Nicholas Sooy is the director of the North American Orthodox Peace Fellowship and serves in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. He is in the philosophy department at Fordham University, where he researches the underpinnings of public and social phenomenon.
The Russian Orthodox Church is in a unique position. Russia, the United States, Israel, Pakistan, and India are all nuclear powers where religion plays an important part in shaping public discourse. These nations are among the most important in the struggle for disarmament. Israel, Pakistan, and India are all non-parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while Russia and the United States are the largest nuclear powers. However, the Russian Orthodox Church has far more centralized power in Russian society than any institutional counterpart in the United States. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church has come to bolster Putin’s power, and for many people it serves as the post-communist institution which provides national narratives capable of driving political trends. Thus, if any religious institution is ideally suited for aiding in disarmament, it is the Russian Orthodox Church.
In the past, the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church on the country’s nuclear stockpile has been to tend away from disarmament. For example, at a meeting with the leader of the Russian Church, Patriarch Kirill, in 2016, Radii Ilkaev, a research manager at the Russian Federal Nuclear Center, credited the church for preventing complete disarmament in the mid-1990s.
“Back then the media cultivated an extremely negative attitude toward defense issues—especially nuclear weapons, and all the specialists working in this field. Everywhere there were articles appearing, saying that we have no enemies, that no one threatens us, and so we don't need [nuclear weapons] anymore. And the Russian Orthodox Church held a hearing on the topic of ‘Nuclear Weapons and National Security.’ Very serious documents were released, which gradually became state policy, which society came to support.”
A rhetoric of “hagiopolitics” is often heard from the church and from Putin’s government—that Russia is the Third Rome and the last bastion of Christian civilization against forces of evil. Thus, the Russian nuclear arsenal is holy and exists to protect Christendom. It is seen as providential that the birth of Russia’s nuclear program is in Sarov, which is home to one of Russia’s most beloved saints, St. Seraphim. Seraphim of Sarov is now the official patron saint of the nuclear arsenal, while in 2005, Patriarch Alexey declared St. Fyodor Ushakov the patron saint of Russia’s nuclear armed strategic bombers. On occasion, the church even blesses Russia’s missile systems with holy water.
Throughout his tenure as Patriarch, Kirill has made clear his support for Russia’s nuclear arsenal. In 2009 at the old nuclear facility in Sarov, he stated that while the church prefers “a world without weapons,” Russia must maintain its nuclear arsenal. In justifying this sentiment, the patriarch cast doubt on international systems which might prevent war without nuclear deterrence: “You can have excellently developed systems of international law, international organizations, but fall into the abyss of war.” He continued, stating that “the reason for war is sin and evil in man’s heart,” and in August of that year while on board a nuclear submarine he reiterated the same sentiment: “As long as sin exists, it must be contained, including through methods that are available today.”
Patriarch Kirill’s justifications effectively preclude the possibility of disarmament. However, the position of the Russian Orthodox Church in this regard is striking when one considers the teaching of the global Orthodox Church on nuclear weapons. At a synod in 2016, for example, the majority of the Orthodox churches of the world adopted a statement which included the following passage:
“The Church of Christ condemns war in general… Every war threatens to destroy creation and life. This is most particularly the case with wars with weapons of mass destruction… The amassing not only of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, but of all kinds of weapons, poses very serious dangers inasmuch as they… create an atmosphere of fear and mistrust, becoming the impetus for a new arms race.”
Unfortunately, the Russian Church refused to attend this synod and has not formally adopted this statement, though it did help to craft the statement in preliminary meetings. Nonetheless, given the tremendous influence of the Russian Church in society, if the church were to adopt an attitude closer to the broader Orthodox consensus and tradition, then this could cause a decisive shift in Russian attitudes towards nuclear disarmament. Indeed, the Russian Orthodox Church could be one of the most important leaders in creating a post-nuclear world.