The role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Russian army: ideological foundations, creation of a “military chaplaincy,” propaganda of the war as a struggle for “true Orthodoxy”
The Western world has left religious wars in the past, though Russia is still on that truck. In its war against Ukraine, Russia uses the Russian Orthodox Church as one of the key elements of propaganda. In fact, ROC justifies and supports invading independent countries, destroying cities, torturing people, and forcibly deporting them. This is evidenced by both the official media resources of the Russian church and publications on the websites of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, which reflect their close cooperation with the authorities and law enforcement agencies in this direction. The Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation even has a department for cooperation with believers in the Russian Armed Forces. Besides, the head of this department, Alexander Surovtsev, defended his doctoral dissertation on “Development of the spiritual foundations of military security of the Russian Federation”. In this article, we will examine how Russia has been exploiting the Church to legitimize its heinous actions and military actions.
The close cooperation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the current Russian government originates in the joint advocacy of the “Russian world” concept. It’s an ideology that promotes Russia as a much larger “civilization” than the legal borders of the Russian Federation are now or has ever been. Russia’s territorial claims to Ukrainian lands are also justified on the basis that Orthodoxy, which originated in the “Kyivan font,” covers the modern territories of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. In their understanding, Russia, as the largest of these countries, should control this ancient centre of Orthodox culture located in Kyiv. The concept of the “Russian world” is a very convenient tool for the Russian aggressor, according to which they try to justify not only the invasion of Ukraine, but also all past or potential future wars that Russia may unleash.
One of the first mentions of the concept of the “Russian world” in the official rhetoric of the Russian authorities was in Putin’s annual address to the federal assembly in 2007: “Our country was historically formed as a union of many peoples and cultures. And the basis of the spirituality of the Russian people itself has long been the idea of a common peace — common to people of different nationalities and confessions. This year, which has been declared the Year of the Russian Language, is an occasion to recall once again that Russian is the language of historical brotherhood of peoples, the language of truly international communication. It is not just the custodian of a whole layer of truly world achievements, but also the living space of the multimillion-dollar ‘Russian world,’ which, of course, is much wider than Russia itself…”
The same idea was picked up by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who, while still being Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, spoke of the “Russian world” in the TV program “Word of the Shepherd.”
“If we talk about civilization, Russia belongs to a civilization broader than the Russian Federation. We call this civilization the Russian world. The Russian world is not the world of the Russian Federation, it is not the world of the Russian Empire. The Russian world is from the Kyiv baptismal font. The Russian world is a special civilization to which people who today call themselves by different names — Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians — belong. This world can include people who do not belong to the Slavic world at all, but who have accepted the cultural and spiritual components of this world as their own,” — he said.
Usually, ideologists of the “Russian world” blur the terms “Russian-speaking people” and “Orthodox” (meaning the Russian Orthodox Church). In his article “The Content and Main Directions of Propaganda of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Context of Russia’s Hybrid War Against Ukraine” researcher Pavlo Kovalchuk argues that this factor significantly expands the range of information influence of the “Russian world”, as its audience includes not only Russians living in Ukraine, but also people of other nationalities, including parishioners of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate. The jurisdictional status of the UOC-MP makes it possible for the Russian official authorities to widely use church and political propaganda technologies among the large number of parishioners of the UOC-MP in Ukraine.
The idea of their alleged spiritual and territorial commonality with Russia through the alleged historical unity of the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches is widely transmitted. The use of the UOC-MP priests as mediators of pro-Russian ideas is quite effective, given their still quite high authority among a significant number of believers in Ukraine. It was the concept of the “Russian world” that became the ideological basis for Russia, which led them to annex Crimea and launch a war in Donetsk, and since February 24, 2022, a full-scale war against Ukraine.
After the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops in 2022, the struggle for the idea of the “Russian world” has become one of the prior goals of the “special military operation,” (war) as confirmed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statements.
The Russian Orthodox Church has been pushing the notion that the only way for there to be a canonical Orthodox Church in Ukraine is by aligning with the Moscow Patriarchate. Simultaneously, the ROC severed its ties with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, after the latter granted autocephalous status to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). Moreover, the ROC has been denouncing other Local Orthodox Churches that support Ukraine, attempting to establish their exclusive “monopoly” over Orthodox parishes in Ukraine.
Russian priests and their propaganda
One of the most active mouthpieces, who has become known for his anti-Ukrainian speeches and direct support of the Russian aggressor, is Archpriest Andrei Tkachev.
Archpriest Andrei Tkachev began his aggressive rhetoric during the Revolution of Dignity. In particular, in a sermon recorded in an archival video from 2013, he calls the events on the Maidan “demonic possession” and people protesting against Yanukovych’s government as those who do not have the spirit of God. In 2014,Andrei Tkachev gave a speach in temporarily occupied Crimea behind a pulpit with Russian symbols against a banner that reads “Russian World.”
The biography of Archpriest Andrei Tkachev sheds light on why a priest, who is expected to espouse Christian teachings and promote the message of love in the gospel, delivers sermons that reflect the spirit of a military and patriotic political commissar from the Soviet era. At the age of 15, he entered the Moscow Suvorov Military School, and after graduating from it, studied at the Military Institute of the USSR Ministry of Defence, Faculty of Special Propaganda.
The most aggressive and direct support for the Russian army, calling for the killing of Ukrainians, can be found in the speeches of Andrei Tkachev since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In one video, he justified the actions of Russian troops, calling it an “apocalyptic war” and “purification.” In the next video, Archpriest Andrei Tkachev directly called for the bombing of Ukrainians with the Grad system, cynically urging them to do so while reading a prayer. In his speech on the Tsargrad TV channel, Tkachev again justified Russian aggression by “the struggle against Western captivity in all spheres of life,” characterizing the “Russian world” as the only possible way to fight against “existential evil.”
Tkachev is not a single case, but, in fact, it’s the general rhetoric of the Russian Orthodox Church and its priests. Certain ministers of the Russian church also actively use the terms “Nazis” and “fascists” in relation to Ukrainians, further fanning the flames of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. One such personality is Archpriest Artemy Vladimirov. In his “sermon,” he calls Ukrainians fascists and the criminal “special operation” the beginning of the defascization of Europe.
The notion of the “Russian world,” supported by ideological justifications and propaganda, serves as another foundation for Russia’s imperial and colonial aspirations. This has resulted in Russia’s war against Ukraine, which Moscow portrays as a righteous battle for the preservation of Orthodox Christianity.
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Church and military
Recognizing the importance of instilling ideological values in its military personnel, the Russian government has established a dedicated department within the Ministry of Defence for working with religious servicemen. This department, which operates as a unit of the main department responsible for personnel affairs, was created in 2010. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence’s website, the primary objective of this unit is to introduce the institution of military clergy in accordance with the President’s directive. The presence of military chaplains who will accompany combat units in active war zones is seen as crucial to ensure that the troops remain ideologically committed to their mission.
The media has documented the participation of Russian clergy in the war against Ukraine as early as 2014, and some of them continue to serve in the full-scale war in 2022. In particular, we know about Hieromonk Nestor (Arkhipov), who served with the separatists of the so-called DPR and DPR from 2014 to 2018, and in 2022 is a staff chaplain of the 155th Marine Brigade of the Russian Pacific Fleet. There are also known cases of clerics of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate who sided with illegal armed groups in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
After February 24th, 2022, Russian media, both church and secular, no longer hesitate to directly attest to the facts of Russian clergy participation in the war against Ukraine. Despite this acknowledgement, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church has made efforts to legitimize the presence of clergy in the conflict through legal channels. For example, Vakhtang Kipshidze, deputy head of the Synodal Department for Church Relations with Society and the Media of the Moscow Patriarchate, pointed to the need to adopt the concept developed by the Russian Orthodox Church to ensure the legal status of military priests, which would make their service in the zone of the “special military operation” “more effective.” He also proposed to introduce social benefits and payments for Russian “chaplains” serving in the combat zone.
Regarding the specific numbers of Russian clergy fighting in Ukraine, Kipshidze says the following: “We cannot give exact numbers because many clergymen come and go there, others are in the process of being sent on business trips, some clergymen are in irregular army units, such as Cossack units, where it is also difficult to obtain statistical information. However, we believe that there are not enough military priests now, so it is necessary to regulate their deployment, social guarantees, the procedure for their stay — the whole range of issues related to this.” This rhetoric emphasizes that the number of such “ministers” will only increase.
According to the Orthodox canons, a church minister cannot take up arms, but the Russian clergy’s interpretation of this is somewhat different. For example, Archpriest Konstantin Tatarintsev, first deputy head of the Synodal Department for Interaction with the Armed Forces and Law Enforcement Bodies of the Russian Orthodox Church, in an interview with the Russian media, said that priests who are sent to combat units of the Russian army should undergo mandatory military training:
“Of course, you need to understand how the Armed Forces are organized. You need to know that there are branches and types of troops, there are divisions, platoons, companies, battalions. To know the specifics of the service of ground troops, pilots, and sailors. But many military priests come from the military themselves, and they understand this. I, in particular, served in the Long-Range Aviation and am a reserve captain.”
There are also cases of former special forces officers serving as military chaplains in the Russian army. In particular, Archpriest Svyatoslav Churkanov, one such “chaplain,” told about this in an interview with a Russian media outlet: “Many have a military background, there are clergymen who have been through hot spots. I, for example, served in the special forces, did my military service in the internal troops, in a special motorized police unit (SMMU). Along with perestroika, interethnic conflicts began. We were transferred to Tbilisi, where in April 1989 massive riots broke out against the backdrop of the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict. Then we were sent to Nagorno-Karabakh, and in early 1990 we guarded the airport in Baku for almost two months…” At the same time, Svyatoslav Churkanov is also known for ideological propaganda. His statements about the “Right Sector” are well-known: “You start explaining that the difference between Ukrainian Nazis and the soldiers of the Armed Forces have practically erased over the past 8 years. They are now making a cult out of cemeteries — there are flags, incredible wreaths, installations… This is a real cult of death. People have turned from Orthodox to occultists.”
Such rhetoric indicates that the Russian clergy, who are in the combat zone on the side of the Russian aggressor, deliberately call for aggression and murder of Ukrainians, spread Russian propaganda, and try to elevate the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the level of a religious war, a struggle for the “salvation of true Orthodoxy.”
At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin actively supports such processes. He even instructed Patriarch Kirill to appoint the chief priest of the “SVO” — that is, the priest who would supervise all military chaplains who are in the Russian troops and participate in the war against Ukraine. Putin’s decree also awarded the title of Hero of Russia to Archpriest Mikhail Vasiliev, who died on November 6, 2022. Interestingly, this “priest” was the rector of the Church of the Great Martyr Barbara, the patriarchal courtyard at the General Staff of the Strategic Missile Forces of the Russian Armed Forces, and he participated in “hot spots” and operations in Kosovo, Bosnia, Abkhazia, Kyrgyzstan, the North Caucasus, and Syria, which indicates that he was a career military man who deliberately went to war against Ukraine.
The Russian Orthodox Church is fully and purposefully cooperating with the Russian government in the implementation of a full-scale war against Ukraine. This criminal collaboration is expressed in various ways, from ideological propaganda: promoting pro-Putin narratives in official messages, sermons of Russian church hierarchs and ministers to quite practical participation: serving in Russian military formations as “chaplains”; and direct involvement in the process of deportation of Ukrainians, namely creation of “temporary accommodation centres” (TACs) for Ukrainian deportees to be placed on the territory of Russian; conducting propaganda work, “spiritual conversations” with deported Ukrainians; promoting the Russian narrative of a full-scale war between Ukraine and Russia through the prism of “SVO”, as the Kremlin’s mouthpieces call the war against Ukraine.
And finally, the concept of the “Russian world” promoted by the Russian authorities, together with Patriarch Kirill and his subordinates, is a heresy. This was the verdict of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
All these factors show how deeply the Russian Orthodox Church is involved in the war against Ukraine, forming a separate ideological front, using the religious factor, totalitarian moral and psychological influence on Russian military personnel to justify their war crimes.