How TASS got the scoop on the last Russian Orthodox election

December 5, 2008

The death of Russian Orthodox Patriach Alexiy II and talk about his possible successor got Aleksandras Budrys, a correspondent in our Moscow bureau, to reminiscing about how he covered Alexiy’s election in 1990 for the official news agency TASS. Here’s his account of reporting on religion near the end of communism in Russia:

(Photo: Patriarch Alexiy II, 30 April 2000/Vladimir Suvorov)

As a TASS correspondent for religious issues, I was the first to report the election of Patriarch Alexiy II in early June 1990. The scoop was made possible because I was allowed to stay in monk’s cells at the monastery where the vote took place while all the other journalists were sent away.

The election process took a little less than three days. On the first day, all the hierarchs of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church gathered at the refectory church at the Holy Trinity and St Sergius monastery outside Moscow.

The press was only allowed to attend the start of the meeting and was then directed to leave the church. Since they were told the election would take more than a day, the reporters returned to Moscow. But I was allowed to stay at the monastery, as by the time I had developed good relations with the Patriarchate’s Foreign Relations Department and its spokesman.

The council meeting was interrupted only once, when one of the candidates to the post (one of the then metropolitans, Filaret of Kiev and All Ukraine, who is currently the head of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church) left the gathering without saying a word after discovering that he was not in the running.

I was allowed to spend the night in a cell with monastery novices and most of the day in another cell close to the refectory church along with the priest holder-of-the-keys and the Metropolitan of Vienna and all Austria Iriney . The latter had decided not to sit with others, preferring to stay with us and drink church wine, smoke St Moritz cigarettes — a foreign brand that was a rarity in Russia — and tell jokes that had nothing to do with religion.

In the early hours of the third day, June 7, we were all summoned to the refectory church to hear the solemn announcement of the election of Metropolitan Alexiy of Leningrad and Novgorod as His Holiness Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.

When I phoned in the news to TASS, the duty editor asked me to swear to God that it was really Alexiy who had been elected. I said I could not, as I was not baptised back then.

(Photo: A 27-tonne bell is installed in belltower at Holy Trinity and Saint Sergius monastery, 4 Sept 2002/Alexander Natruskin)
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