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How the Russian Church Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Orthodoxy’s Influence on Moscow’s Nuclear Complex

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, attend a foundation stone laying ceremony for the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ outside Moscow, September 2018 Sputnik / Alexei Nikolsky/ Kremlin via REUTERS

Every year on May 9, Russia celebrates Victory Day—the day on which Nazi Germany surrendered to the Soviet Union in 1945—with its biggest annual military parade. This year, the ceremonies opened as they always do, with the Russian defense minister entering Red Square to inspect the troops and report to the president. When passing through Spasskaya Tower, the Kremlin’s main ceremonial gate, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s cabriolet stopped. The minister took off his peaked cap and made the sign of the cross according to Orthodox tradition. Shoigu was the first minister to introduce this gesture into the ceremony in 2015. Whether he did so as a genuine expression of his faith, a public relations gambit, or both, his crossing himself on such an occasion reflects the tightening of bonds between church and state in today’s Russia.

Since the Soviet collapse, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), and the Orthodox faith more broadly, has exerted a growing influence on public and private life. Although relatively few Russians are actual practitioners, the majority of the population (about 80 percent) identifies as Orthodox, and many citizens consider the religion to be a defining element of Russian national identity. Officials across the Russian government—including ministers, members of the State Duma and of the Federation Council, senior military commanders, and President Vladimir Putin himself—have taken to openly professing their Orthodox faith. At times, some parts of the public have objected to the state’s privileging of the ROC, but such criticism has done little to diminish the church’s status.

That the church carries extraordinary weight on Russia’s domestic scene is well-known and not that unusual. What is more surprising, and less often explored, is the church’s influence within Russia’s nuclear weapons complex—the most significant wing of one of the world’s most powerful militaries. There the nexus between church and state runs deepest, widest, and longest. During the last three decades, the priesthood has entered all levels of command

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