The Diverging Paths of Orthodoxy

by Theodore Theophilos

The following is a review of Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy, a study of the role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in shaping the nuclear arms program for the Russian Federation written by Dmitry Adamsky and published by Stanford University Press (2019). 

I approached this surprisingly accessible book with perhaps a unique perspective. I have no background in the complexities and horrifying potentialities of nuclear weapons and the political policies behind their creation and use. My interest in this book was to explore two quickly diverging paths of Orthodoxy. One path is that of the statist—the Church in a collaborative relationship with government in the “Byzantine model.” The other path is that of the stateless—the Church existing in a polity but in a pre-Constantine relationship with government. In his analysis of the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the Russian nuclear defense community, Professor Adamsky chronicles the alarming merger of the missions of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Federation and its nuclear armed forces.

Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy analyzes the relationship between the ROC and the Russian armed forces in three evolving periods: the Genesis Decade (1991-2000); the Conversion Decade (2000-2010); and the Operationalization Period (2010-2020). Each of these decades is reviewed from three perspectives: State-Church Relations; Faith-Nuclear Nexus; and Strategic Mythmaking.

Icon of St. Barbara
Icon of St. Barbara, intercessor for those at risk of imminent death. Declared by Patriarch Alexey as the patron saint of the Russian Strategic Mission Missile Forces (RVSN). A huge icon of the saint (a gift from the Moscow Patriarch) was hung at the Central Command Post above the display showing the readiness of mobile missile and silo launchers – next to a clock showing the time in Washington, DC. All of the subordinate missile centers in the RVSN display icons of St. Barbara.

The story begins with the break-up of the Soviet Union. During the early 1990s the Russian nuclear weapons community had fallen on hard times. Funding for programs was wiped out.  Scientists and members of the nuclear community were living on subsistence wages and suffering the contempt of the civilian population—weary from Chernobyl and the Afghan war.  The Russian Patriarch enters this scene of collapse via a most unlikely path. During the Soviet period the epicenter of Russian nuclear development was a closed city called Arzamas-16. This town was known before the Russian Revolution as Sarov, the home of the famous Russian Orthodox ascetic, Saint Seraphim Sarovsky. In an effort to wipe out the memory of St. Seraphim, the Bolsheviks had turned the Diveevo Monastery into a munitions factory. In the 1940s the principal nuclear weapons design bureau (KB-11) was located on the spot that was St. Seraphim’s hermit cell. In 1991 Patriarch Alexey led a procession with the newly discovered relics of St. Seraphim and brought the relics back to Sarov. It was on that occasion that the Moscow Patriarchate committed to using its growing influence to support the Russian nuclear weapons community. During the “Genesis Decade,” a common narrative was developed—just as Russia relied on its nuclear defense systems it also relied on Orthodoxy for defense of its cultural identity. Both shared common ideological and military enemies: the United States of America and the West. The raison d’etre for the Russian nuclear program was to be a defensive shield against American aggression. The Russian Orthodox call to arms was to stand up against the evils of Western secularism and the principles of liberal democracy foisted on the world by the West with its obsessive fixation on the rule of law and “so-called” human rights.

In the “Conversion Decade,” the nascent narrative fostered by the Moscow Patriarchate was embraced in the year 2000 by the newly appointed Vladimir Putin and further developed into a unifying national ideal: “Nuclear Orthodoxy.” The scientists who ushered in Russian atomic age were dubbed “Apostles of the Atomic Age.” Saint Seraphim inspired these scientists as evidenced by the extremely brief period it took the Soviets to get nuclear weapons.  To ensure that the narrative of “Nuclear Orthodoxy” was inculcated into the nuclear armed forces, a cadre of Orthodox priests were assigned to nuclear weapons units. The clergymen catechized the military, consecrated their weapons systems and participated with recruits on training exercises. To support the education of the clerics the ROC published books to strengthen the narrative such as: Faith and Fidelity (2005), The Christ-Loving Warriors: Orthodox Tradition in the Russian Military (2006), and Science of Victory: Faith and Fatherland (2008).

In the “Operationalization Decade,” the ROC became an active foreign policy player advancing the concept of “Nuclear Orthodoxy” abroad by orienting the local churches affiliated with Moscow to view the West as the common enemy.  Russia was the military and theological shield against liberalism and the decadence of the United States. The ROC integrated this concept with its assertion that Moscow was the Third Rome and the only true light to the world. The developments during this period raise several questions. Among these questions was the impact of the ROC’s integration into the “chain of command” and the possible break down of civilian control of nuclear weapons deployment.  Now that the ROC has embedded itself in the nuclear command structure, what happens if the ROC disagreed with the decisions of a weakened civilian authority.  Another unanswered question related to certain perverse currents in Orthodox eschatology. As an illustration, Professor Adamsky quotes an influential Russian journalist: “Orthodoxy is…a religion of the Second Coming. The peculiarity of the Russian way in Orthodoxy is the quest to make Rus witness to the Second Coming, to bring its existence to such an eschatological threshold, where it meets its Savior… For Russia, nuclear weapons are the guarantee…that at the moment of the Second Coming the worldly Rus and the heavenly Rus will indeed meet and that the existence of the worldly Rus will not be terminated ahead of time. Thus, the development of nuclear weapons…serves for Russia as a material guarantee of success in…a spiritual age, inherited from the saint fathers, in particular St. Seraphim…We have no way but Nuclear Orthodoxy.”

Theodore Theophilos is a member of Holy Apostles Church in Westchester, Illinois and a former Chair of the legal committee for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.