Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics, and Strategy
Stanford University Press, 2019, 376 pp., $30
During communist times, Orthodox churches collaborated across their institutional hierarchies with communist intelligence services. The declassification of files over the past three decades has revealed how stunningly close ties were between Church leadership and secret police in Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. This was the case too, of course, in Mother Russia itself, where Stalin himself established the Moscow Patriarchate in 1943 after executing tens of thousands of clergymen during the Great Purge of 1936-1938. All key positions in the Moscow Patriarchate were blessed by the Communist Party and controlled by the KGB, making the Russian Orthodox clergy into first-class collaborators with the secret police. Even though Orthodox churches across Eastern Europe never admitted to having collaborated on an institutional level, individual confessions by high-level clergy after 1989, along with declassified files, paint a different picture. The Romanian Council for the Study of the Archives of the Securitate—dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s notorious secret police—revealed that 89 clergy members of the Orthodox Church, including several archbishops, were active official collaborators.
That was then.
Today, across the entire region, Orthodox churches are on the rise. They are shaping societal narratives and national identities, involving themselves in state affairs and government policymaking. The Church’s climb up the new power ladder is taking place in fragile and emerging democracies, where corruption is often widespread, social capital scarce, and trust in public institutions slight. In Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia, for instance, the various national Orthodox churches rank among the top three most trusted institutions in their respective countries.
A cornerstone of liberal democracy—and for citizens of the European Union in particular—is an arm’s length separation of church and state. But what happens when the church becomes the state—or vice versa? The rise of the Orthodox churches as political actors thus raises a number of important questions about democratic development in key parts of transitioning Europe.
This is why Dmitry Adamsky’s book, Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy, is important. Using Russia as a case study, Adamsky digs deep into the complex state of play between church and state. With roughly 120 million Orthodox adherents and influence extending far beyond its borders, Russia is the natural choice for such a study. Adamsky’s narrower focus on, of all things, the relationship of the Church to the nuclear weapons industry and forces in Russia takes us on an unexpected, mind-bending, yet highly illuminating ride through 30 years of post-Soviet military-church relations. The Russian Orthodox Church’s expansion into and integration with Russia’s nuclear forces have given it a unique role in formulating and shaping narratives of Russian history, faith, and patriotism in the post-Cold War era.
Adamsky’s story begins in the late 1980s, where he shows us how economic decline, ideological exhaustion, and a populace predisposed toward religiosity laid the groundwork for the rise of the Orthodox Church. This context allowed the Church to penetrate—arguably more deeply than at any time in the past century—the social and political spheres of Russia. Today, following an agenda articulated by the current leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, the Church defines itself as loyal to the state, regardless of political regime, in exchange for which the state grants it the right to weigh in on economic issues and other domestic and foreign affairs.
The currency that forms the basis for this church-state exchange is ideology. Traditional values are the cornerstone of what the Church promotes, which in effect emphasizes collective interests over individual rights, intolerance of religious minorities, women, and non-heterosexuals, and state intrusion into private life. Western liberal values, by and large, are anathema. Adamsky notes that “the Russian Orthodox Church [has long] defined the essence of Russian Civilization by contrasting it to the West. . . . Russia is presented as seeking peace and cooperation, the West as reluctant to accept its uniqueness and respect its needs.” Although Adamsky’s book focuses on the post-Soviet era, the traditional values narrative is something the Russian Church promoted throughout the Cold War period. It is a narrative promoted energetically today by former KGB man and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Adamsky argues that “the quest of the Russian people and of the Russian strategic community to reinvent themselves ideologically following the Soviet collapse resulted in . . . the phenomenon of national and professional myth making.” The Church makes use of its power to imprint itself onto Russian national identity and history. By positing the alignment of divine intentions with all Russian state actions, the Church demonstrates to the faithful “that throughout Russian history no battle had been waged without the participation of the church.” The narrative of church-state communion offers a popular way out of the sense of defeat Russians experienced after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Thus, the Church emerges “as the main custodian of Russian culture, history, and values.”
Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy explores this church-state dynamic by means of a deep read of the history of the Russian nuclear forces. The vignettes in this book are colorful, compelling, and at times almost mystical in character. Perhaps most vivid of all is the tale of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, the most popular elder monk of Russia in the 19th century. Almost all Orthodox countries have figures like this in their recent history—ascetic monks who become revered spiritual leaders due to popular belief in their miraculous healing powers and prophecies. Prayers to Saint Seraphim were said to have the power to enable women to conceive sons. Russia’s Czar Nicholas II and the Czarina tested this proposition, ordering his canonization in 1903. During the ceremony, writes Adamsky, “the tsar carried a reliquary containing Seraphim’s bones, while the tsarina stood and prayed.” A year later, the Czarina miraculously gave birth to their first heir.
Less than two decades later the Soviets made monumental efforts to erase Saint Seraphim from public memory. The saint’s remains were taken and most likely thrown away by the Soviets. The Sarov monastery built over Seraphim’s cell became first a political prison, then a factory for the production of missiles, later the site of the fabrication of the first Soviet nuclear bomb, and finally the core of what would become the first and most important of the Soviet Union’s top-secret nuclear towns.
By 1991, this backbone of the Soviet nuclear capacities, built over the rubble of the Sarov monastery, was itself falling apart. The end of the Cold War brought euphoria in the West but a sense of desperation in Russia, while the poverty and sense of irrelevance hit the nuclear forces perhaps hardest of all. It was at this point that the Church stepped in to save the nukes. Then-Metropolitan, now Patriarch Kirill “miraculously” discovered St. Seraphim’s remains and paraded them through Russia in a series of “ecstatic ceremonies” that resonated in a spectacular way with the public. The pilgrimage of Saint Seraphim ended in the Church’s (carefully preplanned) return to the secret nuclear town. For the public, the Church’s grand entrance into the secret city—once the symbolic heart of the power of the Communist Party and KGB—was nothing short of a miracle. Meanwhile the Church took upon itself the burden of restoring the centrality of Russia’s nuclear weapons community. Saint Seraphim thus became the patron saint of Russia’s nuclear triad. Ever since, his iconography can be found on virtually every office wall, nuclear-tipped missile, nuclear-capable jet, and ballistic missile submarine.
As Saint Seraphim became the face of nuclear Orthodoxy, the Church has become the strongest supporter of a foreign policy backed by nuclear threat. Today, Russia’s official nuclear strategy is first strike; Moscow now reserves the right to respond to a conventional attack with a nuclear one and is readying constitutional changes to assert the supremacy of national law over all international regulations or obligations. According to Adamsky, many of these changes can be traced directly to policies promoted by the Church: the centrality of the nuclear forces, the primacy of Russian interests above those of other countries, and the narrative of war between Western and traditional values.
The Church has popularized its narrative by publishing a book-length catalogue’s worth of works ranging from histories to hagiographies to novels and by producing expensive films that flagrantly falsify history and build myths. Russian schools have introduced religious education. And through educational programs targeting both youth and adults, the “Russian World” has come to be defined not simply as a place where people are Russian, but a larger space in which people “speak Russian, think Russian, and act Russian”—that is, in sync with traditional values. Though this concept has evolved and grown over time, it has reached its zenith in President Putin’s statements to the effect that the clash between the United States and Russia emanates not just from different views of geopolitics, but also from contrasting cultures and values, with America’s “individualism and materialism” set against Russia’s “collectivism and spirituality.”
For the Russian state, the Church provides an important tool for supporting the state’s initiatives in the realm of family, motherhood, education, and social issues. Hence, the Church has become an alternative to—and will eventually become a replacement for—an independent Russian civil society. Adamsky traces this evolution through key meetings, interactions with, and statements by Russian leaders showing their evolution from committed young atheist socialists to pious senior officials and thinkers. He demonstrates how key Russian political figures have adopted religion as part of their public and private lives. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has publicly praised religious activity in Central and Eastern Europe and Syria as a useful foreign and security policy tool. Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu has made the religious education of the military a policy priority and for the first time in 2015 made the sign of the cross when commanding Russia’s annual Victory Parade. Political and intellectual figures ranging from Kremlin adviser Vladislav Surkov to intellectuals Sergey Filatov and Yegor Kholmogorov to former nuclear industry minister Victor Mikhailov have become devout Christians. The Kremlin has adopted Ivan Ilyin’s and Alexander Dugin’s ideology, rejection of democracy, and advocacy of national authoritarianism and the merging of church and state.
In exchange for individual and collective affirmations of the role of the Church in the Russian state, the Russian Orthodox Church has rewritten history, turning Yuri Gagarin (the first human to travel to outer space) into a profound Orthodox believer and replacing criticism of Stalin’s prosecution of the Church with talk of his “sacred aura.” The Church has also brought new players into Russia’s political sphere: Prince and Saint Vladimir the Great (parallels with Vladimir Putin notwithstanding), the aforementioned Saint Seraphim (who approves of nuclear weapons from his heavenly vantage), and Saint Anastasiade (Russia’s patron saint of outer space).
By 2014, Patriarch Kirill was speaking of Russia’s past war efforts in religious tones. On the occasion of the centenary of the beginning of World War I, the Patriarch compared support for the “brotherly Serbian” people to the annexation of Crimea and the involvement of Russia in the Donbas war. Adamsky describes how the Church used local churches and clergy affiliated with Moscow across Central and Eastern Europe to “preach sympathy” for Kremlin policies and hostility to the Western liberal order. A year later, the Church participated in the Russian military’s activities in Syria. Today, Patriarch Kirill has called Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war “holy.”
Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy’s represents a valuable, albeit partial, analysis of Russian religion after the Soviet Union. The nuclear-church nexus is, as Adamsky freely admits, as unlikely as it is significant: significant in that Russia is by far the largest Orthodox country that went through a post-communist transition; and unlikely, arguably, because of the outcast status of the Church before the Soviet dissolution. Unfortunately, this is also where some of the shortcomings of the book lie.
Regional context is lacking. The Russian Orthodox Church, after suffering through decades of persecution and endless executions, had improved its relationship with the Soviet state by the late 1960s, lauded socialism, and collaborated with the KGB. It is also far from clear that the Church’s evolution after the Soviet breakup was in fact an unlikely one. Orthodox churches throughout Central and Eastern Europe had their own histories of persecution and collaboration with intelligence services prior to 1989. Furthermore, their rise from obscurity and deep relationship with their respective states is a pattern that has repeated across Eastern Europe. What makes the Russian case different is its scale, not its basic shape.
Indeed, the strategy adopted by the Russian Orthodox Church was common to all Orthodox churches in the Eastern space after 1989. By failing to contextualize the Russian case, Adamsky misses a key point: that national Orthodox churches in countries like Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Romania and Bulgaria have all undergone similar evolutions.
Nevertheless, Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy offers rare view into a key power relationship in one of the biggest countries in the world: how the marriage of state and institutional religion has shaped a nation’s identity and worldview. Though its intended audience is small and its narrative dry at times, one can draw from its abundant detail a deep understanding of the rise of the world’s largest Orthodox church from the depths of official persecution to the heights of political power.