Great Patriotic War Narratives in the Russian Orthodox Church
May 7, 2023
  • Boris Knorre

    Non-Resident Fellow, Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (IERES), George Washington University.
Boris Knorre writes about how Church leaders and ordinary conservative clergy interpret the victory in the Great Patriotic War, combining the political with the mystical, and the secular Soviet with the pre-revolution Church.
During the Second World War, or Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) in the Russian tradition, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) supported the struggle of the Soviet army against Nazi Germany and prayed for victory, while some clergy themselves fought. In addition, the Church provided a small amount of material assistance to the army and families of servicemen for the purchase of technical equipment. The most striking example of targeted donations was the collection of funds in January 1943 for the Dmitry Donskoy Tank Column, for which the Church raised 8 million rubles. However, in the post-Soviet period, the ROC began to exaggerate its role in the war and to interpret the Soviet Victory over Nazi Germany as a sacred event of the significance of Easter.

The role of the Russian Orthodox Church in the Great Patriotic War: A new narrative

According to some myths, even Stalin repented for his sins against the Church. In the church milieu, the story cited by Pyotr Palamarchuk in his book Sorok Sorokov became popular, that Stalin, not out of political calculation, but following the inner call of his heart, decided to turn to the Church during the war years: “he remembered his only, unfinished education – the Tbilisi Theological Seminary... and called the clergy to the Kremlin for a prayer service for the granting of victory,” and also ordered that “the miraculous Tikhvin Icon of the Mother of God from the Tikhvin Church in the Alekseevsky Church be flown in an airplane around Moscow.” Meanwhile, Archpriest Nikolai Bulgakov even claimed that Stalin secretly took monastic vows! The church press also reported that members of the high command, like Georgy Zhukov, Ivan Konev, Leonid Govorov and others, openly testified to their faith and turned to God for help.

Church leaders, including Patriarch Alexy II (1990-2008), themselves contributed to the rethinking of the war. They not only emphasized the influence of the war on Soviet policy toward the church, but also spoke of it as a direct spiritual education that cleansed the souls of people and even encouraged soldiers to devote themselves to the Church.

According to Alexy II, many soldiers who fought in the Great Patriotic War, “after the war, began to serve God and their people as priests.” It was also emphasized in the church press that many war veterans became well-known confessors and monastics – for example, Archimandrite Kirill (Pavlov), who is an authority for many believers in Russia.

In addition, according to the Patriarch, “the war years gave a lesson in unity, mutual assistance and sacrificial love.” In other words,
“The events of 1941-45 began to be seen by the Church as part of church history itself, where it was not a passive participant, but an active player that determined the course of the war.”
Church speakers in Russia began to evaluate the war and the Victory not only in terms of its significance for their own country, but also from an international political perspective, emphasizing that the Victory contributed to world peace. Patriarch Alexy II stated in 1995, in his address during the 50th anniversary of the Victory, that for the “sacrificial love” that the war helped teach “there were neither ethnic, political, narrowly national, nor personal barriers, insults and ambitions,” and that the memory of the Victory helps “to overcome the strife of this world,” uniting the Russian people “with the countries that once made up the Soviet Union, and many peoples who were our comrades-in-arms on the fields in World War II.”
Thus, Patriarch Alexy II was ready to view geopolitics and international events as the edge of spiritual life. The preservation of the mutual understanding that developed between peoples in the Soviet Union after the war was, for him, tantamount to spiritual issues, or rather in itself a spiritual matter.

‘The Sacred War’ and heavenly host

The song The Sacred War, written, according to the official version (there are serious reasons to question its authorship) in June 1941 by the poet Vasily Lebedev-Kumach and composer Alexander Alexandrov, had much to do with why in the Soviet Union the war against Nazi Germany came to be call “sacred.” The song itself became the anthem of the defense of the fatherland in the USSR.

Arise, vast country/Arise for a fight to the death/Against the dark fascist forces,/
Against the cursed hordes.

Let noble wrath/Boil over like a wave!/This is the peoples’ war/a sacred war!

Amid Soviet atheism, the phrase “sacred war,” of course, did not have a religious meaning and until the end of the Soviet period did not imply either a Christian or an Orthodox understanding. However, after the collapse of the USSR and the onset of religious freedom, Orthodox clergy began to reflect on the song, speaking about the spiritual causes of the war and seeking to bring religious meaning to the Soviet concept of “sacred war.”

For example, a priest of the Diocese of Vyatka and Slobodskoy, Sergiy Gomayunov, claims that the name “holy” war was received “not from the depths of the God-fighting Soviet ideology, but from the deep memory of the believing people,” as in 1941 “the enemy encroached on the most sacred: faith, shrines, on the very soul of the people.”

Patriarch Alexy II did not use the concept of “sacred war” in relation to the Great Patriotic War. It was his successor Patriarch Kirill (Gundyaev) who began to explain it from a religious standpoint, saying that in the spiritual sense it is correct to call the war “sacred,” as those who fought, despite the atheistic era, were “Christ-loving warriors.”
Patriarch Kirill began to speak of the war as an event that redeemed the Soviet people: with the great losses that our people suffered in the war against the Nazis, it atoned for apostasy during the time of the Bolsheviks.
Archpriest Alexander Shargunov, a monarchist and an influential fшgure in the conservative church milieu. Source: Wiki Commons
Archpriest Alexander Shargunov, among the most zealous monarchists and influential in the conservative church environment, also argues for the “sacred” phrase, citing the fact that the war was not only for the Motherland, but also “for Truth, for Right” in the religious sense, since “by the Providence of God it was unleashed for the sake of the salvation of Russia.” However, in his interpretation Shargunov goes further: he proposes a deeper, invisible mystical reality in the Great Patriotic War, drawing attention to the fact that the date of the Nazi attack on the USSR coincided with the Feast of All Russian Saints.

In this logic, the Nazis, having attacked the USSR, declared war on the entire host of Russian saints, who in turn fought together with Soviet soldiers against the German invaders. Accordingly, in Shargunov’s analysis, “victory was achieved not only thanks to the battles, but thanks to the prayers of the holy tsar-martyr and all the new martyrs and confessors of Russia, and all the saints who shone in our land.”
Protodeacon Vladimir Vasilik, a conservative church figure, insists on a close association between the 1945 Victory and Orthodox Easter. Source: VK
A similar position is held by the prominent church leader, ultra-conservative and fundamentalist Protodeacon Vladimir Vasilik, professor at the St Petersburg Theological Academy. Like Shargunov, Vasilik sees the deeds of the “earthly” part of the Church as inseparable from the deeds of the saints who fought in the Great Patriotic War in heaven, including Nicholas II, who mysteriously appeared to some Soviet soldiers. And in this war, Vasilik finds a redemptive meaning, adding that “this redemption extends to the pre-revolution period” and “even to the entire civilized European world.”

‘Second Easter’

Interpreting the Victory as a second Easter is also widespread in the Church conservative milieu. The Orthodox conservatives and fundamentalists most active in the mass media put special emphasis on the date of May 6, 1945, which they interpret as the end of the war. The reason is that at the dawn of the following day, May 7, the first Instrument of Surrender was signed by an American and the German commanders in Reims.

In 1945, May 6 was Easter Sunday according to the Russian Orthodox calendar. Since Easter is the most important Orthodox holiday, the May 6 signing gives reason to the Russian Orthodox Church to endow the victory with a spiritual significance of the highest order.

Ironically, the Church, its strongly anti-Western stance notwithstanding, thus used the event for its own purposes, despite the fact that back in 1945 the Soviet side expressed concern to the Americans that the Reims surrender looked like a separate peace. The Soviet Union insisted on signing the legal surrender of the Third Reich on the next day, May 8, in Berlin, while May 9 has been Victory Day ever since.

May 9, celebrated in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia, is also endowed with a mystical meaning. Vasilik says that “according to the inexpressible Providence of God, May 9 is always among the Easter days” ( “Easter days,” in accordance with the Church typicon, are 40 days from the feast of Easter until the Day of Ascension). Vasilik says: “this is our second Easter – the day of salvation of the whole world from the fascist plague and the day of the resurrection of the Russian soul.”

Archpriest Alexander Shargunov also draws attention of the Orthodox audience to the fact that “the Victory Day fell on Easter days, after the feast of one of the main heavenly Russian patrons of our Fatherland, the Holy Great Martyr George the Victorious” (celebrated on May 6 every year). This feast has also a mystical meaning for Orthodox conservatives, as George the Victorious is considered a heavenly patron of Marshall Georgy Zhukov, commonly referred to as “the Marshall of Victory.”

Shargunov claims that there was an Easter dynamic at the time of the victory and that even the communist red color changed its meaning in the eyes of the Soviet people: “the red color acquired its original meaning – the color of martyrdom, the color of sacrificial self-giving, the color of Easter victory.”
Not only ordinary clergy, but also representatives of the church and state/political establishment were ready to make such mystical connections. Thus, Patriarch Alexy noted that “the Russian Orthodox Church celebrated its resurrection in 1945.”

In April 2015, the Duma and the Russian Orthodox Church jointly organized the exhibition “The Victory that Overcame the World – Our Faith,” dedicated both to Holy Pascha and the Victory in the Great Patriotic War. Anna Briskina-Muller has drawn attention to the fact that “the idea came from representatives of the Duma, the Patriarch gave his blessing, and the announcement was posted on the official website of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

The name of this exhibition refers to a passage from the Epistle of John: “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (John 5:4-5). Victory is connected with faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the main evidence of which is His resurrection, which the Church celebrates as Easter.


Soviet-era interpretations of the Great Patriotic War have thus been translated into modern church language and received a religious interpretation.
Connecting the Victory with Easter in the church consciousness is important, as it allows us to better understand the logic behind the justification of the Soviet state system by church conservatives, despite all the persecution that that system brought on the church.
Moreover, transposing biblical events onto today, a number of Orthodox conservatives perceive the suffering and exploits of the Soviet people during the Great Patriotic War as analogous to the suffering of the Jewish people during the oppression by the Egyptian pharaoh, as Vasilik does, for example. In this logic, the Great Patriotic War confirmed the right of Russia to fulfill the mission of the “Katechon“ in world history and in modern times in particular.

The Victory, in the minds of Church conservatives, acquires not only a political significance for uniting the Soviet people, but also a religious one, which undergirds this unity at a mystical level. The mystical here substantiates what is spoken politically, while the political shapes what is reinforced mystically.
Contemporary updates made to Soviet-era explanations of the war explains why in post-Soviet Orthodoxy – instead of the ideals of contemplation, asceticism or social service – triumphalism and grandeur turned out popular. This perception contributed to the strengthening of cooperation between the Church and the army, the popularization of particular “military values” by the clergy, and the militarization of Russian Orthodoxy as a whole.
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