was known by the Catholic Church for decades shocked and deeply troubled the Catholic faithful. It was kept quiet out of respect for -- perhaps even at the behest of -- Pope John Paul II. Alexy, however, has smoothly maneuvered the Russian Orthodox Church into reunion with its diaspora, the Russian Church Outside Russia and the Russian Church Abroad, by confronting the issue of collaboration head on.

Now this remarkable man has died. Beside his role in the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union, Alexy has reached an accommodation with the state that is satisfactory to both the church and the state. He healed the breach with the diaspora, recovered much of the property and patrimony of the church that was stolen by the atheist state and prevented pogroms against Russian Jews.

The Icon with the Miracle of the Virgin was painted circa 1475, and it commemorates a miracle of the Mother of God that averted civil war in medieval times. In 1170, the army of Andrei, grand prince of Suzdal, besieged the city of Novgorod. The bishop placed an icon of the Theotokos on the city wall. When an attacker's arrow hit her face, the icon began to weep. Darkness enveloped the Suzdal besiegers, who panicked and began attacking one another. Led by the Archangel Michael, with four haloed saints at their head -- Alexander Nevsky, Boris, Gleb and St. George -- the men of Novgorod sallied forth to victory.

Orthodox believers hold that another miracle by the Mother of God averted civil war 821 years later -- during the August 1991 coup crisis. Alexy had appealed to the Theotokos to "not withdraw her protection from us but to preserve all of us." Seen from their perspective, the "Mother of God" interceded to answer Alexy's prayer and petition to her. At the loss of only three young lives, the Soviet empire crumbled.

Since Alexy became patriarch in June 1990, almost 20 years of wars dotted around the globe have taken an incalculable toll in human suffering. But as we mourn the dead in Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Bosnia, Sudan, Gaza, Chechnya and other places, we must remember that there was one war that did not happen. The Soviet Union was born in a blood bath, but it did not die in one. For his role in securing a peaceful, albeit turbulent, transition from Soviet power to the new Russia, everyone on this planet should be grateful to Alexy II.

John and Carol Garrard are co-authors of "Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent: Faith and Power in the New Russia."