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Holy war: a unique occurrence or an established practice?

Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has proved to have close ties with the government demonstrated in multiple fields, at the same time, resembling the secular body of Russia. The two often appear going hand in hand, providing various kinds of subsistence to each other. The crucial importance of such interrelationship becomes evident during the “heated” periods of history, and the Special Military Operation is not an exception. Waging a war requires a well-grounded reason to be exposed to the citizens. The autocratic nature of the country, with all its leverages to impose the official narrative on the population, does not exempt from this necessity, rather makes it easier to spread the single portrayal of the proceedings and eliminate the opposing voices. Given the lack of data that would undoubtedly legitimize military involvement, especially in a striker role, the last resort is found in ideology, or, in the absence of such, a sum of separate values shaping ordinary life and simultaneously distinguishing the particular society from the outside world. As pinpointed by Rinschede, religion represents “a system of orientation or worldview which human beings produce and use to solve existential problems and find spiritual and psychological harmony with the universe.”[4] In the case of Russia, this function is exercised by the “traditional values” actively promoted by the ROC, thus, assigning it the role of one of the key forces framing the people’s general attitude, and actively used by the president himself “as a marketing tool to Western audiences.”[6]


Since the beginning of the war, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill has expressed his firm support for the government’s actions, actively advocating for the fulfillment of the established goals. A considerable part of his pronouncements contains references to the ideas of Holy Rus’, the Russian World, and the All-Russian nation as a “sacred and messianic justification for the war.”[2] The Patriarch has repeatedly stipulated the great potential of death on the battlefield to wash away the sins[11] stressing its great merit of opposing global evil[13].


The clergy is obliged to follow the official stance of the Church, and no derogations are permitted at risk of being defrocked. A perfect example is the excommunications[17] that followed the issuance of the Prayer for Holy Rus’, compulsory in all church services, identifying the war as existential. Thus, the majority of the individual priests appear to be deeply engaged in the promotion campaign through fundraising and sending humanitarian aid to combatants[14] or aiding veterans[18], together with the public blessing of military equipment and soldiers[16].


The unique instance, though, could be observed a few months ago, on 27 March, when the Decree of the 25th World Russian People’s Council: The Present and the Future of the Russian World was issued shortly after the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack, which has significantly affected public sentiment owing to the complete unexpectedness, the number of casualties and the extent of material damage inflicted. Despite the focus on the involvement of Ukrainian secret services, the fear a terrorist attack produces is directed not only at the figure responsible for the resulting catastrophe. It also highlights the failure of the national officials to prevent it, especially considering the ignored warnings of the US confirmed by the state officials[15]. This fact underpins the necessity to draw the attention of the population back to the “higher mission” of the country as an excuse for the sacrifices it has to suffer. At the same time, the overall confusion and increased anxieties served as a proper ground for heating up the air of support, diverting it from the path of a prolonged attenuation. Therefore, the exposedness of the citizens was immediately taken advantage of in the form of the document under discussion.


The content of the statement is ambiguous, and, at first sight, one can hardly suppose its clerical authorship. It covers not only the aspects of the general concern of the Church but also the demographic, migration, infrastructure, and economic policy, suggesting the guidelines and the exact provisions to be adopted in the state’s legislation. The status of an existential threat is reserved for the demographic crisis to be overcome in the next century with the increase of the population to 600 million people and priority given to the “traditional family”, the creation of its “cult”, and the protection of citizens from “abortion propaganda, sexual immorality and debauchery, as well as sodomy and sexual perversions.”[8] The reference reflects Putin’s proclamation of 2024 as the “Year of the Family”[12], which is not surprising considering the number of casualties on the front line, and the increased demographic concern.


However, an exceptional character of the Decree is attributed to the lack of any previous official documentation depicting the ongoing hostilities in this light. Russian authorities tended to carefully avoid the word “war” framing the conducted hostilities with the official term of “Special Military Operation”. What is more, the paper labels the war as “holy”, though, waged by the whole “West immersed in Satanism” representing the key and perennial adversary of the country and jeopardizing “the entire Russian civilization and Christian religion, from which it (the West) has turned away.” [2] The proceedings are portrayed as holy with its aim to defend the “Holy Russia”, the people’s “lives, freedom, and statehood; their civilizational, religious, national, and cultural identity; and their right to live within the borders of a single Russian state by waging Putin’s war of conquest in Ukraine.”[1] The purpose of justification of the state decisions, here, equally entails the aim to increase the mobilization and support of both the public and elites.


Similarly, the document specifies the objective of offense lying in defending the “sole spiritual space of Holy Rus’ and fulfilling God’s mandate.”[2] It highlights the desired result of incorporating Ukraine in the state’s exclusive sphere of influence, with the completion of the “operation” and simultaneous elimination of any “Russophobic political regime” on its territory. The call is made for the adoption of the legal protection of the “trinity doctrine” stipulating the composition of the Russian nation of Byelorussians, Ukrainians, and Russians themselves, sharing common spiritual (orthodox) and moral values and traditions, although “divided by enemies’ and “striving for reunification.”[2] Thus, the Decree claims to achieve “the restoration of the unity of the Russian people through the war in Ukraine” as “a key condition for Russia’s survival and successful development throughout the 21st century.”[1]

At the same time, despite the extraordinary nature of the used wording, the document can be hardly called unique in the historical context. The religious texts have always been interpreted in a way to substantiate the countries’ aggression towards each other, starting with the Crusades and finishing with the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. Here, the comparison is drawn with one of the most prominent cases, namely the United States and its concept of Manifest Destiny. 


The Manifest Destiny Doctrine derives from the idea of a divine providence assigned to Americans as constituting the “New Israel”, thus, entitling them to limitlessly expand the state borders in a fulfillment of God’s will of them “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development.”[10] Driven by the so-called white man's burden, the country sees its aim in conquering and Christianizing the land to build up a “city on a hill”. Thus, equaling America’s purposes to God ones, this very slogan subsequently served as a justification for expansionism in the West. However, despite being first conceived as a rationale for the expropriation of Indian territories only, it was further applied to the country’s imperialism at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.


Given the crystallized high extent of religiosity of the nation, the formula has been eagerly taken as the civil guideline and has continued to shape society up to the present day. Manifest Destiny bore the belief of the unique American path, reinvoked multiple times since being coined in 1845, including the pronouncements to legitimize the Spanish-American War and the establishment of its control over Hawaii and the Philippines, Woodrow Wilson’s call for the fight to make the world “safe for democracy”, Roosevelt’s rally during the World War II. The phrase “under God” was incorporated into the Pledge of Allegiance in the Сold War, reinvigorated in John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address.[9] The “War on Terror” started as a response to the September 11 attacks and aimed at conquering terrorism and spreading democracy in Iraq and the Middle East in general only ignited Manifest Destiny. Following God’s order, George W. Bush drew the country into a campaign against “tyranny in Iraq”[5], thereby “selling a positive image of the United States as the democratic hope of all mankind.”[10]


The “holy war” declared by Russia against Ukraine finds indirect but close resemblance with the Manifest Destiny Doctrine and its reflection in the “War on Terror”. It is similarly grounded in religion and enshrined in an official document issued by the church intrinsically connected to the government itself. One can notice the echo of the accomplishment of “sacred duty” of Russia in the US invasions of both Iraq and Afghanistan inspired by the “mission from God” and portrayed as containing divine and moral authority: “a language that convinces a broader audience of the necessity of military action in that violent part of the Middle East.”[3] The difference between the narrative of the Decree and the Manifest Destiny, though, lies in the perception in the former of the territories as the historically Russian ones, the continuation of the Holy Rus’, while the United States used to deem its Western territories as alien but reserved for their settlement.


Hence, despite the inconsistency of the activities of the ROC in regard to the Special Military Operation with the generally accepted role of a religious institution as an advocate for overall peace and avoidance of any possible violence, the case is not a unique one. In the same way the clergy of various countries all over the world have been used to justify political decisions, the ROC is promoting the military campaign confirming its significant role as an instrument of exerting the influence on population. While the comparison tends to be drawn between the expansionism of Russia and the United States, no references are made to the religious beliefs both countries appeal to. Similarly to the allusions to the “holiness” of the war with Ukraine made by the ROC, Manifest Destiny indoctrinates the concepts of Providence and the divine mission as the grounds for the country’s expansion.


In conclusion, it appears crucial to examine the underlying clauses invoked to enhance social mobilization as an integral part of any decision’s success requiring, if not comprehensive support, at least the prevailing acceptance of certain steps made. Therefore, the analysis of the variable in question holds significant potential to advance the predictability of the government’s actions in terms of a shift in the citizens’ attitude to ostensibly politically irrelevant issues such as religion.

 


Ekaterina Alymova

 


1.      Bailey, R. Harward, C. Evans, A. and Barros, G. (2024) The Russian Orthodox Church Declares “Holy War” Against Ukraine And Articulates Tenets Of Russia’s Emerging Official Nationalist Ideology, The Institute For The Study Of War, [online]. Available from:  https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-orthodox-church-declares-“holy-war”-against-ukraine-and-articulates-tenets

2.      Chawryło, K. (2024) A holy war. The Russian Orthodox Church blesses the war against the West. OSW Commentary, [online]. No. 589, pp. 1-5.  Available from:  https://www.osw.waw.pl/en/publikacje/osw-commentary/2024-04-12/a-holy-war-russian-orthodox-church-blesses-war-against-west

3.      Khelfa, Nouha. “The War on Terror: The Neo-American Manifest Destiny”. Indonesian Journal of Counter Terrorism and National Security 2, no. 1 (2023): 21-62. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/371377931_The_War_on_Terror_The_Neo-American_Manifest_Destiny_The_Case_of_the_Islamic_State_in_Iraq

4.      Lee, Daniel B. (2007a): God, Land, Blood, and Destiny: The Bundling Power of Religious Semantics. Acta Universitatis Carolinae Geographica 1, pp. 127-143. Available from: https://dspace.cuni.cz/handle/20.500.11956/161242

5.      MacAskill, E. (2005) George Bush: 'God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq' The Guardian, 7 October. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/oct/07/iraq.usa

6.      McCormick Hibbert, C. (2024) What does it mean that the Russian Orthodox Church is calling Putin’s invasion of Ukraine a ‘holy war’? Northeastern Global News, 3 April. Available from: https://news.northeastern.edu/2024/04/03/russian-orthodox-church-ukraine-holy-war/

7.      O’Sullivan, J. “Annexation,” The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, Volume 17 (New York: 1845), 5-6, 9-10. Available from: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-tc3-ushistory1os/chapter/primary-source-john-osullivan-declares-americas-manifest-destiny-1845/

8.      Official Website of the Moscow Patriarchate (2024) Decree of the 25th World Russian People’s Council: The Present and the Future of the Russian World. Available from:http://www.patriarchia.ru/db/text/6116189.html 

9.      Scott, Donald M. The Religious Origins of Manifest Destiny, TeacherServe. National Humanities Center.  Available from: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nineteen/nkeyinfo/mandestiny.htm

10.  Wickham, John A. “September 11 and America’s War on Terrorism: A New Manifest Destiny?” American Indian Quarterly 26, no. 1 (2002): 116–44. Available from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4128477. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4128477

11.  (2022) Патриаршая проповедь в Неделю 15-ю по Пятидесятнице после Литургии в Александро-Невском скиту. Официальный сайт Московского Патриархата, 25 September. Available from: http://www.patriarchia.ru/db/text/5962628.html 

12.  (2023) Путин объявил 2024 год в России Годом семьи. TASS, 22 November. Available from: https://tass.ru/politika/19352595

13.  (2023) Святейший Патриарх Кирилл: Россия стремится сохранить свою самобытность, свою веру, свою систему ценностей. Официальный сайт Московского Патриархата, 9 April. Available from: http://www.patriarchia.ru/db/text/6017763.html 

14.  (2024) Брянская епархия передала бойцам СВО гуманитарную посылку с теплыми вещами. RIA, 31 January. Available from: https://ria.ru/20240131/posylka-1924552633.html 

15.  (2024) Путин назвал шантажом заявления Запада о возможности терактов в России. TASS, 19 March. Available from: https://tass.ru/politika/20283597

16.  Зыкина, Т (2022) Патриарх направил священников благословлять мобилизованных в военкоматах. RBC, 6 October. Available from: https://www.rbc.ru/society/06/10/2022/633ecfc29a7947762c7c9e53

17.  Хабарова, В. Чернышова, Е. (2024) Уминский не пришел в церковный суд по делу о молитве о Святой Руси. RBC, 11 January. Available from: https://www.rbc.ru/politics/11/01/2024/659fde0c9a7947ac8ae4bfa6

18.  Швецова, В. (2023) Священников просят поддерживать ветеранов СВО – часто те доверяют им больше, чем психологам. Милосердие.ru, 29 November. Available from: https://www.miloserdie.ru/news/svyashhennikov-prosyat-podderzhivat-veteranov-svo-chasto-te-doveryayut-im-bolshe-chem-psihologam/

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