Rhinestone-Covered Icons at “Russia’s Los Alamos”
Editor’s Note: This is an essay from “Book Review Roundtable: Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy” from from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.
For several years beginning in 1989, it was not uncommon to turn on the television in the Soviet Union, and later in Russia, and witness a seriously-coiffed man in large glasses waving his hands in front of the camera and mumbling. Pensioners and families flocked to watch, while placing 10-liter receptacles of water in front of their TV screens. They did this because they believed that psychic Allan Chumak, who conducted these so-called TV séances, was charging the water with positive and healing energy. No one knew how or if it worked, but many drank the water.
Chumak’s séances came during a time when the Russian public had lost its ideological-political orientation — a tumultuous period in Soviet/Russian history. But according to some surveys, more Russians today believe in the supernatural, superstitions, and life after death than did so at the end of the Cold War. It’s not uncommon, for example, for Russians to drink holy water sourced from local Russian Orthodox churches or special water from underground springs. There is a special water source in a monastery near the town of Sarov that, some say, has healing properties from St. Seraphim himself.
St. Seraphim, as we learn from Dmitry Adamsky’s insightful and meticulously sourced book, Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy, is the patron saint of Russia’s nuclear weapons program. In the book, Adamsky makes a powerful case for the convergence between the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia’s nuclear enterprise. He argues that the Church has “wormed” its way into the hearts and minds of the Russian leadership, Russia’s elite nuclear science institutions, its nuclear forces and space cadre, and the Russian military. Adamsky’s work is important because, if his analysis is correct, the trends that he documents have the potential to reshape the Russian nuclear science establishment, the Russian military, and Russia’s policy toward nuclear weapons.
Discussions of priests blessing nuclear submarines, baptizing intercontinental ballistic missiles, and sprinkling holy water inside control rooms at nuclear power plants do not surprise Western Russia watchers. (As one Twitter account details, Russian Orthodox priests bless a lot of things.) But the phenomenon as it relates to the Russian nuclear enterprise and the military has been puzzling nevertheless. Adamsky makes an important contribution toward solving that puzzle by documenting the emergence, spread, and entrenchment of the Church’s influence, as well as its adoption of a staunchly pro-nuclear position. He also makes the case that this phenomenon is likely to outlive Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
The Blossoming of the Church-Nuclear Elite Nexus
Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy describes how the Church’s role steadily grew across three time periods: The first, from 1991 to 2000, is dubbed the “Genesis Decade”; the second, from 2000 to 2010, is called the “Conversion Decade”; and the final period, from 2010 to 2020, is labeled the “Operationalization Decade.” In discussing each period, Adamsky documents what he refers to as state-church relations, the faith-nuclear nexus, and strategic mythmaking. He details how attitudes toward Orthodox faith and the Church changed across the political-military-scientific elites as well as the forces responsible for parts of the nuclear mission: the Strategic Rocket Forces, the Nuclear Navy, Long-Range Aviation, the Space Forces, the Early Warning Forces, as well as the 12th GUMO, a special department of the Ministry of Defense responsible for the security and handling of Russia’s nuclear weapons.
During the Genesis Decade, Adamsky writes that “the quest for religiosity emerged as a grassroots phenomenon within the nuclear complex, and the latter entered into a covenant with the [Russian Orthodox Church].” He describes how the Church began its focused effort to develop church-military relations in an era of post-Soviet “spiritual hunger,” when the Russian military was also reeling from the war in Afghanistan. He argues that efforts by then-Patriarch Alexey and then-Metropolitan Kirill to engage the hearts and minds of the military and nuclear elites were instrumental to the conception of the relationship. During this decade, all three legs of the Russian nuclear triad gained their respective patron saints.
During the Conversion Decade, Adamsky describes how “nuclear churching became state policy” at a time when Putin was seeking to revive Russia’s greatness. He discusses the link between Putin’s personal faith and the Church’s efforts at the catechization of the military. This decade saw the creation of numerous chapels across the services as well as the beginning of official outward expressions of faith, like Long-Range Aviation aerial cross processions.
During the Operationalization Decade, Adamsky argues that “the nuclear arsenal [had] become one of the major instruments of national security, while religion [had] gained extraordinary prominence in national ideology.” Putin’s 2012 comment on the importance of the “spiritual staples” for the unity of the Russian state and society provides the backdrop for this decade. Adamsky documents the emergence of the growing self-identification of Russians as Orthodox and the Church’s efforts to turn “declared ‘believers’ into practicing ‘belongers.’” During this decade, the Russian Orthodox Church emerged as a foreign policy player, especially in the context of Ukraine and Syria. Military chaplaincy became widespread along with cross processions on military bases and underwater temples in submarines.
A Lasting Mythology or a Flash in the Pan?
Woven through the book is a masterful narrative of the Church’s use of Seraphim Sarovsky in creating the mythology of “the divine predestination of the Soviet nuclear project, epitomized by the role of St. Seraphim and the geographical location of the first Soviet nuclear weapons design bureau.” Seraphim, born in 1754, was a hermit and a spiritual elder associated with a monastery in the town of Sarov. He was canonized in 1903 for his ascetic lifestyle and teachings as well as reported healing powers at the behest of Czar Nicholas II. Soviet authorities sought to discredit Seraphim’s legacy, and, eventually, the Sarov Monastery became the site of a design bureau for Soviet nuclear weapons, while the area around it became Arzamas-16, a closed nuclear city that was sometimes referred to as “Russia’s Los Alamos.” The weapons design bureau, known by its abbreviation VNIIEF, was instrumental to the development of many Soviet nuclear weapons, including the RDS-220 Tsar Bomba hydrogen bomb.
In Adamsky’s telling, during the 1990s, then-Patriarch Alexey “‘miraculously’ discovered” Sarovsky’s relics and began promoting him as a Russian prophet. Church leadership then cultivated a mutually reinforcing relationship with VNIIEF, one that the weapons design bureau saw as instrumental during a decade in which the Russian nuclear enterprise’s state of affairs had become dire due to a lack of funding and state support. Later, in part due to the elevation of Sergey Kirienko to the head of the state nuclear corporation Rosatom in 2005, the relationship between the Church and the nuclear industry became stronger. As the Sarov Monastery was revived, VNIIEF and the Russian Orthodox Church began to support the construction of churches and organize conferences on areas of mutual convergence. At this point, there was an emergence of the narrative that the prophetic St. Seraphim had foretold and even enabled the creation of Russia’s “nuclear shield.”
This story about the deliberate creation of the narrative of the “divine predestination” of Russia’s nuclear weapons is perhaps the most important and memorable in Adamsky’s book. But it is also an example of how the author brings to bear powerful evidence that largely conforms with his central argument that the Church was generally unopposed in its actions. To be sure, he cites one critic of this unique relationship, Russian diplomat Alexey Obukhov, who argued that Russia’s nuclear weapons do not need the Church’s blessing and insisted that the Soviet authorities’ choice to develop nuclear weapons in Sarov was not a mystical coincidence, and instead pointed to “deliberate anti-religious policies of the state.” However, Adamsky’s discussion of such criticism seems largely pro-forma. Was Obukhov really the only one with a dissenting opinion at the time? It certainly seems that Church proponents were expecting much more criticism than they appear to have received.
Other stories are likewise insightful, but seem oversimplified for the sake of emphasizing Adamsky’s central argument. For example, the author discusses the 2012 creation of a department of theology at the prestigious Moscow Engineering Physics Institute as an expansion of the Church’s role in scientific higher-education institutions. But he doesn’t explore the fact that over 90 leading Russian academics criticized this development, including members of the Russian Academy of Sciences. They argued that the creation of the theology department was counter to the Russian Constitution and “to common sense,” as well as potentially counterproductive to ensuring nuclear safety. Moreover, in looking at the department’s website, it appears that its faculty consists primarily of Russian and Western historians and not just clerics from the Russian Orthodox Church. Does the faculty makeup have to do with the criticism of the department at its inception? Some additional details on what exactly it teaches and how would have been helpful to better understand the significance of the department’s creation.
A skeptical reader will also be left unsure if the book is describing an enduring phenomenon or simply how one generation of Russian elites responded to the zeitgeist. Is there substantial evidence that young nuclear scientists or military draftees and contractors are internalizing and practicing Orthodoxy? Are there pressures to participate in Church activities? Is participating in such activities something these individuals do because they want to or because not doing so will have negative effects? One doesn’t get a satisfying answer to those questions from the book.
The reader is also left wanting to know more about how the close relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the nuclear establishment might have a negative impact on the public’s perception of the latter across segments of Russian society. Recent protests in Yekaterinburg surrounding the proposed construction of a Russian Orthodox church in a public park are but one example that suggests that the public has concerns about corruption resulting from the nexus between church, state, and business. Moreover, trust in Patriarch Kirill does not appear to be very high and, according to some surveys, even though public trust in the Church has generally held steady, there are now more people who mistrust the Church than in the past.
Will the nuclear establishment’s link with the Church have no impact on how the Russian public perceives the former? It’s worth considering the recently publicized efforts by VNIIEF to procure 76 rhinestone-covered icons, 66 images, 90 triptychs, and 165 books about St. Seraphim — with a price tag of 2.3 million rubles (about $34,500). Rosatom told Tass, Russia’s largest news agency, that it is better to have these items on hand as souvenirs “instead of vodka.” It wouldn’t be out of place for the Russian public to wonder if VNIIEF’s focus should be on nuclear physics instead of the promotion of religious nuclear mythology. In this regard, however, Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy performs a valuable service by explaining the “faith-atoms nexus.”
Adamsky’s ultimate interest is in the long-term impact of this unique relationship on the nuclear enterprise and the military. In the concluding chapters, he explores potential implications that deserve careful attention from Russia scholars, including the role of the Church in bureaucratic rivalries, its role in draft and mobilization, as well as the ability of Orthodoxy to be a “promotion multiplier” by essentially facilitating the preferential treatment of Orthodox servicemen across the military. He also discusses some potential implications that are more difficult to measure, like the influence of theocratization on “conflict duration and escalation dynamics” as well as the “impact of religious beliefs on the effectiveness of deterrence.”
Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy leaves readers with a couple of big questions: Will there be a body of Orthodox jurisprudence, including on nuclear weapons? And, what impact will Orthodoxy have on nuclear operators? Adamsky asks fascinating questions that are difficult to begin to ponder, let alone answer. On the latter question, one can surmise that, during an escalating conflict, nuclear operators will be exposed to one of the greatest stresses in their lifetimes. Alongside training, faith, regardless of denomination, will play some role in their decisions and actions. But another important factor will be the nuclear operators’ beliefs in superstitions and the supernatural — beliefs the Russian Orthodox Church is strongly critical of. Maybe the “special sauce” will be the blend of faith and superstition. If so, it will probably all depend on whether the nuclear operators drink the water from St. Seraphim’s spring before they head into battle.
Anya Loukianova Fink is a research analyst at CNA and a research associate at the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland. Previously, Dr. Fink was a Nuclear Security Working Group fellow in the U.S. Senate and a Stanton Nuclear Security fellow at the RAND Corporation. She was also a program officer in nuclear materials security at the Stanley Foundation and a research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. She holds a PhD in international security and economic policy from the University of Maryland, College Park, and has native fluency in Russian. The views expressed here are her own.
Image: NASA (Photo by Bill Ingalls)