Sanctifying the profane: the Russian Orthodox Church at the front

The image is a screenshot of Russia Post. Taken with permission

Kirill Shamiev and Ksenia Luchenko, both Visiting Fellows at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote for the Russia Post about the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in Putin’s regime and the full-scale Invasion of Ukraine. Global Voices republished the article, edited for clarity, with the permission from Russia Post.

Recently, Metropolitan Kirill Pokrovsky, who heads up the Synodal Department for Cooperation with the Armed Forces and Law Enforcement Agencies, said on the air of Russia's main state-run TV channel Rossiya-24 that there is now a need for at least 1,300 clergy where the special military operation is being conducted.

According to Pokrovsky, the Ministry of Defense  currently has 309 military chaplains on its staff, while many more priests are at the front as volunteers. A “major reform” was said to be needed to increase the number of official chaplains.

In 1943, Stalin created a new structure — the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate — inviting most of the cooperative bishops and priests who had survived the purges of the 1930s (only three bishops were present at the first meeting with Stalin; the rest had either been executed or were in labor camps). Stalin expected the church to boost patriotism among Red Army soldiers and improve the Soviet Union’s image abroad.

Today, the ROC is taking on a similar role for Putin’s war in Ukraine, boosting patriotism domestically while supporting Russia’s diplomatic efforts in the Balkans, in Georgia and the  global majority.

The Russian Orthodox Church has actively participated in Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine since the very beginning. The patriarch and clergy do not just echo key concepts of Kremlin propaganda — they help shape them. And by the patriarch's order, prayers for Russian victory are recited in services across the country, with priests who dare to replace in the obligatory prayer the word “victory” with “peace” running the risk of being defrocked (see Russia.Post about it here).

Church TV channels — the Moscow Patriarchate’s widely watched Spas and the Orthodox “patriotic” channel Tsargrad — stress the sanctity of the war. The church’s role in the war extends way beyond TV propaganda. Priests perform sacraments for soldiers. They call for victory, not an end to the bloodshed, and convince soldiers that they are doing their holy duty. Some priests are even directly participating in the hostilities.

For many Russians, the church's endorsement of the war makes it appear sacred, or at least morally acceptable. For the ROC itself, cooperation with state military structures deepens its influence inside those structures and consolidates its power. For the Kremlin, militarizing the church imbues the war with a higher purpose.

Mobilizing spirituality: Priests in the military

Last November, a monument to Archpriest Mikhail Vasiliev was erected in the military town of Vlasikha, home to the headquarters of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces and the central command post of its Strategic Nuclear Forces. Vasiliev had served in the town’s church for over 20 years and was close to the military leadership stationed there. He was killed last year while fighting in Ukraine’s Kherson Region. President Vladimir Putin posthumously awarded him the posthumous title “Hero of Russia.”

There are many others like Vasiliev. Staff chaplains have dual subordination: they are employed in military units but report to the church’s bishops. Their role — regulated by different state and church acts — includes conducting religious services and rituals, engaging in spiritual and enlightenment work, and looking after the morality of military personnel. The act from the Ministry of Defense (MoD) specifies that commanders’ assistants working with religious servicemen should “personally participate in field trips, exercises and combat shooting practices of the unit.” The church also claimed that there are 773 non-staff chaplains working in the MoD whose role is to “bring humanitarian aid and, most importantly, give our soldiers the opportunity to receive the sacraments: baptism, confession and communion.”

The cited acts regulating the relationship between the church and the MoD were adopted prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Many priests have volunteered to go to the front, setting off from their monasteries and dioceses. Late last year, Metropolitan Pokrovsky said that around 700 clergymen had made over 2,200 trips to the combat zone. He also claimed that about 100 Orthodox priests were on the front line every day, many of them not for the first time. There, according to Pokrovsky, the clergy typically converse with soldiers, conduct religious services, distribute icons, prayer books and Orthodox symbols, and visit the wounded in military hospitals. They sometimes organize chapels in the trenches, but more commonly serve in mobile ones.

The larger the number of priests at the front, the more morally acceptable the war appears to the ROC’s parishioners and the wider public, and the more the church and the military are seen as one.

The presence of priests in the army has had no effect on the personal morality of soldiers, as it has not deterred them from committing war crimes, looting or intimidating civilians. On the contrary, the very fact of soldiers’ participation in what they see as the rightful defense of the homeland has freed them of any moral scruples. Patriarch Kirill himself said in one of his homilies that soldiers who die on the battlefield have all their sins washed away.

Writing in 2020 about the church’s role in the campaign in Syria, Dmitry Adamsky pointed out that, first of all, the ROC provided a messianic interpretation of the military conflict: Russia, the ROC stressed, was standing up for persecuted Christians in Syria. Vladimir Putin used the same argument with regard to Ukraine, stating on the eve of the invasion that “Kyiv continues to plan a massacre of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate as well…”

Since the beginning of the full-scale war in Ukraine, the ROC has justified the invasion by blessing the government’s actions. Military priests have provided encouragement to soldiers and relieved them of moral dilemmas. For ordinary parishioners — mothers and wives of mobilized men — the Church has explained that their loved ones are fighting for a good cause and are not giving their lives in vain.

In the image of god: The church on the front lines

While the number of priests in the actual war zone may not be so large, images of the ROC at the front are commonplace. Priests present red flags with Christ’s image to military units. Chevron patches and stickers for helmets have similar designs.

Patches with the image of a shield and an Orthodox cross with the inscription ”by this sign you will conquer” are widespread.

According to Nizhny Novgorod Governor Gleb Nikitin, a motorized infantry battalion formed from volunteers from his region was named after St. Seraphim of Sarov. In other words, not only are priests present on the front lines, but the war itself is being increasingly waged under the banner of god — to those watching the war on TV, as well as those who are fighting, the violence in Ukraine is presented as a sacred affair.

The church’s current militarization began with the Cossacks, Russian paramilitary groups (on the role of the Cossacks in today’s Russia see Russia.Post here). In the first few months of the war, it was ROC structures that were responsible for relations with the Cossacks, who displayed the most militant sentiment on the front lines.

Televised images of Cossack troops being sent off to the war zone, in various regions, showed almost identical scenes: priests blessing them by sprinkling holy water, distributing crosses, icons, prayer books and gospels, and offering words of encouragement. And, when appointing new leadership in the war zone in April 2023, Patriarch Kirill chose two priests responsible for relations with the Cossacks: Archpriest Dmitri Vasilenkov, who was named chief military priest of the special military operation, handled Cossack affairs at the level of the Saint Petersburg diocese, and the abovementioned Metropolitan Pokrovsky, who was tasked with leading cooperation with the armed forces and law enforcement agencies, was in charge of Cossack affairs for the entire church.

Now, two years into the war, priests are commonly present at sending off rituals for soldiers going to the front: the ROC makes its priests bless volunteers and support mobilization.

Across Russia, the church encourages parishioners to contribute to the war effort, portraying it as a pious deed. This includes donating humanitarian aid and transporting it to the front lines. In several regions, parishioners raise funds to support the special military operation and weave camouflage nets and make trench candles; meanwhile, children write postcards to soldiers. Besides food and medicines, parishes purchase equipment and vehicles. All these tokens of support reach the front lines sealed with religious approval.

In addition, the ROC is engaged in the military education of civilians. At Orthodox summer camps, teenagers receive military training and indoctrination in “religious patriotism.” In some instances, priests returning from the war zone teach young men shooting and combat tactics. “It makes my heart happy when I see the burning eyes of boys, guys, when they pick up a weapon, put on a helmet and armor,” a priest wrote on his social media page.

Some Orthodox Sunday schools teach children how to operate drones. The Kronstadt Naval Cathedral opened initial military training courses for volunteers called “St. Andrew's Cross.” In an interview, the cathedral’s rector said that after completing the course, many young people enlist “to go as volunteers according to their specialization, with blessings.”

When church and military are one

In November 2023, the ROC’s lawyers submitted to the Duma [Russian parliament] a bill equalizing the rights of priests serving at the front to contract soldiers so they would receive the same benefits and salaries. This includes payments to families for the killed and wounded. In addition, the bill entails budget funding “for the spiritual development of the individual among military personnel.” Should it pass, the ROC would further strengthen its power, while the Kremlin would further consolidate the legitimacy of the war. This is likely what Metropolitan Pokrovsky implied when he mentioned the need for a “major reform.”

The abovementioned Orthodox TV channels — Spas and Tsargrad — have been sanctioned by the EU for justifying “Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine on religious and spiritual grounds.” Patriarch Kirill is on the sanctions lists of Canada, the UK and the Czech Republic, but not those of the EU or the US.

Meanwhile, national and international Christian organizations outside of Russia have not expressed any reaction to the ROC’s stance on the war in Ukraine. ROC delegations still take part in international ecumenical events as if nothing is happening.

In February 2024, almost two years into the war, the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University issued a poignant open letter addressed to the leaders of major Christian churches, denominations and ecumenical organizations. The signatories of the letter, including over 300 academics, clergy and laymen, emphasize the personal responsibility of Patriarch Kirill and the bishops of the ROC for endorsing and actively participating in the war crimes perpetrated by the Putin regime.

They call for establishing an international task force that would hold accountable “those bishops, priests and laity within the Russian Orthodox Church” whose actions “have sanctioned and bestowed divine approval upon violence, war and aggression against the people of Ukraine.”

There has been no reaction to this letter so far. In the meantime, the militarization of the ROC is ramping up, while the war is increasingly seen as sacred in the eyes of many Russians — both at home and on the front lines.

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