How Much Did Orthodox Church Help Revive Russia’s Military and Nuclear Complex?

I have published a review of Dima Adamsky‘s excellent new book on Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy on the Russia Matters site. Here’s a preview.

Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics and Strategy
By Dmitry Adamsky
Stanford University Press, April 2019

“Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy,” an important new book by the Israeli scholar Dmitry Adamsky, explores the critical but highly understudied juncture between religion and the military. Focusing on the role played by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in the restoration and development of the Russian nuclear weapons complex in the post-Cold War period, Adamsky highlights the organizational and ideological impact of the church on the gradual remilitarization of Russia over the last three decades. Adamsky has written a highly readable and informative book on a woefully understudied topic, though one that at times reads like a continuous success story for the church and raises many questions. Also, the book would have been strengthened by a more comparative focus, vis-à-vis both the role of other religious faiths in Russia and the experience of other countries.

The main argument comes in three parts. First, the church has played and will continue to play a crucial role in promoting the rebuilding of the Russian military in general and the nuclear weapons complex in particular. The book demonstrates that the church was among the earliest advocates for the nuclear weapons complex, at a time when the military and nuclear agencies were generally unpopular among Russians and neglected by a cash-strapped government. Second, the church has influenced the direction of security thinking among both Russian politicians and military leaders. Finally, church advocacy has resulted in a gradual conflation of national defense and rearmament with holiness and spirituality. The protection of the state and nation through armed force has been portrayed as a holy act that is highly compatible with religious belief and spiritual values.

The book is organized chronologically by decade. The first, labeled the Genesis Decade, follows the collapse of the Soviet Union and is the period during which the church-nuclear nexus was first developed, beginning as a grassroots phenomenon within the nuclear complex that combined with outreach efforts by the ROC. The second decade, labeled the Conversion Decade, features the emergence of a top-down trend that supplemented the bottom-up initiatives of the 1990s. During this period, which coincides with Vladimir Putin’s first 10 years in power, the increased role of religion in Russian society and political life merged with a gradual increase in societal respect for the Russian military to result in the formulation of the “nuclear orthodoxy doctrine.” The Operationalization Decade of the last 10 years, Adamsky argues, has resulted in peak clericalization of the Russian military and Russian foreign policy. During this period, “Orthodoxy became the main pillar of Russian nationalism and the basis of state ideology”; in the military sphere, “religious rituals became tightly interwoven with … combat activities” while “priests have penetrated all levels of command.”

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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.


Russian Politics and Law, January 2011 Table of Contents

Volume 49 Number 1 / January-February 2011 of Russian Politics and Law is now available on the web site at Contents after the cut.

Continue reading

The Russian Orthodox Church and Russian Politics: Editors’ Introduction

Authors: Irina Papkova and Dmitry Gorenburg

On 5 December 2008, Aleksii II, who had been the Orthodox patriarch of Moscow and All Rus for the entire post-Soviet period, passed away. The formal enthronement of his successor, Kirill I, took place two months later.   In contrast to the secular realm, where the differences between the Putin and Medvedev presidencies are merely stylistic, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has so far experienced the tenure of the dynamic Kirill I as a veritable revolution. Furthermore, the shakeup within the ROC has already clearly affected the relationship between the Russian state and the majority national church.  Radically different from his predecessor in both the style and content of his administration of the ROC, the new patriarch has managed to move the church-state relationship in the Russian Federation in directions that were only imagined under Aleksii II.

The ROC’s post-Soviet relationship with the state has centered on several key concerns: the admissibility of religious instruction in public schools (through the framework of “Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture” courses); the introduction of chaplaincy in the armed forces; the restitution of property; and the limitation of competition by other faiths on Russian soil.   Prior to 2008, the ROC had made progress only in terms of converts; the church did not, on balance, manage to convince the state to accede to its demands.  The notorious Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations (1997), which limited proselytism in Russia, was the only success the ROC could point to; on all other counts, the state held a distinctly secular position.  With the accession of Kirill I, however, the situation began to change dramatically in favor of the church’s rising political influence.  This issue of Russian Politics and Law examines this new dynamic.  We also explore two broader problems currently debated in Russia’s overlapping social, political and ecclesiastical circles: how big a role should the Orthodox Church play in society, and to what extent should it be granted the privilege of representing that society’s interests vis à vis the state?

The first two articles–by Aleksei Makarkin and Sergei Filatov respectively–are analytical pieces that provide deep background both on the situation within the ROC since Kirill I’s enthronement and on the ways in which his patriarchate has affected church-state relations.  In “The Russian Orthodox Church: Competing Choices,” Makarkin begins by summarizing the results of the previous patriarch’s reign, concluding that Aleksii II bequeathed his successor with a consolidated institution able to play a visible role in Russian politics and society. Both Makarkin and Filatov focus on the energetic personality of the new patriarch, most visible in his support for the revitalization of the ROC’s missionary activity across the country, often in innovative form such as preaching at rock concerts. Makarkin points out that the new patriarch is a master politician, who used these abilities to defeat his main rivals for the position of Patriarch. Now that he is in charge of the ROC, he can use these abilities to tackle some of the more controversial issues facing the church, including its relationship with the Roman Catholic Church and with competing Orthodox churches in Ukraine.

Filatov, in “Socio-Religious Life in Russia in the Autumn of 2009” describes Kirill’s goal as bringing Orthodoxy “out of the ghetto” and into every possible aspect of social life.  Filatov is concerned, however, that the message of the new ROC leadership is not so much religious as nationalist in content, because the missionary rhetoric focuses mainly on “Holy Rus,” on the values of “Russian civilization,” rather than on the message of Christ. Focusing on church-state relations, Filatov describes the progress that the ROC has made since 2008 in getting the state to accede to its political preferences: the Medvedev government has granted federal approval for the teaching of “Orthodox values” in public schools; both Putin and Medvedev have moved towards authorizing full restitution of pre-Revolutionary ecclesiastical property; and the Duma has been considering further legislative restrictions on foreign proselytism. At the same time, both Makarkin and Filatov point to potential weaknesses in the ROC’s position. First, they underscore the unstable nature of the patriarch’s authority within the ROC itself, as Kirill’s authoritarian personality and somewhat liberal theological views have combined to alienate a large segment of the clergy and active laity.  Second, Filatov, in particular, points out that Russian society is by no means entirely Orthodox in its orientation, and that the persistence of a strong secularist mood among some members of the political class may potentially create friction between the state and the ROC in the future.

The rest of the articles in this issue move away from impersonal analysis and express the positions of various actors concerned with the Russian church-state relationship, including state actors, the patriarch himself, and voices from within society. Both Russian and Western experts have often underestimated the extent to which both the state and the Orthodox Church are multi-vocal, presenting the relationship as one in which a unitary church has been lobbying an increasingly responsive unitary government to further ecclesiastical interests. Yet, as mentioned above, prior to 2008 the state was more often than not unresponsive to the Church’s demands. One reason for this may be found in the actively secular orientation of some government officials. While the ROC has achieved certain goals since 2008, the path has not been simple, as the officials in question still hold influential offices and have been quite open in opposing what they view as encroaching clericalism.  In “Religion in the System of State Power,” Andrei Sebentsov (executive secretary of the Government Commission for Religious Associations) criticizes the ROC for frequently overstepping the boundaries separating church and state. Moreover, Sebentsov complains that state officials are often complicit in granting the ROC privileges that contradict Russia’s secular constitution. Complicating matters, however, even this quite vocal critic of the ROC admits that there are areas on which church and state not only can, but should work together, such as strengthening the position of Russia abroad.

In fact, the past two years have seen an increasing coordination in the policies of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the ROC’s outreach to its parishes outside Russian borders. In his “Address at the Grand Opening of the Third Assembly of the Russian World,” Patriarch Kirill stresses the important role played by the church in ensuring at least a spiritual unity between Orthodox Christians of Slavic background, reminding Ukrainians, Belarussians and Russians of their common heritage.  In the context of the competition between the West and Russia for hegemony over large areas of the former Russian/Soviet Empire, the patriarch’s language in this article is striking for its ethno-linguistic, cultural understanding of the proposed “Russian world,” and for the decidedly underemphasized role he accords to Orthodoxy. In his trenchant critique of the patriarch’s address (“Geopolitics from the Patriarch: The Heavenly Kingdom Versus the ‘Russian World’”), Gennadii Druzenko writes that “the most remarkable thing about this speech is that the head of the largest national Orthodox Church spoke for twenty-five minutes and mentioned God only three times…while repeating thirty-eight times the phrase ‘Russian world’ – a term [that] sounds like a geopolitical concept bearing little connection to church doctrine.”

The impression that Patriarch Kirill understands the interests of church and state to be inseparable is strengthened in his “Address at the Opening of the Eighteenth International Christmas Readings.”  The purpose of the Christmas Readings has been to heighten the visibility of the ROC’s role in education; over the years, the event has evolved into the ROC’s largest annual gathering, involving clergy, laity and political actors.   In his address to the participants, Kirill I underscores the importance of the Orthodox Church in ensuring a patriotic education infused with reverential memory for Russia’s past glories. Though he refers in passing to individual salvation, the emphasis here is clearly on the role that the ROC can play in strengthening the post-Soviet Russian state.  Here, Patriarch Kirill functions almost explicitly as a political, rather than religious, authority figure.

In his address to the Christmas Readings, Patriarch Kirill harkens back to the assumption that, in lobbying for the introduction of an Orthodox component into public school education, the ROC speaks for Russian society.  At the same time, the “Fundamentals of Orthodox Culture” project had, prior to 2008, floundered in part because the society supposedly interested in it in fact offered up a surprising resistance to its realization.  Despite President Dmitry Medvedev’s recent authorization of federal support for the “Orthodox Culture” course, opposition within certain segments of Russian society remains strong. In “Orthodox Bolshevism,” Mikhail Sitnikov warns that the legalization of the course across the Russian Federation may lead to a new totalitarianism where politicized Orthodoxy replaces Communism as the compulsory state ideology.  Sitnikov’s article is polemical and does not claim to represent the voice of the Russian population in general.  In “They Did not Take it On Faith” Irina Ivoilova and Sergei Kuskin simply bring forward statistics showing that, given the option of choosing courses on religion and on secular ethics for their children, the majority of Russian parents have, as of 2010, voted in favor of the secular option.

The articles in this issue show that the ROC is increasingly becoming an effective force in Russian political life, despite the low levels of religiosity among nominal church adherents. Patriarch Kirill has already used his political skills to achieve the introduction of courses on Orthodoxy in Russian schools and the establishment of a chaplain system in the Russian military, policy achievements that eluded his predecessor despite years of sustained lobbying. The ROCs is likely to continue to use his skills to advance its political agenda for the foreseeable future.