As someone who is interested in all things Russian (don’t ask me why; it must be something to do with reading too many Russian novels in my youth), I am reading just now another book in the genre: The Last Man in Russia, by Oliver Bullough. It is about the life of a charismatic Orthodox priest called Fr Dmitry Dudko. As Fr Dmitry’s lifespan coincided with the advent of Communism, followed by Stalinism, the last war and its aftermath, Bullough describes his life against this backdrop.
One of the aspects of Orthodoxy that the book throws light on is the deeply compromised position of the Orthodox Church under Communism. After a brutal persecution of the Church in the 1920s and 30s, Stalin allowed it to be “reinstated” in 1943 for his own cynical purposes. Bullough writes that Stalin’s restoration “was marked by the almost complete penetration of the hierarchy by the security organs”.
I thought of this highly dubious relationship between Church and state when I happened to pick up an article on Russia in the Telegraph for Tuesday, May 28. Written by Yulia Ponomareva and entitled “On a wing and a prayer: the priests who skydive for God and mother Russia”, it describes President Putin’s recent moves to put “traditional Orthodox values” at the heart of his administration’s policy since his return to the Kremlin last year. Alongside increased defence spending Putin has expanded the numbers of army chaplains – now almost 1,000 –who serve with Russia’s armed forces. The chaplains’ mission is to boost soldiers’ morale and “reinforce a sense of patriotic duty in society” as Putin seeks to build support for his conservative coalition and against his numerous critics.
So are the chaplains simply the religious arm of Putin’s political strategy, used as tools for social control? According to Fr Mikhail Vasilyev, aged 41 and a veteran chaplain, his own aim is “to help as many soldiers as possible to get into the Kingdom of Heaven”. This sounds properly spiritual and laudable, as do his other goals: “to fight sin and bad language”. But there are also some alarming aspects to the training prospective chaplains undergo: they take 2-month courses in which they learn to load and fire a rifle, work as a tank gunner, drive an armoured personnel carrier and use a flamethrower. Surely these are not necessary chaplaincy skills? The chaplains also bless military kit from ships to rockets with holy water.
According to Fr Vasilyev, “The Church blesses the use of these weapons for defence of the weak, not for conquest.” This sounds very dodgy. One of the scandals for those outside Christianity has been to witness just this kind of collusion between the military, especially in times of war, and men whose lives are supposedly dedicated to non-violence. To look after the souls of soldiers is one thing; they need just as much spiritual care as ordinary civilians, if not more so – Fr Vasilyev remarks that servicemen “often turn to God in the face of danger”; but to actively participate in the possibility of killing the enemy – surely this goes beyond the call of religious duty?
Although I like the sound of Fr Vasilyev, who wants to keep his servicemen “from turning into beasts”, I remain suspicious of President Putin’s motives for this seeming upsurge in his Orthodox piety.