Orthodox Patriarch Appointed

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

The enmity between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Soviet state came to an official end in September 1943 with the election of Patriarchal Locum Tenens Metropolitan Sergii Stragorodskii, de facto leader of the church for seventeen years, as Patriarch. The election had been preceded by a momentous September 4 meeting in the Kremlin between Joseph Stalin and three leading Metropolitans: Sergei, Aleksei Simanskii of Leningrad and Nikolai Iarushevich of Kiev. Stalin granted them the right to open a limited number of churches and religious schools, and to convene a national synod on September 8, which duly elected Sergei patriarch. Upon his elevation, Sergei immediately declared Stalin the divinely anointed ruler, initiating an uneasy collaboration between church and state that survived the Soviet system. Upon his death in 1945, he was succeeded by Aleksei.

The Orthodox Church suddenly found itself a welcome companion in the highest reaches of power, offering prayers for victory on occasions of state ceremony, and even praying for the health of the leader, Joseph Stalin. This new role rendered the schismatic Living Church redundant, and soon led to its demise. Sergei had long been associated with efforts to find accommodation with the state. He temporarily supported the Living Church in 1922-23, which he repudiated upon Tikhon’s release from prison. He marked his return from a two-year exile after Tikhon’s death in 1925 with successful efforts to have the church declare its loyalty to the Soviet state. In the difficult early days of the war, Sergei directed fundraising drives to outfit Russian tank units, and assisted with field hospitals and homeless refugees. Aleksei of Leningrad distinguished himself as well by staying in the city during the blockade.

Acknowledgement of the church gave Stalin access to a new public discourse. Religion offered symbols of unity that had been absent and afforded an iconography of state and people united in a common cause. One effective piece of propaganda was a song written in the very first week of the war by two of the most effective musical propagandists of the 1930s, which labeled it a “holy war.” The wartime alliance preempted fears aroused by the German use of religion to co-opt the peasantry in conquered territories, particularly in the republics of Ukraine and Belorussia where religion had been a point of resistance in the 1930s. But the alliance did not signal an acceptance of religion as a whole. Non-Christian religions such as Islam and Judaism were still suspect. Muslims were suspected of mixed loyalties, and some of their populations, such as the Crimean Tatars, were deported from their homelands. Orthodox sects that did not contribute to the spirit of state-centered community and loyalty, were suppressed as well.

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