Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II, 79, dies in Moscow

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Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexei II, the iconic religious leader who restored the church from a post-Soviet shell to an institution of privilege and power, died at his Moscow home Friday. He was 79.

The imposing, white-bearded Alexei had reigned in the Russian Orthodox Church's top seat for the last 18 years, an era that witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rebirth of Russia as a powerful, centralized state under the steely leadership of Prime Minister and former President Vladimir Putin.

Alexei was celebrated for healing a painful rift with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, a splinter faction established by White Guard Russians who fled the Soviet Union for the West. The Russian patriarch signed a pact with Metropolitan Laurus last year, putting an end to the bitter, 80-year schism.

Alexei had been a fervent supporter of Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, whose public observance of Orthodox rites helped restore the church's image in Russian popular culture. Under the dual reigns of Putin and Alexei, Russia moved back toward its former imperial system of a powerful, centralized authority supported by -- and supporting -- a national church.

"Not only was he a prominent figure in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church, but also a great statesman," Putin said Friday. "He did a great deal to help establish a new governance system in Russia."

Medvedev canceled a planned trip to Italy to mourn the leader he credited with turning the church into "one of the influential institutions fruitfully interacting with the state," the Interfax news agency reported.

"We deeply grieve his demise," Medvedev said. "It is a great loss for me personally, as well. We will always remember his spiritual assistance, wisdom and boundless faithfulness to his country and people."

The Orthodox Church's tight ties with the Kremlin raised eyebrows, especially among Russian critics brought up in a staunchly secular system.

In recent years, Alexei spoke out against the independence of Kosovo, endorsed the rule of Putin and appeared in a commercial for Lukoil, Russia's largest oil company. He avoided expressing opinions that veered from Kremlin policy, and met with Putin and Medvedev.

At the same time, Orthodox priests ministered to the armed forces, Orthodox classes were introduced in some public schools and the government helped the church rebuild monuments and churches lost to Soviet rule.

"On the one hand, the authorities presented a demand for ideological support on the part of the church," said Mikhail Sitnikov, council member of the Russian Department of the International Assn. for Religious Freedom. "On the other hand, the church received solid support on the part of the state. The patriarch began to enforce the political role of the church."

Some Russian researchers have alleged that Alexei, who was born Alexei Mikhailovich Ridiger on Feb. 23, 1929, in Tallinn, Estonia, worked as a KGB agent. The patriarchy has denied these claims.

The Soviet era was a brutal one for the church. Clergymen were purged, churches leveled and church properties confiscated. Many of the surviving priests were co-opted as secret agents.

Alexei's funeral is expected to be held this weekend at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral, a landmark flattened by Josef Stalin and rebuilt as a symbol of the church's resurgent role in Russian life. He will be buried at Moscow's Epiphany Cathedral.

Stack is a Times staff writer.

megan.stack@latimes.com

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