LONDON (Reuters) - Did the late Patriarch Alexiy II collaborate with the Soviet KGB for more than three decades before becoming head of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1990?
A yellowing pile of KGB papers, unearthed in Estonia in the late 1990s, provided tantalising evidence to support such suggestions but fell short of conclusive proof.
The church has always denied Alexiy was the KGB agent “Drozdov” whose recruitment was recorded in the Estonian papers, dating from 1958. But the issue haunted the patriarch to the end and was revived by his death, aged 79, Friday.
“The whole church ... were tools of the KGB, there’s no doubt whatsoever, and Patriarch Alexiy was agent number one,” former Soviet spy Oleg Gordievsky told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Gordievsky, a KGB double-agent who defected to Britain in 1985, conceded he had seen no direct personal evidence during his own career of collaboration by Alexiy, but said he was convinced beyond doubt by the revelations of the 1990s.
The 1958 Estonian KGB file reported the recruitment of “Drozdov,” an Orthodox priest, and gave details such as his age and birthplace. They exactly matched those of Alexiy, who was born in Estonia and rose steadily through the church’s ranks.
The allegation was supported by other sources including Gleb Yakunin, a priest and former member of parliament who served on a committee that was granted brief access to KGB archives after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Yuri Felshtinsky, a U.S.-based Russian author who specializes in intelligence issues, said there was “serious information” to support the charge against Alexiy.
But he told Reuters: “This is probably one of those questions where you would never find documents sufficient to prove the case in court.”
He noted that the Orthodox church, brutally repressed after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, was forced to find an accommodation with the authorities to ensure its survival in a Soviet state that officially did not recognize religion.
“You had to reach certain compromises,” he said. “Whether it was possible to avoid relations with the Russian secret service, with the KGB, if you tried to reach particular heights within the Russian church hierarchy — it’s a difficult professional question ... There’s always, of course, a price.”
Gordievsky said the church, after seeing three-quarters of its monks and priests purged after the Revolution, needed little prompting from the KGB to provide the information it needed.
“People coming to church were watched. If they married in church, or baptised a child in church, the data was taken and passed on to the KGB, and the person often lost their job.”
The religious hierarchy, Gordievsky said, was riddled from top to bottom with informers.
But he added: “For the church, there was indeed no alternative. They had to be friendly with the KGB.”
Editing by Andrew Roche