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Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics, and Strategy

Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, Politics, and Strategy by Dmitry Adamsky. Stanford University Press, 2019, 354 pp.

Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy by Israeli scholar Dmitri Adamsky is a groundbreaking analysis exploring the intersection of religion, politics, and strategic affairs in Russia. Adamsky details the penetration of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) into the Russian nuclear military-industrial complex and offers several key findings and underexplored implications relevant to American strategic policy makers.

Adamsky’s analysis is broken into three parts chronologically by decade. The first, titled The Genesis Decade, starts at the collapse of the Soviet Union and traces the beginnings of the bottom-up outreach efforts of the ROC to the military in general and the strategic services in particular. The second, titled The Conversion Decade, sees “churching” (the official ROC policy promoting catechization of the military) become state policy as faithful leadership began pushing supplementation from the top down. Finally, The Operationalization Decade details how the top-down and bottom-up tendencies have merged, reaching “peak clericalization” in church-state relations.

Each part is subsequently divided into three thematic chapters. Within those chapters lie the key points of Adamsky’s analysis—the foremost being the permeation of the ROC into all aspects of the Russian nuclear military-industrial complex. Adamsky frames the development within the broader context of church-state relations and later expands upon the influence of the ROC on Russian national security and foreign/domestic policy.

Over a period of three decades, the ROC, once completely repressed and driven underground, would rise to be one of the main pillars of an emerging state ideology known as Nuclear Orthodoxy. Adamsky defines Nuclear Orthodoxy as the mythos developed by the church and state whereby the defense and sustainment of nuclear superpower and genuine Orthodoxy are contingent upon one another. The ROC, in an effort to expand its base of influence, sought to take advantage of a military-nuclear complex crippled by consequence of perestroika. The ROC made early inroads through grassroots efforts from devout commanders seeking to rebrand their services in the wake of an ideological vacuum. A decade later, the Kremlin, driven by the revitalization of the tsarist philosophy aptly titled “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationalism,” co-opted the efforts of the ROC and made churching official policy. This ultimately resulted in the revival of the military clergy prompting clerical penetration into all levels of command in the nuclear triad, the conflation of church-state responsibilities, and increased influence of the ROC on both domestic and foreign issues.

Adamsky argues that the current relationship between the Kremlin and the ROC is mutually beneficial but skewed toward the state. He claims that military clergy, in accordance with the state’s political agenda, will often grant legitimacy to geopolitical developments (e.g., Ukraine and the unification with Crimea) in their sermons to service members. By highlighting their shared sacred duty in protecting the cultural and political sovereignty of Russia, the ROC equates Orthodoxy to the defense of the state under threat from subversive secular forces. The clerical focus of subversion from the West as being the greatest threat to Russia could draw an insight into the Kremlin’s own thoughts on the subject, to include its own deployment of the ROC as “soft-power projection” into the Orthodox world.

Adamsky details his findings as they pertain to the resurgence of religiosity in the Russian military through the lens of a three-type continuum spanning the levels of religious penetration into military organizations. Western nations are grouped into the first type, “Enabling Faith,” whereby militaries empower service members to practice religious obligations while on military duty. The Russian military falls into the second type known as “Faith as Enabler.” This ideal type refers to state militaries where religion “has penetrated national ideology and is equated with patriotism.” The third type, most commonly equated with Iran or Saudi Arabia, is “Military Theocratization.” Here, religion dictates military strategic thinking, operational planning, and execution.

While current levels of clericalization in the Russian military are unorthodox by Western standards, Adamsky admits they are not a phenomenon unique to Russia. Adamsky, however, generates a hypothesis on the three potential outcomes interrelated to deviation of the Russian military from the first ideal type. First, he presents concerns with the “nonexistence” of official theological positions of the ROC on nuclear affairs. In general, the ROC glorifies the role of nuclear weapons as being deterrent, not destructive, weapons. However, unlike the Roman Catholic Church, for example, whose priests reference Just War theory, the ROC has no official doctrine outlining jus ad bellum criteria and allows its priests to present their own opinion on the matter. The lack of discussion from the ROC on the morality of issues such as first strike or retaliatory strike is concerning, especially when the status quo is total agreement with the Kremlin on nuclear use policy.

The second and third outcomes relate to the influence of religion on human reliability issues. Adding another layer of complexity to game theory projections of nuclear use, Adamsky raises concerns that religious leaders deeply embedded in the Russian nuclear triad may, for better or worse, have undue influence in nuclear decision-making. Questions arise, such as if nuclear service members will or will not push the proverbial button under the guidance of a spiritual leader, or if service members are more likely to follow orders if they share the same religion as their commanding officers. Adamsky admits that the answers to these implications are too far out of the scope of his analysis but require the utmost attention.

Adamsky presents a cogently argued and remarkably well-sourced analysis that is sure to become a staple in future scholastic research. With that in mind, I managed to finish the book with only a few minor criticisms. First, Adamsky makes the common mistake of conflating the fringe political philosophy of Alexander Dugin, known as Eurasianism, with the state ideology propagated by the Kremlin. While there are overlapping similarities in both ideologies, the latter, as detailed by Adamsky, is ethno-national and Orthodox in nature, while the former promotes a multicultural, multiconfessional Russia in union with Central Asia. Second, the analysis, without contextualizing its role in the greater political discourse, gives the perception that the influence of the ROC in reviving the military in general and the strategic weapons community in particular is grossly exaggerated. Reading this book alongside a history detailing the resurgence of the Russian military would be helpful in determining the true size and scope of the influence of the ROC.

The appeal of this book is as diverse as the intersection of its topics. Scholars of international relations, Russian studies, religious studies, nuclear studies, military affairs, political science, and more will find this book extremely interesting and its contributions of immense importance to their respective field. It would certainly help that a reader to be familiar with Russian history, past and present, and, to a lesser extent, Orthodox religious belief, before attempting to take on this analysis. Despite the daunting nature of these topics, Adamsky, nonetheless, has delivered a finely crafted work sure to engage a wide audience.

2d Lt Nathaniel P. Lanaghan, FLANG

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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