Metropolitan Alimpy

Leader of the Old Believers
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Alexander Kapitonovich Gusev, priest: born Sormovo, Soviet Union 14 August 1929; ordained deacon 1966, priest 1985 (taking the name Alimpy); Archbishop, later Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia 1986-2003; died Moscow 31 December 2003.

For 17 years, Metropolitan Alimpy of Moscow and All Russia led the Old Believers of the Bela Krinitsa Concord, the largest of the Russian Old Believer groups who follow the Orthodox rites untainted by the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century. His Moscow base was the 200-year-old cathedral of the Protection of the Mother of God next to the Rogozhskoe cemetery, which only narrowly escaped destruction by Stalin.

Alimpy's leadership began under the reforms of the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, when tight Soviet controls on religious life were lifted. He led the church in an independent Russia, where the Old Believers struggled to retain their identity against the renewed power of the Moscow Patriarchate, which continues to give them scant recognition, and other faiths in the religious free market.

Although a member of President Vladimir Putin's advisory Council for Relations with Religious Associations, Alimpy failed to see the government correct historic injustices. Despite his repeated protests, many Old Believer churches and religious treasures confiscated by the Soviet regime were handed to the Russian Orthodox Church.

He was born Alexander Gusev, one of six children in an Old Believer family in a village in the Nizhny Novgorod (Gorky) region. The family had become reasonably well-off through hard work as shoemakers, but their large house had been confiscated after the Communists came to power. Moving to Lyskovo on the Volga, the family secretly built a chapel at home after the mass closure of churches in the 1930s. Alexander's sister Sofya died after doctors refused to treat her for a serious illness when she refused to remove her baptismal cross.

Gusev began work in 1946 as a buoy-keeper on local rivers before becoming a fireman (the job he would return to in 1953 after his compulsory military service in navy facilities on the Gulf of Finland). He was an eager attender at the Old Believer church in Gorky, which had been reopened in 1945. But reaching the church was no mean feat. It was 35 miles skating distance in winter from his village to reach the bus to Gorky itself.

In 1959 - when Nikita Khrushchev's persecution of the churches was beginning - Gusev took his first post in the church as a reader. He moved to a village near Kostroma to help out an elderly priest, but was given a week to leave by the local religious affairs commissioner and he returned to Gorky.

Not until 1966 - after the end of the persecution - was he ordained deacon. He served in the Gorky church for the next 20 years, until being ordained priest on a visit to Moldavia in 1985. He was elevated in 1986 to the post of Bishop of Klintsy and Rzhev in western Russia.

Shortly afterwards, a church council named him to head the church as Archbishop of Moscow and all Russia, not without some help from the KGB, which issued secret instructions that he was the "most acceptable candidate for us". But the KGB had little choice: Alimpy was the only bishop young and active enough to have led the church.

In 1988, during the 1,000-year anniversary celebrations of the conversion of Kievan Rus to Christianity, the church named him the first-ever Metropolitan, against the wishes of the Soviet authorities. In 1992 Alimpy was able to welcome to Moscow the leaders of the Lipovan Old Believers from 20 countries, including Metropolitan Timon based in the Romanian city of Braila, the first such meeting between the Russian and diaspora branches for 70 years.

Despite condemning what he regarded as the "expansionism of non-traditional faiths", Alimpy condemned the controversial Russian religion law adopted in 1997. He said it did little to restore historical justice for his church and failed to respect the Old Believers as a "traditional faith".

Alimpy's last years were marred by an acrimonious split within the church, which took its toll on his health. One bishop accused Alimpy of violating church law by favouring his own brother, Fr Leonid Gusev, and other relatives.

Regarded as a passive leader, Alimpy failed to regain the place in society for his church that many expected. He scornfully rejected calls by the Orthodox patriarch Alexy for the Old Believers to "rejoin the bosom of the Mother Church" and relations with the Orthodox remained cool, not to say hostile. Alimpy likewise failed to reunite his church with other Old Believer branches, including the priestless and the Novozybkov Old Believers.

A defiant non-intellectual and a man of simple tastes (he never ate meat), Alimpy spent long hours in prayer. Despite advancing age he assiduously visited his flock across Russia and the region.

Felix Corley