The tide of war was turning, and the Soviets were driving the Germans back. They were no longer on the defensive, but forcing the invaders from the Motherland would be difficult. As his army prepared for their final push, Stalin sought a way to motivate his soldiers. He turned to an unlikely ally. Despite decades of state-sponsored persecution, the deeply rooted faith and traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) defined an important part of the Russian identity. Stalin met with ROC representatives to discuss how their institution might help to inspire the Russian people. Days after their meeting, Ivan Nikolayevich Stragorodsky was elected patriarch of “Moscow and all Rus”, and churches and theological schools that had been closed for years were quickly reopened.
While the meeting with Stalin did not mark a total resurgence of Orthodoxy—persecutions were renewed under Nikita Khrushchev—amid the crisis of World War II, the Soviet leadership recognized the Church as a protector and preserver of traditional Russian identity. When the Soviet Union fell and crisis returned, the Church’s importance to Russian identity was revived. With old Soviet ideology defunct, the military needed a new ideology to give soldiers purpose and promote discipline; Russian Orthodoxy presented itself as a natural choice. Thus began a fruitful partnership between the ROC and the Russian military. In a speech to Russian sailors, Patriarch Kirill described the nature of this relationship:
The Russian Orthodox Church, as the spiritual mainstay of our people […] ensures that loyal and courageous sons will serve the Fatherland, that our military will be strong and not in need, and will multiply the traditions of its glorious forefathers…[Adamsky, 131]
The Orthodox priest replaced the Soviet political commissar as the psychological caregiver and minister of esprit de corps in the Russian military.
As the ROC rose to a place of prominence in the realm of Russian defense, it developed a close relationship with Russia’s nuclear complex. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian media portrayed Russia’s nuclear weapons industry as unnecessarily risky and costly. The nuclear establishment fell so low in public favor that research scientists were starving. [Adamsky, pg. 34] During the crisis, the ROC used its new-found societal influence to advocate for nuclear weapons. Dr. Radii Ilkaev, a lead scientist at Russia’s principal nuclear weapons research facility in Sarov said:
Back then the media cultivated an extremely negative attitude toward defense issues—especially nuclear weapons, and all the specialists working in this field […] the Russian Orthodox Church held a hearing on the topic of ‘Nuclear Weapons and National Security.’ Very serious documents were released, which gradually became state policy, which society came to support.[Sooy]
The Russian nuclear forces have since become one of the most thoroughly churched branches of the Russian military, and the ROC has remained one of the primary advocates for Russia’s nuclear defense and development. It has openly blessed and legitimized Russia’s nuclear weapons establishment as a weapon “in the hands of God” that would “stay only a weapon of deterrence and retaliation.” [Adamsky, 146]
Beyond simply bolstering Russian military morale and advocating for Russia as a nuclear weapons state, the ROC has also imbued Russia’s nuclear establishment with the sacred. Just as Pope Urban II proclaimed the medieval Crusades as a fulfillment of God’s will, the ROC has proclaimed Russia’s nuclear weapons program to be blessed by God and the saints. Sarov, the heart of Russia’s nuclear weapons complex, was once an old monastery town and the home of a hermit monk, St. Seraphim Sarovsky. An ancient hymn dedicated to Seraphim called him the “shield and protection of the Fatherland”. [Adamsky, 77]. It was in the halls of St. Seraphim’s monastery that Soviet scientists developed Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Thus, Seraphim’s home became the birthplace of the nuclear “shield and protection of the Fatherland.” The Church and the nuclear industry have called this coincidence a sign that Russia’s nuclear program is divinely blessed. As Dimitry Sladkov, the Sarov research center’s public relations chief wrote in 2003:
If St. Seraphim hadn’t allowed the nuclear bomb to be created, nothing would have happened. […] We pray to him for the solidness of the Russian nuclear shield, and perceive Seraphim, [whose name] means blazing in Hebrew, as the patron saint of nuclear scientists.[Adamsky, 158]
Every leg of the Russian nuclear triad has its own patron saint. Russian nuclear bombers and missileers receive blessings from their priests before every mission, and chaplains go out with nuclear submariners on their cruises. The ROC has developed the narrative that Russia’s nuclear defenders are doing God’s work.
Following a 2007 national security speech in Munich, Russian President Vladimir Putin said:
Traditional confessions and the nuclear shield are those components that strengthen Russian statehood and create the necessary preconditions for providing the state’s internal and external security.[Adamsky, 87-88]
Here, Putin identified Russia’s historical Orthodoxy and nuclear shield as the primary components of its security. It is to understand then, that these two institutions have grown so close. As the Church has granted the nuclear industry an almost divine endorsement, it has, in turn, become the heart and conscience of Russia’s nuclear weapons industry. The close relationship between faith and defense may be foreign to a secular Western mindset, but such a connection is integral to the Russian ethos. Anyone seeking to understand what drives Russian nuclear policy must understand this relationship. In the Russian view, those who question Russian nuclear power also question God.
- Adamsky, Dmitry. Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics, and Strategy. Stanford University Press, 2019.
- Sooy, Nicholas. Berkley Center for Religion, and Georgetown University. “The Russian Church Must Work for Disarmament.” Berkley Center For Religion, Peace and World Affairs, September, 2018.
See the original photo here.