The Political Role of the Russian Orthodox Church
“Traditional values” have become the rallying cry of extreme Right populist parties, which are sponsored by Moscow in its effort to undermine Western liberal democracy and universal human rights.
The Mutual Embrace of the Church and Army
The Church not only supported the Kremlin’s ideological offensive abroad, but played also an important role in the increasing militarization of Russian society. The Church developed especially a very close relationship with the nuclear forces of the Russian army. In August 2009, Kirill visited the northern shipyard in Severodvinsk and went aboard a nuclear submarine. He presented the crew with an icon of the Virgin Mary. Kirill said that Russia’s defense capabilities needed to be bolstered by Orthodox Christian values. “Then,” he said, “we shall have something to defend with our missiles.” Kirill’s special relationship with the guardians of Russia’s nuclear deterrent bordered on a deep personal affection. In December 2009, in a ceremony during his visit to the Academy of the Strategic Missile Forces in Moscow, he presented the commander, Lt. Gen. Andrey Shvaychenko, with a pennant of the Holy Great Martyr Barbara, considered to be the heavenly protector of the Russian nuclear deterrent. The Patriarch said: “Such dangerous weapon can be given only to clean hands—hands of people with a clear mind, an ardent love to the Motherland, responsible for their work before God and the people.” Kirill showed not only a special affection for the guardians of Russia’s nuclear deterrent, but also for the deterrent itself. Under Putin, practices, such as the blessing of the president’s nuclear launch code briefcase and the sprinkling of holy water by an Orthodox priest on an S-400 surface-to-air missile during a ceremony broadcast on national television became commonplace. All over Russia military bases have their own churches and chapels.
The most ambitious project is the construction of the “Victory Church,” built by the Ministry of Defense in Moscow’s “Patriot Park.” This cathedral, ninety-five meters high, will be ready on May 9, 2020, on the occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the victory of the Great Patriotic War. It will be the third-highest Orthodox church building in the world. Its official cost is almost three billion rubles, which is more than $45 million. However, according to Novaya Gazeta. the real cost is expected to explode to an estimated $120 million or $8 billion rubles—which is a lot of money to spend on one church building in a country where a quarter of the children live under the poverty line. One thousand workers are permanently employed in this pharaonic project, which is supported by defense firms, such as the company “Kalashnikov,” which provides more than 1.1 million bricks. The new army’s cathedral will be adorned with frescos featuring war scenes—including those of the Soviet era. Wea[pms will be exhibited in the entrance of the church. The Novaya Gazeta calls this “war cult,” exhibited in the church, “especially shocking” and calls it a “Church of Mars” instead of a church of Christ. This is only one example of the mutual embrace of the Church and the army. Because this close cooperation can also be observed in the role, played by Orthodox priests, who are incorporated in the army units, tasked to enhance the country’s “spiritual security.” While Putin compared religion with a nuclear shield, Kirill called the nuclear deterrent the ultimate defense for Russia’s “traditional values.” The views of the Kremlin leader and the church leader seemed to coincide completely.
Churches in the West emphasize the need to promote peace and are in general in favor of nuclear disarmament. However, the Russian Orthodox Church takes a quite different position. The Church does not criticize the new nuclear arms race. Instead, it supports the development of new strategic weapons. The motto of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces: “после нас тишина” (After us—silence), with its implicit reference to the end of the world corresponds completely with the apocalyptic worldview of the Orthodox Church, for which all means are permitted to defend Holy Russia and its traditional values.
The question is: how should Western governments react? In dealing with the Russian Orthodox Church, one should always be aware that one has to do with a “hybrid Church.” On the one hand the Russian Orthodox Church is a church like most other denominations; it has its true believers and it has devoted priests and monks. In September 2019, for instance, 182 Orthodox priests and church dignitaries signed an open letter, published in Pravoslavie i Mir, in which they demanded to reconsider the years-long prison sentences issued against some protesters who were arrested during the pro-democracy rallies. This support was a surprising initiative. However, this is only one side of the medal. After all, the Russian Orthodox Church is at the same time an instrument in the hands of the Russian government and is used by the Kremlin to expand its influence abroad, to attack democracy, to undermine universal human rights, and to bully its neighbors. The aggressive stance of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine against the Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate is a clear example. When, in January 2019, the Ukrainian efforts to establish an autocephalous church were met with success and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the Moscow Church broke its contacts with Constantinople. For the Ukrainians, this was not only a religious victory; it was first and foremost a geopolitical victory.
A Global Russian Orthodox Church?
For this reason Western governments should not be naïve and treat the Russian Orthodox Church as if it were a normal church. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, for instance, was naïve when he allowed Moscow to buy the building of the French Meteorological Institute at the Quai Branly near the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Moscow wanted to build a religious center and Orthodox church on this plot of 8,400 square meters. Also, Canada was one of the candidates to buy the building. There followed an aggressive lobbying by the Russian ambassador, Alexander Orlov, who was assisted by Vladimir Kozhin, an ex-KGB officer. Kozhin was the head of the Kremlin’s Presidential Property Management Department, a bureaucracy which employs fifty thousand employees. This department, which was headed by Putin before he became director of the FSB, is not only tasked with the management of state property in Russia, but also with the property of the Russian Orthodox Church abroad. For the operation “Paris Cathedral” the Russians hired a French lobbying firm, ESL & Network, which had access to the highest echelons of the French government. Moscow won the open tender with an offer of seventy million euros. The French magazine Le nouvel Observateur, suspected that the Russians had benefited from privileged information. The new building was situated not far from the Palais de l’Alma, a building in which the postal service of the French president and sixteen apartments of the presidential staff are located. The French counterintelligence advised against selling such a sensitive building to a church of which one knows its links with the FSB. Despite these warnings, the project was completed.
The project fits in with the Kremlin’s plans to make the Russian Orthodox Church a “global” church. Communism was a global creed and it was this global reach of communism that gave the Soviet Union, the leader of this movement, a disproportionate influence in Third World countries and Western countries such as France and Italy, where powerful communist parties existed. The merger of the Russian Orthodox Church with the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia was only the first step in the Kremlin’s plans to give the Russian Orthodox Church a global reach. Russian oligarchs play an important role in this strategy—in Russia as well as abroad—financing the construction of new churches or restoring existing church buildings. It is a question of whether this strategy will work. In the modern industrial world the communist utopia was more attractive than so-called “traditional values.” But we should not underestimate the Kremlin’s endeavors. “Traditional values” have become the rallying cry of extreme Right populist parties, which are sponsored by Moscow in its effort to undermine Western liberal democracy and universal human rights.
Marcel H. Van Herpen is a security expert. His latest publications are Putin’s Propaganda Machine—Soft Power and Russian Foreign Policy (Lanham and London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015); Putin’s Wars—The Rise of Russia’s New Imperialism (Lanham and London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014); and Putinism – The Slow Rise of a Radical Right Regime in Russia (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).