5 June

Russia’s use of religion for military purposes

The Russian-Orthodox Church and the Russian regime have become increasingly close. Nowadays, the church is used for propaganda purposes, as a platform for intelligence operations, and to promote soldier morale, despite only a minority of Russians being religious.

A blue church in ruins.

A church stands in ruins in Bogorodichne, Donetsk region, after Russian military action. Image from Shutterstock.

It recently emerged that individuals within the Russian Orthodox Church in Sweden have been in contact with Russian security and intelligence services, a story that a local Swedish newspaper, VLT – Vestmanlands Läns Tidning, was the first to report on. In a statement to the Swedish Agency for Support to Faith Communities, the Swedish Security Service states that the Russian state uses the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Sweden for intelligence gathering.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state have become closer. When the church was released from the grip of Soviet atheist propaganda in 1991, it could begin to seek a new role in society, according to Pär Gustafsson Kurki, senior researcher at the Department for Defence Analysis at FOI, the Swedish Defence Research Agency.

At the same time, the armed forces and the Russian state were in desperate need of something that could replace the loss of Soviet identity. Therefore, the church and state entered into a kind of marriage. The church literally offered the armed forces its ready-made package of spirituality and a long and rich history. The church has gained an increasingly dominant role in Russian society since then, says Pär Gustafsson Kurki.

A major focus on military chaplains

Today, the Russian government uses the church, among other things, as a tool for militaristic propaganda and for strengthening soldier morale. However, very few Russians are deeply religious, according to Pär Gustafsson Kurki; only slightly more than ten percent attend church regularly. The same applies to Russian soldiers.

That the Russian Orthodox Church, despite this, is used for state militaristic propaganda is paradoxical, a premise that is precisely what Pär Gustafsson Kurki examines in the FOI report, Apostles of Violence – The Russian Orthodox Church’s Role in Russian Militarism.

Among other things, he has reviewed official statistics, media and religious publications from Russia; read the Russian Orthodox Church’s own documents; and analysed Russia data from the World Values Survey.

“When doing my research, it emerged that they were really blowing their own horn about having military chaplains. When the chaplains were reintroduced, in 2019, they received a lot of space in the media,” says Pär Gustafsson Kurki.

The military chaplains are a concrete example of how the Russian Orthodox Church integrates with the armed forces, he claims. But there are few full-time positions, only about 250, in comparison with the number of uniformed servicemen.

“It’s a very undersized organisation. Reasonably speaking, it is difficult for them to achieve anything that has any significant impact on military efficiency and soldier morale. But the importance of the military clergy should not be underestimated. It presents an infrastructure that has the potential for much expansion.

Justifies the regime’s war policy

Pär Gustafsson Kurki has closely examined the theology of the Russian Orthodox Church and its relation to war and killing. The church’s documents describe war as a phenomenon that depends on the sinfulness of human nature, that we have turned away from God, which is why it is something that is going to exist throughout human history.

“From a Christian perspective, it’s not surprising, it’s an attitude that’s quite common among Christians. Even military chaplains in Sweden and other Western countries could subscribe to such formulations,” says Pär Gustafsson Kurki.

“But then there are parts of Russian Orthodox theology that are more noteworthy. One of the church’s official documents explains that waging war is justified in the event that the aim is to rectify an injustice, or to protect a neighbouring population from harm. Listening to the Russian political leadership’s rhetoric since the beginning of their war against Ukraine, you can hear that they are applying exactly this formula,” explains Pär Gustafsson Kurki.

“They say they want to protect the Russian-speaking population in Donbas and “denazify” Ukraine. The church offers a justification for what secular policy has decided. The military clergy weaponises a toxic politico-ideological doctrine that justifies a war of aggression.”

Radicalisation is a possible scenario

Does religious propaganda actually work when neither the civilian population nor the soldiers are particularly religious? Pär Gustafsson answers both yes and no to that question. Although the majority are not deeply religious, many perceive Christian spirituality, what in Russian is called duchovnost, as something positive. At least half of the Russian soldiery has a positive view of duchovnost, and around 80 percent identify themselves as culturally Orthodox.

“This likely makes it harder for the Russian soldiers to oppose the war, since both the religious and the spiritual are so clearly associated with militarism. It’s possible that this contributes to a sense of unit cohesion. Although this is limited by the fact that there are so few military chaplains,” says Pär Gustafsson Kurki.

In addition, Russian society also includes much Russian Orthodox symbolism, as part of the official narrative. This means that the population can get the impression that those around them are more deeply religious than they actually are, according to Pär Gustafsson Kurki. When the regime inflates the importance of spirituality and orthodox faith and connects it to patriotism, many may feel forced to accept an identity that is at least culturally Russo-Orthodox.

It is worth paying attention to whether Russia starts expanding the military clergy in the future, he says.

“Russia could be on the way to becoming a kind of orthodox Iran, considering how much the leadership is emphasising religion and spirituality.”

“It’s difficult to judge whether Russian society is going to undergo a genuine radicalisation, but it is a possible scenario,” according to Pär Gustafsson Kurki.

“If it does happen, it is going to deeply affect how Russian soldiers perceive the justice of the war, and how Russian society tolerates the war’s suffering.”