How the Russian Orthodox Church Influences Russia's Behavior


How the Russian Orthodox Church Influences Russia's Behavior

If we have truly entered a new era of great-power competition, then every Russian has been given a clear rationale for why he fights—and it will provide the Russian state with the justification for why it asks its people to bear new burdens.


American strategists, for the last six years, have consistently been caught flat-footed when Russia has intervened beyond its borders. There continues to be a train of thought that since the Russian economy is on par (in terms of a per capita basis) with a southern European country, it too ought to adopt the role in world affairs that Portugal, Spain or Italy—all formerly imperial powers at some point in history—now play. Certainly Portuguese would not support a government in Lisbon that maintained military forces engaged in limited operations around the world!

Russia may be on a long-term downward glide path, but it retains its vision of itself as a great power and is prepared to spend to maintain at least some of the capabilities which validate that status. To understand how and why this continues to be the case, Dima Adamsky’s Nuclear Orthodoxy is a must read—for laying out how the Orthodox Church has helped to create a new sacred, strategic narrative which puts Russia’s defense spending and national-security posture into context.


Adamsky’s book has been hailed, as Dmitry Gorenburg noted in his excellent review, for highlighting “an aspect of the development of the post-Soviet Russian military that has gone virtually unmentioned in existing studies. Future work on the role of the military in Russian society and in Russian foreign policy will have to take into account the extent to which it has been shaped by its alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church.” Yet I remain concerned that the U.S. national security establishment still lacks the comfort level for appreciating the role of religion, especially in its collective aspect, in matters of war and peace. This is nothing new—as this was a problem Robert Jervis identified as one of the principal reasons the U.S. intelligence community was blindsided by the Iranian revolution forty years ago. Academia largely views the question of religion through secularization theory and Marxist thought—religion as a “cover” for other political or economic motives. The American approach to religious matters, best epitomized by the various Evangelical denominations, stresses the primacy of the individual’s choice and relationship to the divine, and assumes that in the absence of individual commitment (e.g. if every Russian officer and scientist does not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior) then there is no religious factor at play—because the notion of adhering to a religious community and tradition as part of communal affiliation even in the absence of personal commitment is alien to the U.S. religious experience. Beyond these two general points, there are further blind spots when it comes to Russian Orthodoxy—and these are usually papered over by assuming that Orthodoxy is Protestantism with icons or Catholicism without the Pope.

The trends Adamsky has chronicled, however, and the maturation of “nuclear Orthodoxy” over the past thirty years, are critical, because the sacred strategic narrative that has been created addresses the core of what Derek Reveron, Mackubin Owens and I have described as the “die-kill-pay” question. In other words, “You have to decide what you’re willing to die for, what you’re willing to kill for, and what you're willing to pay for. Some things may not rise to the level that you’re willing to put yourself at risk, but maybe you’re willing to give some resources.” Nuclear Orthodoxy provides a rationale for individuals to sacrifice and to feel that their sacrifices have not been in vain, but in the service of a cause greater than themselves.

In and of itself, that is not a breathtaking revelation. After all, many members of the U.S. military also cite their decision to enlist as driven by a wish to be part of a greater endeavor. But it is the “cause” for which the Russian nuclear and national security enterprises are said to be serving which is distinct. And to understand “nuclear Orthodoxy,” Americans, who are largely unfamiliar with the trends of Byzantine and Slavic history, need to understand the theological and cultural concept of the Christian commonwealth.

In Western Christianity, the Emperor Constantine is generally viewed in a negative light, certainly as a corruptor of Christianity or a cynical power seeker who adopted a rising religion to cement his hold on the Roman Empire. In the Christian East, Constantine—a canonized saint of the Orthodox Church—is extolled, not for the conduct of his personal life, but because he took steps to narrow the gap between earthly society and the Kingdom of Heaven. He reconfigured the state from a persecutor of Christians to a protector of the Church. Interestingly enough, throughout the Orthodox world, and even in Russia, key rulers who adopted Christianity were often described as “new Constantines” or “successors to Constantine.”

Protecting the Church and the society it encapsulated thus became a way to sanctify the mission of the state and particularly steps taken in its defense. There were limits as to how far the Church would go—famously refusing, in the ninth century, a demand by an Emperor (himself observing developments in the Muslim world) to elevate soldiers who fell in battle to the rank of martyrs—but from the fourth century onward, the Orthodox world largely accepted the concept of the state as the wall safeguarding the jewel of the Christian faith. This concept was taken up by the nineteenth century Slavophiles, notably Aleksei Khomiakov, about the role of guardians taking on the hard task of safeguarding the believers from outside attack. In addition, Orthodox hymnography is replete with references to the Christian commonwealth (zhitelstvo in Slavonic) or the heavenly homeland (otechestvo). Medieval Russian authors also re-identified Israel (especially the references in the Old Testament) to the Orthodox Christian commonwealth based in Moscow, the Third Rome, and from that, the obligation of the Russian state to protect Orthodox Christians around the world.

None of this is to suggest that twenty-first century Russian missile officers are busy reciting Filofei of Pskov or other Russian theologians—but what Adamsky has done is to show how, in the wake of the Soviet collapse, the Russian Church has created a new transcendent narrative that argues that the nuclear and military missions are designed not simply to protect an earthly homeland but to serve a larger cause. Nuclear weapons are thus reimagined not simply as weapons of mass destruction but as guarantors of peace, and are even described in terms found in Orthodox hymns about the Cross of Christ—as “weapons of peace.” The implication is that if the military and scientific complexes fail in their tasks—evil will be loosed upon the world (and in recent years, this evil is identified with the decadence emanating from the West).

One other trend described by Adamsky is also significant: the “baptizing” of the Soviet past. Growing up, there was a poster in my parents’ house produced by the Russian émigré group “Pravoslavnoe Delo” that depicted a skeletal hand holding a candle in front of Andrei Rublev’s icon of Christ the Savior in the midst of a church in flames. The message was clear that it was the Soviet regime and Communist ideology which was directly opposed to Russian Orthodoxy. Indeed, in the 2009 Russian movie Pop (The Priest), set during World War II, an Orthodox priest (based on the historical figure of Father George Benigsen) responds, when asked whether collaborating with the Germans represents treason to Russia, that the “godless Soviets are not our motherland.” By 1939, the Soviet state had nearly wiped out the public manifestation of religion in the USSR—and it was only due to the exigencies of the war that a very limited and circumscribed toleration of Orthodoxy could occur (a point made elsewhere in that same movie when the German officer overseeing the revival of Orthodoxy in German-occupied Russia tells a group of clergymen, “If it wasn’t for this war, within two or three years, the Soviets would have eliminated every church in Russia, and you with them.”) The gulags, sharashkas (prison labs) and facilities of the Russian nuclear enterprise were, in many cases, built in confiscated monasteries and holy sites, notably the shrine of St. Seraphim of Sarov—representing the supposed triumph of scientific materialism over religious superstition. As Nikita Khrushchev was later to remark, “Building materials and resources do not fall from heaven and would have taken away from urgent terrestrial needs.”

Since the end of the USSR, however, a new story is told, to reinterpret the older narrative of hostility between Soviet state and Russian church into one where, as it turns out, nearly every key Soviet military and scientific figure (including Marshal Georgi Zhukov and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space) was a secret believer. Even Josef Stalin, whose NKVD during the 1930s imprisoned thousands of priests in the Gulag and closed nearly every church in the country, supposedly “saw the light” during World War II. Situating Soviet military and research facilities on the grounds of shrines was therefore not an act of Communist desecration but part of divine providence, as the atheist Soviet state was acting in accordance with God’s plan. Sacred history has repeated itself; just as Constantine brought Rome into conformity with the divine will, the Soviet state laid the foundation for a revived post-Soviet Orthodox commonwealth to have the tools needed for its defense.