Religious zeal rises in Russian military forces

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ON MAY 3, an unusual ceremony took place at Westminster Abbey, one of the largest temples in the Church of England. To mark 50 years of the British sea-based nuclear arsenal, the Dean of Westminster thanked all who had served in the country’s nuclear deterrents. The Duke of Cambridge and other pillars of the establishment were part of a crowded congregation.

However, they were booed by protesters who had gathered outside. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament denounced the religious service as “morally repugnant” and organized a “die-in”. About 200 priests and two bishops had also said it was wrong to offer thanks for such deadly weapons.

In the US armed forces, the spread of the Christian faith and its association with military prowess are also controversial and widely contested on constitutional grounds (see previous article). Yet there is a historically Christian land where, although after a 70-year communist interlude, the National Church enjoys enormous, growing and largely unchallenged influence over the armed forces. This country is Russia.

Having forged close relationships with all parts of the defense establishment, especially the triad of forces that stand ready to deliver nuclear weapons launched by land, sea and air, the Russian Orthodox Church is now strengthening his role at the top of the country’s army. machine.

In a bizarre historical turnaround, clerics in uniform may be increasingly replicating the post held in Soviet times by a caste of officers known as the zampoliti. Their job was to keep morale up, check for any signs of dissent, and fan the flames of Marxist zeal.

Pieces of the story about the church’s military role can be pieced together from the newsletters. For example, it was announced in February that priests integrated into airborne troops would learn to drive armored cars. But the whole story has now been presented in methodical detail by an Israeli scholar, Dmitry Dima Adamsky. In his new book, “Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy,” he shows how Church-military relations have evolved over the three decades since the fall of atheistic communism.

Mr. Adamsky describes what he calls a decade of “genesis” in which various ad hoc forms of synergy have emerged; a decade of “conversion” when different parts of the armed forces, including the navy and air force, regained strength with great moral support from the church; and a decade of “operationalization” when Church-military relations became more entrenched.

These relationships have taken many spectacular forms. They include the construction of prayer spaces, large and small, in defense installations of all kinds, especially on nuclear submarines; the blessing of missiles in their silos and fighter jets as they prepare to go on a combat mission; and aerial maneuvers corresponding to a “procession with the cross”, an Orthodox ritual in which the faithful sanctify a piece of territory by circling it with crosses and banners.

When military personnel receive pep talk about all of Russian history, the focus is on the deep connection between religion and the military, starting with medieval military saints and icons they carried into battle.

As Mr. Adamsky shows, some of the church’s oldest and most unlikely relationships have been developed with scientists, both military and civilian, who have been involved in different stages of the nuclear cycle, from the manipulation of the nuclear fuel to the design of new weapons. In the early 1990s, Russians in this sector were deeply demoralized, poorly paid, and uncertain about the future of the country’s arsenal.

In many ways, the church has come to the rescue. Take the city of Sarov. For any devout Russian, it is the home of Saint Seraphim, an ascetic monk who was one of the most revered holy men of the Tsarist era. During the Communist era, the place was transformed into a top-secret nuclear research center known as Arzamas-16. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it regained its old religious name but retained its nuclear prowess. It has become a popular venue for conferences co-hosted by the church and nuclear personnel, during which the need to preserve Russia’s nuclear capability, even in the most difficult of times, was enthusiastically proclaimed by everyone present.

Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church since 2009, said the church can take credit for maintaining the country’s nuclear capacity at a time when finances and confidence were at their lowest. In fact, the Orthodox churches, including Russia, have generally sought a compromise with earthly powers; but the clerical-nuclear partnership was still unusual, perhaps reflecting the fact that both sides were struggling to adjust to a new era and felt they needed friends.

According to Mr. Adamsky, a professor at IDC Herzliya University, the latest big development is a seemingly obscure but important addition to the structure of the Russian defense establishment. Since last August, a new organization has been created. Dubbed the “Main Political Directorate of the General Staff”, it is headed by a general with the rank of Deputy Minister of Defense. To anyone familiar with Soviet terminology, it sounded like the institution that encouraged Communist zeal through the Red Army.

The new unit will also have an ideological role. He was told to “develop structures at all levels for the armed forces, up to [individual] military unit. “And one of the main objectives of these structures will be to instill the Orthodox tradition. To this end, it will train military priests and raise funds for a vast church of the armed forces, which will be erected by Next year at a location outside of Moscow called Patriot Park. It will seat 6,000 people and the color scheme will reflect the hues of missiles and armored cars. Decorations will include battle scenes from the Bible. Elsewhere in the park there will be monuments dedicated to the patron saints of each branch of the forces.

The first CEO, General Andrei Kartapolov, believed that “the modern Russian military cannot be trained without cultivating a noble [sense of] spirituality in him … ”

In short, the current order makes it very difficult to belong to a minority religion, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, who reject military service, and have suffered a wave of persecution this year.

As with almost all secular religious traditions, the spiritual toolkit of Russian Orthodoxy includes more than one way of approaching peace and war. He venerates the pacifist medieval brothers Boris and Gleb, martyr princes who accepted death gently; and Saint Philippe, martyred in 1569 for having defied the killings of Ivan the Terrible. Right now, religious leaders and the Kremlin are making sure that martial spirit prevails.


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