What a cathedral and a massive military parade show Putin’s Russia


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(THE CONVERSATION) May 9, 2022 marks the 77th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. Victory Day is traditionally a day to honor veterans and hold a huge parade in Moscow to show off the country’s military prowess.

Under President Vladimir Putin, May 9 has become one of Russia’s most revered holidays. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov described it as “our country’s holiest holiday. It has been and will remain the most sacred holiday for all Russians,” according to the Defense Blog.

Many scholars have studied how World War II became the cornerstone of Russian nationalism during Putin’s time in power. This is also reflected in Russian rhetoric about its war in Ukraine. Russian leaders described the invasion as a fight against “neo-Nazis” and a holy war.

This fusion of World War II, religion and Russian nationalism is embodied in an unusual building: the Main Church of the Russian Armed Forces, on the outskirts of Moscow. The massive khaki-colored cathedral in a military theme park was opened in June 2020 and celebrates Russian might. The inauguration was supposed to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, but it was delayed due to the pandemic.

Designed by Russia’s Defense Minister after the country’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the cathedral embodies the powerful ideology championed by Putin, with the support of the Russian Orthodox Church.

As a scholar of nationalism, I consider this militant religious nationalism to be one of the key elements of Putin’s motivation for the invasion of Ukraine, my native country. It also largely explains Moscow’s behavior toward the collective “West” and the post-Cold War world order.

Angels and guns

The bell tower of the Armed Forces Church is 75 meters high, symbolizing the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. The diameter of its dome is 19.45 meters (64 ft), marking the year of victory: 1945. A smaller dome measures 14.18 meters (47 ft), representing the 1,418 days that the war lasted. The trophy weapons are melted into the ground so that every step is a blow to the defeated Nazis.

The frescoes celebrate Russia’s military might throughout history, from medieval battles to modern wars in Georgia and Syria. Archangels lead heavenly and earthly armies, Christ wields a sword, and the Blessed Mother, depicted as the homeland, lends support.

“Cradles” of Christianity

The murals also celebrate the occupation of Crimea which began in 2014, with cheering people holding a banner that reads “We are together”.

When Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula to Ukraine in 2014, the Russian Orthodox Church celebrated, calling Crimea the “cradle” of Russian Christianity. This mythology is inspired by the medieval story of Prince Vladimir, who converted to Christianity in the 10th century and was baptized in Crimea. The prince then imposed the faith on his subjects in kyiv, and it spread from there.

The Russian Orthodox Church, also called the Moscow Patriarchate, has long claimed this event as its fundamental history. The Russian Empire, which bonded with the Church, also adopted this fundamental history.

“Russian World”

Putin and the head of the Russian Church, Patriarch Kirill, have resurrected these ideas about empire for the 21st century in the form of the so-called “Russian world” – giving new meaning to a phrase that dates back to medieval ages.

In 2007, Putin established a Russian World Foundation, tasked with promoting Russian language and culture around the world, as a cultural project preserving Kremlin-approved interpretations of history.

For the Church and State, the idea of ​​the “Russian world” encompasses a mission to make Russia a spiritual, cultural and political center of civilization, to counter what they see as liberal and secular ideology of the West. This vision has been used to justify policies at home and abroad.

The Great Patriotic War

Another planned mosaic depicted the celebrations of the defeat of Soviet forces against Nazi Germany – the Great Patriotic War, as WWII is called in Russia. The image included soldiers holding a portrait of Josef Stalin, the dictator who led the USSR during the war, among a crowd of decorated veterans. This mosaic would have been removed before the opening of the church.

The Great Patriotic War occupies a special, even sacred, place in the Russian view of history. The Soviet Union suffered immense losses – 26 million lives is a conservative estimate. Besides the devastation, many Russians ultimately view the war as a sacred war, in which the Soviets defended their homeland and the entire world against the evil of Nazism.

Under Putin, the glorification of war and Stalin’s role in victory reached epic proportions. Nazism, for very good reasons, is seen as a manifestation of ultimate evil.

The rhetoric of this militant nationalism was on display when Russia threatened to invade Ukraine and eventually did. Putin has always claimed that the Ukrainian government was run by Nazis, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even compared Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – who is Jewish – to Adolf Hitler.

These claims are absurd. However, portraying the kyiv government as evil helps the Kremlin paint the war in Ukraine in black and white.

Putin also spoke of brotherly relations between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples and denied the existence of the Ukrainian state. According to him, the sovereignty of Ukraine is an example of extreme and chauvinistic nationalism.

Patriarchs and Parades

Patriarch Kirill, who called Putin’s rule a “miracle of God”, said the Church of the Russian Armed Forces “hopes that future generations will take up the spiritual torch of past generations and save the Fatherland from enemies internal and external”.

Since the start of the invasion, Kirill has defended it, portraying the conflict as having “metaphysical significance”, as he put it in a sermon shortly after the war began.

This religious nationalism will be displayed on May 9. However, the realities of war forced parade organizers to scale down this year’s celebrations to Moscow, where the biggest Victory Day ceremonies traditionally take place. Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials quoted in Western media have claimed that the Russian military is planning to hold celebrations in Mariupol.

US officials suggested Russian forces were under pressure to declare victories by May 9. But the war has been going on for more than two months, with heavy casualties, prompting US and British officials to wonder if the Kremlin might announce an escalation, while Ukrainians wonder what’s next.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on March 2, 2022.

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