Moscow Defense Brief

«Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics and Strategy»*

Giles DuPont

Shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union, Metropolitan Alexii, Russia’s future patriarch, organized what was arguably the most powerful ceremony in St. Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral since the building became a museum of atheism following the Bolshevik Revolution.

Before throngs of Russian believers, many trying to recover the foundations of their faith, Alexii oversaw the reinternment of the relics of legendary Russian Prince Alexander Nevsky, the epic military hero lionized for centuries as Russia’s savior against Tatar invaders.

It’s no coincidence Dmitry Adamsky’s book, «Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics and Strategy», starts with this powerful opening scene that not only physically returned the relics of the famous prince to the grand St. Petersburg cathedral, but perhaps more powerfully set the stage for a renewal of the alliance between Russia’s Orthodox Church and the country’s armed forces.

That alliance has only grown stronger during the nearly ten years of Russian military modernization. Now, Orthodox priests routinely bless weapon systems, including nuclear missiles, strategic bombers and nuclear submarines. Its slightly gaudy apotheosis is apparent in orders from Defense Ministry Sergei Shoigu to build an enormous orthodox church on the defense ministry’s main fairgrounds outside of Moscow.

The strength of Adamsky’s book is the ability to convey the power of those images while soberly picking apart the alliance of church and military, setting out the terms by which he considers Russia to have a military touched by faith. He looks at the inception and operationalization of the relationship in three digestible parts, each of which covers a decade since the end of the Soviet Union. The book pays particularly close attention to the symbiotic relationship between the church and Russia’s nuclear forces, a puzzling relationship which hasn’t until now found sufficient examination for an English-speaking audience.

For followers of modern Russia, Adamsky points out the role clerics have played on the ground in Russia’s modern conflicts. He brings detailed portraits of military priests mobilized with troops and serving on bases, including in the Russian Khmeimim base in Syria. He compares the priests to the Soviet Union’s powerful political officers who were responsible for keeping up morale and faith in Communist ideology in the ranks of the Red Army. Of course, the priests don’t espouse economic determinism, but Adamsky points out how they use prevailing political rhetoric to justify the cause of the armed forces in Syria and, earlier, in Ukraine.

He has expanded on the role of those clerics and the public statements made by church leaders to paint a picture of the modern-day myth-making the church has endeavored upon. In one example, he notes the concept of the Holy Rus’, which was invoked passionately by Patriarch Kirill in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. When Crimea was ultimately annexed, Kirill broadened his reference to the Black Sea peninsula as the place where Holy Prince Vladimir was baptized, making Russia ultimately a Christian country.

Adamsky’s own background has provided him with a powerful lense to view the subject. The book proves him to be intimately familiar with rituals of faith and military might in post-Soviet Russia, but balances that intimacy with a cold and analytical eye.

Wonderfully insightful stories lace the arc of the book, expanding on the links forged between the church and the military. In one of them Adamsky explains how Sarov Monastery, which was seized by the Soviets in 1927 became the nerve center for the Soviet Union’s nuclear program under Josef Stalin.

The author is right to couch the strengthening of ties between the military and church against the background of a greater expression of religious faith by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his entourage - a phenomenon Adamsky says has given the church the blessing to enter many realms of secular life. Likewise, the military has entered more aspects of civilian life, making the two institutions among the most trusted in Russia today.

The book importantly points out that the church was one of the first champions of Russia’s nuclear armament program, and explores the extent to which the church and faith have been instrumental to the military’s strategies and operations. Adamsky successfully highlights the irony of the relationship here, noting that the church had never supported ideas of nuclear pacifism or disarmament, in contrast to other Christian denominations.

Some readers may want more details in how the church has come to define strategy and operations in concrete terms, but Adamsky himself notes his approach has been limited by the existing scholarship and available data, and that experts are only now starting to scratch the surface of the interplay between faith and military practice.

Topically, the book finds the right place between the state, the military and faith, all crucial to understand modern Russia. It is a fascinating book for both the expert community entrenched in the study of Russia’s military and the casual reader with an interest in Russian.

The book is an engaging and accessible read for anyone interested in the intersection of faith, military might and identity in modern Russia.

* Adamsky Dmitry. Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics and Strategy. Stanford University Press, 2019 ISBN-13: 978-1503608054

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