Military chaplains: Serving God, and mother Russia
May 21, 2013
On a snowy field in the Ryazan region, 100 miles southeast of Moscow,
five burly, bearded Russian Orthodox priests fall to the ground, arms
held skywards. They’re not praying, however – but preparing for their
next parachute jump.
Soon, the chaplains will take to the skies with regular military cadets
in an Air Force plane, jump and pull the cord – hoping that God is
watching over them, and their parachutes open.
The priests are the latest recruits to the growing army of military
chaplains – now almost a thousand – who now serve with Russia’s armed
forces, including abroad, at bases across the former Soviet Union.
The recruitment of military chaplains has been stepped up in recent
months, as President Vladimir Putin has increasingly put traditional
Orthodox values at the heart of his administration’s policy since his
return to the Kremlin last year. (He has also unveiled plans to increase
defence spending by 11 pc a year.)
The chaplains’ mission – to boost the morale of Russian soldiers and
reinforce a sense of patriotic duty in society – comes as Mr Putin is
seeking to build support for a conservative coalition to counter the
threat of Western liberal influences, such as those exemplified by
anti-Kremlin street protestors, foreign-funded NGOs and the [deleted]
On the field with the parachuting priests is Father Mikhail Vasilyev,
41, a veteran chaplain who has served alongside Russian troops in
military conflicts in Kosovo, Chechnya and Kyrgyzstan, and is now in
charge of the Church’s relations with the Parachute Forces.
A 10-by-30 foot flatpack church also lands on the drop zone, and is
quickly assembled by the priests and cadets. The IKEA-style kit “comes
very convenient in the mountains, where there are no airfields,” Father
Vasilyev says, adding that about 7,000 servicemen received Communion “in
the field” last year.
On the last of Father Vasilyev’s 11 parachute jumps, the unthinkable
happened: his first parachute didn’t open, and the second one only began
to open at 2,000 feet above the ground, which was too late to cushion
the blow completely.
He suffered a spinal fracture, and hasn’t jumped since. “I survived by
the grace of God,” he says. “When you jump out of a plane with a bag
behind your back, only God knows whether the bag will turn into a
The jumps are just one form of training undergone in two-month courses
by prospective chaplains, who also learn to load and fire a rifle, work
as a tank gunner, drive an armoured personnel carrier and use a
The chaplains are carrying out the Orthodox Church’s patriotic mission:
holding religious services for the military, and consecrating all kinds
of military kit with holy water, from ships to rockets.
Next week, Father Vasilyev will personally consecrate the tanks, rocket
launchers and other military vehicles that will rumble onto Red Square
for Moscow’s May 9 Victory Day parade, held in front of Mr Putin and
other world leaders to celebrate the 68th anniversary of the Soviet
Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.
“This tradition started about 10 years ago,” says Father Vasilyev. “I do
it every year with one or two comrades-in-arms. We consecrate all the
vehicles in the parade, at the commanders’ request. The Church blesses
the use of these weapons for defence of the weak, not for conquest.”
The Orthodox Church’s association with Russian patriotism goes back a
long way, to the times of the tsars, whose credo, “Orthodoxy, Autocracy
and Nationality,” has strong echoes in Russian politics and society today.
Although the Church was persecuted under the Bolsheviks and churches
blown up by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, during World War II he allowed
Orthodox priests to hold services to promote a patriotic crusade in
defence of the Soviet motherland.
The drive to recruit more chaplains has really taken off since the
appointment of Sergei Shoigu, a close ally of President Putin’s, as
Defence Minister late last year.
The ministry has hired 15 chaplains in the last month alone, says
Archpriest Sergiy Privalov, who is in charge of the Church’s relations
with the Armed Forces. Recruitment was slow under the previous Defence
Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, who was sacked amid a corruption scandal.
“Serdyukov obstructed the hiring of chaplains,” he says.
For Father Vasilyev, however, the government’s big picture plans for
chaplains are less important than just offering moral guidance and
support to soldiers in difficult situations.
Before his first stint as a chaplain in Kosovo in 1999, he recalls, “I
never saw wounds or bleeding people – it makes you feel sick.”
During the next four years, he made five to 10 trips to Chechnya a year,
from several days to a month, to conduct religious services for soldiers
during the Second Chechen War. “Many of the soldiers were teenagers,
just teenagers who were handed guns,” he says. “They needed a priest’s
help to retain their sanity.”
Reflecting on this month’s bombing of the Boston marathon by two Chechen
brothers, Father Vasilyev says that it is “no coincidence” that radical
Islamic terrorism has taken root in the North Caucasus – but he puts it
down to a lack of traditional Muslim education.
“One reason for escalating extremism is poor education and a
misunderstanding of Muslim traditions,” says Father Vasilyev. “Islamic
traditions in the North Caucasus aren’t old or strong enough – there
people did not convert into Islam until the 17th and 18th centuries.
Because traditions have not taken root there, it’s a fertile ground for
evangelists of extremism.”
More servicemen are baptised in wartime, Vasilyev says. “One often turns
to God in the face of danger,” he says, recalling “how natural it felt
to pray walking on a minefield.”
In addition to conducting services, he organised care packages for
Russian soldiers in Chechnya, bringing them everything from sweets,
socks and mittens to shaving kits, satnavs and chainsaws.
He also helped evacuate elderly Russians from Grozny to the Moscow
region, where they were later housed in retirement homes.
“They were abandoned old people, many had lost their families,” he says.
“We had to search for them in ruined houses, in dugouts and elsewhere.”
Soldiers seek Father Vasilyev’s advice in all sorts of situations: about
a girl they want to propose to, if they doubt whether if they should
stay in the army, or when they’ve suffered a serious injury.
“My aim is to help as many soldiers as possible to go into the Kingdom
of Heaven,” he says. “We help servicemen stay humane, keep them from
turning into beasts.”
But he admits the job of a chaplain is often much more mundane.
“Realistically, it’s to have as few of them as possible cheat on their
wives or betray their motherland. It’s not my responsibility to deal
with hazing, but I still set unrealistic goals for myself – to fight
sin, humiliation and bad language.”