Opinion |

Putin’s Holy War: The Messianic Myths Fueling Russia’s Assault on Ukraine

Putin has sanctified Russia's bloody war on Ukraine with a contorted but wildly popular mix of historical memory, Orthodox Christianity and messianic nationalism. It could push him towards an apocalyptic endgame

Ian Garner
Ian Garner
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the Victory Day parade in Moscow this week
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the Victory Day parade in Moscow this weekCredit: nton Novoderezhkin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Ian Garner
Ian Garner

In today’s Russia, the memorialization of World War II has become a destructive religion, and anybody who attacks the faith is decried as a "fascist." And while the Victory Day celebrations this week may not have seen the declaration of war or general mobilization that some western observers were expecting, Vladimir Putin’s spectacle amplified the contorted propaganda narrative that his country is waging a spiritual crusade against a global enemy.

In his speech to troops on Red Square, Putin reiterated Russia’s familiar justifications for its war in Ukraine. He claimed that Russia is under attack from all sides and that its "special operation" is a form of self-defense. Less apparent, however, may have been the significance of the religious symbolism in Putin’s performance.

Putin mixed historical description, mythical allusion, and religious language to build his case for war in the present. "The defense of the Motherland has always been holy," he intoned, before asserting that popular actions like the Immortal Regiment parades would keep Russia’s heroes "forever young."

Putin lauded Russia’s dedication to its "faith" — he did not specify Orthodox Christianity — before praising the young troops who are continuing the fight against "Nazism" (in Ukraine, naturally) today. The senior Orthodox priests seated alongside World War II veterans and current generals nodded along in agreement.

Putin’s big day, then, was as much about religious belief as it was about military power or the past. To understand why this has come to be — and how this bizarre mix of secular, religious, and military doctrine can appeal to Russians — we must look to centuries-old national myths.

St. Petersburg residents carry family portraits of WWII veterans in the 'Immortal Regiment' march in 2014. Putin has exploited Russia's most important secular holiday for a messianic nationalismCredit: AP Photo / Dmitry Lovetsky

Putin’s war cult is centered on the notion that Russia has a unique, messianic destiny in world history. Russian rulers have for centuries asserted that their nation is fated to defend itself from invaders seeking to destroy Moscow, which is painted as the sole bastion of Orthodox Christianity. In this national history, Russia, and therefore Christianity and humanity itself, was threatened with destruction by the Mongols in the medieval era, then the Poles, Swedes, Napoleon, and — most importantly — Hitler’s armies in 1941.

Although the Soviet era was nominally atheist, Leninist-Marxism created a kind of faith using holy books, ritualistic parades, and a gallery of saintly figures (with the immortal Lenin at their head). Above all, communist dogma accorded itself a messianic role in the vanguard of world history. Over time, this creed was intermingled with myths from the Russian past.

By the time World War II came, Stalin’s propagandists had little difficulty suggesting that the enormous sacrifices made on the Eastern Front were the latest manifestation of Russia’s destiny to play the role of global savior. The existential crisis it faced when the Wehrmacht invaded — and, in the one-sided Soviet propaganda narrative, was heroically repelled by the USSR alone — only confirmed Russia’s messianic role in world history.

Under Putin, the government has promulgated these faith-based narratives with increasing vigour while cracking down on historians and activists who discuss unwelcome aspects of the Red Army’s conduct during the war. Ordinary Russians have taken to this religion with zeal, attending parades, demonstrations, and other activities connected with Victory Day and World War II in their millions. The government claims at least a million Muscovites attended the commemorations this week.

Many Russians have enthusiastically embraced the connection — as irrational as it may be — between World War II and the present. Social media users create religiously inflected images that mix Orthodoxy, World War II, and contemporary symbolism.

'Babushka Anya,' who purportedly waved a red flag at Ukrainian forces, is now portrayed as a saintly figure: Here, alongside a WWII soldier from the Stalingrad “Motherland Calls” monumentCredit: Twitter screenshot

"Babushka Anya," the grandmother who purportedly waved a communist-era flag in defiance of Ukrainian forces, for example, has become a Russian social media phenomenon. In one widely shared graphic, she has been turned into a saintly figure who appears alongside a World War 2-era soldier, the Stalingrad "Motherland Calls" monument, illuminated by a beam of light radiating down from heaven.

In the world of Russian messianism, today’s opponents are not just political or military enemies — they are heathens who threaten to destroy not just the Russian nation but Christianity and therefore humanity.

In this nationalistic, xenophobic cult of victory, anybody who opposes Russia is labelled a "fascist," since the term is interchangeable with "heathen," "satanist," and so on. As a result, the Jewish president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, can be a "fascist" and the "antichrist," and even Israel itself can be a supporter of "neo-Nazism" and "fascism."

As irrational as this thinking is, many Russians do not merely submit to the government’s propagandists. As today’s conflict unfolds, the religiosity of many patriots seems to be growing stronger.

One Victory Day video produced by the state and disseminated in dozens of large social media groups splices images of troops in the present with footage from World War II and images of Orthodox cathedrals. The clip is set to a Tsarist hymn: "We’ll join the ranks and march into the holy battle. Arise, Russian land; defend the faith!"

Russian army Victory Day video set to Tsarist hymn: We’ll march into the holy battle. Arise, Russia!

On VK, the popular Russian social network, users shared a range of responses to the video. Some posted memes that combined military, religious, Soviet, and Russian nationalist iconography. Others shared comments that range from the banal — emojis of prayer hands, Russian flags, and urges to "Pray for our boys" — to the apocalyptic— "They who live in sin be damned by the beast. Glory to Russia!" Meanwhile, online responses to Putin’s Victory Day speech, for example, include the claim that the Russian president "is saving the whole world from fascism."

This type of monomaniacal, ahistorical thinking was a hallmark of German fascism in World War II. Now it is widespread in Russia. Leading Russian historians promise that the war in Ukraine is an essential form of "creative destruction," television pundits pontificate about nuclear war, and social media users encourage the army to commit genocidal acts.

Driven by a form of messianic religious thinking, both Putin’s acolytes and ordinary citizens are resistant to ordinary risk-reward calculations. The adherents of the faith may be willing to accept enormous human and economic losses as not just tolerable but essential to prosecute their bloody but redemptive crusade.

As the worlds looks for ways to turn Russia away from its current deadly path, engaging with, rather than dismissing, the "faith" of ordinary Russians will be crucial. Whatever happens and however abhorrent their views must be, we must learn to show these Russians different ways of thinking and being, ways in which the future can be built on construction — not destruction.

Ian Garner is an expert on Russian war propaganda and the author of "Stalingrad Lives: Stories of Combat & Survival." Twitter: @irgarner

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