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The Unexpected Theologian: The Rise of Religious Messaging in Putin’s Re-making of Russian State Identity

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Dustin M. Hart and Dr. Robert S. Hinck

As war rages in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin’s reputation as the “most evil man in the world” continues to grow across the Western world.[1] Despite this critical international view, Putin has maintained a two-decade stranglehold on Russian power in part by projecting a spiritual persona reconnecting himself and Russian identity to the Orthodox Church. This spiritual resurgence may seem odd considering that, for nearly 75 years of communist rule, Christianity in the Soviet Union was violently repressed at the hands of the very same government Putin himself served and protected as an intelligence agent. However, upon closer examination, one can see that this religious revival serves a strategic purpose. That is, Putin’s usage of Orthodox Christian faith and its connection to Russian history acts as a central component of his domestic and international efforts to return Russia to glory by promoting domestic cohesion, justifying malign foreign policy actions, and generating cultural friction within and amongst his Western rivals.

The Return to Religion

Understanding Putin’s strategic use of religious narratives as an effective tool to influence Russian society today first requires consideration of the nation’s spiritual past. The connection between Christianity and Russian culture dates back to 988, when Vladimir, King of Rus, accepted Christianity and established itself as a Christian nation by baptizing a large number of people in modern day Ukraine.[2] This religious identity grew when, following the fall of the Byzantine Empire, Russia mythologized itself as the Third Rome. This granted Russian Czars greater spiritual and political legitimacy while also imbuing the nation with a holy destiny to redeem humanity through continuation of the Orthodox faith.

Throughout the nine centuries that followed, the Russian Orthodox Church enjoyed a close relationship with the Russian state, becoming “fully part of the structure of the government.”[3] Church leaders and government officials formed a co-dependent relationship reinforcing and legitimizing Czarist rule in exchange for state-backed church support. This relationship wasn’t one of two equals, however. Russian Tsars received the title of “Defender of the Faith” with the Russian Orthodox Church falling within a specific administrative authority of the state. Nonetheless, this combination of “ideology and doctrine” functioned as a key propaganda tool for Russian leaders to establish their legitimacy and persuade Russian society to accept their governance, with the Church playing a pivotal role in the survival of the Russian state during Tartar oppression in the fifteenth century.[4] By the twentieth century, however, this partnership collapsed when Imperial Russia fell to the Bolsheviks.

Due to of the primacy of the Church in Imperial Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution acted to swiftly eradicate its social influence. Seeking to remake society and establish a new set of ideals supportive of a secular socialist society, the Soviet regime executed 28 bishops and more than 1,200 priests soon after taking control. Church repression continued with organized religion seen as a direct threat to the communist government’s ability to control the Russian people; in a battle for the minds and subservience of those living under Soviet rule, the Church’s symbology and cultural legacy posed a direct threat to new Soviet values and ideology. Rather than fully eradicating Russian’s spirituality, the Soviets reframed these beliefs to proselytize Communism as the state’s new, redemptive moral purpose.

Consequently, the Orthodox Church lost influence and relevance under communist rule. Nonetheless, it managed to survive through a “tense acquiescence” with the Soviet government with its leadership structure closely managed and limited by the state.[5] Fortunately for the Church, the Soviet Empire’s fall ushered in a new Russian spiritual awakening thanks to its new, most ardent follower, Vladmir Putin.

Leveraging the Past for Strategic Gain in the Present

Since taking power in 1999, President Putin has regularly professed and used religious connections to the Orthodox Church for political gain. In doing so, he has re-crafted Russian society and placed himself at the center of a newly established Russian theological identity; one professing a traditional set of conservative values standing in contrast to the West, which functions to bolster domestic cohesion and support claims of Russian leadership and authority over its neighbors.

Propaganda campaigns achieve greater impact when featuring a “hero” for the masses to admire and emulate.[6] For Russia and the Orthodox Church, Putin is that hero. Putin has managed to artfully craft a religious backstory by claiming his mother was a closeted Christian and had him baptized as a baby.[7] Putin has built upon this narrative, like the Czars of old, by connecting his state authority to religious symbology. At his first inauguration, Putin had the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church present him with religious relics and a personal prayer. Putin then announced that the Russian nation owed the Church a huge debt of gratitude and credited the Church for preserving Russia’s “century-old traditional spiritual and moral values, which would have been otherwise lost irretrievably.”[8]

Given the turbulence in Russian society following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent political infighting that followed, Putin’s invocation of such religious themes helped reestablish the connection between the Russian people and state by bringing back a much-needed sense of cultural unity and history, which Putin used to further consolidate state power. Such messaging is best understood as a form “integration” propaganda, which seeks to build long-term commitment and participation of people into society through an imagined, mythical cause.[9] Using the Russian Orthodox Church as a religious backdrop, Putin passed a slate of anti-LGBTQ+ laws and new regulations censoring free speech to curtail the penetration of Western culture and postmodern values. Moreover, by solidifying the religious authority of the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin made evangelizing by Western churches impossible, thereby cementing his influence over Russian spiritual beliefs. Taken together, Putin’s return to religion helps bind the Russian people toward a new Russian identity, one that seeks to expand its influence and correct the mistakes of its Soviet past, all under the control of his authority.

Fully committed to bringing a new powerful identity to his people, Putin has routinely criticized former Soviet idols to garner support for his government and unify the nation. In a February 2022 address, Putin disparaged former Soviet leaders, calling Lenin’s state development efforts and repression of its people and church, “not just a mistake, but…worse than a mistake,” one that forgot Russia’s historical destiny.[10] This rhetoric enables Russian society to make sense of the Soviet government’s failings while simultaneously maintaining a sense of Russian pride and grandeur. Whereas the Soviet regime viewed religion as an obstacle, Putin appears to recognize its potential usage as a potent propaganda tool; one with sufficient motivational force to both legitimize Putin’s government and allow him to reclaim spiritual authority over Russia’s neighbors.

Ukraine: Moscow’s Modern Crusade

By awakening Russia’s religious imaginations, Putin has sought to dangerously re-narrate Russia’s relationships with its neighbors. Most recently, Putin has employed religion to justify his invasive actions in Ukraine. Prior to the invasion, he regularly connected the two nations together by pointing out their shared religious history and culture. “Christianity was a powerful spiritual unifying force that helped involve various tribes and tribal unions of the vast Eastern Slavic world in the creation of a Russian nation and Russian state,” Putin told his Federal Assembly in 2014. He credited the “spiritual union” that originally occurred in Ukraine to the creation of the united Rus state and described Ukraine, and specifically Crimea, as having the same religious importance to Russia as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem has for Jewish and Muslim followers.[11] These stories, while innocuous at first, function to subsume Ukrainian identity under Russian stewardship.

Putin’s theologically backed Russian state identity establishes the nation as the leader and protector of conservative Christian values. Armed with such religious zeal, Putin used religion as a pretext for war in Ukraine. For instance, in his 2022 speech to the Russian Federal Assembly, Putin described how Ukrainian officials were actively repressing the Orthodox Church and its followers, including enacting laws that infringed on their beliefs and culture.[12] According to Putin’s religious narrative, Christian Ukrainians thus needed Moscow’s protection, establishing the rationale for intervention. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s petition to exculpate itself from the authority of the Russian Orthodox Church provided further religious justification for Putin’s invasion with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church offering Putin his full support to fight this holy war against Ukraine and the West.[13]

While Putin’s description of church repression may have some factual merit, as Ukraine seeks to establish a diverse religious identity outside of the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church and more aligned with Western liberalism, such actions are far from a legitimate reason for foreign intervention. Nonetheless, such rhetoric resonates with the religious narratives Putin had planted for decades, helping to explain Russian support for the war in Ukraine. Ukraine, however, is not the only target of Russian religious zeal as Putin utilizes similar religious tones to justify conflict within and among the West.

The Russian Savoir: “Defending” against Western Decadence

While his government creates chaos in Ukraine, Putin’s expressions of personal piety have elevated his nation’s status as a “bastion of Christianity and traditional values” in traditionally conservative societies around the world.[14] Putin’s project to establish the Russian state identity along religious lines thus has global aspirations beyond just concerns for domestic legitimacy. Supporting this narrative Putin crafts the Russian state as in a battle against the West for the spiritual wellbeing of the world. In an address to his Federal Assembly in February 2023, Putin detailed how Ukraine and its Western supporters are not only attacking the Russian Orthodox Church but have also abandoned their Christian values. According to the Russian president, Western elites seek “the destruction of the family, of cultural and national identity, perversion and abuse of children, including pedophilia, all of which are declared normal in their life.” While adding that the West may do as it pleases, Putin states that he would not allow them to influence the hearts and minds of the Russian people. Adding to this image of Putin as a paternalistic protector, he concludes his speech with a quotation from Jesus stating, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”[15]

While this line of messaging has the greatest impact on Russian citizens, Putin also uses it to speak directly to conservative Western audiences who are increasingly dissatisfied with their nation’s social priorities. Aiming to stoke internal dissatisfaction within US society, Putin stated in a 2022 speech to the Russian Federal Assembly that, “millions of people in the West realize that they are being led to a spiritual disaster” by liberal elitist governments. Echoing conspiracy theories within US politics, Putin added that he would focus on protecting children, among others, from the “degradation and degeneration” of the West and global elites more broadly.[16] Putin’s conservative messaging has resonated with ultra-conservative groups in the US, receiving praise at the America First Political Action Conference in late February 2022 in addition to professed support from politically-charged commentators.

Conclusion and Recommendations

As Russia continues to struggle on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine against an adversary primarily funded by the US and Western partners, Putin’s propaganda efforts will increase as he attempts to maintain public support and further drive cultural divides among his adversaries. Considering previous speeches, Putin will continue to turn to religious themes to drive these points home. With Russia’s foreign policy and battlefield exploits drawing ire from much of the liberal Western world, Putin will continue to use religious narratives to elevate his nation’s moral standing wherever possible while simultaneously attempting to discredit Western liberal values.  

While challenging, the US has several options for countering Putin’s religious propaganda. To best approach a counter strategy, the US should target the various aspects of the Russian disinformation chain, starting first with its leadership and then moving through the propaganda organs, amplification channels, and finally the consumers of the information.[17] First, there are ample opportunities for the US and Western partners to highlight the hypocrisy of Russian actions in comparison to Putin’s religious narratives. Repression of human rights within Russia, the sordid personal lives of senior leaders, and the government’s heinous foreign policy actions provide plenty of examples where the “Christian bastion” has fallen well outside most religious norms. The West has also made steady progress against Russian propaganda platforms as the European Union banned Russia Today in March 2022 and RT America shut down operations amidst US pressure soon after the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Finally, America’s most important defense against Putin’s propaganda likely rests within its own domestic audience. The US must focus on its own internal democratic strength to offset Putin’s agitative messaging. The most recent US National Security Strategy, released by the Biden administration in October 2022, highlighted the importance of a strong and diverse US democracy that accepts dissenting views as part of the democratic experiment.[18] Bolstering these democratic values and creating a more open environment for a free flow of ideas and discussion in the US and within other Western partners will not only help defend against Putin’s divisive rhetoric but also help return liberal democracy to a place of emulation around the world.

Putin is not the first and certainly won’t be the last leader to abuse religious faith as justification to conduct heinous actions. The US and Western partners must counter this latest example of religious appropriation to solidify Putin’s “evil” reputation before more of the world views the unexpected theologian as the “miracle defender of Christianity.”[19]

Lt Col Dustin M. Hart
Lt Col Hart is a 2023 graduate of the Air War College and currently serves on the AWC faculty in the Department of Leadership and Warfighting. A career Air Force Public Affairs Officer, Colonel Hart has served in a variety of PA assignments at the wing, numbered air force, major command and combatant command levels. Additionally, he served as the commander of the 341st Recruiting Squadron in San Antonio, Texas. Prior to attending AWC, the colonel spent a year as an instructor in the Department of Airpower at Air Command and Staff College as a Senior Developmental Education Fellow. Colonel Hart received a Bachelor’s of Science in Public Relations from the University of Florida and Master’s degrees from Webster University, College of Naval Command and Staff and the Air War College.

Dr. Robert S. Hinck
Dr. Hinck is an Associate Professor of Leadership and Deputy Director of Research at Air War College’s Leadership and Innovation Institute (LII). He also serves as Deputy Director of AU’s Quality Enhancement Plan responsible for developing and assessing curriculum on ethical leadership across the continuum of learning. He received his PhD in Communication Studies from Texas A&M University and is lead author of two books, the most recent entitled: “The Future of Global Competition: Ontological Security Narratives in Chinese, Russian, Venezuelan, and Iranian Media.” His teaching and research have been recognized for excellence from multiple institutions, including most recently being awarded the Ira C. Eaker Center’s 2022 Educator of the Year.



[1.] Tim Costello, “Vladimir Putin: a miracle defender of Christianity or the most evil man?” The Guardian (March 5, 2022),

[2.] Ibid.

[3.] Ben Ryan, “Putin and the Orthodox Church: how his faith shapes his politics,” Theos Think Tank (Feb. 16, 2022):

[4.] Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 197.

[5.] Peter Welby, “How the Russian Orthodox Church survived communist rule,” Arab News (May 31, 2019):

[6.] Ellul, Propaganda, 172.

[7.] Ryan, “Putin and Orthodox Church.”

[8.] Office of the President, “A ceremonial prayer on the inauguration of the new President was held by Alexy II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, in the Annunciation Cathedral, where Mr Putin arrived after the inauguration ceremony” (May 7, 2000):

[9.] Ellul, Propaganda, 75.

[10.] Vladimir Putin, “Address by the President of the Russian Federation,” (Feb. 21, 2022) 3.

[11.] Vladimir Putin, “Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly” (Dec. 4, 2014) 3.

[12.] Putin, February 2022 address, 10.

[13.] Janlne d. Glovvanl, “The Real Reason the Russian Orthodox Church’s Leader Supports Putin’s War,” Foreign Policy, April 26, 2022.

[14.] Ryan Bauer, “How Russia's War in Ukraine has impacted its Christian image,” theRandBlog (Nov. 16, 2022):

[15.] Vladimir Putin, “Presidential Address to Federal Assembly Address,” (Feb. 21, 2023), 6.

[16.] Ibid.

[17.] Elizabeth Bodine-Baron, Todd C. Helmus, Andrew Radin, & Elina Treyger, Countering Russian Social Media Influence (Santa Monica Calif: RAND Corporation, 2018), xi.

[18.] Joseph R. Biden.  National Security Strategy, (Oct. 12, 2022) 7. 

[19.] Costello, “Vladimir Putin.”

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