Staunton, July 7 – Russia now unique in that its army has both religious chaplains and political officers, with the two now trying to define their roles, Aleks Kulmanov says. As of now, the chaplains focus on blessing weapons systems and building churches while the political officers, a revenant from Soviet times, are better placed to influence those in uniform.
This combination reflects the history of the country. In tsarist times, there were only chaplains, with their number rising to 5,000 during World War I; and in Soviet times, there were only political officers (politruks) who played a key role in fighting religion and promoting communist values, the Moscow commentator says (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=60E5E61F2052C).
When the Soviet system collapsed, the Russian Orthodox Church and other religious groups sought to put their representatives into military units; but they were limited both by the reaction of officers who were suspicious about such competition and by the lack of financing needed to make a chaplaincy corps a reality.
Only in 2010, Kulmanov says, did the defense ministry formalize the chaplaincy corps and begin to finance it. After that, the number of priests in the military rose dramatically; but they often had difficulty finding their role in a military most of whose draftees and officers were anything but committed believers.
The situation was complicated by the subsequent restoration of the politruk system, something many commanders felt relatively comfortable with especially if they were veterans of the Soviet military or trained by those who were. As a result, the politruks have come to play a disproportionately large role in the ideological training of the troops.
The chaplaincy corps and the Russian Orthodox Church behind its largest component has focused on two other aspects of military life. On the one hand, its members have taken the lead in blessing all kinds of weapons systems, sometimes reportedly to raise money for their denomination and sometimes out of an effort to find a role.
And on the other hand, they have worked to build churches, both the prominent military ones in Moscow and other command centers and also mobile churches that can follow the Russian military wherever it goes on maneuvers or when put to use domestically or in foreign countries.
But it has become obvious that the ROC MP is not playing the ideological role that some of its hierarchs and perhaps some in the Kremlin hoped for, the commentator says. Indeed, the Russian patriarch complained recently that his priests lack the possibilities of influencing the hearts and minds of Russian soldiers and sailors.
With regard to that task, the politruks have stolen a march on the chaplains; and there seems little likelihood that will change anytime soon, however much publicity the church attracts to its priests in khaki.