Russia’s Nuclear Priesthood


From a 1962 USSR Postage Stamp via Flickr (cc)

by Jeffery Guynn

Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics, and Strategy,
by Dima Adamsky,
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019. 376 pp.

This book discusses the Russian Orthodox Church’s (ROC) expansion and deep integration into every facet of Russian nuclear military forces and politics in the years since the Soviet Union’s collapse, and the large and influential role it plays today in these different areas. Dmitry Adamsky argues that this relationship was not born willingly but was born out of a survival necessity for both groups. He breaks down and discusses three distinct decades that illustrate the relationship that has developed over the previous thirty years between the ROC and the Russian nuclear weapons enterprise: The Genesis Decade (1991-2000), the Conversion Decade (2000-10), and the Operationalization Decade (2010-20).

The Genesis Decade discusses the church’s reemergence into the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The ROC was one of the most highly persecuted and repressed institutions during Soviet rule. Soviets destroyed or repurposed numerous religious and historic sites, and confiscated countless religious relics during the Bolshevik Revolution. The town of Sarov, once a holy site representative of a prominent Orthodox saint, became home to the Soviet Union’s main nuclear weapons research center. However, at the time of Soviet collapse, the military and nuclear enterprises had fallen into disarray and were seen politically and economically as driving factors behind the Soviet collapse. Consequently, very little state economic support reached either of these institutions, with the nuclear arm receiving less assistance.

The ROC initiated a public relations campaign with both the Russian government and the nuclear community to get access to many of these nuclear sites in hopes that the government would restore all pre-Soviet ecclesiastical properties. Throughout the Genesis Decade, the church increased its role in spiritual guidance and influence in the military and government as a whole. It lobbied both the military and state, hosting several joint conferences on religion and its role in the military. The ROC’s message was simple: the Orthodox Church has persevered and in her darkest hour, the nuclear arm protects Russia and its Orthodoxy.

During the Conversion Decade, the ROC approached the post-Soviet period with four distinct initiatives: introduce religious studies into schools, revive military chaplaincy, complete restitution of church property and relics, and marginalize other religious denominations. The church found a champion in Vladimir Putin, who used the ROC’s influence to expand his goal of returning the fatherland to its superpower status through a mix of Russian Orthodoxy, nationalism, and autocracy. Putin described the ROC and the nuclear weapons enterprise as interlinked. This drove his narrative that the Orthodox Church would shape Russian policy both internally and externally. Many of the numerous public appearances Putin made had some layer of Orthodox overture embedded, whether it was making references to the Orthodoxy in public forums or portraying himself as a religious pilgrim during trips abroad. He went as far as funding a resort built for religious pilgrimages to holy sites in Jordan. The ROC took a similar tone when discussing nationalism and Orthodoxy. It described the struggle that weakened the country as due to perversions caused by Western political and financial workings, selfish oligarchs, and Western churches’ values supplanting those of the Orthodox Church. This decade saw several churches and monasteries built in the closed-off nuclear cities with the intent of unifying the morality of the Orthodox Church with that of nuclear weapons forces.

From the Genesis Decade to the Operationalization Decade, the ROC saw its largest expansion ever—over 80 percent of Russians came to see themselves as Orthodox (p. 173). Throughout the Operationalization Decade, Patriarch Kirill sought to further expand state influence despite the separation of church and state in the Russian constitution. His stated goals became loyalty to the state regardless of who is leading it and access to all areas of life, with the ability to issue opinions regarding domestic, international, military, and economic policy. The ROC has fully established itself in the nuclear community, and the town of Sarov has become the gathering place of spiritual and scientific intellectuals for various discussions. Installations throughout the nuclear weapons enterprise were consecrated by the ROC. Military social clubs, which were co-opted by the ROC, became spiritual and patriotic centers for the force. Clerics were embedded in all organizations and were present at all levels: they were within close proximity to weapons, participated in operational exercises and combat duties, and took the responsibility of moral and spiritual guidance for the nuclear enterprise.

Adamsky lays out a compelling hypothesis but leaves the reader wondering about several key topics. First, he briefly touches on church-military relations prior to the Soviet collapse. There is no discussion of the ROC’s status during the final years of the Soviet Union—it did not suddenly emerge out of thin air but would have had some role in fighting for influence. It would have been insightful for him to discuss in an epilogue how that relationship has evolved with the other conventional military forces as well. Absent from his argument is discussion of the influence minority denominations had within nuclear weapons organizations and what implications existed if someone in the nuclear community adhered to a faith other than the Orthodox Church. Was the ROC’s influence so great that career growth opportunities for mid- to senior-level officers were limited if they followed a different denomination? Adamsky only says that the Orthodox Church worked hard to reduce the influence of other denominations. More importantly, did Putin recognize the growing influence of these non-Orthodox denominations and assist the Orthodox Church to expand his appeal to a larger Russian audience as “the defender of the Orthodox faith?” What are the implications of the Ukrainian Orthodoxy separating from the ROC for both the church and Putin’s ambitions at large in the region?

Piece originally published at H-Net Reviews under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.