The mood among Russia’s special forces and the FSB began to change dramatically in the fall, when Russian troops abandoned Kherson, suffering the latest of many humiliations for the Russian army. Suddenly, the social media channels we use to communicate with our contacts began to change, as images of religious icons flooded in, along with prayers for the victory of the Russian army and calls to pray for soldiers on the battlefield.
We’ve known most of our contacts in Russia’s special forces and the FSB for years, and none was very religious before the war. Now a wave of mysticism has descended on them; the apparent trigger is a growing understanding that the war was not to end anytime.
The higher-ups in the siloviki, the security forces, have long recognized the use of the Russian Orthodox Church as an unofficial arm of the state. In 2002, the Cathedral of St. Sophia of God’s Wisdom was reopened on Lubyanka, as the departmental church of the FSB — Patriarch Aleksey II himself blessed its opening in a ceremony attended by then FSB chief Nikolai Patrushev.
The army invited the church into the ranks in 2010, introducing the institution of military priests, or chaplains, with salaries paid by the army. The presence of the church in the military has grown ever since, culminating in the erection of the giant green church in Moscow — the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces — in 2020, the biggest Orthodox church in the country. But this cooperation has been top-down, supervised by the Kremlin and the Patriarch.
The military rank and file, and FSB personnel, remained mostly indifferent, if not overly cynical about religion. They mentioned the Russian Orthodox Church only if they talked about Russia as a besieged fortress. The unique, national spirituality provided by the faith was one of the ostensible reasons why Russia has been constantly under attack from the West, according to a conspiratorial mindset shared by many in the secret services and the army.
So the growing religious mysticism of the kind we have seen since September is completely different. This new development reflects the military demand for spiritual guidance in a very confusing war.
Guidance offered by men like Andrei Tkachev, a 53-year-old cleric now based in Moscow, where he is a confessor of the youth department of the Moscow city diocese and a popular TV personality. He was born in then-Soviet Ukraine, grew up, and studied in Lviv and Kyiv – with a short period in Moscow when he was a student at the Military Institute of the Ministry of Defense’s Faculty of Special Propaganda.
Tkachev disliked army life and returned to Lviv where he was ordained as a priest. Until the annexation of Crimea, he enjoyed a successful career in Ukraine, becoming the host of the religious TV channel “Kievan Rus.” He left Ukraine in 2014 for Moscow, and soon became one of the most aggressive anti-Ukrainian voices in the Russian Orthodox Church.
His sermons are very simple and he goes to great lengths to make them accessible, including through the use of street language. Everything the Russian army does, he defends, regardless of its morality or legality. When in November he was asked on the Spas TV channel (funded by the Russian Orthodox Church) about the Russian bombing of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, he said: “We live in the world of infrastructure, and it is much better to knock out some equipment rather than 40,000 people along with it. We are waging war according to Christian principles,” he reassured his audience, “because we are destroying transformers, not people who have an immortal soul.”
Tkachev’s thoughts are available on a wide range of social media including Telegram, Yandex, VK, and Facebook. He has 1.4 million subscribers on YouTube alone. There is no doubt the war has given him a significant boost in popularity – the channel had 870,000 subscribers in November 2021. Many of those listening to his words are in the military.
The church has made blood sacrifices for the country. The priest Anatoly Grigoriev, who was killed in September, was embedded with the troops from Tatarstan. In November, the Russian pro-war blogosphere exploded with the news that Mikhail Vasilyev, an unofficial chaplain of the Airborne Forces, had been killed. He was well-known in the army – before Ukraine, he had been deployed with troops to Kosovo, Bosnia, Abkhazia, Kyrgyzstan, the North Caucasus, and Syria. On January 22, yet another priest – Father Denis Volin (Damaskin) was killed while embedded with the Cossack regiment near Bakhmut.
The last time the post-Soviet Russian military turned to religion was in the 1990s, when the state fought another bloody war, and suffered grievous losses for reasons that were far from clear to many Russians. In 1996, during the first Chechen war, a Russian soldier called Evgeny Rodionov was taken prisoner and killed by Chechens – according to the widely shared belief — because he refused to give up his Christian faith.
A sort of religious cult emerged around Rodionov, and there was a demand to make him a martyr and a saint. Icons with Rodionov became popular, and a monument was erected, but the Russian Orthodox Church, wary of any spontaneous grassroots activities, has remained hesitant to embrace the Rodionov cult through official recognition.
Things have moved on, and the potential damage to the Russian state from its so-far dismal campaign against Ukraine is much greater. The support offered by the church is now also much greater. The church is adjusting to such an extent that it’s willing to indulge the widespread Russian belief in miracles.
Some of this is frankly bizarre. The pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, very close to the Ministry of Defense, has been promoting “Orthodox battalions” in Donbas: these units have been named after saints in the hope of decreasing military losses, and it worked, the paper reported.
At the war’s outset, the report stated, soldiers had fled from the battlefield because many were psychologically unready to fight. But when priests were called on to pray along with them, the situation changed, and the newly inspired troops went on the offensive.
The battalions began giving up their standard numbers for names. The first was the battalion Rus, but the second unit was named after Alexander Nevsky, the Russian 13th-century prince, who was canonized for his victories over German and Swedish invaders. A third unit was named the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (after a group of Roman soldiers who became martyrs for the Christian faith) and the fourth, perhaps inevitably, was named after Evgeny Rodionov.
Renamed and blessed, something strange happened. Losses began to decrease dramatically, and miraculous salvations grew. “There are no more heavy casualties,” according to the story’s headline.
In this war with Ukraine, the Church has made itself an arm of the Kremlin. It not only justifies the war but blesses the troops regardless of their behavior as it seeks to raise morale and provide a cause worth dying for, something Putin’s regime has so signally failed to do. And the more primitive and mystical it is, the better, as long as it helps the war effort.
Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov are Nonresident Senior Fellows with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). They are Russian investigative journalists, and co-founders of Agentura.ru, a watchdog of Russian secret service activities.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.