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Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, politics, and strategy, by Dimitry Adamsky

03 April 2020

Alexander Faludy looks at faith and firepower

THE tragic coincidence of the blinding explosion of the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima with the Feast of the Transfiguration in 1945 is oft remarked. Less appreciated is the intertwining of Russian Orthodoxy and Russia’s nuclear-armaments infrastructure since the disintegration of the USSR in 1991. Adamsky’s Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy bridges that gap.

In the turbulence that followed the Soviet collapse, the Russian Orthodox Church re-established its place as guardian of Russian social cohesion, offering disorientated people a superstructure of meaning. The missile tips of Russia’s nuclear arsenal spearheaded the ROCs advance into the defence sector as a whole (Chapter 1).

The author presents a staged progress starting (1990s, Chapters 2-4) with the Church’s pastoral care for beleaguered nuclear-sector operatives; progressing (2000s, Chapters. 5-7) through institutional integration; before reaching cultural symbiosis (2010s, Chapters. 8-10). Adamsky terms these phrases “Genesis”, “Conversion”, and “Operationalization”. A future “Theocratization” of nuclear strategy, whereby Orthodox values shape atomic policy, appears to him a beckoning possibility (Chapter 11).

Siting the main Soviet-era atomic research facility (Arzamas-16) in the requisitioned, isolated, Sarov monastery of St Seraphim laid foundations for subsequent, post-communist spiritualising of nuclear research; successive Patriarchs of Moscow have extolled atomic scientists as “eremites” (hermits). Today, Russian Orthodox priests routinely bless test launches and nuclear submarines, and have iconostases installed during construction, along with their reactor cores.

More worrying is the Moscow Patriarchate’s endorsement of the theorist Egor Kholmogorov, who places Russia’s nuclear vocation within eschatological parameters: “nuclear weapons are the guarantee . . . that at the moment of the Second Coming the worldly Rus and the Heavenly Rus will indeed meet and that the existence of the world Rus will not be terminated ahead of time.”

Adamsky, a political scientist, is well situated to assess this synergy. A member of Russia’s Jewish diaspora (Israeli by residence, Muscovite by birth), he is culturally proximate enough to interpret the material knowledgeably, but detached enough to assess it critically.

This outsider-insider perspective is basically advantageous. Nevertheless, the fact that the author inhabits neither Orthodoxy nor broader Christian theology also causes problems.

Talk of “house churches” on nuclear sites translates domovoi khram literally, but is misleading. These are institutional spaces: private chapels within nuclear establishments, not religious gatherings in people’s homes. Talk of St Seraphim Sarovsky as “God’s Pleasurer” is unfortunate; the “Feast of The Configuration” (sic) suggests a celestial software patch.

Nobody can be omnicompetent; it would be unfair to expect Adamsky to know theology in the depth thta he knows security policy. Stanford should, however, have sought a religion specialist’s advice to complement the gratefully acknowledged inputs from defence-studies and geo-politics referees during peer review. Timely intervention can forestall distracting blemishes.

Other publishing quirks are likewise frustrating. Adamsky gives plentiful pointers to “Nuclear Iconography”, such as the panel that Patriarch Kirill gave in 2016 to the director of VNIEFF, the Russian atomic-research agency. This icon combines scenes from St Seraphim’s life with episodes in Russian nuclear history. The reader yearns to glimpse it and other referenced pictures. Sadly, the volume is not illustrated. Lack of a bibliography is problematic for a book positioned at the intersection of several disparate research fields whose scholars need help to understand each other’s literature better.

The power of nuclear fission inspires both awe and fear; this is a book to read with both admiration and some caution.

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a priest pursuing studies in law.


Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy: Religion, politics, and strategy
Dimitry Adamsky
Stanford University Press £24.99
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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