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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pushing 2 Churches Closer to Each Other

Perhaps the most historic event to hit the Orthodox world during President Vladimir Putin's time in office took place in May, when the leaders of two Russian churches agreed to end an 80-year rift.

Putin stood by during the triumphant, incense-filled ceremony at Christ the Savior Cathedral as Patriarch Alexy II signed a reunification agreement with Metropolitan Laurus, head of the New York-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.

The church abroad was founded by White emigres in the 1920s. It cut off all ties with the Moscow Patriarchate in 1927 after the leader of the Moscow church, Patriarch Sergy, swore loyalty to the communist government. The staunchly monarchist emigre church was an implacable foe of the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War.

Putin played a key role in pushing the two churches closer to each other, even though they took the first tentative steps toward reunification in the 1990s, said senior priests in the Moscow Patriarchate.

"It's not that the unification would never have happened without him, but it probably would have come later and not gone as smoothly," said Father Maxim Kozlov, the rector of St. Tatiana Chapel of Moscow State University and a professor at the Moscow Theological Academy.

One key moment was a 2003 meeting between Putin and the leaders of the emigre church, where he told them, "You are sitting with a believing president," The New York Times reported last year.

The church merger was an ideological coup for Putin, fitting into a pattern where the state has used both tsarist and Soviet-era symbols to cobble together a new Russian identity. During Putin's presidency, Russia reintroduced the old Soviet anthem, but it has also held lavish reburials for the mother of Russia's last tsar and for White General Anton Denikin, a fierce enemy of the Bolsheviks.

At a May 17 ceremony, Putin praised the reunification agreement -- formally called an act of canonical communion -- as an event that Russians worldwide could take pride in. "There were no winners in this ecclesiastical and political conflict," he said. "Everyone was a loser, so reunification serves our common goals."

Not everyone was happy with the merger of the two churches. About 100 clergy from the church abroad -- just under one-third of the total number -- broke off in protest. Most of them joined a separate church led by Bishop Agafangel, the only bishop in the emigre church who opposed reunification.

Dissenting clerics say the Moscow Patriarchate is still too steeped in the Soviet-era tradition of pleasing the state, dubbed "Sergyanism" after the controversial patriarch who first swore loyalty to the Bolsheviks.

They see Sergy "not as a traitor and a betrayer of the church, but rather as a hero of the church," Father Nikita Grigoriev, a priest who opposed reunification, said by telephone from upstate New York. "They want to portray him as the greatest benefactor of the church, and the greatest confessor and martyr of the church."

A senior priest in the Moscow Patriarchate said it had abandoned Sergyanism. Father Nikolai Balashov, head of the church's department of inter-Orthodox relations, said there was nothing wrong with priests cooperating with the state as long as they did not compromise their Christian principles.

He conceded that some clerics had gone too far in the Soviet era. "Have the ones who were guilty of this repented?" he said by e-mail. "This is not a matter for public denunciations, I think. A person repents before God."

Other dissenters pointed out that the Moscow Patriarchate continues many habits that have a distinctly Soviet-era feel. In 2005, for instance, Alexy sent a congratulatory letter to the communist government of Vietnam on the 30th anniversary of its victory in the Vietnam War.

Balashov said the letter was meant to celebrate 30 years of peace, not the triumph of Vietnamese communism. "If you take this argument to its logical conclusion, even our Victory Day is the 'anniversary of a communist victory,'" he said.

Finally, some dissenters claimed that Moscow's real interest was to win control of valuable properties controlled by the church abroad -- or even to expand the spying capabilities of the FSB. Father Victor Dobroff, another New York priest, said the agency would get "new spy nests all over the world, absolutely untouchable, working under the cover of the church," The Wall Street Journal reported last July.

Balashov dismissed such accusations as nonsense.