Patriarch Alexy II, the head of the Russian Orthodox church, died on Friday aged 79. The cause of death is not known, but Alexy had been suffering from a heart condition for a long time. President Dmitry Medvedev is cancelling a visit to Italy following the death of the patriarch, returning straight to Moscow from India.
After the dismantling of the Soviet Union in 1991, Alexy became a major driving force in the resurgence of religion in Russian society. Some critics accused him of being subservient to the post-Soviet Kremlin and turning the Orthodox Church into an instrument of nationalism.
Reacting to Alexy’s death, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev told the Interfax news agency he was shocked by his passing. “I respect him immensely,” said the leader who oversaw the end of the Soviet Union.
White-bearded Alexy II was influential and widely respected in Russia. He often officiated in Masses of national significance, in the presence of political leaders like Vladimir Putin, the current prime minister.
Despite two-thirds of all Russians belonging to his Orthodox Church, Alexy II’s relation with other world religions was tense. He felt the Roman Catholic church was proselytizing among his flock, and famously refused to receive visiting Pope John Paul II. Despite a warming of relations with Rome since the pontificate of Benedict XVI, Alexy continued to see “catholic proselytism” as a problem. The two churches split in the eleventh century.
Alexy II was born Alexei Ridiger, as the son of an Orthodox priest, in Estonia in 1929 when that country was independent. His funeral is expected to take place on Sunday.
A successor to Alexy II will be elected by the church synod within six months.
Prosecutors in Russia say they are studying a complaint accusing Coca-Cola of insulting Orthodox Christian beliefs in an advertising campaign.
They say the complaint was lodged by 440 residents of the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod earlier this month.
It accuses Coca-Cola of blasphemy through using adverts with images of Orthodox churches and crosses, some of which “were even put upside down”.
Coca-Cola officials say the ads are aimed at promoting Russia’s culture.
The complaint against Coca-Cola was lodged on 11 December, said Irina Monakhova, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office in Nizhny Novgorod, about 400km (250 miles) south-east of Moscow.
She said prosecutors were now investigating to determine whether there was any legal case to answer.
The protesters – mostly Russian Orthodox Christian believers – allege that Coca-Cola adverts in Nizhny Novgorod are insulting to their beliefs.
“Coca-Cola uses all these Orthodox symbols in a blasphemous way by placing images of Coca-Cola bottles inside the pictures,” the complaint said, according to Russia’s Ria Novosti news agency.
“Some images are deliberately turned upside down, including the crosses,” it said.
An inverted cross is considered to be one of the symbols of satanism.
Coca-Cola officials have defended the company’s marketing approach, saying it was promoting Russia’s cultural heritage.
The Russian Orthodox Church was torn in two by revolution and regicide, by the enmity between communism and capitalism, nearly a century of fulmination and hatred. That all formally ended on Thursday in Moscow. Thousands of the Russian Orthodox faithful — including several hundred who flew in from New York — lined up under heavy rain to get into the Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. There, they witnessed the restoration of the “Canonical Communion and Reunification” of the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), which claims more than 70 million adherents, and the U.S.-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad (ROCOR), which is believed to be 1.5 million strong. Many among the clergy and laity wept at the end of the 86 year-old schism brought about by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, and the ensuing murder of the dethroned Tsar and the forced emigration of hundred thousands Russians defeated in Civil war. While the sumptuous ritual was clearly an emotional and pious event, the reunification has political resonance as well because the Russian Orthodox Church is increasingly a symbol and projection of Russian nationalism.
Indeed, rather than first give thanks to God in his speech, the head of the ROC, Patriarch Alexy, paid homage to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Patriarch emphasized that the reunification could happen only because the ROCOR saw in Putin “a genuine Russian Orthodox human being.” Putin responded in his speech that the reunification was a major event for the entire nation.
Nationalism, based on the Orthodox faith, has been emerging as the Putin regime’s major ideological resource. Thursday’s rite sealed the four-year long effort by Putin, beginning in September 2003, to have the Moscow Patriarchate take over its rival American-based cousin and launch a new globalized Church as his state’s main ideological arm and a vital foreign policy instrument. In February press conference, Putin equated Russia’s “traditional confessions” to its nuclear shield, both, he said, being “components that strengthen Russian statehood and create necessary preconditions for internal and external security of the country.” Professor Sergei Filatov, a top authority on Russian religious affairs notes that “traditional confessions” is the state’s shorthand for the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Church’s assertiveness and presence is growing — with little separation from the State. The Moscow City Court and the Prosecutor General’s Office maintain Orthodox chapels on their premises. Only the Orthodox clergy are entitled to give ecclesiastic guidance to the military. Some provinces have included Russian Orthodox Culture classes in school curricula with students doing church chores. When Orthodox fundamentalists vandalized an art exhibition at the Moscow Andrei Sakharov Center as “an insult to the main religion of our country,” the Moscow Court found the Center managers guilty of insulting the faith, and fined them $3,500 each. The ROC had an opera, based on a famous fairy tale by the poet Alexander Pushkin, censored to the point of cutting out the priest, who is the tale’s main protagonist. “Of course, we have a separation of State and Church,” Putin said during a visit to a Russian Orthodox monastery in January 2004. “But in the people’s soul they’re together.” The resurgence of a Church in open disdain of the secular Constitution is only likely to exacerbate divisions in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Russia.
The ROCOR’s American clergy insist that they retain administrative independence over their churches even as they recognize the Moscow Patriarch as their Head. Filatov says that the ROCOR has “about as much [independence] as Eastern Europe’s ‘people’s democracies’ had in the Soviet bloc.” One of the first tests of the new union will be in the Holy Land, where the ROCOR maintains religious properties — and has had run-ins with representatives of the Moscow patriarchate in the past. In 1997, for example, Yasser Arafat forcibly turned over the only Christian church in Hebron, run by the ROCOR, to the ROC. (That church includes the site where the Bible says Abraham met three angels.) The American-based Church still controls St. Mary Magdalene, with its seven gilded onion domes and Muscovite facade, one of the most prominent churches in Jerusalem because of its commanding spot on the slopes of the Mount of Olives above the garden of Gethsemane. The ROCOR also has a convent on the summit of the Mount of Olives, a monastery in the Judaean desert founded by a hermit in the third century, and one chapel in Jericho and another on the Jordan river. The Reunification deal says that the administration of these properties will not change. But some observers remain skeptical.
With a reunited Russian Orthodox Church, Putin is pushing Russia’s dominance in the global Orthodox movement, the traditional Orthodox leadership is vested in the Patriarch of Constantinople, in a first among equals style rather than the dominant Papal regime of the Roman Catholic Church. The Orthodox communion includes churches in Greece, Cyprus, Ukraine, Belarus and various Balkan states as well as Georgia, Armenia and Moldova. Historically, the Russian Orthodox Church has always pressed its pre-eminence among these nations and is likely to do so again. Putin’s new unified Church will also further expand in the U.S. and Western Europe as it tries to use the ROCOR’s network and congregation to become as much an arm of Russian nationalist politics as well as Russian piety. With Reporting by Andrew Lee Butters/Jerusalem
By YURI ZARAKHOVICH/MOSCOW
For years Kaliningrad has been allowed to decay as a forgotten Russian enclave surrounded by Europe. But now a movement is afoot to rebuild the city center. The castle too may soon dominate the skyline once again.
When 39-year-old architect Alexander Bazhin looks out the window of his fourth-floor office, it’s a bleak sight he sees: Shoddy concrete housing blocks constructed by the late communist regime stand next to rusted water fountains and apartment blocks from the Third Reich. A 20-story Communist Party fortress — the “House of the Soviets” — rises up in the center. The building is a ruin.
The city center of Kaliningrad is not a pretty site.
It’s not uncommon for elderly East Prussians — having arrived in a tour boat in the nearby port of Pillau — to break into tears when they see to what architectural depths their city of birth has sunk to. The destruction visited on the former pearl on the Pregel River by the bombs of World War II was immense — matched by hardly any other European city. Indeed, Kaliningrad, once known by its German name Königsberg, became a symbol not just of loss, but also of the destruction, of homeland.
Some 30 divisions and two air fleets of the Red Army attacked the surrounded city during the final battle in April 1945, remembers Otto Lasch, the German Wehrmacht’s commander in Königsberg at the time. They fired at the city “from thousands of barrels including Stalin organs for days, without interruption,” he says.
What remained was Immanuel Kant’s transcendental philosophy — and meatballs.
Bazhin, who wears a pinstripe suit and light blue tie, thinks it’s time to turn the tide. For one year now, he’s been the chief city planner in Kaliningrad, now an oblast, or region, of Russia separated from the motherland by Lithuania and surrounded by European Union countries. A friendly man, he receives visitors in his granite-decorated studio in the heart of the old city. Thirty employees also grace the office, all of them young.
No one here wants to run from the city’s Prussian German legacy. On the contrary. To restore a sense of urbanity to the ravaged city center — further wrecked by the Soviets — Bazhin is going retro.