The Russian Army and Religion

By Evans, George | Contemporary Review, February 1994 | Go to article overview

The Russian Army and Religion


Evans, George, Contemporary Review


DEMOCRATIC reforms in Russia and the reorganisation of the armed forces have created conditions which now permit religion to play a greater role in shaping the moral outlook of Russian servicemen. Such was the intelligence conveyed by Moscow's Defence Ministry to the last annual international conference of Service chaplains in Budapest. Clearly an important statement of policy but what did it mean in practice?

The senior Russian delegate, Lieutenant-Colonel Boris Lukichev, head of the government department which liaises between the State and religious and cultural organisations said, in a carefully-scripted but revealing survey of religious observance among servicemen, it meant, among other things, that additional responsibility had been placed upon the Defence Ministry making it in turn responsible for securing the rights of religious believers in the armed forces. Today, he told the assembled padres, ties between the military and the church were being actively developed and strengthened. This was taking place on the initiative of servicemen who had become more outspoken about their religious beliefs and were seeking to satisfy their spiritual needs.

The Ministry of Defence now supplied religious literature for military libraries. Officers took part in round table discussions and seminars with religious organisations. The clergy visited army establishments, schools and families. They blessed recruits and looked after them spiritually during their training. There was deep interest in some of the church's most important functions, in particular in the consolation it offered in time of stress and spiritual discomfort and also in the role of chaplains and the moral support they could provide in tackling such problems as drug abuse, alcoholism and brutality.

Some of his audience -- drawn from the armed forces of both East and West, including former hardline communist states such as Albania and Bulgaria -- could only speculate on the internal pressures which had brought about such a revolutionary change of policy, demolishing at a stroke as it were, one of the principal canons of Marxism. It was not just a question of paying lip service to religion but of actively and officially promoting it by distributing religious literature to the troops, even pocket Bibles, thousands of which were being provided by North American Protestant churches. There was not much doubt, a few with long memories reflected, how Stalin, who once mockingly asked how many divisions the Pope had, would have dealt with such heresy.

There are compelling reasons for official acceptance of the so-called new attitude to religious freedom in the Russian forces. Foremost among them is the threatened collapse of discipline in large echelons of the army since the dismantling of the Soviet Union. That this should coincide with a growing awareness of religion among servicemen is something of a paradox but despite seventy years of Marxist denunciation, religious belief clearly still exists among many long since thought to be immune to it.

The evidence for this presented to the conference was the findings of a 'sociological poll to evaluate servicemen's religiousness' which the Ministry of Defence now conducts at two year intervals, based on a representative national sample of one thousand servicemen. The latest such survey revealed that twenty-five per cent are believers, five per cent of whom said they were 'active believers'; thirty per cent declared themselves to be 'passive believers' with a further thirty-five per cent wavering between belief and atheism. Only ten per cent claimed to be convinced atheists. The conclusion to be drawn from this, observed the Lieutenant-Colonel, was that a quarter of Russian servicemen were 'not free from religious conceptions' which is one way of putting it.

It is in the light of such findings that a few senior commanders have begun to wonder openly whether religion might not have a part to play in inculcating moral values and a sense of discipline. …

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