ZOiS Spotlight 7/2022

The Russian Orthodox Church and the Military: Defenders of Sacred Borders

by Regina Elsner 23/02/2022
Russian Naval Infantry servicemen during a Christmas liturgy in the Kaliningrad region. Vitaly Nevar IMAGO/ ITAR TASS

Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.

The annual Defenders of the Fatherland Day, observed on 23 February, is not only a popular public holiday in Russia, when small boys’ future role as defenders of their country is celebrated on postcards and in chocolate. It is also an important element of the ever-present narrative of a defensive Russia – one which has escalated to a new level of intensity due to the current tension between Russia, Ukraine and NATO. The defence of the Fatherland has become entrenched as a metanarrative – in other words, a narrative that connects and gives context and meaning to all social and political processes.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has featured as a central element of this metanarrative. This is evident in its prominent role in the traditional wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow on 23 February. The Church is also instrumental in answering not only the question of whom Russia must defend itself against, but also how this defence is to be carried out, by whom and by what means. In light of Western actors’ expectations that the Church might perform a peace-making function in the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, this aspect of the Church’s role merits particularly close attention.

Growing proximity to the military

In recent years, the Russian Orthodox Church’s proximity to the Russian military has noticeably increased. This applies to the institutional level, with numerous agreements on collaboration with various units of the Defence Ministry, including those which provide access to pastoral services for the troops. In addition, the Church has been entrusted with key aspects of moral-patriotic education. The National Security Strategy of the Russian Federation, adopted in 2021, attaches special priority to “Russia’s traditional spiritual and moral values”, both as an asset to be protected and as a prerequisite for the country’s ability to defend itself.

The particular attention paid by the Church leadership to the country’s nuclear forces is also justified with reference to the importance of warding off threats. Among others, it was the ROC which, after the demise of the Soviet Union, supported the maintenance and further development of nuclear weapons as a central element in the defence of Russian sovereignty, with Saint Seraphim of Sarov being declared the patron saint of nuclear weapons in 2007. The Church regards it as divine providence that the place where the saint lived and worked, namely the closed city of Sarov, was the Soviet Union’s main centre for nuclear research in the 1950s and the site where its nuclear shield was developed – just a few decades after the monastery was seized by the Bolsheviks and the monks executed.

And finally, with the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces, consecrated in 2020, the ROC has created a visible symbol of the sacralisation of military action. This symbolism and the design of the Cathedral portray the victories of Russian soldiers through the centuries as acts of heroism in defence of the Fatherland, achieved with the special blessing of the Almighty and the Mother of God; this includes not only the victory in the Great Patriotic War but also the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014, a subject which the Church had previously refrained from commenting on.

The Church and the military in the defence narrative

In a speech to Russian military leaders in 2011, Patriarch Kirill asserted that no other country in the world was so often the target of military attacks as Russia, yet the country itself had only ever prosecuted defensive wars. He underlined the close relationship between service in the Church and service in the military, both being performed to protect the Fatherland. The Church considers that it has a duty to provide moral support to the armed forces, but beyond that, it sees the defence of spiritual and political sovereignty as reflecting the organic connection between the Church and the military in Russia’s political structure. Accordingly, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department of External Church Relations, emphasised on 2 February 2022 that the Department is sometimes called a ministry of foreign affairs, but “in recent years we have increasingly felt like a kind of defence ministry”.

The defence metaphor is nothing new. For many years, the Church has justified its support for domestic and foreign policy activities – including those which were repressive or paternalistic – by referring to the need to protect Russia’s traditional spiritual and moral values, but also the values of Russian civilisation or Christian Europe. For a long time, this rhetoric reflected the essentially individual spiritual struggle against sin and moral turpitude and its extension to society as a whole. Alongside corresponding initiatives to protect traditional values at national and international level, however, the proximity to the armed forces meant that this struggle was drawn into the reality of military conflicts. The Church supported the Russian armed forces’ engagement in Syria as a “holy war”; Russia’s intervention in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 was never publicly criticised. The Church’s “defence of the sacred borders of the Church” and Russia’s military operation “to protect persecuted Christians” in Syria, the Middle East and Africa sprang from the same logic and legitimation.

The Church as a force for peace?

Although the ROC puts peace front and centre in its statements, the defence narrative overshadows any accessing of this peace in a positive, constructive and temporal sense. The sacralisation of military action is not matched by any form of engagement by the Church for nonviolence or civil conflict transformation. The Church’s support for organisations that advocate for ethical standards in the armed forces is vanishingly small compared with its cooperation with the armed forces, not least because such organisations have been systematically suppressed by the state in recent years and the Church still does not recognise civil society as an equal partner. Its close relationship with military institutions, by contrast, makes any critical distancing by the Church highly unlikely in situations where Russia’s military action is ethically questionable.

The narrative of defence against an ever-present threat leaves no room for dialogue, (self-)criticism or a laying down of arms, even though the Church’s theological principles make provision for these conflict resolution options. On the contrary, the spiritual dimension of the defence narrative even legitimises cross-border military incursions. In this situation, the calls for the churches to play a mediating, peace-making role in the current escalation between Russia and Ukraine go unheard. The Patriarch’s heartfelt congratulations to Putin on the Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland after days of silence on the escalation in Ukraine clearly underlines this.

Regina Elsner is a theologian and researcher at ZOiS.