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Putin's Christian Nationalism
The revisionist history of Russia that could trigger nuclear war
As the first shipments of modern, Western tanks roll into Ukraine ahead of expected spring and summer offensives, many hope that this year Ukrainian gains and pressure from Western sanctions will push Russia to the bargaining table. These hopes are likely to be dashed. Even if we overcome every logistical difficulty in delivering the tanks in a timely manner, their introduction could have the opposite of the West’s intended effect. Instead of ending the conflict, upping the ante may well provoke the transformation of Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialist “special military operation” into a holy war. A version of Christian nationalism ascendant in elite Russian circles seems to have motivated the invasion, and we have good reason to think that it could motivate Putin to push his military to the limit—even to the point of deploying tactical nuclear weapons. We can counter this twisted religious ideology most effectively through humanitarian aid and continued severe, targeted economic sanctions, not the transfer of modern offensive weapons to Ukraine.
Explaining how Putin’s Russian Orthodox Christian nationalism could affect the course of the war requires some context. After all, those who personally remember Soviet atheism may be perplexed by the news that Russian Christian nationalism exists at all. Yet in 2019 Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church and a staunch Putin ally, said that three new churches were being built in Russia every day and 9,386 in the 10 years before that. All this construction happened despite increasingly vocal opposition from the populace, which resented that the powers-that-be often chose to build these churches on green spaces and in public areas. While 81 percent of Russians consider themselves Orthodox by identity, a fraction of those people actually believe Orthodox doctrine and a fraction of that number warm a pew on any given Sunday. Only six percent of Russians attend church several times per month, and that number appears to be shrinking.
Whence all the church construction then? You have probably already guessed the answer. Among the nouveau rich in the Kremlin-connected circles, belief—or at least the culture of belief—is all the rage. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the national identity crisis that followed in the 1990s, onion domes and icons rather quickly displaced Brutalist architecture as the face of Russia. Oligarchs and ambitious businessmen began donating large sums to the church, purchasing relics from abroad, and booking trips to Mount Athos in Greece and other holy sites. In the 2000s big business and companies vying for government contracts got in on the act. Kirill, who fostered many of these connections in the 1990s and 2000s as the church’s Chairman of the Department of External Relations, became a force in Russian politics, particularly after his enthronement as Moscow patriarchate in 2009. Amidst the unnerving political and economic uncertainties of the 1990s, he concerned himself most with the military, above all with the branches responsible for the development and deployment of nuclear weapons. His efforts paid off. Military clergy were introduced and rapidly gained influence and chapels and churches were built for servicemen. As faith-signaling came into vogue in the military and among the well-connected, the media also warmed to the new fashion. The feeling that Moscow had succeeded Rome and Byzantium as the seat of Christendom spread even among Russians who rarely darkened the door of a church.
Putin himself played a major role in these developments after winning election in 2000. His personal confessor, a Moscow-based monk and bishop, became widely known, and the president himself took numerous pilgrimages to Mount Athos, the Holy Land, and sites within Russia; most of these trips drew major coverage from state-controlled media. For Putin, Orthodoxy filled a need at once personal and national. Like the tsars before him, church authorities legitimated his autocratic grip on the country and, still more importantly, provided a founding narrative for him and the Russian people that supported their nation’s unique—indeed, messianic—role in the world.
Grasping the logic of this purportedly providential history is indispensable if we want to understand both Putin’s mindset and the dangers ahead. While doing so, however, we would do well to recall the old Soviet joke often told by British political scientist Mark Galeotti: “Russia is a country with a certain future; it is only its past that is unpredictable.” Putin’s way of remembering history, in other words, serves his political ends. But that hardly means that he approaches his nation’s past cynically. In fact, Russia would never have invaded Ukraine had Putin himself not been devoted to this revisionist and Christian nationalist line. If that seems like a brash claim, read Putin’s 5,000-word essay published the summer before the invasion. A year into the war, the title alone should convince all but the most sclerotic sceptic: “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” Ukraine, Putin thinks, is not a real nation. It always has been and therefore always should be part of Russia.
The ex-KGB man believes this first and foremost because of a baptism. Vladimir the Great, Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Kyiv, was baptized in 988 CE at Chersonesus in Crimea. Kievan Rus’, a predecessor state to both Ukraine and Russia, had existed for more than a century as a pagan state before Vladimir came to power. Now the elite began to be baptized as Christians, creating what would one day become the most powerful Orthodox church outside Byzantium. So, Putin argues, Ukrainians and Russians were “bound together” from the beginning by “the Orthodox faith.”
Putin and his allies often articulate Russian civil religion in much broader terms to accommodate nonbelievers and Russia’s large Muslim minority. But for the Orthodox majority, this baptism is fundamental. When decoded, it conveys messages as general as “God has a special relationship with Russia” or as specific as “God intended Russia and Ukraine to be one nation” or even “In giving Russia Kyiv and Ukraine, God intended Russia to be a European power and a great geopolitical power.”
But a closer look at the history creates intractable problems for this story. Prince Vladimir himself—who, it is worth noting, Ukrainians call Volodymyr—was neither a Russian nor a Ukrainian. He was a Viking. When Vladimir was baptized, Kyiv had already existed for half a millennium, but Moscow, which would become the seed of the Russian empire, would not be founded for another 150 years. Further, Vladimir’s baptism was a purely political matter. The baptism that Russians often call the “baptism of Rus’” was done with the understanding that the Byzantine Emperor would give Vladimir his sister in marriage; it also happened after he first led pagan attempts to suppress the new faith. The so-called baptism of Rus’ was not the baptism of Russia.
Subsequent medieval history helps Putin’s case for the unity of Ukraine and Russia even less. Crimea—both the site of the 988 CE baptism and the strategically critical Black Sea peninsula that Russia invaded in 2014—has had numerous rulers, but until recent centuries precisely none of them were Russian. Kievan Rus’ claimed but never controlled Crimea. Genghis Khan and the Golden Horde swept through the area in the late 13th century, but the khans’ political influence remained. The Crimean Khanate’s people raided Russian lands for centuries, and their faith was Muslim rather than Orthodox. When Russia finally came to control Crimea through negotiations with the declining Ottoman Empire and the hated khanate ceased to exist, it was the eve of the French Revolution.
The thought that Crimea was originally Russian is therefore a modern innovation. But to say so in today’s Russia amounts to heresy. To be sure, obsession with Crimea involves more than this: for example, lust for its Black Sea deep water port and elite vacation spots. But today it almost always also involves a passionate Christian nationalism, above all the sort that claims the so-called baptism of Rus’ as its origin story. Crimea must be Russian, such Orthodox nationalists feel, because the nation was born there. Putin’s essay fits this pattern exactly.
Christian nationalism also moved Putin to take special note of the year 1649. That is the year, he writes, that Zaporozhian Cossacks, a tribal and semi-stateless people of Orthodox faith living in southern Ukraine, appealed to Moscow for help in dealing with religious persecution permitted by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He sees this appeal as the unification of Orthodox kindred who were once one people within Kievan Rus’, and, in fact, he gets all this history basically right—other than the fact that these Cossacks were most certainly not Russian. For centuries they fought for whomever would give them the better political deal. Occasionally that meant fighting against Russia, especially after the Tsar got control of their land. They appealed to Moscow in 1649 because at that time the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth dominated the region, and they needed a military and political counterweight. An alliance with Russia served that purpose. Annexation by Russia, which came a generation after the alliance, was greeted not with gratitude for the gift of religious freedom, but by violent resistance.
Putin has here made the same move with Crimea he made with Kyiv; astonishingly, he tries it again with Lithuania. He refers to early Lithuania as Lithuanian Rus’ and writes that their faith was Orthodox, thereby creating the sense that they and the areas that were under their control (including Ukraine) are also somehow Russian. In truth, the faith of the Lithuanian elite was pagan longer than anywhere else in Europe, and, along with the Ottomans, they were Russia’s main geopolitical rival for centuries. Notice what has happened. For Putin the Orthodox faith is functioning to bring European nations under the Russian banner.
In 1686 Russia finally got ahold of northeastern Ukraine and the city of Kyiv, 700 years after Putin believes the Russian and Ukrainian peoples originated as one people. On the cusp of becoming an empire, Russian ambitions were rapidly growing, and possession of the ancient city of Kyiv gave them a foothold in Europe. “The incorporation of the western Russian lands into the single state,” Putin writes, “was not merely the result of political and diplomatic decisions. It was underlain by the common faith, shared cultural traditions, and … language similarity.” To translate Putin from politico-speak into straight talk, the Orthodox faith shared by Ukrainians and Russians justified the taking of Kyiv by force. After all, religion along with tradition and language is the glue that holds peoples together; spiritually speaking, this ancient city’s inhabitants were Russian whatever their rulers said at the time.
But that glue never had the strength Russian Christian nationalists like to believe. Crimean Tatars and their Muslim faith, Uniate Catholics who looked to Rome rather than Constantinople, and much of western Ukraine were far from fully Russified when tensions began rising in the late 19th century between the Austrian Hapsburgs and Moscow. This is why in the years before World War I the Hapsburgs, then rulers of southwest Ukraine, could hamstring Russia by allowing and even nurturing Ukrainian nationalism. Why did they think stoking pro-Ukrainian sentiment in their own territories would make the same thing happen in Russian-controlled territory? Because they knew there was already Ukrainian national feeling there to nurture.
The Soviets too recognized Ukrainian nationality, which is why Stalin prioritized Ukrainization. That term meant encouraging local officials to speak Ukrainian, teaching Ukrainian history, and generally supporting Ukrainian culture. Putin claims that this misguided Soviet policy “played a major role in the development and consolidation of the Ukrainian culture, language, and identity,” that the Soviets disrupted the unity of Russia and Ukraine that existed under the Tsars. But the Soviets had no reason to develop nationalisms that did not already exist. Putin’s narrative about Stalin’s Ukraine policy is one more just-so story; its shape is determined by the moral that Ukraine and Russia are one.
We should keep in mind, however, that this narrative functions not just to rationalize a land grab, but to make sense of Russia’s place in the post-Soviet world. The narrative works so well because it binds Russian national identity inextricably to Orthodox religion. That is not an indictment of Russian Orthodoxy as a whole, but a description of how Orthodoxy functions within the Russian nationalist story. As all civil religions do, Orthodoxy gives the Russian nationalist story divine imprimatur. It inculcates faith in the nation’s transcendent goodness primarily through stories of providential intervention at critical points in the nation’s history. Such collective “memories” create national identity and counteract other stories that might inculcate disloyalty—which means that preservation of faith in those stories and the forging of new ones is quite literally a matter of national security.
We could hardly ask for a clearer example than the years immediately before and after the collapse of the USSR. Even before glasnost (openness), Orthodoxy began moving to fill the void in Russian national identity left by Communism. In 1988 the thousand-year anniversary of the baptism of Rus’ became a major national event throughout the Soviet Union. After Gorbachev’s resignation of the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Orthodox hierarchy moved quickly to forge relationships with major institutions, particularly the military. History suddenly became quite unpredictable. Various myths arose that claimed Stalin himself and other major figures from the Great Patriotic War (World War II) were secretly Orthodox. Major publications argued that God’s miraculous intervention and the people’s faith held back the Nazis from Moscow and later Stalingrad. As the decade went on, many Russian elite began to feel that to go forward they must go back, back to the hand and glove relationship the church often had with the tsar before the Bolsheviks. Being a good Orthodox and being a good Russian, it was increasingly felt, amounted to the same thing.
A talk Kirill, who then had the title of metropolitan, gave to the mostly non-Christian senior commanders of Commonwealth of Independent States armed forces in 1994 shows us the way the wind was blowing. He argued that the church had a responsibility to provide not just ethical guidance for individual officers and conscripts, but a moral groundwork for the military as a whole. Then he brought up the baptism of 988 CE. He did this, Dmitry Adamsky writes, to emphasize “the importance of the faith-based geopolitical solidary of the thousand-year-old communality of nations.” “What will happen,” Kirill asked, “if father and son swear an oath of allegiance to different states? What will happen if [Russia and Ukraine], God forbid, decide to resolve their issues with arms?” Avoiding war would necessarily involve strengthening Orthodoxy as part of both countries’ national identity.
But consider what would happen if his listeners adopted Kirill’s vision. The head of the Ukrainian church was then the patriarch in Moscow. There was no separate Ukrainian church. There was only the Russian church, and that meant for Kirill that a fundamental part of Ukrainian national identity must be its spiritual orientation toward Russia. The man who would become patriarch is only a short step away from saying that to avoid war Ukraine must be unified (spiritually and culturally if not politically) with Russia.
An implicit threat of aggression lurked here no matter what the West or NATO did. Discussion of Ukraine’s value to imperial powers often focuses on its Black Sea ports, rich farmland (hence the nickname “the breadbasket of Europe”), or heavy industry in the Eastern provinces. But Kirill never mentions these, and today Putin’s obsession with Ukraine seems mostly unconnected to such economic and military advantages. Rather, it involves Vladimir the Great’s baptism and the Russian national myths that later grew up around it. Since 1991, the Russian church has sought to connect “Holy Rus’” and “Russian civilization’s values” in the national consciousness, and they seem to have succeeded. Before the Bolsheviks took power, Orthodox civil religion served to buttress a tsar’s imperial government. Now we have a new tsar, one as devoted or more to the nationalist Orthodox narrative than the tsars of old. Ukraine going its own way would mean the disintegration of the story he and many in his nation now live by.
All this makes intelligible the Russian response to a recent painful affair within the larger Orthodox church. In January 2019 Patriarch Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch, allowed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to separate from the Russian Orthodox church and made it accountable to his church in Constantinople (Istanbul) instead. The Russian church immediately severed ties with the other Orthodox churches, initiating the greatest schism among Christians in more than 300 years. The wider church had effectively dismissed Russia’s claim to Ukraine; Russia and its church could either let go of Ukraine and their Christian nationalist narrative or dismiss the rest of the body of Christ. They chose the latter.
Few in the West have considered the role the 2019 schism played in Putin’s decision to invade, but if his essay is any clue, it was hardly negligible. Putin may be prepared to absorb hundreds of thousands more Russian casualties and a catastrophic economic contraction because this war, as he said in February, is about “the preservation of Russia.” He sees it as a fight for the nation’s soul. We cannot expect the introduction of Western tanks to seriously change that calculus. This is why Western policymakers should believe the normally cautious Putin willing to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to keep a foothold in Ukraine, particularly if Ukrainian forces jeopardize his hold on Crimea. If he does give such an order, we should expect it to be carried out.
Two reasons for this come to mind: the fundamental role of nuclear weapons in Putin’s view of Russian defense and the influence of Orthodoxy within the culture of nuclear officers and developers. After a 2007 speech, a journalist asked Putin about the places of Orthodoxy and nuclear weapons in Russia. A murmur of laughter ran through the room when he responded that the “themes were closely interlinked.” The rest of his answer, however, made it clear that he was quite serious.
Traditional confessions and the nuclear shield are those components that strengthen Russian statehood and create the necessary preconditions for providing the state’s internal and external security. Therefore, a clear conclusion can be drawn, about how the state should relate, today and in the future, to the one and to the other.
Here, Adamsky writes, Putin had “communicated his credo.” Orthodoxy provides the cultural and ideological foundation for the state, what he calls its internal security. The nuclear program complements Orthodoxy by providing external security, the ultimate military trump card that every other nation on the planet knows Russia possesses. One can draw Putin’s “clear conclusion” only by realizing these “themes were closely interlinked”: that a nuclear response is called for when an external power tries to destroy Russia’s internal security as defined by Orthodoxy. Crimea’s central role in Russian Christian nationalism should lead us to expect a nuclear response if Ukrainian forces launch a successful offensive against Sevastopol or cut off Russian forces in Crimea from the Russian mainland.
The nuclear forces will be ready. Nationalist Russian Orthodoxy, like American civil religion, has always made saints out of those who defend the fatherland, and in the post-Soviet era of Russian weakness, the nation’s nuclear arsenal became critical in the national psyche. Not surprisingly, then, the nuclear branch is today the most aggressively consecrated and catechized branch in the entire armed forces. The Soviets established a major nuclear research facility in the old Sarov Monastery 300 miles east of Moscow that housed the relics of Saint Seraphim Sarovsky. They did so in part to wipe out the memory of this saint. Putin kept them there to do the opposite; Sarovsky became the patron saint of Russian nuclear weapons developers, who often note that Seraphim in Hebrew means “burning ones.” Their work to defend Russia, it is felt, is nothing short of holy.
Because they face such an enemy, Ukraine and its NATO allies find themselves with a terrible choice. Either Ukraine decides to let Crimea and the eastern provinces go (and hope Putin agrees), or they and their allies prepare for a long war. Putin has shown himself willing to sacrifice human life, including that of his own citizens, to protect his idea of Russia. He has already done so on a massive scale. Using a nuclear weapon would cross no new line other than the so-called nuclear taboo, and, in a situation where the international community was against him and his back was against the wall, he would have little incentive to restrain himself. Far right nationalist voices who blame Putin for Russian humiliations at the hands of the Ukrainians may push him to push the nuclear button more quickly than he otherwise would. The introduction of German, British, and American tanks will only hasten such a critical moment.
A better path, though one that will require far more patience and sacrifice, is to withhold the tanks and other powerful offensive weapons but continue to ban Russia from use of the SWIFT code system that facilitates international financial transfers, hold the line on sanctions while incentivizing nations like India to join us, and continue to provide humanitarian aid. The Biden Administration should also extend Temporary Protective Status (TPS) for Ukraine, a program that helps nationals of war-torn and disaster-ravaged countries stay in the United States, a program set to expire on October 19. These measures aim to isolate Russia and expedite its catastrophic brain drain and economic collapse, and we should communicate our reasoning for doing so—and our willingness to reverse course if their troops leave Ukraine—directly to the Russian people through social media. Then we can hope that over time a more scripturally moored politics takes root in the Russian church and the demonic Orthodox Christian nationalist narrative that led to this invasion begins to fracture.
If, by contrast, we are hell-bent to have Russia pay “an eye for an eye,” there will not be much of Ukraine left to save.