Russia's Well-Connected Patriarch

By Sharon LaFraniere, Washington Post, Thursday 23 May 2002; Page A01

MOSCOW—Beneath the stone arches of the Church of St. Sofia of God's Wisdom, in the courtyard of the former KGB headquarters in central Moscow's Lubyanka Square, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church joined the hierarchy of the Federal Security Service in early March for a prayer.

There, in what served during Soviet times as a warehouse, Patriarch Alexy II asked God's blessing for the leaders of what was once the KGB's dreaded internal security arm. He asked the church to help ensure Russia's safety “in the face of external and internal ill-wishers, if not enemies” and prayed that the little chapel be spared further “storms and ordeals.”

For the man who has run Russia's dominant church for the past decade, it was a classic patriarchal performance: steeped in patriotism, tinged with mistrust of the wider world and remarkable for what was left unsaid. Nowhere in his blessing did Alexy note that it was from the same Lubyanka address that Stalin's KGB ordered the imprisonment and execution of millions of innocent people branded enemies of the state—including much of the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Skeptics say Alexy's remarks mirror the greater irony of his 1,000-year-old church. After being subverted, penetrated and virtually remade as an arm of the Soviet state during seven decades of communism, the Russian Orthodox Church has been reborn under the leadership of its strong-willed, 73-year-old patriarch. Alexy has created 12,000 new Orthodox parishes, rebuilt hundreds of majestic onion-domed churches once used as Soviet animal pens and garages, and parlayed a religious revival in free Russia into a dramatic renewal of the church's public authority and political influence.

But at the same time, Alexy's many critics say, the newly empowered church has found it difficult to shed or even admit key aspects of its communist legacy. Under Alexy's leadership, they say, the church has continued to walk in near lockstep with the secular Russian state, parroting the Kremlin line on issues as diverse as the war in Chechnya, NATO relations, poultry imports and the conduct of this winter's Olympic Games.

The critics describe the church as fiercely nationalistic and deeply suspicious of outsiders, and they say it uses its political clout to throw up barriers to other faiths, from the Jehovah's Witnesses to the Roman Catholic Church, with which it split in 1054. It has retained its penchant for secrecy, they say, refusing to disclose its income from such activities as tax-free cigarette sales, which amount to government subsidies.

Most painfully, they say, it has balked at publicly expiating its own Soviet past, including compelling evidence that Alexy was for decades an important asset of the KGB. Church-State Ties

Many Orthodox priests were forced by the Communists into relationships with the Soviet police, often under threat of execution. Researchers say that evidence indicates that Alexy rose to power in part as a reward for his service as a KGB informant, and that he was decorated for that work as recently as 1988, two years before church leaders elected him patriarch.

Alexy declined repeated requests for an interview for this article. But the Rev. Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy head of the church's foreign relations department, said in an interview in March that clergymen had no choice but to report to Soviet authorities. As long as they did not turn in fellow believers and priests, he said, they did no moral wrong.

“To reject Soviet power as something totally bad, and to blame someone just for being in good touch with Soviet authorities, I think is a highly politicized approach,” he said. Many Russians share the church's attitude that to explore the Soviet Union's grisly past would be useless and painful.

In an interview 18 months ago with the Britain-based Keston Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Russia and other countries, Chaplin said that the church and the state continue to have common concerns, such as Russia's greatness and the church's role in the world. “We don’t consider that everything which was done in that [Soviet] period was incorrect,” he said.

There is no doubt that the Russian Orthodox Church and its believers suffered grievously under Soviet rule, and that some of those wounds, such as the loss of the church's assets and some of its flock, could take years or decades to heal. Still, some religious activists and critics say the church remains in many ways influenced by the Soviet experience.

“In a very real sense, the patriarchate of Moscow is the most Soviet institution in Russia today,” said the Keston Institute's director, Lawrence Uzzell. “It is the only institution whose top leadership has not changed since the fall of Soviet Union.”

Alexander Nezhny, who frequently writes about religion, said Alexy represents the Soviet-era bishops who want “to make religion subordinate to state ideology” and to sound a message of “national and religious superiority.”

Others say Alexy is captive to far more conservative bishops whose power he cannot challenge. Unlike the Catholic Church's pope, the Russian Orthodox patriarch serves at the pleasure of a council of bishops. Some contend that Alexy is not as hard-line as some of the church's bishops, but reflects their views.

“He conducts the line of the majority of the bishops, and today the majority of bishops are people of yesterday,” said Anatoly Krasikov, director of the Center for Social and Religious Studies, funded by the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Inside and outside the church, there are people who want the church to take the place of the former Communist Party as the keeper of ideological unity, ideological purity in Russia.”

The Russian Orthodox Church has never represented itself as a solely religious institution. It has long been lashed to the state, with its moral power used to legitimize czars and justify state policies.

Those ties are much less pronounced now, with the Russian constitution and a comprehensive religion law guaranteeing freedom of worship. Still, the church sees itself as Russia's semi-official religion and, to a certain extent, is treated as such by the state.

Roughly half of Russia's 144 million citizens now call themselves Orthodox Christians, as do millions more in such former Soviet states as Ukraine and Belarus—although only a small percentage of those in Russia attend church services.

Modern Russian leaders, from former president Boris Yeltsin to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, have treated the patriarchy with special deference. Only Alexy is called upon to bless august state occasions, such as Yeltsin's transfer of a briefcase containing secret nuclear codes to Vladimir Putin on Dec. 31, 1999. Chaplin, the church spokesman, said that Putin regularly consults Alexy on domestic issues and that church leaders talk almost daily with Putin's aides.

The patriarch “has managed to elevate the status of the church within the state. He is a politician,” said Maxim Shevchenko, a journalist here who has written about religion for years. Cigarettes, Bottled Water

The relationship Alexy has built with the government appears to have worked to both sides' political benefit—and for the church, financial gain. But that has not come without controversy.

The church emerged from communism a pauper, stripped of riches it had accumulated over a millennium. While the Kremlin has since returned many Orthodox churches, it has held on to other assets, including land and schools, arguing that such property always belonged to the state.

Partly as compensation, the Kremlin allowed the church in the mid-1990s to import between $75 million and $100 million worth of cigarettes duty-free. About the same time, the church acquired 40 percent of MES, an oil-export firm whose quotas on foreign oil sales, like all such allowances, were set by the government. The company estimated its revenue in 1996 at $2 billion.

The government canceled the cigarette concession in late 1996. The church lost oil as a source of income about four years ago when MES went out of business.

“Of course the church was in a tough position financially after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But people saw that the church was tarnishing its reputation by that sort of activity,” said Krasikov, of the Center for Social and Religious Studies.

Now, the church survives partly on a bottled water business and contributions from wealthy enterprises, including the state-controlled natural gas monopoly, Gazprom, and Lukoil, an oil company that is partly owned by the state. At Lukoil's behest, Alexy expressed his gratitude to the firm for its patronage in a television commercial that aired in November.

While there is no indication that government favors have shaped church policy, Alexy is unquestionably a strong and reliable supporter of the Kremlin. After Yeltsin decried NATO's 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia, also a predominately Orthodox country, Alexy condemned the air war as a “criminal act” and a challenge to God.

Yet he is unflinchingly behind Russia's war in the rebellious southern region of Chechnya. Two years ago, he denounced a vote by Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly to suspend Russia's voting rights because of widespread human rights violations in Chechnya. Alexy said biased Western delegates had blackened the reputation of Russian troops while ignoring terrorist acts by Chechen rebels.

Sergei Ivanenko, a Russian board member of the International Association for Religious Freedom, argues that Alexy is no Kremlin puppet, especially on issues of how to deal with the West or other religions. “The church is trying to resist the expansion of Western ideals,” Ivanenko said. “Our president is much more liberal.”

Still, the church's support of the Kremlin has earned it a degree of state protection against competition from other religions. Prodded by the church, Yeltsin signed legislation in 1997 that raised a daunting series of bureaucratic hurdles for other faiths that have come to Russia seeking adherents.

Since then, the Mormon Church, the Salvation Army and others have had to fight for the legal status to rent space for worship and hand out literature. The Orthodox Church has linked arms with hard-line local officials, warning against the danger of religious sects.

Catholicism is still regarded as a threat, almost 1,000 years after the 1054 schism that severed the Orthodox and Catholic churches over issues of doctrine and authority. Although Pope John Paul II has begun to mend fences with other estranged faiths, he has yet to be allowed to visit Russia, largely due to Alexy's objections. After the pope delivered a short prayer via satellite to a Moscow cathedral in February, Alexy denounced it as a “spiritual invasion.”

More recently, Orthodox groups have mounted what Catholics call an organized campaign against them. One of Russia's four Catholic bishops was stripped of his visa last month. A group linked to the Orthodox Church recently organized a nationwide protest after the Vatican upgraded its Russian bureaucracy, creating dioceses like those in almost all other nations. Orthodox leaders have a ready explanation for their close ties to the state: The church needs the government's protection and its support to recover from more than 70 years of Communist persecution.

Critics agree that the state owes the church at least an apology for the wrongs of the past. But they argue just as strongly that the church owes its flock an explanation of its own complicity in the Communists' persecution of believers. The church set up a commission in 1992 to investigate its ties to the KGB, but no report was published. A Questioned Past

The questions begin with Alexy himself. A wealth of recent research strongly indicates that he was recruited by the KGB in 1958 when he was a 28-year-old priest in his homeland of Estonia and served as an agent for 30 years. Documents unearthed in Estonia's capital, Tallinn, describe how the KGB planned to reward a priest code-named “Drozdov” by making him bishop there; Alexy received the post in 1961. Although the priest's real name is not given, Alexy was the only priest in the Estonian diocese who matches the KGB's description, according to the Keston Institute, which reviewed and published the records.

Alexy said in a 1991 newspaper interview that he was “sometimes forced to give way” to Soviet authorities. He apologized for “such concessions, the failure to speak out, the forced passivity and expressions of loyalty of the church leadership.”

Chaplin, the church spokesman, said in March, “Nobody has ever seen a single real document that would confirm the patriarch used his contacts with Soviet authorities to make harm to the church or to any people in the church.”

That doesn’t satisfy Vera Afanasyeva, 56, a former cultural center director. She paused to discuss her faith one recent Saturday as she sat in Moscow's Catholic cathedral, contemplating whether to convert.

“I think Orthodoxy has tainted itself. And it won’t change until Orthodox priests repent before people and prove they are totally different from the past,” she said. “They are all former KGB. They need to renounce the Soviet ideology.”