The widely publicized trial of Pussy Riot has brought a great deal of attention to the role played by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in setting state policy in Russia. In the last few years, the church has sought a role in shaping the Russian military as well. The extent to which it has succeeded in this endeavor is made clear in two recent articles in VPK.
Back in July 2009, President Medvedev announced that the position of chaplain would be introduced into the Russian military. This announcement was the culmination of a long campaign by the ROC. The military side of this history is well-described by Dale Herspring and Roger McDermott in their 2010 Problems of Post-Communism article [gated]. Since their article was written, the military has gone about implementing the directive.
Officially, of course, the position of chaplain does not belong exclusively to the ROC. Chaplains can be appointed from any of the four religions “officially recognized” by the Russian government (Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism). And in fact, there are Muslim chaplains and I think Jewish ones as well. (I haven’t seen reports of Buddhist chaplains, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any) But it seems to me that these are just window dressing.
As part of this effort, the military has established a directorate for work with believers serving in the military. Any unit in which 10% of those serving (both soldiers and officers) are considered believers may have a chaplain appointed. At the same time, the ROC is actively working to ensure that beliefs other than those of the four recognized religions are not actively practiced in the military. This concerns especially non-Orthodox Christian faiths, including Catholicism and Protestantism. In one of the VPK articles, Sergei Ivaneev argues that ROC chaplains are also actively engaged in fomenting dislike of atheists and non-believers among those serving in the military.
The article by Viacheslav Kotkov makes it clear that the goal is to inculcate an “Orthodox spirit in the spiritual-patriotic education” of those serving in the military and in this way to strengthen discipline in the Russian military. The goal of the chaplain is not to establish discipline directly, but to provide moral teaching for the soldiers. Ivaneev, on the other hand, believes that the chaplains are actually engaged in missionary activity and religious propaganda among a population that is forbidden from avoiding such teaching because of military discipline.
The ROC’s efforts to incorporate its beliefs into military education have not stopped with its success in having a chaplaincy service established. It is now seeking to have theology incorporated as a subject in Russian military academies. The Strategic Rocket Forces military academy now has a faculty of Orthodox culture, where students are “familiarized with the Orthodox worldview and religious approaches to family life, society, and the state.” In many cases, the students attend these courses with their wives and girlfriends.
I wonder to what extent military chaplains will work in improving discipline in the military. It seems to me that a functioning NCO corps and the introduction of military police will do much more for military discipline than the presence of chaplains ever could. The chaplaincy effort seems to be much more a part of the ROC’s effort to establish itself as Russia’s official church and infiltrate various government structures.
Dmitry Gorenburg is a Senior Analyst at CNA blogging for PONARS Eurasia on military and security affairs in Russia and Eurasia. This comment is also available on Russian Military Reform.