Picture credit: Wojciech Grzedzinski/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The God of war

The rise of religiosity and mysticism among those fighting on both sides of the conflict in Ukraine

This article is taken from the August-September 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

 “I thought it had saved my life,” said Sergey Shastak, referring to a sunflower field that offered a camouflaged lifeline to the escaping prisoner of the Russian army back to the Ukrainian lines. Climbing through the drooping stalks, he soon discovered he was in a minefield. To his left, a unit of Ukrainian troops were assaulting the village outside Makiivka. Mortars began to fall. No time to look out for mines. Running, amid strafing bullets and exploding metal he felt light of foot as he made his break for safety. A strange sense, that this time, having come so far, he was not going to die.

Why? “I don’t know, man. I felt, in that moment, that someone else was in control of my body.” Who? “This I cannot explain. You have to start thinking about things like God.”

Since the dawn of modern war, there have been clumsy attempts to define this almost mystical relationship between religion, faith and war. “There are no atheists in foxholes,” is a maxim that may have emerged from the outpouring of spiritualism and superstition in the First World War’s trenches, going on to work itself into US army sermons during the war in the Pacific. 

Faced with the horror of modern war, men do strange things. Some see fairies and angels. Others find themselves praying. They make promises to God. Some lose faith in everything forever. Faith, as one chaplain told me dryly, “offers one way of making sense of it all”.

Academics, historians and psychologists have sought to make sense of this paradox. How have the horrors of modern warfare come to re-enchant the world? In one study, an analysis of WW2 veterans who faced some of the fiercest fighting found an increase in religiosity compared to those with no, or less combat experience. A 2019 Harvard study has purported to show that a majority of those involved in conflicts not driven by religious or ethnic tensions experienced a similar resurgence of faith that can persist for a lifetime.

Of course, each response is unique, determined by both the individual and the conflict. Recent historical scholarship of faith and the First World War, working against the popular reappraisal that the war helped kill God, has focused on the idiosyncratic “trench religions” that bled out of the war into the twentieth century religions of new age spiritualism, psychology and psychiatry.

The desire to transcend, to move beyond the horrors of modern warfare found a crucible in the mud and blood of the trenches. Confronted with modernity’s most rational and efficient killing machines, man finds himself returning to his most base faith and superstitions. War demands its own personal theology.

The war in Ukraine, like all wars, has also elicited a unique spiritual response. Young men eviscerated by kamikaze drones are martyred as heroes through digital shrines on social media channels. Death and sacrifice becomes part of the national consciousness, a mediator to the new idea of Ukraine emerging from the nightmare of war crimes and its own trench warfare. 

Catherine Wanner, an historian who has followed expression of faith in the country since the start of the war in 2014, has come to describe an “affective atmosphere of religiosity”. This is a war, she argues, that has allowed individuals to seize “a great deal of agency”, from the transcendent power of religious institutions.

“Killing and surviving is my religion,” says one rugged veteran of the Donbas when I put the theory to him. “This is not a stupid Hollywood movie.” A Scotsman fighting with the international brigade indulges the idea slightly differently. When pressed to explain how he copes with the “fucking terrifying”, experience of being shelled, he plays me a video from his foxhole: leaves swaying gently in summer breeze amid the screaming of shellfire. “You can always find something to calm you down if you look hard enough.”

Away from the front line, the candled darkness of Ukraine’s churches offer the most immediate vestige of spiritual consolation. Travelling through the country, the gold domes and bells lend an ethereal form to its war-ravaged cities and villages. Priests confirm what has loosely been reported in the press: that despite an exodus of refugees, church attendances are up. 

Mothers pray for their sons. Soldiers are offered grace before they head to the front line. Of course, not everyone comes to pray. There is the consolation of silence, of refuge by some long-debunked logic that here is a sacred space immune to the consequences of war.

In Kharkiv I experienced this new-found religiosity by accident. In the north of the city, site of some of the heaviest fighting, a monument to Chernobyl was now surrounded by a new disaster. Beneath the great mounds of toppled apartment blocks, locals reported how in the summer the smell of blossom mingled with the stench of unrecoverable bodies. Now, in sub-zero winter freeze, the inhabitants of Kharkiv moved like waifs through the blackout darkness towards the sacral glow of an evening service.

The cross before the altar was not the first I had seen that day. My early sin had been to break the seal of an abandoned home. A ground floor flat in a half-wrecked building where clothes lay strewn across the floor and dishes sat unwashed in the sink. Over the cold silence of the room stood a cross on the wall, empty and lifeless as the gutted apartment block itself.

The 2022 invasion of Ukraine has been described as the first religious war of the twenty-first century. Putin derives the unity of the Russian and Ukrainian people through the tenth-century baptismal rite sourced in the river Dnieper. Nuclear weapons are blessed with holy oil. Kremlin officials talk of a “holy war”, a Manichean struggle between the forces of good and evil in its search to exert a spiritual and cultural Empire throughout the Russkiy Mir.

Russians are not necessarily regular churchgoers, but since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the revival of Orthodoxy has emerged as the lifeblood of the country. This resurgent faith, which, as the historian Karl Schlögel describes, spread across the country like a “spiritual reconquista”, has come to be utilised by the modern Russian state as a governing tool. The marriage of church and state is consciously modelled by Putin as a return to the nineteenth-century model of Tsarist government, providing the spiritual basis from which to uphold an authoritarian system of values based around tradition and family.

It is also this national religious identity that has been weaponised in a spiritual war of values against the West. As with most narratives in modern Russia, it can be hard to comprehend the idea of a Holy War — which oscillates between the sacred and the absurd. On the eve of the Ukrainian counter-offensive, the country’s oldest Orthodox icon was put on display in Moscow to, in the words of Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Church, “ask God to help our country”, at a time when the “fatherland is confronting massive enemy forces”.

The holy message has filtered down to the country’s propagandists. Vladimir Solovyov, a television presenter who in 2013 appeared on a New Year’s programme dancing in the audience to a Zelensky performance, now presents himself as an apologist for nuclear war while indulging in the rhetoric of the divine. “Life is highly overrated,” he told viewers on his talk show. “Why fear what is inevitable? Especially when we’re going to heaven.” Russian tabloids have reported on “Orthodox Battalions” whose priests have apparently inspired offensives and reduced casualties.

Andrei Tkachev, a preacher-cum-Russian army social media influencer takes it all a step further. “Don’t load the rocket system without saying a prayer,” he tells his 1.5 million followers on Telegram. Tkachev, a graduate of the Ministry of Defence’s Faculty of Special Propaganda, who was ordained as a priest in Ukraine, has previously proclaimed that Russia is “the new Israel”, which is “hated by God’s enemies”.

There are signs that as the war has prolonged and worsened this apocalyptic religiosity has come to have a hold on the army. Analysts Irina Boragan and Andrei Soldatov have described a new “wave of mysticism” among the previously cynical upper echelons of the Russian army and FSB. According to their “conspiratorial mindset”, the West is pursuing war with Russia due to its unique religious identity. Following defeats on the battlefield, military telegram channels now circulate orthodox icons, and outpourings of vengeful piety.

For the West, like the invasion itself, these sermons arrive as a further aberration to “the end of history”. In Ukraine, whose recent history has shared in the post-Soviet renaissance of Orthodoxy, there is a more painful discord. Eighty per cent of Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians, with half the country saying that being Orthodox is part of what it means to be Ukrainian. The Orthodox Church has served as one of the deeper links between the two countries, with the historian Serhii Plokhy describing it as “one of the last institutional and spiritual links uniting many Ukrainians citizens with Russia”.

Prior to the invasion, Metropolitan Onuphriy, head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, was a prominent supporter of ties with Moscow. He had previously described Ukraine’s aspirations to join the EU as “a travesty”. On the morning of the invasion, as Russian troops surged across the border, he addressed the nation, invoking the sin of Cain “who killed his brother out of jealousy” to condemn the “fratricidal war”.

Now as the war rages, a religious fault line has appeared across the country that runs through its holiest sites and smallest parishes. Ukrainian Orthodoxy had previously split in 2018 over ties to Moscow, with the 2022 invasion accelerating the schism. Hundreds of parishes have since joined the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, with one poll putting affiliation to the old Moscow- affiliated Church as low as four per cent.

This has all come to a symbolic head at the Pechersk Lavra cave monastery in Kyiv, one of the country’s holiest sites set before the River Dnieper, where the first Christians were baptised in Ukraine. In November, the Ukrainian security services raided the 1,000-year-old monastery after a visitor noticed the priests praying for the Russian army. Monks were strapped up to lie detectors as the holy caves were searched for weapons.

Behind the unprecedented action was a broader sense of betrayal by certain members of the Russian-affiliated clergy. Clergy have been arrested for fraternisation with the enemy. In Bucha, a priest had offered benedictions to the invaders, and was even said to have offered up locals as potential collaborators in a town now famous for its mass graves of tortured corpses.

Speaking to the Financial Times about the raid on the Pechersk Lavra Monastery, Archbishop Yevstratiy, a member of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine made his feelings clear about removing the influence of the old Moscow-affiliated Church from the country: “Moscow understands that, as long as it holds this heart in its hand, Russian influence will return, that it will conquer Ukraine and reimpose sacred unity.”

Father Andriy Zelinskyy has mercurial blue eyes and a way of talking that makes you listen. The military chaplain spent three years in Donbas and is part of a broader cohort of religious figures on the front line who have come to embody Ukraine’s own spiritual response to Russia’s war. “War is now a part of my life,” he says when I ask him how it has changed his relationship with God. Three years administering to soldiers. Watching them fight, watching them die. There is only one question I want to ask. If this is a holy war for Russia, then what is it for Ukraine?

He speaks of God as reality, of truth. The Church, he argues, is a way to see back to the values of modernity and global order that have been destroyed by the invasion; “To believe in the truth, and not its manipulation through lies.” For him, above all it is the violence of war, the mutilated bodies, the rapes and the torture that haunt him. “You are still living in a world that no longer exists,” he tells me. If this is a holy war then it’s one to “redefend basic human values”, against those who have “nothing to do with the word of Christ”.

Travelling through Ukraine, church-going starts to become a means of escapism. The mood is different to when I first came over last Christmas at the back end of a broader Western crusade of journalists, war tourists and idealistic volunteers. These were the days when the government still promised good news from Bakhmut and when Swiss students volunteering as humanitarian aid workers with blue and yellow ribbons shouted “slava ukraini” in the streets. “Perhaps this war is not for them,” says one local fixer, reflecting on their decline in numbers.

There is inertia, pessimism. A dreadful sense, with the nightly air raid sirens, that it might go on and on. In the absence of decisive news from the front, the effects of death and destruction, of a country changed forever, start to dawn. “She does not watch the news, she does not care about the counter-offensive,” says one priest to me in a Church in Lviv, pointing out a lady who now comes daily. “She cares only that her son is somewhere fighting in the East. Maybe he is dead. I don’t know.”

“The war doesn’t mean the end of Ukraine,” Father Andriy Zelinskyy had previously said to an audience in Kyiv. “It is the beginning of a Ukraine that we don’t know yet.” For the new Ukraine, it may be the country’s religious response to Russia’s holy war that provides it with the greatest depth of meaning.

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