On Orthodox Easter, just weeks before Russia’s seventieth Victory Day celebration, Russian Patriarch Kirill addressed scores of the faithful, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. He likened the resurrection of Christ—who, in Orthodox parlance, “trampled down death by death”—to the Russian, née Soviet, victory over the Nazis.
“When spiritual heroism becomes the substance not only of the individual but of an entire people . . . the nation acquires enormous spiritual strength, which no disasters or enemies are capable of overcoming,” he told those gathered in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. “The truth of these words is evidently attested by the Victory in the Great Patriotic War, achieved by the self-sacrificing heroism of our people.”
Kirill’s religious praise of Soviet victory is nothing new. Under Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union tried tapping into the nation’s “enormous spiritual strength” by reviving the Orthodox Church in Russia, albeit in a limited capacity. Realizing the power the church had to unite Russia and its near abroad—and seeking to bring Nazi-controlled territory back under Soviet influence, Stalin reinstated an institution he had once tried to destroy.
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Soviet policy had driven the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia to near extinction. The Church had faced systematic oppression since the rise of the Communist state in 1917. Anti-religious campaigns in the 1920s and 1930s eliminated tens of thousands of clergy and shuttered theological schools, monasteries and most churches. Aside from the state-sanctioned “living church”—founded as part of a rapprochement with the Soviet state in 1922—religious activity went underground.
Yet, the German advance into Russia saw a religious revival—not least among communities harboring anti-Soviet, pro-nationalist, or even pro-Nazi views.
The church’s transition from outcast to strategic tool began almost immediately after the Germans began moving east, when then-Acting Patriarch Sergey, the Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church and Metropolitan of Moscow, proclaimed the Church’s support for the Soviet war effort. Stalin, a former seminarian, was no fan of religion, but he sought to unify those who weren’t inspired to take up arms for the cause of Marxism-Leninism, and to eventually reorient these territories back toward Russia.
The Church gathered hundreds of thousands of rubles to fund the war effort. State agencies oversaw and sanctioned the printing of religious materials that were to be distributed in occupied territory. There were even word-of-mouth stories that religiosity had increased among soldiers, as well as one story that claims the icon of Our Lady of Kazan was put on a plane and flown around Stalingrad to celebrate the Soviet victory there.
The goal of reviving the Church was multifold. It showed the West that Russians were free to practice religion. It also provided an inclusive narrative. When church publications, such as The Truth About Religion in Russia, called for Russians to take up arms, they rarely spoke of defending the Soviet state or the Marxist-Leninist system. Rather, the war was a holy war for a fatherland that was not Soviet but Russian.
Not all were thrilled about returning to the sphere of Soviet, or even Russian, influence.
“This presented the Soviets with a problem as they recovered these territories because these churches were nationalist, non-Russian. Some of them, particularly in western Ukraine, [were] ardently Ukrainian nationalist and strongly opposed to the return of Soviet power,” Steven Merrit Miner, author of Stalin’s Holy War and a professor at Ohio University, told me. “You want to get those clergy out and replace them with people who would be more obedient. That’s what the Russian Orthodox Church did. It’s a function to some degree of re-occupation of this swath of the Soviet Union that has undergone German occupation.”
So, on September 4, 1943, Stalin summoned Orthodox authorities in the dead of night to re-institute the office of the Moscow Patriarchate, which had been vacant since Patriarch Tikhon’s death in 1925, and prior to that, since Peter the Great. Days later, thousands poured into a Moscow cathedral to see Metropolitan Sergey be named patriarch. The atheistic USSR now had a church that operated under the watchful eye of the state.
Stalin’s instrumentalization of the Church has been revived by Putin. His “Russian world” concept, which views Russia as a transnational entity unconstrained by the Federation’s borders, received the church’s imprimatur in 2009. Here, Kirill used the Kievan Rus’, the predecessor to imperial Russia, and the coming of Christianity to the region in the tenth century as evidence that Russian identity was tied to the church’s historical jurisdiction.
Putin adapted Kirill’s appeal to imbue his invasion of Ukraine with spiritual significance. Crimea, where Vladimir the Great was said to have been baptized in the 10th century, has, Putin said, sacred meaning “for Russia, like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for Jews and Muslims.”
That narrative was a sideshow—only a quarter of Russians are aware that Christianity came to the region under Vladimir the Great. Still, Putin’s rhetoric, as Mykhailo Cherenkov noted in First Things, establishes Russian Orthodoxy as the bedrock for national identity. It makes sense for Putin and the church to tie Ukraine’s Orthodox Christian community spiritually and administratively to Moscow.
“For the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, there are no other Orthodox churches—they are all impostors and schismatics,”writes Cherenkov. “The [Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate] confirmed not only its spiritual, but also its political dependence on Moscow.”
Portraying the conflict among rival Orthodox churches in Ukraine as a war against the Ukrainian people has given rise to a movement that uses language redolent of that in texts like The Truth About Religion in Russia, where “schismatics” were those acting against the will of the state. The Kremlin, then and now, is hellbent on labeling Kiev as a haven for neo-Nazis and fascists.
Even Putin’s logic is similar to that of Stalin’s in the 1940s. Tying the Church to a larger nationalist narrative allows Putin to shift the balance of power away from self-determinist movements. It makes it easier to bring “misbehaving” jurisdictions under one roof while bolstering the church’s credentials as protector of the greater Russian world’s heritage.
In the end, a little help from the Church is crucial for any “mystical victory.”
Hannah Gais is a nonresident fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association. You can follow her on Twitter @hannahgais.