A principle said to have been first recorded by Chilon of Sparta, but more usually given in Latin is "de mortuis nil nisi bonum decendum est"- "Of the dead speak nothing unless good", or rather, do not speak ill of the dead.
Yet there are those where it is very hard to adhere completely to this rule. I don't mean such obvious villains like Stalin, but more nuanced figures. Such a figure is the late Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Alexius II. His death at 79, announced on December 5th, came after a long illness. In its wake came a raft of obituaries and even the conventional obsequies hinted that there was perhaps rather more to this man than a conventional prelate.
Alexey Ridiger was not born in Russia, but in independent Estonia in 1929. he was the child of a German Baltic baron and a Russian mother. Although his family had fled to Tallinn to escape persecution, he was not a figure likely to be friendly to his birthplace. Nevertheless even after the occupation of Estonia by the USSR, despite the religious persecution visited by the Communists on all faiths, he continued to be active in the Orthodox church. As a young man he seems to have had sufficient personal integrity to resist the oppression of Marxism-Leninism. Nevertheless, he was in time able to serve two masters.
In 1950, he was ordained and that same year he chose to marry. Yet within one year he was divorced, and in the subsequent years he is said to have become a collaborator with the feared and hated KGB. It seems almost certain that by 1957, he was a fully fledged member of the KGB- a senior officer in the 5th directorate for religious affairs, though he may also have reported to the 7th directorate- the surveillance of Soviet citizens. It was with such connections that in 1961 he was appointed Bishop of Tallinn and all Estonia.
It was a difficult time in Estonia- the guerrilla war of resistance to Soviet rule that had been largely ended in the mid fifties had only reinforced the deep suspicion of the Estonians by the Soviet authorities. All senior figures in society, and especially the Communist Party were either Russian or Estonians that were so Russian that they could barely speak their native language- for which reason they were known as "Yestonians". In such an environment it is crystal clear that the young Bishop could have only risen to his position with the full support of the KGB. Nevertheless, Alexey conducted a religious life, becoming very close to the Convent of Puhtitsa in Eastern Estonia- a connection that was to continue for the rest of his life. It is also said that he prevented the destruction of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn- yet the cathedral, only constructed in 1912, has always been seen as a visible example of Russian colonialism in Estonia, which may have been the basis of his appeal to the authorities.
In the 1960s the future Patriarch saw a rapid rise in the hierarchy of the church and, it now seems clear, within the KGB as well. After rising to Archbishop in 1968, he was made Metropolitan. By this time, it is understood that he was very close to the top of the KGB 5th directorate. Any resistance to the Communist party was rooted out, and such members of the church that did resist were not merely imprisoned, they were very often disavowed by the very church to which they gave their loyalty. Many Priests and many more ordinary members of the church were sent to the camps, and many were martyred for their faith. While the Metropolitan struggled in public to save buildings for the forms of religious use, the faithful themselves faced torment.
In 1986, Metropolitan Alexey became Metropolitan of Leningrad and Novgorod. It was at this time that he may have first encountered a young KGB officer, newly returned from East Germany, Vladimir Putin. After the death of Patriarch Pimen in 1989, Alexey, despite his unusual non-Russian background, became the Patriarch of All Russia. Yet, as the Soviet Union went down the drain, his parallel career seems to have withered. Certainly in the early 1990s, Patriarch Alexey stood up for the rights of the church- becoming increasingly militant in so doing. Yet, in his implacable opposition to the Polish Pope John Paul II, perhaps he revealed a little of his KGB biases. Certainly, John Paul was never able to visit Russia, although it was for many years his dearest wish.
Latterly, Alexy appointed many bishops in his own stamp: deeply conservative and fiercely protective of the Russian Church to the exclusion of all else. The emergence of the KGB faction in power under Vladimir Putin brought substantial new rights to the Patriarch who, with the restitution of much church property, was now leading one of the wealthiest organisations in the Russian Federation. The reconstruction of the -rather vulgar- Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow was a public symbol of the full restitution of the rights of the Russian Orthodox Church- under complete state protection. In exchange for such protection, Alexey gave unshakable backing to the regime- even supporting such actions as the Chechen war. Unashamedly patriotic, the Russian church retains to the full its traditional role as the supporter of the government- whichever government, seemingly, is in power.
Although Estonian born and a long time Bishop here in Tallinn, there are no flags at half mast here in Estonia- perhaps more surprisingly, even the Russian Embassy has not dipped its flag to mourn this controversial figure. His legacy of cravenness to the powers that be may survive him, but it seems more likely that the last Soviet Patriarch may bequeath a more pluralist church than he intended. As he meets his maker, it will be a mixed record that he must show to God. It is certainly a record that will require more forgiveness than is usual in the life of a cleric.