Alexiy II was born Alexei Ridiguer in 1929 to a German family living in Estonia. His father was a priest and the young Alexei followed in his footsteps. The family survived the German occupation but only he and his father made it throught the Stalinist surge in 1944. In 1961, he divorced after only a year of marriage and became a monk. They were dangerous times as Nikita Kruschev’s anti-religion campaigns were in full swing. But he did more than survive. Highly respected, he swiftly rose up the church’s ranks after studying theology in St Petersburg.
A bishop at 32, then an archbishop three years later, he became patriarch of Russia’s Orthodox church in 1990, just before the fall of the Soviet Union. One of, if not his biggest accomplishment, was to restore the church’s influence in Russia and obtain the return property confiscated by the Bolsheviks. A close confident of Boris Yeltsin, he made it a personal mission to reconstruct the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Built in the 19th century to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat in Russia it was demolished by Stalin in 1931.
But in 2000 the domes of the Cathedral shone once more – the symbols of the church’s resurrection, the birth of a new nation and the end of communism. Alexiy also played a large part in the reunification of Russian Orthodox and Orthodox churches – a split that dated back to the 1920 when some chose exile after the October Revolution. He failed to build a lasting bridge with the Roman Catholic church. Alexiy refused to receive the late Pope John Paul II, accusing him of proselytizing in Orthodox land.
A conflict erupted after the Pope’s visit to Ukraine in 2001. He was there to bless the Catholic community which had taken 2,500 parishes from the Orthodox church at the beginning of the 1990’s. However, relations with the Vatican did improve after Benedict 16th was elected in 2005 – Alexiy even making a trip to pray at Notre Dame last year.