Last Friday, at the Harriman Institute, Dr. Dima Adamsky headlined a lecture and discussion on the actions and contributions of the Russian Orthodox Church during the war between Russia and Ukraine.

The war between Russia and Ukraine is one that has drawn the attention of the entire world and has gone far past Russia’s initial invasion plans. Instead of a quick and easy operation, the conflict has gone on for a year, and experts do not predict a resolution in the near future. Last Friday, on the one-year anniversary of the invasion, a small crowd gathered in the Harriman Institute’s seminar room on the 12th floor of the International Affairs Building to honor Ukraine and discuss the state of the war.

The talk and discussion focused on one facet of the operation: the role of the Russian Orthodox Church. The event consisted of a lecture from Dr. Dmitry Adamsky, a professor at Reichman University and a renowned expert on the subject, followed by a Q&A and general discussion. Adamsky, also an author, incorporated ideas from his recent book Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy and upcoming work The New Commissars. With his research on the church’s role still being a work in progress, the lecture centered on the phenomenon and Adamsky’s hypothesis, rather than any firm conclusions.

The lecture began by discussing the “model of cooperation” between the church, state, and military that has been constructed in Russia. This relationship first became prevalent during the 2015 Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war, where the Kremlin and the church cooperated in order to accomplish a number of objectives. The church was expected to establish domestic control (garner public support at home), engage in diplomacy (communicate with foreign countries and organizations), and contribute to the military (give a sense of purpose to the troops and improve their “combat effectiveness”). On the front, members of the church held prayers, organized observances, and were assigned to help soldiers deal with issues such as moral conflicts and PTSD. In Ukraine, the church played a similar role, but the situation led to complexities that were not previously relevant.

In Syria, the propaganda fed to Russian soldiers was fairly simple. They were told by the state that their mission was to prevent terrorism from spreading to Russia, and told by the church that they were protecting Christianity on a global scale. The case was not so in Ukraine. The conflict and invasion there occurred not on a foreign front, but against a neighboring country filled by people of the same Slavic ethnicity and faith. The church was once again designated to help the Russian government avert many of the issues that came with such a conflict.

Much of the church’s work came in the form of framing the situation so that Russian soldiers would be willing to die for the cause. Regular sermons and various types of propaganda spread the idea that the war was “the forces of light versus the forces of evil,” and encouraged notions of martyrdom, telling soldiers that fighting and potentially dying for their country would be “repentance” for their sins. These concepts, not present in Syria, are partially due to the war’s nature. Although the Russian state is buying weapons from other countries, such as Iran, it is favorable for the government to describe the conflict as “Russia against the world.”

Aside from this “education” and propaganda that the church performs, the clergy continues their work in other sectors. Diplomacy, which previously focused on foreign governments, is now targeted toward religious organizations, reconciling the schism that has formed with the other Orthodox churches. The Russian church also provides a channel of communication, allowing soldiers to contact families, in an attempt to keep morale higher. At home, the church encourages what Adamsky calls “militaristic religious folklore,” pieces of media that frame Russia as fulfilling its historic role of fighting against the Western world. This media includes overtly patriotic and nationalistic music by artists such as Shaman, and even has artists sing in Ukrainian in order to promote the notion that Russia is a “free country.”

Once again, the church has also sent priests to the conflict itself. With about 100 priests being rotated through the units, this system, which was originally only a venture of the church, is now supported by the state. The Russian government has raised the military ranks of the clergy to the highest they have been since the time of the czar. This development showcases Russia’s adaptations as being thoroughly supported by the orthodox patriarchy. Adamsky, based on this evidence, preliminarily believes that the role of the clergy and the church in Russia’s military is extremely likely to grow, although he plans to investigate this matter further in the coming months.

After the talk ended, during the Q&A and discussion section, Adamsky revealed some additional pieces of evidence that support his hypothesis. It has recently been seen that the church is supporting the state’s nuclear credibility. The military, for all of its tactical mishaps and disorganization, still possesses the most nuclear weapons on Earth. The more likely they are to use them, the more other nations are forced to respect this power. The church has enhanced this credibility, using coercive signaling and other forms of warnings to solidify Russia’s position. Adamsky also showed a clip of a conversation between Putin and a monk known as Kyprian. Kyprian, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, as well as the last person to be awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, is a religious figure who has not made many public appearances. The significance of him being in the Kremlin is immense. Adamsky believes that the Russian government may be setting him up as the Kremlin’s official clergy member, a position that has not existed before.

On the whole, Adamsky’s evidence and hypothesis are compelling, but what does this mean for the future? That is a question to which experts do not yet have a conclusive answer. Nonetheless, Russia’s adaptations and the church’s involvement indicate to Adamsky and other researchers that the end to the brutal conflict is unfortunately nowhere in sight.

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