A Transitional Patriarch

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Patriarch Alexy II's life was one of patient endurance followed by disorienting change. In November 1991, I interviewed him for an American religious journal. At the time, he seemed overcome by the changes taking place around him, and he did not know where to begin.

"For our entire lives, we [clerics] were pariahs, and now we are being called on to do everything: chaplains for the military, ministries to hospitals, orphanages, prisons," he said.

He even voiced regret about taking the time to travel to the United States. But he had gambled -- correctly, as it turned out -- that he could do more for his flock by seeking foreign assistance than by staying home to manage the Russian Orthodox Church's destitution. His plate was full and overflowing, and he seemed keenly aware of the ironies of his situation. The Russian state was returning desecrated, gutted, largely useless ecclesiastical structures to the Orthodox church -- a gesture at once desperate, empty and to some degree remorseful.

Patriarch Alexy II died last Friday at the age of 79 at his residence outside Moscow.

An ethnic Estonian born Alexei Rediger, he grew up in an as-yet unoccupied Tallinn where Russian Orthodoxy was just one tessera in the vibrant mosaic of Baltic religious life. After studying theology in St. Petersburg, he rose swiftly through the ranks of the church, becoming a bishop by the age of 32 and an archbishop by 35.

During and after the chaos of World War II, he probably could have emigrated and been numbered among the millions of so-called "Second Wave" exiles from Soviet Russia. But he chose to remain and to serve his church and people in circumstances that could not fail to compromise his own reputation.

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"Our choices were cooperation or annihilation," he told me in 1991.

And like so many other religious and cultural leaders of his generation, he repeatedly expressed regret and remorse for having accepted that Faustian bargain. Even today we continue to learn of the choices of conscience made by the famous names of that generation, including Nobel-winning German writer Günter Grass and Czech novelist Milan Kundera.

Patriarch Alexy's legacy will undoubtedly include two elements that have been assessed negatively, and one major -- indeed, overarching -- achievement. In inter-church relations, his refusal to meet Pope John Paul II or his successor, Benedict XVI, was seen as churlish. Whether welcome or not, the patriarch's position was that specific issues of contention between the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches needed to be ameliorated before any "photo op" could take place. But he consistently referred to Roman Catholicism as a "sister" church.

More significantly, however, the patriarch was criticized for permitting the Russian church to develop in a manner that fit rather than resisted the mold of the now raucously capitalistic Russia. Under his watch, corruption entered the Russian church as an institution. As millions of Russians were rediscovering their traditional Christian roots, priests were suddenly seen talking into cell phones and behind the wheels of pricey German cars. It was commonly understood that anyone in Russia could be availed of the church's sacraments -- christenings, weddings, funeral rites -- for the right price. Financial accountability and transparency of church-affiliated business interests are essentially nonexistent. Unfortunately, this is also part of Alexy's legacy.

But the patriarch's crowning achievement -- his life's work, in essence -- was overseeing the reunion of the Moscow Patriarchate with the Orthodox Church Outside Russia, whose members fled Russia to escape the Bolshevik Revolution. This 80-year schism was the living incarnation of the rift between the two Russias -- the Russia of Vladimir Nabokov, Sergei Rachmaninov and Igor Sikorsky and the Russia of Soviet communism. The 1917 Revolution ushered in an era of two opposing Russian worlds that loathed each other and rarely if ever intersected. On May 17, 2007, Alexy presided over the reunion of those two worlds during a triumphant ceremony at the rebuilt Christ the Savior Cathedral -- a towering, ornate structure that in itself is a fitting symbol of his work to rebuild the church.

Patriarch Alexy's gift to Russia is healing the rift between the motherland and the diaspora. Today there are Russians who live in Russia and Russians who live abroad. But thanks to the late Patriarch Alexy, they are all Russians.

Vladimir Berezansky, Jr. is a U.S. lawyer with more than 15 years of experience in Russia and other CIS republics.