Vasile Ernu – Nuclear Orthodoxy

“Russian World” Theology, and the Role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Putin Regime’s War of Occupation

Vasile Ernu

Many years ago I worked on The Problem of Evil in Russian Thought, and later on Eschatology in Russian Politics. These were themes of the 1990s. By 2000 I had completely broken away from these areas. Books from that era ended up somewhere on the bottom shelf on the back row. Yet, it’s true that I always peeked at the subject.

These days we’ve been discussing a lot on the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in shaping the architecture of the Putin regime and especially its role in the military issue and the regime’s war of occupation in Ukraine. I had to reopen closed doors, and tried to clarify the situation a bit. Let’s take it one step at a time.

Beginnings

With the coming to power of the Bolshevik Soviet regime, a numer of well known anti-religious campaigns began. The first big campaign was against the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), the majority church of the former Tsarist Empire, because it was the main enemy: it was powerful, well organised, owned a lot of property and had enormous power of influence. After the dissolution of the Tsarist state, it remained a central institution. The first great wave of repression was directed against it: property was taken away, churches were destroyed, some of the clergy were sent to prison, and a harsh anti-religious campaign began. During the Soviet state’s existence, there were some five large waves of anti-religious campaigns with different targets. For example, in the post-war years, the harshest campaigns were waged against Protestant denominations because they were suspected of having relations with the West.

It is worth remembering however that when the Great Patriotic War began (1941-1945), Stalin was forced to make a pact with the Church in order to gain its support in the war. Stalin’s first speech at the beginning of the war begins not with the familiar “Comrades…” but with “Brothers and sisters…”. And slowly the relationship between the ROC and Soviet power returned to normal, with the Church taking its place at the table of power.

The martyrdom state

I recall at this point a very important element: the theology of martyrdom, as I have been dealing with this subject for years and it is close to my heart – I have written extensively about it in my book The Sectarians. I come from the community of these persecuted Christians, and I can say that “the Stalinist era was the last golden age of Christianity”. I know: it sounds shocking. But let me explain: it is so, I believe, because in the modern era it is for the first time that Christianity is faced with a radical, high-risk choice, in a martyrdom situation: being a professing and practising Christian becomes risky and even involves paying a huge price, with years in prison. Paradoxically, this phenomenon will lead not to the secularisation of society, as in the West, but to a kind of preservation of religion in a much more consistent, concentrated and intense form.

It is no coincidence that in the 1970s religious literature is in great demand and intellectual fashion becomes deeply religious. Intellectuals predominantly read theology, conservative religious philosophy, Bibles fetch a huge price on the black market, and church-going or religious circles become frontier and fashionable phenomena in middle-class and intellectual circles.

The end of communism in the USSR, still in the midst of perestroika (1988), ends with the official celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the Christianisation of Russia. And in the last three years of communism the USSR becomes a veritable religious Babel: all the world’s religions were on the streets of Soviet cities and mysticism programmes were devoured on Soviet central TV. The land of atheism, progress, science and reason dissolved into mysticism and religiosity. Everyone believed in something, except communism.

Towards a new religarchy

The most important phenomenon in the 1990s is the dissolution of the state, state institutions, laws and the economy. The huge crisis of state legitimacy and economic chaos brought unprecedented social violence. Into this huge void left by the state, institutions, society and the economy came the ROC and various other denominations to replace or offer an alternative. The ROC, in particular, is becoming a central element in the new social-political configuration. This will be felt especially with the establishment of the Putin regime. In its process of rehabilitating the state, the economy, and society, the Putin regime brings the ROC to the fore.

In 2009 a new term appeared in Russian: “religarchy”. It describes a combination of religion and oligarchy that refers to an old reality in a new context: the mixing of the hierarchy of the ROC with state and financial structures. Religarchs are high dignitaries who are close to the power and economic elites who run the state. Religarchy is, however, different from other similar known political forms such as hierocracy (in ancient Israel) or medieval theocracy, where religious structures took over the role of the state. In the post-communist Orthodox states we are witnessing a kind of revival of the Byzantine tradition [of the symphony between the secular and the religious powers] adapted to a new social, political and economic context. In Russia, the phenomenon is becoming very visible under Putin and especially with the election of the new Patriarch of Russia, Kirill (2009). The Putin – Kirill tandem establishes this religarchy.

What is Nuclear Orthodoxy?

Nuclear Orthodoxy, or Atomic Orthodoxy, is a version of the concept of the “Russian Idea” according to which Orthodoxy – the confession that represents Russia – and the nuclear shield are the two components of Russia’s security. The idea of “Nuclear Orthodoxy” became widely known after the presentation of the “Russian Doctrine” project, organised by Metropolitan Kirill on 20 August 2007 at the Danilov Monastery, where the authors of the doctrine proposed to “cross breed Orthodoxy with atomic weapons”. But the term did not enter the lexicon of the authorities at the time and work on the project was stopped. The idea received no official support from the ROC. Vahtang Kipsidze, vice-president of the Synodal Department for Relations with Society and the Media, explained: “The views that the Church holds on weapons are reflected in the ‘Basis of the Social Concept’, and the Church should not be associated with various other doctrines that appear among experts and public figures.”

The issue of the blessing of weapons of mass destruction remains a controversial one for the ROC. There are various polarised opinions: from the assertion that the Church should not bless weapons at all, to the defence of the practice of blessing any type of weapon. In the draft document “On the Practice of the Blessing of Weapons in the Russian Orthodox Church”, prepared by the Commission for Church Law, it is proposed to limit the blessing and consecration of weapons to military personnel, because it is associated with the person to whom the blessing is given and, for the same reason, weapons of mass destruction and, in general, impersonal weapons should not be “consecrated”. The draft document “On the Blessing of Orthodox Christians for Military Service” states: “The use of this rite to ‘sanctify’ any variety of weapons, the use of which could lead to the death of an uncertain number of people, including weapons of indiscriminate action and weapons of mass destruction, is not reflected in the tradition of the Orthodox Church and does not correspond to the content of the Church’s official rule on blessing military weapons, and therefore should be excluded from pastoral practice”.

In conclusion: ‘Nuclear Orthodoxy’ is in fact a trend in the clericalisation of the Russian military and foreign policy – the use of messianic rhetoric and the merging of the ROC and the state – what we call Religarchy, in the latter part of the Putin regime.

What is more, the ROC has created a new narrative according to which the Russian military is designed not only to defend the secular homeland, the “city of man”, but also to save humanity: nuclear weapons are redefined not only as weapons of mass destruction, but also as a guarantor of peace, described in religious, evangelical terms as “weapons of peace”. Other significant aspects of “Nuclear Orthodoxy” are the “baptism of the Soviet past” and the alliance between “Reds and Whites” in preserving the Russian state as the protector of this crucial spiritual and civilisational heritage, which must not disappear from the face of the earth. I would also remind you that two years ago Russia inaugurated with full honours the Russian Army Cathedral, which illustrates military actions in the history of this country, including the victory over Nazi Germany and the recent annexation of Crimea.

The roots of Russia’s nuclear Orthodoxy: geopolitics, Katechon, and a new irrationalism

I will try to summarise in what follows a lecture by historian Viktor Shnirelman, PhD in history, senior researcher at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences and a full member of the Academia Europaea, on how the traditional Christian doctrine of a good force trying to prevent the coming of Antichrist has been transformed into the idea of the inevitability of nuclear war, which a number of Russian politicians enthusiastically support and has its roots in Russian religious thought.

In Paul’s second Epistle to the Thessalonians 2:7, we encounter the concept of the Katechon, which is considered to be the opposite of Antichrist: the power that prevents Antichrist’s advance into the world before the Apocalypse. He is the embodiment of the “power of good”, whose mission is to prevent the coming of the Apocalypse and the triumph of evil on earth.

At the end of the 19th century, in Russian Orthodox circles, the belief that the Katechon is closely linked to Russia emerged and began to spread. Many saw him in the Russian tsar. This view has changed after the Revolution of February 1917 when Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown and shot. For believers, this was a sign that the end of the world was near: there was no one left to save the world from the Antichrist. However, since the end times had not come, it meant that the Katechon was still here. In the 20th century, Orthodox thinkers came to the conclusion that the role of “restraint”, of “delay” was played by Russia itself or the Russian people. This idea has been taken up by Russian Orthodox fundamentalists over the last thirty years.

Today, the Russian marketplace of ideas has many interpretations for it: some argue that the Russian people are chosen for this, others consider it to be the Church, while others argue that the Katechon is a political concept and therefore can only be an Orthodox state. According to some authors, even a communist state can fulfil the role of Katechon – not because it is communist, but because it is a state.

In this polemic, the function of the Katechon moves from the spiritual to the political. Thus emerges the notion of “political Orthodoxy”, which was particularly developed in the early 2000s by the well-known Russian nationalist Egor Holmogorov. He reproached contemporary Russian theology the neglect of “political eschatology”, which leads to a loss of the meaning of history. He also explained that Russia was the land of the end of the world, where all world events would come to an end, and in the event of its decline, the world would face an inevitable apocalypse.

Orthodox philosopher Arkadi Maler links the concept of the Katechon to imperial power and argues that the “last kingdom” in the Holy Scripture should be understood not as the Roman Empire, but as its successor, Russia – the “Third Rome”. Maler presents the Russian Orthodox Church as universal and declares that its canonical territory is the whole world. Thus, he advocates Russia’s universal imperial mission – in fact, territorial expansion in the name of Orthodoxy, which supposedly has the right to oppose the “mystery of lawlessness” wherever it manifests itself. Russia’s territorial expansion is a consequence of its mission as the Katechon, which justifies empire and imperialist policies because they are meant to oppose anomy and anarchy. It is not just an empire, but an Orthodox empire with religious legitimacy.

In the “Russian Doctrine” of the National Patriots, published in 2005, the category of the Katechon took on a definitively secular form. It explicitly uses the term Katechon and explains that it should be understood in secular terms. According to the authors of the document, the historical mission of Russia, like that of the Soviet Union, is to preserve world equilibrium. They argue that by saving Russia, we save the whole world and they base their reasoning on the idea of a “Third Rome”.

Talking about the “decline of the West”, fundamentalists link its “moral decline” to the fact that the West is already in the hands of the Antichrist. Russia, on the other hand, is the last bastion of Orthodoxy, true values and morality. In this case, Western policy towards Russia is explained by Antichrist’s attempts to destroy the Katechon: sanctions are not a punishment for breaking international norms, but the desire of the forces of evil to remove the last obstacle to Antichrist’s triumph.

It seems that, for them, Russia has a “monopoly on truth” and has the right to act as it sees fit, justifying its actions by its divine mission. The Soviet idea of a struggle between two antagonistic systems is replaced by a religiously framed concept of geopolitical confrontation between two antagonistic civilisations.

These sentiments have long since overtaken theory, the researcher tells us. They were observed during the military conflict in Ukraine in 2014. In the city of Sloviansk, where the Donbass resistance originated, for example, the hieromonk Viktor Pivovarov spoke to militiamen and claimed that the war is being waged with the satanic rule that aims for the destruction of true Christianity – Orthodoxy. It was supposedly unleashed by global financiers to divide the Russian world and bring closer the kingdom of Antichrist, which is only prevented by the Orthodox Church. At the same time, Orthodox websites were writing about the war against Satanist oligarchs – enemies of Christianity and of Holy Russia.

This discourse received a new impetus when Donald Trump became president of the US. Evangelical Christians then declared that America was keeping the world out of chaos, which immediately provoked an outcry from Russian Orthodox fundamentalists, who pointed out that only Russia could fulfil this mission as an Orthodox state and the Third Rome. The discourse described above is built around the idea of an inevitable confrontation between the civilisation of good, Russia, and the civilisation of evil, the modern West. Both sides of religious fundamentalism want a monopoly on the Katechon.

In recent years, pro-Kremlin officials, authorities and journalists have gradually accustomed the Russians to the idea of war and military terminology. Moreover, initially, journalists and military experts talked about it in abstract terms, but in 2017-2018, especially after President Putin’s speech to the Federal Assembly on March 1, 2018, a discussion of nuclear war as a real prospect began, with concrete calculations about its immediate targets, methods of winning such confrontations, and the possible results of military actions. Putin’s speech at the Valdai Forum in October 2018 gave further impetus to this. Journalist Leonid Mlecin said at the time that it was like being back in the 1930s. However, we are probably returning to an even earlier era.

I would also recall at this point the story of the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, where the Kremlin is trying to point out that, firstly, Kiev is the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy and that its church has been under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate for centuries, and secondly, that Ukraine is today on the front line of the Second Cold War, triggered by the United States-backed armed coup in Kiev. The Kremlin does not acknowledge its own culpability in triggering the war in Ukraine and blames the Americans. In other words, all of Russia’s actions seem justified and the sanctions were imposed to get back at them because they are falsely perceived as the aggressor.

On December 26, 2018, Putin congratulated the Russians on the launch of the Avangard missile system and said it was a wonderful gift to the country for the New Year. In other words, the new step towards nuclear war was, according to the president, the best possible gift. This is quite in line with his statement in October 2018 that in the event of nuclear aggression, being victims of it, Russians would go to heaven. It is hard not to see here an element of eschatological thinking and an implicit reference to Russia’s role as Katechon.

Swedish researcher Maria Engström has hypothesised that the official ideology of the Russian authorities in recent years is at least partly based on apocalyptic doctrine, although it is presented mainly in secular terms. She pointed out that neoconservative anthropology is centred on the citizen who lives not by reason but by passions and emotions. She published her article in 2013, just before the events of 2014. She pointed out that she was inspired by several of Putin’s speeches couched in the rhetoric of the Katechon, but admitted that he never once mentioned the term.

Nuclear Orthodoxy seen from the West – Dmitry Adamsky – Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy

In the West, this theme has been best described by Dmitry Adamsky in Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy (Stanford University Press, 2019). I give you a short summary.

The first thing Adamsky draws attention to is the way religious categories are introduced into the sphere of politics. This phenomenon, according to the author, is deeply rooted in the Russian political-military class and he believes it is a long-term trend. But the author makes it clear, and I think he is correct, when he says that the association of faith and politics is “an organizational and personal tribute to the spirit of the times”, and when it comes to substantive issues, practices related to strategy and planning of operations, religiosity and the theological side do not matter. In other words, military specialists are still guided by the elements of military science, not by religious impulses.

The second important conclusion suggested by the author is that he believes the ROC will gradually become an instrument of social mobilisation within national security institutions, as well as qualitative and quantitative regulation of military service. In practice, he suggests, this will lead to the fact that in appointments to office the factor of “attachment to religion” will play a much greater role than it did before. And for a multi-faith Russia it will prove, the author believes, a ticking time-bomb.

Another thesis of Adamsky is that the growing role of the ROC may lead to its becoming an instrument of influence for bureaucratic institutions competing for resources inside and outside the strategic community, especially when those resources are limited. In other words, supporters of the Moscow Patriarchate are more likely to get what they want rather than their opponents, which can lead to some very significant alliances in terms of power and weight of decisions.

The author’s third thesis affirms that such a “theologisation of Russian strategic culture” will be relevant to future conflicts. The layer of “nuclear priests”, according to Adamsky, will be less inclined to limit conflict and, instead, will join the camp of advocates of its escalation. In this regard, the author believes that, in addition to the international component, there will be a domestic political factor in consolidating the Kremlin as a centre of power in Russia: the legitimacy of the Church is a powerful tool in the hands of a skilled political leader.

These theses offer a multiple and useful set of arguments and information. Personally I think this line of argument should be kept in mind: it reveals many real tendencies. We see it especially now, in this war. At the same time, I believe that the ecclesiastical, bureaucratic, financial, social as well as military structures are not homogeneous; they have within them different centres of influence and do not always interact with each other smoothly and harmoniously, but conflictingly, competitively, having different interests. However, the book and the analysis offered by Adamsky deserve all our attention and are highly relevant.

The Russian Orthodox Church and the war of the Putin regime

The ROC and the “power of the devil” or How Patriarch Kirill forgot the Gospel and became a preacher of fratricidal war – headlines in a major opposition magazine.

The official Church has not found the strength not only to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but also to call a spade a spade: war is war, aggression is aggression. Patriarch Kirill has sent a clear message: he is with Putin, not with the Christians he “shepherds”, says journalist and religious activist Sergei Ciapnin. Leading high-profile priests – Archbishops Andrei Tkachov and Artemie Vladimirov, along with many other priests, have taken the same position: unconditional support for the Putin regime and the war.

Pro-war church preaching conforms fully to the guidelines of state propaganda and is, in fact, itself a form of this propaganda. The invasion of Ukraine is taking place under the slogan of saving the “Russian world”, which is threatened by those forces that deny traditional values and “organise gay pride parades”. Moreover, Patriarch Kirill goes further and involves his parishioners in an extremely dangerous “Russian roulette”, stating that “we have entered a battle that has a metaphysical, not a physical meaning”. The invasion of Ukraine is taking place under the slogan of saving the “Russian world”, which is threatened by those forces that deny traditional values.

However, there are also voices in the Orthodox Church in favour of peace and an end to the fratricidal war, while dissident priests are on trial for “discrediting the armed forces”. The most important protest has been the signing of a large document by several priests, theologians and intellectuals close to Russian Orthodoxy, but who are more likely to be from outside Russia, declaring that this position and theology of the “Russian World” is heresy (see, Declaration on the “Russian World” (Ruskii Mir) Teaching) [link]. Another initiative comes from clergy in Russia who want to condemn the war: not a large number but important. [link] Will it have an effect or not? Is it just a start? Will the system crack? We can’t have a clear answer yet, but it’s a wake-up call for the Putin regime and an ounce of hope for peace.

Some conclusions

A brief description of the country of Russia for the year 2021.

Russia’s population in January 2021 was 145.9 million. Of these, 53.6% are women and 46.4% are men; 74.9% of Russia’s population lives in urban areas and 25.1% in rural areas. Internet: At the beginning of 2021, there were 124 million internet users in Russia. From 2020 to 2021, the number of internet users increased by 6.0 million (+5.1%), and the penetration level in Russia is 85.0%.

Social media: In January 2021, there were 99 million social media users in Russia, and the social media audience grew by 4.8 million (+5.1%) in the last year.

Important: Figures on the number of social media users do not correlate with the number of unique internet users who are registered on social media. In January 2021, there were 228.6 million mobile devices with internet access in Russia. The number of mobile connections in relation to Russia’s total population was 156.7%. Many people have multiple mobile devices with internet access, so the number of mobile connections can exceed 100% of the total population (source).

Levada Independent Study Center gives us some important data on religiosity in Russia for 2017. [link]

Orthodoxy remains the dominant faith in Russia. The vast majority of Russians – 92-93% of those surveyed, treat Orthodox Christians with respect and goodwill. The number of those who consider themselves believers or rather “religious people” continues to grow: in three years, this figure has increased from 35% to 53%, mainly at the expense of a diluted mass of people who are not very “religious” or who hesitate to define their degree of religiosity: about half – 44% of respondents describe themselves as “somewhat religious”. Only a small percentage of those surveyed consider themselves “very religious” (9%); a third of those surveyed consider themselves “not very religious” (33%). The number of atheists and non-believers has fallen sharply in the last three years, from 26% to 13%. 73% of respondents did not change their diet during Lent in 2017, 9% planned to “fast during the last week of Lent”, 15% “fast partially” and only 2% of those surveyed “fast completely”. Only 13% of Russians know about the Jehovah’s Witness ban in the Russian Federation, and 34% have heard something, but do not know the details. More than 60%, for example, say they have a positive opinion of Protestants; at the same time, almost 80% of Russians approve of the Jehovah’s Witnesses ban, even though the overwhelming majority know it is a Christian sect, one of the varieties of Protestantism.

No more than a third of respondents supported the view that religion should have a significant influence on state policy: 28% of Russians agreed that the Church should have an influence on state decision-making. 39% of Russians are satisfied with the influence the Church has on the state at present. The number of respondents who think that the Church’s influence on politics is “insufficient” is 16%, and about a quarter of respondents think that the Church’s influence on public policy is too great (23%).

In Russia, 49% of young people describe themselves as non-believers. Only 4% of young Russians go to church regularly and 37% do not go at all. 14% of Russians pray regularly and 46% have never prayed.

All the data show that the population seems to be more secular, urban and more coupled to modernity than the government wants to convey. At the same time, we see that the role of the ROC and the official propaganda is powerful enough to still be able to build a critical mass to support the regime. The religious conservative factor is important in this “anatomy of power”, but it is not the only one and it is not enough to dominate. But it remains an essential one in the construction of the Putin regime.

(The original text, in Romanian, published in the Libertatea newspaper, caan be accessed HERE.)

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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