Russian-Ukrainian war is showing new mass manipulation tools and the most interesting among them for researchers of religion is Russian Orthodox Extremism (ROE) ideology. Mass media attention concentrates on Islamic extremism, and pays little attention to this new type of religious extremism, which is much more dangerous due to couple reasons:
When in late 2000s the Russian Orthodox Church communities began creating military and patriotic groups providing youth with combat sports and martial arts education, no foreign observer could predict where this trend could lead.
To understand what this youth has being training for years we need to read the catechism of “Eurasian Youth Union”, which says: “we are the empire-builders of newest type, and we don’t agree for anything less than the power over the world”.
In their revanchism attempts Russian powers actively try to draw religious factor into their population control strategies and to provide motivation for Russian aggressions, like the war with Ukraine. Head of Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill (Gundyaev) has declared “the plot of Greek-Catholics, protestants, and Kyiv Patriarchy against Russian Orthodoxy” to be the reason of the war in Donbas. -- Considering the Ukrainian traditions of the named denominations’ many year peaceful coexistence this claim makes no sense at all, but sounds horrific for the watchers of Russian TV and is motivating enough to send thousands of volunteer militants to fight for “ressurection of all-Russian identity of Eastern Slavs”.
This Russia propaganda’s “ressurection and gathering brothers together” shall be done as usually in Russian history with AK’s and “Grads”.
The doctrine Russia uses to re-conquer countries liberated from the USSR in 1991 and to enforce its international interests is called “Russian World” and its core is national Orthodox Christianity.
In late 2014 the Russian People’s Council adopted the “Declaration of Russian identity ” -- a document which states: “every Russian shall be an Orthodox” (thus violating human rights and freedoms as the West sees it).
This logically leads to maxims like “everyone, adhering to Moscow Orthodoxy should be considered Russian”. As subdivisions of Russian Orthodox Church (ROCh) exist in many countries, there are many potential victims to “liberation into Russian World” on the grounds of logically derived maxim “Russian World is there, where Russians are!”, which gives geopolitic justification of territorial claims that has been used for several times when Moscow “protected” Russians outside the country’s borders as Orthodoxes. In theory, Kremlin can use this argument in any country with Russian-speaking Orthodox population (Balkans or Baltic states, for example) or having something to do with Orthodox history (remember Putin’s 2014 speech where he states that for Russia the annexed Crimea has “great civilizational and sacred significance”).
Russian World is built on the notion of Russian Orthodoxy’s superiority compared to other religions, it considers Russian Orthodoxy believers having special right for Ultimate Truth.
Inside Russia it has led to an inner war against “sects” in previous years (the pejorative word “sect” can be used to define any non-Russian Orthodox denomination).
In occupied parts of Ukraine this practice looks unbelievable at first sight, like a dangerous experiment that has taken place in separatist regions of Donbas (so-called ДНР and ЛНР) which in their “constitutions” have declared Russian Orthodoxy to be their ”state religion”. Other religions are prohibited, their believers -- persecuted and discriminated. This social experiment creates Russian national and religious dictatorship in the conquered region -- something that Europe has not seen for centuries. Following this “clause” Donbas gangs like “Great Don Regiment” led by Russian Orthodox priests or similar”Russian Orthodox Army” systematically closes Orthodox churches.
Religion-based “Russian World” does raise national pride, it promotes national and religious identification of Russians, but it doesn’t have much creative features -- it’s more like a survivalist doctrine in the Weltanschaung of everyone around Russia being American agents, liberals, homosexuals, and thus Satan’s servants. Russian population is very sensitive to anti-Western and anti-homosexual discourses and supports them almost always.
A good illustration of Orthodox Church’s effective aggressive anti-American rhetoric equating americanism with hitlerism is Dec 2014 speech of V.Chaplin (ROCh’s official speaker) in which he pompously announced that Russia is going to “stop the American project in a way it had stopped Hitler’s”.
Another important feature of Russian Orthodox Extremism is its justification of Soviet communism and its crimes against humanity (and religions, including Orthodoxy) to prove historical continuity of modern Russian imperialism and Soviet communist imperialism. A good example is bishop Augustin (Anisimov) who has recently declared that Communist party was “in a secret way” built on Christian principles.[ ... image ... ]
This fundamentalist system is currently been implemented in political life of Russia and neighboring countries. In practice the export of this blend of fascism and religion to neighboring, “brother”-countries is scary: captured churches and prayer houses in Donbas suffer transformation into Russian military storehouses; protesters -- killed and tortured. Russian church speakers provide the war against Ukraine with a sacred character, -- it is sanctified by priests, and the militants believe that they fight for “building holy Russia and killing all of its enemies”. They also call their competitors “enemies of faith and enemies of God”, -- something very similar to what Muslim jihaddists and ISIL-like groups do.
Thus, Russian Orthodox extremism as a form of totalitarisation of all spheres of life, becomes a threat both to common sanity and to civil society.[ ... image ... ]
At this point a question like “what does it have to do with Christ, religion, and Christian values?” should arise. To understand this we need to reconsider our understanding of religion: in all sociologic surveys Russians pretend to be one of the most religious nations in the world. Moscow Patriarchy even demands a special attitude in the Orthodox Christian world towards itself because it considers its believers to be “exclusively spiritual”.
In reality fewer than 10 percent of Orthodox respondents say they attend church regularly, and 30 percent of them admit they don’t believe in God! (Paradoxical religious identity “Orthodox atheist” is common in Russia). The great majority of Russian Orthodox believers don’t know the Orthodox Creed. This creates a schizophrenic notion of society diving into religion without religion.
Another sketch to the picture: in recent years Moscow Church has put huge efforts into preaching attempts among bikers, football fanatics, and other ultra right radicals. -- To understand the paradox, imagine football hooligans or bikers in any Western European country being Christian fundamentalist and using Catholic symbolics.
Russian Orthodoxy is a unique example for everyone studying history of religion -- once powerful denomination with developed theology and mystics degrades into militant ethnic and political ideology. Worse than that -- in the explosive youth groups where even aggressive Christianity is not radical enough, Orthodoxy blends with neo-paganism, weirdly combining Orthodox crosses and Nazi swasticas.[ ... image ... ]
Certainly, the state does influence religion (this has been a tradition in Orthodoxy for millennium since the times of Byzantine Empire, which had exported the monastic Eastern Christianity to Kyiv state, from where it later spread to Russia), and in case of Russian government machine it gives religion bureaucratization and de facto loss of its religious functionality. The higher management, even if it does want Orthodoxy to be a religion, has nothing to do but give up and let the state turn it into the Ministry of Truth with voodoo-like tinsel. The modern tradition of Orthodoxy’s use as political and military ideology goes back to Soviet times of Stalin who allowed the Orthodox church to exist and function (under 100% KGB control) in exchange for support in WW2, and to earlier times of tsars and early Russian leaders who saw it as good ideological and brainwashing machine for their population and armies.
A strange thing for the Westerner is that modern Russia’s political machine has also decided to build Russian national identity on Orthodoxy -- a “common” Orthodox in Russia can answer all questions in a sociologist review as a low-educated neo-pagan believing in reptiloids and demonoids in America, but still thinking of himself as of a Russian Orthodox -- non-tolerant and hating.
The implementations of “Russian World” transforms Russian Orthodoxy into something new -- it doesn’t look Christian anymore, but rather becomes a national religion of Russians (with strong elements traditionally described as “pagan” and, considering early Christianity history, theoretically hostile to Church) declaring every Russian a Russian Orthodox Christian and every “true” Orthodox Christian necessary a Russian. Introduction of neo-pagan and fascist elements into Russian World and its de-facto acceptance by the Church -- despite “theologic differences” should become a warning call for all Christians -- there’s something awfully wrong here -- for both religions understand each other perfectly -- they want Russian world to spread to foreign territories and to bring Russians victory in every possible way -- economic, diplomatic, military. A symbol and hero of this weird (remember, Christianity rose from the conflict with pagans, and spent many centuries fighting them) symbiosis is a former Orthodox priest, famous Russian actor I.Okhlobystin who had announced that he wanted to join “People’s army of Donbass”.
Another view has been expressed by Russian researcher Oxana Kuropatkina, who in mid-2014 has viewed the “Orthodox” worldview as “unorganised religion”: separatist militants don’t need official support of the Church, they just need to hear once that they are the “warriors of Christ” and whatever they do remains justified by Higher Authority.
If I was an Orthodox theologian of XIXth century, I’d call it “demonization of Russian Orthodox Church”.
A more radical answer to this question has been given by Russian political writer Alfred Koch: “Modern Orthodoxy in Russian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchy version, preserving some external forms and rituals of Christianity has evolved into nationalist cult of Russian State, with sin redemption via love for it… In this cult God is the State… Russian Orthodoxy isn’t Christianity any more”.
Thus, Russian Orthodox Extremism is a new phenomenon with old roots. Although it speaks about religion it has very little to do with the latter, being an attempt to build imperialistic identity on ethnic superiority concept with remnants of “spiritual culture” and hatred. This blend is explosive threat for all the Eastern Europe.
Russian World becomes a geopolitical worldview, an ideology that justifies pretensions of Russia for any territories with some Russian-speaking population, or having something to do with Russia’s history, and brings throngs of fundamentalist fanatics to fight for this delirium.
The fanatics and their ideology in its most schizoid and radical form (“destroy all heretics”) are kept under control and even outlawed even in Russia, but the Russia-occupied regions of Ukraine, according to Ukrainian researcher M.Vasin, have been chosen as an experimentation ground for practical implementation, testing, and development of this construct.
How far the experiment might go giving favorable conditions? A good answer was provided by a Donbas separatist commander with a skull and cross-bones battalion insignia mr.Natyushin in the interview to BBC reporter: “We must restore the historic injustice which befell the Russian people in the 20th Century. We need to take land which is ours by right and bring it back into the fold of Holy Russia… We had the idea of a Christian Orthodox revolution … our ambition was to create an Orthodox al-Qaeda.”
It looks like the Russian Orthodox Church, already merged to high extent with state’s bureaucratic apparatus still has not satisfied its hunger for pleasures of being imperial officers like in the old Russian Empire of Romanovs. That’s why it seems to be excited receiving “upgraded features” like of inquisition or secret police, as if its leaders (all, or almost all of them being KGB agents during Soviet regime) dreamt of their organization becoming “a part of state’s repressive machine” as Russian political analytic Stanislav Belkovskiy warned years ago.
Today the process has gone even further: a part of Russia’s powerful wing of fundamentalists want to see their empire (and the provinces it is to conquer and re-conquer) becoming a kind of “Orthodox caliphate” with a God-appointed tsar giving them mandate for KGB-style forced evangelization and destruction of heretics.
If not stopped in Ukraine, Russian Orthodox extremism and terrorism will rise and spread, and thirsty for blood it will for sure look for new victims.[ ... image ... ]
The name “Russian Orthodox Army” first appeared in the news in spring 2014 though their leader told in public interviews that they had been organized in February 2014. Actual preparations and training must have started much earlier. In summer 2014 the “Army” boasted 4000-5000 fighters and was one of the three major armed terrorist bands controlling separatist regions of Donbas. In his interviews to Western media the group’s leader Mr. Verin openly told that 20 percent of the Russian Orthodox Army’s chiefs had been Russians, and the remaining 80 percent locals.
Since its appearance ROA has specialized at kidnapping activists, journalists, non-Russian-Orthodox clergy.
Though most of its people are from Ukraine’s East, the organization is closely connected with Russian ultranationalist organization “Russian national unity”. The Russian Orthodox Army doesn’t have its own web-site, only several groups in Russian social network Vkontakte.
The beliefs of the band are very dualistic: fundamentalist Orthodoxy on one hand, neo-paganism – on the other. Being Russian here is much more important than being an Orthodox. Even more -- the word “Orthodox” often means some idealized, pagan, pre-Christian world that, according to ideologists, existed in Russian lands before Christianity appeared. The main goals of ROA are connected with revanchist ideas -- the dream of return to Soviet Empire’s grandeur through kind of “Slavic reconquista” justified with “spiritual” ideology -- protection and broadening of the “Russian World”.[ ... image ... ]
ROA is a core spreader of Russian Orthodox and ultra-right ideas among the Donbas separatists and population. They promote ideas like extermination of all Ukrainians and Ukrainian language, “Russian ‘reconquest’” of all the Ukraine, turning the rest of Ukraine (and some other countries) into Russian provinces as it had been under Russian Empire and Soviet Union.
In practice making Donbas only-Russian-Orthodox requires extermination of local long-existing tradition of many religions’ peaceful coexistence (Donbas is the most religiously diverse region of Ukraine, thus -- there’s a lot of potential victims for the enforcers of the “only true belief”). This is where news about mass turning of Donbas protestant prayer houses into Russian soldier barracks and storehouses, executions of priests and pastors come from, as well as dreadful confessions about tortures and persecutions of non-Russian-Orthodoxes.
“Russian world” doesn’t need religious tolerance, freedom of conscience and religion. After the creation of Russian separatist “states” they declared the “constitutions” which claim religious intolerance to be the basis of their religious politics -- Russian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchy is to be considered the “prime and dominant” faith.
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ROA looks weird: it often issues calls like “we won’t stop until we capture Kyiv and Lviv” some of its soldiers have been reported bringing icons to the battlefield, the journalists who had seen their headquarters report them to be infested with icons. One of group’s commander goes by the nikname “Demon,” a pseudonym unthinkable for an Orthodox, which is much more concerned with fighting devil and demons than other branches of Christianity. Many of their members are Russian “cossaks” and radical pagans and there have been rumors of Orthodox monks fighting on their side.[ ... image ... ]
ROA is not alone -- there are other Russian terrorist groups fighting in Donbas which claim to be following Orthodox or Orthodox-neopagan ideology in their quest, like the battalions “Orthodox Donbass“, “Orthodox rise”, “Svarog”.
Despite lots of witnesses of the bloody deeds of ROA, the Russian Orthodox Church still hasn’t neither condemned the band in their speeches, nor commented their activity in any public way.
Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchy (an autonomous sub-branch of Russian Orthodox Church) in June 2014 told that they “condemn the so-called political Orthodoxy when religious symbolics and rhetorics is used for achievement of earthly goals. UOCh’s official speaker, Georgiy Kovalenko admitted that Donbas separatists “are trying to bring a religious component into geopolitical conflict”. Still, the UOCh seems to be flabbergasted by the phenomenon.
Numerous parallels of Russian Orthodox Terrorism to islamic, jihhadist terrorism have been noted in media. They are true to large extent, ROA and the like groups do have much in common with many ISIL-like fundamentalist terrorist groups all over. The main difference is that despite seeming spontaneity of appearance, all these Orthodox terrorist groups are guided, armed, and inspired from one center.
For the civilized world this band’s activity should be a demonstration of what “Russian World” ideology really is and an illustration of how dangerous Russian Orthodox Extremism can be, and how easily it crosses the line between academic constructions that theoretically ground the superiority of Russian people over others, and ruthless fundamentalist terrorism.
Whom do ROA and other Russian Orthodox Extremist groups threaten? -- Everyone around Russia -- first to occupied Crimea, where pressure on Crimean Tatars and arsons of their mosques takes place already. Potentially Orthodox extremism and terrorism can be used at any territories that Russia’s military leadership sees as possible aim of invasion like Kazahstan, Baltic states, Balkans, Belorus, and for inner terror against religious minorities in Russia itself (Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Catholic and Protestant believers, and even those Russian Orthodox, not subordinate to Moscow Patriarchy).
At this point Putin doesn’t let the Russian Orthodox Army to Russia. It’s too dangerous for his regime. Anarchy in Donbas is the great training ground to play with it and study possible usages of this group and the like in provoking interreligious conflicts or empowering existing conflicts with religious component.
Such criminal bands armed with latest Russian weapons and blessed with the light of the only true Russian religion and thus having mandate for murder, armed robbery, rape, kidnapping, and racket will be used by Putin’s regime against neighboring countries. Russian society will never condemn those people -- just because they call themselves “Russian” and “Orthodox”.
Thus we witness a new trend: after years of careful experimentation with the use of religion in ideology, Putin has worked out an effective ideologic tool for motivating bearers of “Russian (Orthodox) identity” to suffer, fight, and endure any hardships for the Orthodox Empire. This blend of aggressive fundamentalist religion with the power of government controlled media and TV has become such an effective tool for mass manipulation that Dr. Goebbels with his primitive propaganda machine looks like an innocent infant. Russian Orthodox Army and smaller Orthodox fundamentalist organizations are the warhead of this ideology. For sure if not stopped in Ukraine such a tool is soon to receive new uses and developments.
It’s not mere theorization -- the presence of Serbian Orthodox fighters on the Russian side in Donbas shows that fundamentalist Orthodox ideology has followers abroad and thus might be exported.
Russia’s attempts to establish neo-paganism and/or its blend with Russian Orthodox Christianity as a political religion constitutes a great danger for all Russia’s neighbors, both for post-USSR ones and, as the annexation of Crimea has shown, for European countries with great Russian-speaking population.
The signs that Russian powers had been building an aggressive ethnic-oriented pseudo-religion appeared in the early nineties.
Serious researchers didn’t pay attention to laughable ideology of imperial paganism with its claims like “Russians built all the great cities of the planet”, “Russians were the core Arians that brought sacred ancient knowledge to India”, “Russians wrote the original Vedas”, “Ra was Russian Sun-god, plagiarized by ancient Egyptians”, “Russian ancestors were the Gods of Cosmos”.
Russia’s aggressive external politics, and the role that religions play in building of “Russian World” requires research to understand why these ideas have quickly spread in Russian society, and why did they become so popular.
The mere acquaintance with the works and lectures of ideologists of Russian “paganism revival” (Hinevich, Trehlebov, Levashov, Cherkasov, Golyakov) and their followers’ practices helps us define its basic features:
This ideology looks very similar to Nazi occult esoterics of SS with its racial superiority theories, mystics, and the “revival of Nordic Gods”. Russians still see the collapse of USSR as a great geopolitical catastrophe and every ideology of revanchism receives acceptance in highly marginalized society.
Neo-paganism gives Putin an easy ideology based on sacraments, sacred symbols, and pseudo-religion suitable for poorly educated people, an effective weapon for mass manipulation and ideology that justifies aggression much better than traditional Orthodoxy with its Christian moral and commandments like “you shall not murder”.
Before the Russian war against Ukraine researchers of religion thought that the Kremlin had been preparing these ultra-nationalist bands brainwashed with neo-paganism for its “inner market” -- to rule via supporting Russia’s inner ethnic tensions.
Today we see that we underestimated Putin, and aggressive neo-pagan ideology can be used easily to justify and motivate outer aggressions, and can be easily exported and transplanted into Russian-speaking communities outside Russia. This militarized pseudo-religion threatens potentially to all former-USSR countries and even some former allies of Soviet Union in Warsaw treaty.[ ... image ... ]
Under the officially atheist Soviet regime the situation got even worse. Almost destroyed by bolshevik rule before WWII Orthodoxy survived under USSR either in cryptic form or in collaboration and control of НКВД (predessesor of KGB).During the war with Germany Stalin mobilized every resourse he could find including the remnants of Orthodox Church which had received some freedoms in exchange for ideologic support of war effort (thus the “Great patriotic war” became sacred in USSR). From that time the KGB established total control over Russian Orthodox Church and this control, or at least its major elements dominate Moscow Patriarchy inner and external politics, slowly transforming it into state religion with strong nationalist ideas, which give ideologic basis for cooperation with the nationalist neo-pagans and careful acceptance of some of their “cosmic” ideas about special spiritual Truth perceived only by Russians. This new phenomenon is called “Russian Orthodox Extremism“, where “Orthodox” means something so broad that it can include even paganism.
The common European answer to this dark-age pseudo-religion should be “education and common sense”. However, it seldom works with adepts of Russian neo-paganism. The esoteric knowledge their gurus speak from Youtube and Vkontakte (their sermons easily receive hundreds of thousands views) provides great armor against any scientific arguments: “they don’t write it in official history books, but […] did happen”. Being scared for many years with the ghost of the West, Russian mentality is very vulnerable to such conspiracy logic -- in Soviet Union everyone knew that one should never trust official books on history thus any absurd might be true.[ ... image ... ]