‘Theology of war’ in the Russian Orthodox tradition

19.6.2019
ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 3/2019. Since the 2000s, the church has played an increasing role in the Kremlin’s foreign policy. At the same time, concepts and arguments from secular, political speech have appeared in the rhetoric of the church, writes Boris Knorre.

In Imperial Russia, the war against Napoleon’s troops in 1812 was sometimes called the ‘holy war’. However, in general the concept of ‘holy war’ is very seldom mentioned in the rhetoric of the Russian Orthodox Church or the texts of its key thinkers. However, in Russian theological discussions on the nature and morals of war, ‘just war’ became a more established concept. Within the church, this term remained a key concept in discussions concerning war even during the Soviet era and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. An entire subchapter is dedicated to war and peace in the Socio-ethical Doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church, published in 2008. The word ‘just’ is mentioned many times in the subchapter when assessing in which cases war is ethically acceptable and what type of war is ethically acceptable. Over the past fifteen years, however, the concept of ‘holy war’ has appeared more and more frequently in the speeches and writings of representatives of the Orthodox Church and those of parties close to the church. The term can be used to refer to wars in which Russia or the Soviet Union has participated, but it is also used in theoretical discussions on good and evil, for example. Many reasons can be found for the concept becoming more common.

The Great Patriotic War has become part of the nation’s ‘holy memory’.

The increasing prevalence of the concept of ‘holy war’ is closely related to the development of the remembrance of the Second World War, or the Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia. Over the past two decades, the significance of the war has increased continuously in terms of defining national identity. The Great Patriotic War has become part of the nation’s ‘holy memory’. At the same time, a more critical evaluation of the war is perceived not only as a discussion on the interpretations of history, but also as a violation of the nation’s holiest values.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Samuel Huntington’s theory about the clash of civilisations became popular in Russia, even among Orthodox thinkers. Huntington’s theory presents the world within a framework of battles and juxtapositions. For this reason, its increasing popularity also indicates the rise of militarism in the Russian Orthodox tradition. When taken further, clashes between civilisations gain mythical proportions, becoming a battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. Sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer uses the concept of ‘cosmic war’ to describe this way of aggravating hostility by transferring it into a religious framework of interpretation, and features of this type can be found in the writings of the militant wing of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Of course, warlike rhetoric is not a new phenomenon in Russian Orthodox thinking. Examples can be found in the writings of such leading Imperial Russian and Soviet theologians as Valentin Sventsitsky and Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), as well as in the thoughts of some lesser-known theologians during the First World War. However, the increasing prevalence of the concept of ‘holy war’ is an indication of stronger militarism in the Russian Orthodox tradition, even though the Moscow Patriarchate has dismissed or demoted some representatives of the militant wing.

The change in the Orthodox Church reflects developments in Russia more extensively, with influences moving from religion to politics and vice versa. Since the 2000s, the church has played an increasing role in the Kremlin’s foreign policy. At the same time, concepts and arguments from secular, political speech have appeared in the rhetoric of the church. The Orthodox Church may provide Russian foreign policy and military operations with religious justification. At the same time, religious concepts appear in political rhetoric, in which they are given new meanings.

Boris Knorre is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Humanities and Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Studies of Civil Society and Non-Profit Sector, Higher School of Economics, Moscow. In spring 2019, he was a Visiting researcher at the Aleksanteri Institute. The visit was funded by the Academy of Finland.