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Russia: Cunning patriarch propels Christianity to heart of state

Russia is celebrating Christmas Day today, led by Alexei 11, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the last decade Alexei has seen his church restored to a powerful, even ruthless, force. As Phil Reeves reports, the patriarch is now one of the country's most influential and ambiguous figures.

Christmas was officially scrapped by the Communists who turned New Year into the main seasonal celebration, but it has been making a steady comeback since Boris Yeltsin restored its status as a national holiday several years ago. Such is its novelty that the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda yesterday published instructions on what to do. Although in Tsarist times prosperous Russians ate swan at the main meal, roast chicken or turkey would do, it advised.

Alexei II himself could be forgiven if he allowed himself a frisson of personal triumph today. When he was merely a humble bishop, his friends at the KGB gave him the codename "thrush". Were they today to choose a sobriquet for Alexei 11, the patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, it would be a bird of far greater sinew. He and his organisation are as central in the new Russia as the tsarist era double-headed eagle that adorns the national flag.

Statistics suggest that half of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox, but active participation in the church remains low. Yet the church itself has forged forward in the last 10 years, dramatically increasing its prestige and winning back much of the ground lost by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Those aspiring to be a power in the land - be they Boris Yeltsin, the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, or themayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov - make it their business regularly to share a stage with the cleric.

Few are better skilled than Alexei in the business of amassing power in a state in which cronyism, wealth and unreconstructed Sovietism play a greater role than the instruments of democracy. He not only worked within the church when it was penetrated by the KGB and bound up with the Soviet state, he thrived under it.

After training as engineer, he entered the church in his native Estonia and became a bishop at 32. It was in the same year - 1961 - that the church, aided by the KGB, joined the World Council of Churches and proceeded to exploit the naive and foggy benevolence of its members by covertly pressing through the Soviet agenda.

The KGB liked Alexei because he was compliant, and showed few inconvenient symptoms of religious zeal. He rose swiftly, and within three years was the Chancellor of the Moscow Patriarchate - in charge of the money, and working closely with the regime. When the Soviet empire disintegrated, Alexei apologised for his career in an unusually candid interview with Izvestia newspaper: "Defending one thing, it was necessary to give somewhere else. Were there any other organisations, or any other people among those who had to take responsibility not only for themselves but for thousands of other fates, who were not compelled to act likewise?"

He was protected by the fact that he was no different from the assorted party hacks and security men who inherited the remnants of the Soviet Union. (Boris Yeltsin spent three decades in the Party.) His advocates continue to argue it was Hobson's Choice - either stand up against the system and be crushed, or work within its constraints in the hope, now realised, of piloting the church towards a better future.

In the post-Soviet era, he has continued to depend on his political cunning, tenacity and pragmatism. Tensions between the church's vociferous conservative elements and its moderates could easily have rent it in two.

The price of avoiding a bust-up has been considerable: last year, under pressure from the right, the Russian patriarch called off a meeting with the Pope, jettisoning an opportunity to end 1,000 years of rivalry and hostility. The conservatives had demonstrated their capacity for destructive xenophobia before, by responding furiously when Alexei made a conciliatory speech before a gathering of rabbis in New York in 1991. Anti-Semitism remains ingrained within the folds of the Russian cloth.

So, too, do several other murky secular impulses. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the state - anxious to use the church to consolidate its own power - gave the Orthodox Church tax breaks to import such worldly commodities as cigarettes, oil and alcohol.

As Russia's clerics today ponder the man whom they consider Christ's representative on earth, even his enemies will be bound to acknowledge that he has achieved something. The figures look good: there are now 18,000 parishes, compared to 6,900 a decade ago.

He fought hard and successfully to get Mr Yeltsin's signature on last year's draconian new law which protects the Russian Orthodox Church from competition from foreign proselytisers on Russian soil.

Although Alexei has said he believes in the separation of church and state, his stewardship has bound the two inexorably together. He has pressed ahead with a revival that has seen the church acquire banks, land, buildings, and political suitors galore. The plumage of this particular bird may not be very attractive, but he gets the job done.