One of the best examples today of how the church and Kremlin work hand in hand to advance Russian nationalist projects is an exhibition: “Russia — My History” — organized by the government with the Russian Orthodox Church. On display throughout the Russian Federation, it glorifies Russian autocrats, including Ivan the Terrible and Stalin, as great leaders, while vilifying as Western agents the Decembrists, a group of young Russian officers who sought to introduce reforms and a constitution in 1825. Portraits of President Putin and Alexander Pushkin, the founder of modern Russian literature, hang together. Similarly, Dostoyevsky is paired with a Russian fascist philosopher, Ivan Ilyin, whose little-known works have been revived under Mr. Putin.
The exhibition’s explicit message is that Russia’s size and geopolitical ambitions demand a strong, even if repressive, leader to solidify the country and defy its enemies in the West. This timeworn argument, often used to justify autocracy, is now being fused with a religious doctrine earlier propounded by Ilyin: Russia is a unique and separate Christian civilization whose responsibilities are only to God.
The exhibition is a brainchild of Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, who is known for his strong nationalist views and for being Mr. Putin’s confessor. He is also behind a project to rename Russia’s main airports after Russian “heroes.” The list consists almost completely of ethnic Russian men, either military figures or scientists, who contributed to Russia’s military might. Conspicuously, Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet nuclear bomb, who also received the Nobel Peace Prize for human rights campaigning, is missing from the list.
Alongside those developments, the role of the church and its influence in the government and the military have been steadily growing. Russia’s Defense Ministry is completing a construction of its own cathedral, billed as the third largest of the Orthodox Christian churches. The ministry recently announced that the cathedral’s steps will be made out of melted German armor captured in World War II.
The newfound religious zeal of the military establishment imitates Mr. Putin’s own personal ties with Bishop Tikhon. At a meeting with a group of Russian leaders on Oct. 18, the president’s use of apocalyptic rhetoric was startling. He declared that Russia was not afraid of anyone and that the Russian people were ready to sacrifice themselves for the motherland. As for the use of nuclear weapons, he said that if Russia is attacked, “we will respond, and we will end up in paradise as martyrs, while they will simply croak because they will have no time to repent.”
“They,” of course, is the West, which has now been transformed by propagandists from a mere geopolitical foe into an enemy of the true Christian faith represented by Moscow.
In reality, however, Mr. Putin’s Russia has reached a dead end. His policies have only led Russia into deeper isolation, now in matters worldly and holy alike. Seemingly unable to change course, Mr. Putin’s regime is desperately searching for an ideology in the dark corners of Russian history and theology. The fact that this ideology depends on creating a nationalist and anti-Western rhetoric alongside a vision of an Orthodox Christian Holy Russia should give anyone pause for serious concern.
Michael Khodarkovsky is a professor of history at Loyola University Chicago.