The army and the church

The widely publicized trial of Pussy Riot has brought a great deal of attention to  the role played by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in setting state policy in Russia. In the last few years, the church has sought a role in shaping the Russian military as well. The extent to which it has succeeded in this endeavor is made clear in two recent articles in VPK.

Back in July 2009, President Medvedev announced that the position of chaplain would be introduced into the Russian military. This announcement was the culmination of a long campaign by the ROC. The military side of this history is well-described by Dale Herspring and Roger McDermott in their 2010 Problems of Post-Communism article [gated]. Since their article was written, the military has gone about implementing the directive.

Officially, of course, the position of chaplain does not belong exclusively to the ROC. Chaplains can be appointed from any of the four religions “officially recognized” by the Russian government (Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism). And in fact, there are Muslim chaplains and I think Jewish ones as well. (I haven’t seen reports of Buddhist chaplains, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any) But it seems to me that these are just window dressing.

As part of this effort, the military has established a directorate for work with believers serving in the military. Any unit in which 10% of those serving (both soldiers and officers) are considered believers may have a chaplain appointed. At the same time, the ROC is actively working to ensure that beliefs other than those of the four recognized religions are not actively practiced in the military. This concerns especially non-Orthodox Christian faiths, including Catholicism and Protestantism.  In one of the VPK articles, Sergei Ivaneev argues that ROC chaplains are also actively engaged in fomenting dislike of atheists and non-believers among those serving in the military.

The article by Viacheslav Kotkov makes it clear that the goal is to inculcate an “Orthodox spirit in the spiritual-patriotic education” of those serving in the military and in this way to strengthen discipline in the Russian military. The goal of the chaplain is not to establish discipline directly, but to provide moral teaching for the soldiers. Ivaneev, on the other hand, believes that the chaplains are actually engaged in missionary activity and religious propaganda among a population that is forbidden from avoiding such teaching because of military discipline.

The ROC’s efforts to incorporate its beliefs into military education have not stopped with its success in having a chaplaincy service established. It is now seeking to have theology incorporated as a subject in Russian military academies. The Strategic Rocket Forces military academy now has a faculty of Orthodox culture, where students are “familiarized with the Orthodox worldview and religious approaches to family life, society, and the state.” In many cases, the students attend these courses with their wives and girlfriends.

I wonder to what extent military chaplains will work in improving discipline in the military. It seems to me that a functioning NCO corps and the introduction of military police will do much more for military discipline than the presence of chaplains ever could. The chaplaincy effort seems to be much more a part of the ROC’s effort to establish itself as Russia’s official church and infiltrate various government structures.


5 thoughts on “The army and the church

  1. Totally agree with your skepticism. I think I read somewhere that the plan to assign ROC chaplains for various units has been postponed due to funding questions. Agree, too, that some within the ROC believe that a more visible PR presence in the military is a good investment and will have all sorts of material side benefits.

    One has to wonder how all this Great-Russian-Orthodox bombast will strike those Russian conscripts who adhere to the Islamic faith. Where’s my Imam?

    I don’t know this for a fact, but I’d be willing to wager that a significant portion of the new recruits (despite all the patriotic rhetoric) understand the method behind the Pussy Riot protests, and the dangers of a state-sponsored religion.

  2. Aren’t chaplains from different faiths available to the military from officially approved list, ie, muslim & jewish faiths?

    RE: “Pussy Riot protests”, having any effect on the military seems pretty ridiculous – PR’s only supporters in Russia’s seem to be wealthy western leaning liberals & local anarchists.
    I’d imagine that your average military recruit/conscript would completely despise them, if they paid them any attention at all.

    • Yes, as I mention in the post, chaplains from all four official faiths are available. However, the ROC is driving the program. On your second point, I also don’t think the Pussy Riot protests will have any effect on the military. That was not my point. My point is that the ROC is engaged in a planned and sustained effort to influence government policy and infiltrate state institutions and the military is very much in the center of their plans (as is state-run education).

  3. Pingback: Women Sex Health » Ed Koch Joins the Anti Pussy Riot Brigade

  4. Isn’t there likely to be a competitive push from other two main religions, Islam & Jewish, especially on Islam from the southern provinces. From what I understand, quite a lot of recruits come there, & they seem likely to pull quite a bit of weight on implementation of such plans, especially with the likes of Kadyrov around.

    Add to the ideas of supporting a moderate, loyal islamic religion that emphasises the sufi heritage of Russia’s muslims, I would imagine that there would be a lot of interest by the authorities in promoting approved Islamic chaplains in the military.

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