Aleksy II, Patriarch of Moscow and head of the Russian Orthodox Church, died of heart failure on December 5, 2008, at the age of 79.

Born in Estonia in 1929 into a pious family of Russian émigrés of German extraction, Aleksei Mikhailovich Ridiger was ordained a priest in 1950, completed his theological studies in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) three years later, and was tonsured in 1961.  His subsequent rise through the ranks of the Russian Orthodox Church—allegedly facilitated by a KGB connection, which he always denied—culminated in his election as Patriarch in 1990.

Aleksy II came to the throne just as the Soviet state was beginning to disintegrate.  The early years of his tenure were dominated by the tremendous task of restoring the moral authority of the Church in a nation devastated by seven decades of lethal anti-Christian rule.

The scale of that devastation defies imagination.  Persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church and other denominations under the communists is one of the greatest crimes in history.  Its death toll was several times greater than that of the holocaust.  It had killed more Christians than all other persecutions in all ages put together, with Islam a distant second.  In 20 interwar years (1918-38), the number of churches that remained open in Russia was reduced from 54,000 to under 500—less than one percent of the pre-Bolshevik total.  Some 600 Orthodox bishops, 40,000 priests, 120,000 monks and nuns, and millions of laymen were murdered.

Even in the late Soviet period the Orthodox Church was at best grudgingly tolerated, hindered from playing any role in a society that was drowning in despair, vodka, and cynicism.  Yet Aleksy II’s considerable diplomatic tact and organizational ability were already evident during the 1980’s, when he secured the Soviet authorities’ acquiescence in the return of Holy Danilov Monastery, which has been restored to its old status as the official headquarters of the patriarchate.  In 1988 he used the celebration of the “Millennium of Faith” in Russia to raise the profile of his Church in a manner unimaginable under Mikhail Gorbachev’s predecessors.

The end of communism enabled the Russian Orthodox Church to assume her old role of moral leader amid the collapse of all secular institutions.  A major test of Aleksy’s political savvy came in the summer of 1991, when old Soviet loyalists tried to stage a coup.  The Patriarch contributed to its failure by sternly condemning the shedding of civil blood: “May God protect you from the terrible sin of fratricide . . . Cease at once!”  The army obeyed.  This remarkable fact was a testimony to Aleksy’s steady cultivation of the military and security apparat well before his rise to the patriarchate.

During the ensuing decade the number of self-identified believers in Russia was to grow threefold, and the number of parishes fiftyfold, to 30,000.  But Aleksy’s greatest accomplishment was his role in the 2007 reunion of the branches of the Russian Church abroad and at home.  The reunification, together with the glorification of the Royal Martyrs Nicholas II and his family, the return to Sarov of the relics of Saint Seraphim, and the veneration of warrior saints such as Aleksandr Nevsky and Prince Dmitry Donsky, “signaled the reconsolidation of what had been ripped apart in 1917,” says foreign-affairs analyst James Jatras.  Jatras notes that its counterpart in the civil sphere is “Putin’s careful and deliberate amalgamation of White and Red symbolism.”  This synthesis lends itself to the vision articulated by the late Gen. Aleksandr Lebed: “The Church strengthens the army; the army defends the Church.  And on this restored spiritual axis—the two pillars of our power—we can begin to feel like Russians again.”

While routinely accused in the West of excessively close links to the secular authorities, Patriarch Aleksy took pains to define what is permissible and what is not in the relationship between Church and state.  He rejected any absolutization of governmental authority and insisted that the temporal powers of the state should be recognized as imperative only to the degree that they are used to support good and limit evil.  Aleksy’s position was codified in 2000 by the Jubilee Council of Bishops.  Its “Basic Social Concept”—drafted with his blessing—stated that, “in everything that concerns the exclusively earthly order of things, the Orthodox Christian is obliged to obey the law.”  However, when compliance “threatens his eternal salvation and involves an apostasy or commitment of another doubtless sin before God and his neighbor, the Christian is called to perform the feat of confession. . . . If this lawful action is impossible or ineffective, he must take up the position of civil disobedience.  The Church is loyal to the state, but God’s commandment to fulfill the task of salvation in any situation and under any circumstances is above this loyalty. . . . If the authority forces Orthodox believers to apostatise from Christ and His Church and to commit sinful and spiritually harmful actions, the Church should refuse to obey the state . . . [it] must resist evil, immorality and harmful social phenomena and always firmly confess the Truth, and when persecutions commence, to continue to openly witness the faith and be prepared to follow the path of confessors and martyrs for Christ.”

Christians everywhere would be well advised to reflect on the meaning and implications of those words.