Russian Patriarch turns tables on country's rulers: Mr Yeltsin's courtship of the Orthodox Church has paid off, writes Helen Womack in Moscow

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The Independent Online
TO ALL those who used to read between the lines of Pravda to guess what was going on in the Kremlin, the past months of open rowing among Russia's political leaders have been surprising enough. But that old Communists, including Boris Yeltsin himself, should turn to the Russian Orthodox Church to solve their problems is indeed an astonishing development.

For decades under the Communists the Orthodox Church avoided annihilation by being subservient to the atheist state, in contrast to the rebellious Polish Catholic Church. Now politicians who earlier in their careers were part of the repressive system which sent active believers to labour camps, are going to the Orthodox hierarchy for guidance on how to run the country. The intervention of the Church may just succeed in bringing political peace where other efforts have failed. Certainly it is one of the few institutions which enjoys any public respect in Russia.

Credit for increasing the authority of the Church goes to Patriarch Alexy II, whose staff yesterday welcomed representatives of the two warring political sides to the Danilovsky Monastery. Old ladies in headscarves genuflected and Cossacks strutted as limousines swept into the 13th century white-walled monastery, which was used by the Communists as an umbrella factory and only returned to the Church five years ago.

Patriarch Alexy, 64, formerly a Metropolitan in Estonia and then in St Petersburg and Novgorod, was enthroned three years ago after the death of Patriarch Pimen, who was so sycophantic towards the Kremlin that he allowed priests to work for the KGB and failed to speak out when Christian dissidents were jailed. Critics of Alexy say he was equally compromised and has not atoned for his past.

But more moderate believers praise the new Patriarch for calling for general repentance for the mistakes of the Communist years while avoiding witch-hunts. 'Alexy is fighting to prevent a split in the Church,' said an artist and churchgoer, Maria Vishnya, referring to the return of 'white' priests who spent years in exile and are challenging 'red' clergy who stayed and bowed to survive. In the diocese of Suzdal, for example, the 'red' Bishop Yevlogy and the 'white' Bishop Valentin are fighting a battle for souls which is as ugly as the

politicians' struggle for power.

Now that religion is free and even fashionable in Russia, politicians realise they must court believers as they do other interest groups. Mr Yeltsin is sure not to miss his appearances at Christmas and Easter services and, like the tsars before him, seeks the Patriarch's blessing before he makes important trips abroad. Cynics doubt his conversion and say he is just trying to make himself popular. But others think he has genuinely changed since his days as Communist Party boss in Sverdlovsk. 'Gorbachev is cunning but Yeltsin is more straight. He's alive and capable of growth. I don't think anyone who saw him at the church funeral for his mother (last March) could doubt his sincerity,' said Ms Vishnaya.

The President has shown support for the Orthodox Church by backing a law aimed at controlling foreign evangelical competitors. Some Protestants said yesterday that the Patriarch might be trying to help Mr Yeltsin out of his political problems in gratitude for this, although the Church's stated motive was that it wanted to avoid bloodshed. Foreign missionaries are not sure if the law has come into effect, since parliament is suspended. US and Finnish tele-evangelists continue to dominate the airwaves on Sunday mornings, enraging the Orthodox Church which says it does not have the financial resources to combat this invasion.

(Photograph omitted)