Under Kirill, the military chaplains which “originally were introduced into the army to soften conditions of service … have been transformed into structural subdivisions of the Ministry of Defense within the Russian Orthodox Church,” Preobrazhensky continues. As such, they support officers rather than act as checks on them.
“Cooperation between the Russian Orthodox church with so-called Cossacks, that is, with paramilitary organizations, many of which after 2014 took part in military actions in the Donbass and in Syria began.” And in Sunday schools, the commentator says, “military-patriotic clubs have begun to appear.”
As a result, “in its current state, the Russian Orthodox Church fulfills only one social function connected with military affairs and that is to bless the Russian armed services.” In this, it shows no support for peacekeeping or pacifist attitudes, in sharp contrast with many of the other largest Christian churches.”
The Moscow Patriarchate’s policies with regard to the war in Ukraine conform to this pattern. Its branch in Ukraine can’t bless the war, but since the conflict began in 2014, there has not been a single case in which the Russian Orthodox hierarchy “directly condemned the participation of Russians in military actions on the territory of Ukraine.”
Patriarch Kirill instead had followed the Kremlin and supported both Russia and its puppet “’people’s republics,’” even as he criticizes “the Ukrainian authorities and certain ‘nationalist organizations.’” In this way, the Moscow Patriarchate is in complete accord with the Kremlin.
Unfortunately, Preobrazhensky adds, “the situation with regard to Russian Islam which is controlled and coordinated by several competing organizations is analogous” to that of the Russian Orthodox Church. And even the official Buddhist hierarchy has adopted the Kremlin line despite its anti-war positions in the 1990s.
This unity of the “traditional” religions with the state has had the effect of throwing into sharp relief the very different positions of other churches in Russia, those Moscow calls “sects.” The largest of these whose members oppose war and are “categorically against taking up arms” is the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“By a strange coincidence,” Preobrazhensky says, “the Russian authorities in 2017 with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church (although its officials say they weren’t consulted by the state in advance) were able to deprive the right to official registration of the most anti-war religious organization – the Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
(The Russian government had other reasons to go after this group, of course, the commentator says. It did not like the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ call not to celebrate various holidays, and it very much wanted to get its hand on that church’s property. But it was most upset by the anti-war position the Jehovah’s Witnesses have taken.)
“Under conditions of growing militarization in Russia, it was their refusal to serve in the army that has made the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups who refuse to serve in the military for religious reasons the natural opponents of the present-day Russian powers that be,” Preobrazhensky says.
That makes the government’s persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses especially worrisome because such actions suggest that “if the militarization of society will increase, then the authorities will soon demand from the Russian Orthodox Church explicit blessings on particular military operations.”
“It is extremely probable that the regime will more often and more actively make use of the motivation borrowed from the 19th century about the supposed defense by the Russian army of Christians in various parts of the world,” Preobrazhensky concludes. And the attack on the Jehovah’s Witnesses points to something even more frightening.”
It now seems clear, he says, that “Russia does not exclude still more massive military actions beyond the borders of its territory, actions which will require an even more massive mobilization,” a mobilization that will necessitate at least in the eyes of the Kremlin “preventive suppression of potential ‘draft avoiders.’”