Nuclear Weapons: What Does Russian Orthodox Church and Its Top Parishioner Believe?

Russian Mobile ICBM Parade File Photo

(Russia Matters – russiamatters.org – RM Staff – Aug. 3, 2022)

This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed in his written address to the Tenth Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that he “believe[s] that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, and we stand for equal and indivisible security for all members of the world community.” Interestingly enough, there was no such coupling in Putin’s address to the previous NPT Review Conference in 2015. In fact, “indivisible security,” which has become one of the Kremlin’s favorite principles when expressing grievances vis-à-vis the West, was absent from that 2015 address. Perhaps this new coupling indicates that Putin wants the world to know that according to Russia, preventing nuclear war should be indivisible from ensuring that no country can enhance its own security at Russia’s expense. If so, that would not be inconsistent with Putin’s and his team’s efforts to implicitly threaten the use of nuclear weapons over the West’s assistance to Ukraine.

It would, perhaps, be just as interesting to know what Putin, as a practicing member of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), may believe when it comes to nuclear war. For clues on that, one can read Dmitry Adamsky’s profound “Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy” volume. Or one can skim the statements on the issue, gathered below, made by the ROC’s leadership and Putin’s apparent confessor. These statements, gathered from various sources, indicate that the ROC has nothing quite as extensive, long and thoughtful as the Catholic Church’s just war theory in general or Catholics’ views on nuclear weapons. Overall, if these statements (and blessings) are any guide, the ROC appears to be significantly more tolerant of nuclear weapons than the Catholic Church.

Incumbent Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’ and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church (2008-present), Kirill, on nuclear weapons and their use/nonuse:

  • Kirill said in 2009: “Today, the weapons that are being developed in Sarov constitute a deterrence factor. We must strive for a world without weapons, but we should do so in a way that will ensure that this desire does not destroy … our country, so that we retain the opportunity to remain a sovereign state.”
  • Kirill said in 2022: “As for relations between the East and West, we are all interested in, of course, maintaining peace, so that the formidable and destructive weapons that are available today … will never be put into action.” Kirill was also quoted as saying that a war today could entail the end of human history and that the availability of nuclear weapons can turn conflicts into a global tragedy.

Kirill’s predecessor Alexy II (1999-2008) on nuclear weapons and their use/nonuse:

  • Alexy II (served as the patriarch from 1990 till his death in 2008) in 1996 co-organized a conference titled “Nuclear Weapons and Russian National Security.” He and then-Metropolitan (and future patriarch) Kirill orchestrated the event. “Their opening statements, which dubbed the nuclear weapons specialists ‘the eremites’ (podvizhniki), proclaimed its credo: to assist the nuclear complex in overcoming the most pressing problems, to ensure its influence in national security policy, and to cultivate a respectful image of it among the Russian public,” according to Israeli scholar Dmitry Adamsky.1
  • Alexy II said in 1996 during a forum on nuclear weapons: “All sensible people believed and continue to believe that the unrestrained arms race must be stopped. But at the same time, we must pursue a sober approach towards the surrounding reality. We all will have to live side by side with nuclear weapons, which play an essential role in ensuring security, for a long time to come.”
  • Alexy II said (undated): “We need to strive for the speedy conclusion of treaties on the prohibition of nuclear, chemical and bacteriological weapons.”
  • Alexy II said in 2007: “In Sarov, which is the cradle of the nuclear weapons complex, an all-Russian shrine was restored—the world’s first cathedral of St. Seraphim of Sarov. So let him from now on be the heavenly patron of all of you and the nuclear weapons complex as a whole… I pray to the Lord and to Seraphim of Sarov so that the nuclear weapons, which are being created and entrusted to you, will always be in the hands of God and remain only a weapon of deterrence and retribution.”
  • Alexy II wrote in 2007: “I heartily congratulate you on the 60th anniversary of the founding of the 12th Main Directorate of the Ministry of Defense—the main structure of the Russian nuclear weapons complex! At the cost of considerable sacrifices, your selfless work has made it possible to successfully solve a set of tasks related to maintaining the nuclear potential of all branches and arms of the Armed Forces at a level that reliably guarantees the military-strategic security of Russia and the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States.”
    • Vsevold Chaplin, who served as chairman of the Synodal Department for the Cooperation of Church and Society of the Moscow Patriarchate under Alexy II, wrote in 2007: “Any weapon, especially a nuclear weapon, is evil. But this evil, alas, is inevitable in a world corrupted by sin, where, until the second coming of the Lord, there will be a struggle for power, clashes between peoples.”

Putin’s apparent confessor, Metropolitan of Pskov and Porkhov Tikhon (Shevkunov), on nuclear weapons and their use/nonuse:

  • Tikhon—who has reportedly received 20 billion rubles (some $327 million) from authorities and state-owned companies in Putin’s Russia for his projects – appeared to praise Stalin for overseeing the creation of a Soviet nuclear bomb in his 2019 open lecture, citing an adage attributed to Churchill: “Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it with an atomic bomb.2
  • Tikhon referred to “the atomic weapons, with which overseas and European forces are threatening us” in a March 2022 sermon that focused on the war in Ukraine, but did not elaborate.
  • In addition:
    • In 2006, during celebrations at one of the 12th GUMO’s nuclear polygons in northern Russia, Tikhon consecrated a church on an adjacent garrison’s territory as well as the polygon’s equipment.3
    • In 2010, Tikhon consecrated the first of the Project 885 (NATO code: Severodvinsk) series of the Russian Navy’s nuclear-powered cruise missile submarines.
    • The only scientist to serve on the ROC’s Council on Culture, of which Tikhon was the secretary, was Rady Il’kaev, the scientific director  of the Russian Federal Nuclear Center—All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Experimental Physics (RFNC-VNIIEF),4 which is located in Sarov.

The collective leadership of the ROC on nuclear weapons and their use/nonuse: In 2020, the ROC published a draft of regulations, “On Giving Orthodox Christians Blessing for Performance of Military Duty.” That initial 2020 draft banned “‘consecration’ of any kind of weapons, the use of which can lead to the death of an indefinite number of people, including weapons of indiscriminate action and weapons of mass destruction.” When commenting on the 2021 draft of the regulations, Archimandrite Philip Ryabykh confirmed that the draft still contained that ban. “Blessing of personal weapons is allowed, while other types of weapons are supposed to be sprinkled with holy water. Perhaps in the future there will be weapons even more terrible and destructive than nuclear weapons. That is why the members of the church assembly decided not to identify individual types of weapons,” said Ryabykh, who served as a representative of the Moscow Patriarchate to European organizations. However, commenting on the 2022 draft of the regulations, Archpriest Mikhail Vasiliev, who serves as the ROC’s representative to the Strategic Missile Forces, denied that the regulations, which will reportedly be reviewed by the church’s Holy Synod in either fall or winter 2022, would ban the consecration of weapons.

Footnotes:

  1. Adamsky, Dmitry. Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy (p. 39). Stanford University Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. He also referred to the town (Arzamas-16) in which Soviet engineers were designing the first nuclear bomb in his book “The Non-Saint Saints.”
  3. Adamsky, 143.
  4. Adamsky, 114.

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