Metropolitan Pitirim

Russian Orthodox prelate who reliably promoted the Soviet official line
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The Independent Online

Konstantin Vladimirovich Nechayev, priest: born Kozlov, Soviet Union 8 January 1926; ordained priest 1956; clothed a monk 1959, taking the name Pitirim; Bishop of Volokolamsk 1963-71, Archbishop 1971-86; Metropolitan of Volokolamsk and Yuriev 1986-2003; died Moscow 4 November 2003.

Distinguished with one of the longest beards in the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Pitirim of Volokolamsk and Yuryev was one of the three senior bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate during the later Soviet period, heading all its publishing activity for three decades.

During this time, as an enlisted KGB agent with the code name "Abbot", he was widely known as a reliable conformist who faithfully followed the Soviet authorities' political aims. Abroad, he promoted the Soviet official line, denying for example after the 1980 arrest of Moscow priest Fr Dmitri Dudko (with whom he had studied in seminary) and other activists that there was any "wave of arrests" of church members.

He once defended the Soviet ban on religious education of children by complaining that such education would violate their freedom, and claimed that charitable work was unnecessary given the excellent Soviet welfare system.

As the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev opened up society in the late 1980s, Pitirim became a visible public figure. In 1989 he was one of three senior Orthodox bishops appointed to the first semi-free parliament, the Congress of People's Deputies, in his case nominated by the Soviet Culture Fund.

With the security forces increasingly used to suppress nationalist forces, Pitirim spoke up publicly for the Soviet army, despite its killings of innocent civilians in Riga, Vilnius and elsewhere.

In August 1991, during the hardline coup attempt that led to the undermining of Gorbachev and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Pitirim visited one of the leaders of the coup, Boris Pugo, in what a parliamentary commission later condemned as "de facto recognition".

He was born Konstantin Nechayev in 1926, the son of a priest in the town of Kozlov (now Michurinsk) in Tambov region who was to be purged under Stalin when his boy was just four. Despite this black mark on his record, the young Konstantin studied well. After finishing school, he entered the Moscow State Institute of Communications.

In 1945, he became a senior sub-deacon to Patriarch Alexi I. In 1947, he graduated from the newly reopened Moscow Theological Seminary, and in 1951 from the Theological Academy (as its first doctoral graduate), with a thesis on Simeon the New Theologian.

He was ordained deacon in 1952 and four years later priest. In 1959 he took monastic vows with the name Pitirim in honour of St Pitirim of Tambov. The same year he was appointed inspector of the Moscow Theological Schools. He taught the History of Western Confessions at the Moscow Theological Seminary and Academy for nearly 30 years and from 1957 also taught New Testament.

In May 1963, he was consecrated Bishop of Volokolamsk, vicar of the Moscow Diocese. In 1971 he was elevated to the rank of archbishop and in 1986 he was made Metropolitan.

From 1962 Pitirim edited the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, a dull chronicle of official visits and speeches with little inspiring content. The following year he was appointed to head the publishing department of the Moscow Patriarchate. For several years he also chaired the editorial board of the respected Bogoslovskiye Trudy ("Theological Works").

Despite several books and over 70 theological articles, few took his intellectual pretensions too seriously. His publishing department was frequently criticised by Orthodox intellectuals, eager to see the meagre church publications the Soviets permitted put to more inspiring use. They questioned how an empire of several hundred employees could produce so little.

Such criticism was voiced openly - and painfully for Pitirim - at the 1988 Church Council in Moscow. By the early 1990s his control over church publishing was over, though he hung on to his job until December 1994.

Pitirim prided himself on his ties to intellectuals and the Soviet and post-Soviet cultural élite. In 1995 - to the fury of conservative clerics - he conducted the funeral for the murdered television journalist Vlad Listyev.

A former cellist who was keen on promoting church singing traditions, Metropolitan Pitirim founded several choirs who not only sang in churches but also gave recitals of Orthodox music at concert halls both in and outside Russia.

Felix Corley