Policy Papers

Spiritual security in Putin’s Russia

Julie Elkner |

Executive Summary

  • This paper provides an introduction to a new concept that has recently entered the Russian political vocabulary: the concept of 'spiritual security'.
  • The idea that spiritual security is an important component of national security has gained considerable currency both on the fringes of Russian politics, and in the mainstream. Spiritual security is listed as a subset of national security in a number of official policy documents issued by the Putin government. This is a new development whose potential significance has been overlooked by western commentators.
  • The current concern with spiritual security encapsulates a number of key political undercurrents and trends in contemporary Russia. The growing body of literature on spiritual security has the capacity to illuminate emerging visions of Russia's future development.
  • Ostensibly, the government's focus on spiritual security is designed to preserve and strengthen ancient traditional Russian values. When viewed in historical context, however, the discourse of spiritual security reveals greater affinities with Soviet-style attitudes towards ideological subversion.
  • The emerging preoccupation with spiritual security has important political implications, particularly when viewed in conjunction with the increasingly pervasive celebration of the secret police in Russian public life under Putin.


In March 2002, a unique ceremony took place in central Moscow: the consecration of an Orthodox Church on the territory of the Lubianka headquarters of the Federal Security Agency (FSB), the chief successor to the KGB in contemporary Russia. Reportedly the fruit of an initiative of Putin dating to his tenure as FSB director, the ceremony set the seal on the special relationship between the FSB and the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), reinforced by a symbolic exchange of gifts between Patriarch Aleksi II and FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev. Deputy FSB Director Vladimir Shul'ts hailed the consecration of the church as a 'truly emblematic event', and indeed, when viewed in the light of the complex and dramatic history of relations between the secret police and the Orthodox Church, this ceremony triggers chains of associations - though not necessarily the ones Shul'ts had in mind.

Arguably, this occasion provided an ideal opportunity to stage a ceremony of forgiveness and reconciliation, celebrating the beginning of a new chapter in relations between the Russian security apparatus and the Church. Yet instead both sides kept silent, just as though the historical atrocities perpetrated against the Church by the FSB's predecessors had never happened. Rather, the ceremony focused on the need for concerted actions aimed at combating the current threats posed to Russia's 'spiritual security', as the Patriarch put it. In using the phrase 'spiritual security', the Patriarch was in tune with a particular strain of the prevailing Russian Zeitgeist. Spiritual security is a concept that is very much on the public agenda in contemporary Russia. The purported interests of spiritual security are increasingly being invoked by a range of political actors in a range of contexts.

The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church makes frequent reference to the concept, and the Russian Orthodox University's Law Faculty has instituted a course in 'Spiritual Security'. Spiritual security has become an academic buzzword, presumably useful for securing the allocation of state funding for related research, and it has been the subject of discussions of school curriculum policy. Paradoxically enough, the Communist Party has also taken up the notion of spiritual security as part of its ideological arsenal - in June 2003, for example, it was a Communist Party initiative that led to Russian parliamentary hearings being held on spiritual security.

The new ideologues of spiritual security are also taking their cue from the Kremlin. Spiritual security is treated as an important subset of national security in a number of official policy documents adopted by Putin, including the National Security Concept of the Russian Federation (adopted January 2000), and the Information Security Doctrine of the Russian Federation (adopted September 2000). Putin's plenipotentiary representatives in the country's regions have emphasised the importance of spiritual security, apparently on Putin's express instructions. Moscow Mayor Luzhkov, and Russian Security Council Secretary Rushailo have also both used the phrase recently.

The concept of spiritual security, then, occupies an important position on the current Russian political landscape. Yet this is not something that has been examined in the western literature on Putin's Russia to date. This article provides an introduction to the concept and the ways in which it is being deployed in contemporary Russian public life, as well as exploring some of its possible political implications.

Spiritual security is a concept that has quite liberal origins. Its emergence can be traced to the March 1992 Russian federal law on security, whose adoption represented a pointed rejection of the old Soviet paradigm of security. At the time, an emphasis on the importance of 'spiritual values', which were mentioned in the first article of the law, was intended to flag a shift away from Soviet militant atheism and from state persecution of religious believers. Subsequently, however, this linkage of security and spirituality has been taken up and used for ends which are far removed from the principles guiding the legislators of the early 1990s.

In some respects, the politics of spiritual security in Russia resemble the politics of traditionalism elsewhere in the world. What is distinctive, however, is the intimate linkage between so-called traditional values and what is known in Russia as 'chekism' (derived from 'Cheka', the name of the first Soviet secret police) - that is, what we might define as the ideological system legitimising and guiding the activities of the Soviet, and now the Russian security apparatus. The traditional values invoked in connection with Russia's spiritual security often turn out upon closer inspection to have their roots not in pre-revolutionary tsarist Russian history, but in the Soviet past, and in the Soviet regime's attitude towards ideological subversion in particular.

Spiritual security and religious freedom

The most direct and obvious ramifications of the new preoccupation with spiritual security concern religious life. One of the key forces pushing spiritual security onto the public agenda has been a strong anti-cult movement, focused in the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. This movement, which first gathered momentum in the mid-1990s, was formed in response to the influx of new religious groups into Russia in the earlier part of that decade, especially after the passage of the liberal law 'On Freedom of Religious Denomination' in October 1990.

The struggle over how to handle 'non-traditional' religious groups came to a head in 1996-97, culminating in the passage of a new federal law 'On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations' in September 1997. Despite the fact that the 1993 Russian Constitution declared the Russian Federation to be a secular state, in which all religious associations were to be separate from the state, and equal before the law, this new law formalised a privileged status for the Orthodox Church, and introduced a hierarchy of remaining religions, together with various restrictions making it more difficult for 'non-traditional' religions to obtain permission to operate on Russian territory.

To a large extent, the responsibility for the increasing religious tensions during this period must be borne by the anti-cult movement, and by leading anti-cult crusader Aleksandr Dvorkin in particular. Dvorkin has been the key agitator responsible for popularising the new term 'totalitarian sects', thereby furnishing the would-be defenders of Russia's spiritual security with one of their chief bugbears. Dvorkin first began using the term 'totalitarian sects' in 1994. The term was soon picked up by the Moscow Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church, some representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and several Protestant Churches, and the media, as a convenient and suitably sensationalist and emotive- even 'politically correct'- catch-all term for the multitude of new religious movements, many of them foreign, that had become active in Russia.

The use of the Cold War 'totalitarian' label in order to justify what amount to totalitarian policies is one of the paradoxes of the post-Soviet Russian political scene. The psychological mechanisms at work here have been pinpointed by Yurii Savenko, president of the Independent Psychiatric Association in Russia, who wrote recently of anti-'totalitarian sect' hysteria that:

The interest in unorthodox religions was perceived not as an acceptable natural feeling but as a consequence of a secretive evil technology. This is how the self-projection of the lingering totalitarian mentality identified itself, for which everything is controllable, governable, and its own practice of such kind represents itself as universal. The widely used term 'totalitarian sects' is not only illiterate from the theological standpoint; it is in itself a product of totalitarian consciousness.

More broadly, the emerging preoccupation with spiritual security betrays the presence of anxieties and fears associated with the transition towards becoming a more open society, and the related preoccupation with re-asserting and strengthening boundaries, whether physical, psychological, or ideological.

It has never been made quite clear precisely what constitutes a 'totalitarian sect'. As many of Dvorkin's critics have pointed out, definitions of the term advanced by Dvorkin and his supporters are so vague as to be effectively meaningless. Most serious religious scholars reject the term in any case. Such criticism has failed to dissuade Dvorkin, who has tirelessly led a campaign over the course of the past decade lobbying for official recognition of the problem of totalitarian sects, and for inclusion of the term in federal legislation dealing with religious issues. Despite ongoing protests by liberal democratic forces and new religious groups, this campaign has enjoyed some success. For example, the Russian parliament used the term 'totalitarian sects' in a resolution issued in December 1996. More recently, the term was employed in the official Information Security Doctrine of the Russian Federation which was adopted by Putin in September 2000.

The campaign against totalitarian sects is consonant with the Putin government's efforts to link the war in Chechnya and associated terrorist acts in Russia with the international 'war on terror' and Al Qaeda. The anti-terrorist dimension to spiritual security was made explicit, for example, in the title of a high-profile roundtable, 'Totalitarian Sects: A Weapon of Mass Destruction', held in Moscow in October 2003 in the wake of the Nord-Ost theatre hostage siege. Participants of the roundtable claimed that totalitarian sects had now become 'suppliers of personnel for terrorist organisations' in Russia. In this connection, the rhetoric of spiritual security has underpinned a rising incidence of discrimination against Muslims in Russia in recent years, especially against Wahhabi groups or those accused of Wahhabism, a term which state security officials and media commentators routinely misuse as a synonym for 'Islamic extremism'. More broadly, the body of ideas encapsulated in the concepts of spiritual security and totalitarian sects has provided new means of justifying the FSB's gradual incursion into expanding spheres of Russian life.

The FSB and spiritual security

During the March 2002 consecration of the FSB Church, Patriarch Aleksi made reference to 'totalitarian sects', noting the danger posed by their 'spiritual aggression'. Given the context in which this speech was given, the intended implication was surely that the FSB has a part to play in combating the influence of non-Orthodox 'totalitarian sects'. The Orthodox Church now relies increasingly openly upon an alliance with the FSB in its efforts to maintain its position, and to legitimise its claims that non-Orthodox religions represent a threat not to the Orthodox Church, but to the security of Russian society and culture as a whole. In this connection, sections of the Orthodox Church have themselves initiated various forms of cooperation with the security apparatus. Such cooperation comprises, for example, providing the FSB and other state bodies with advice on non-traditional religious organisations.

There are various indications that the FSB has become increasingly active on the religious front, harassing and on occasion persecuting alternative religious organisations. Such actions have reportedly often involved the revival of old familiar KGB methods, such as fabricating criminal cases, putting pressure on witnesses, or feeding kompromat (that is, 'compromising materials') and/or disinformation to the media. The idea of this kind of interference in spiritual life by the secret police would have been anathema in the Russia of the early 1990s. The extent to which the political atmosphere had changed by the late 1990s is illustrated by the comments of one FSB officer working on 'totalitarian sects' in Siberia's Altai region. In a press interview in early 1999, the officer lamented the fact that the 'old' (KGB) methods of dealing with sectarianism had 'gone to the dogs', but noted with satisfaction that at last they were now being restored, especially now that a 'more or less respectable concept' to govern such work had appeared, and a team assembled.

The Russian saying 'What people are thinking in Moscow, they're doing in the regions' is particularly apt when it comes to measures aimed at protecting spiritual security. Religious minorities and non-Orthodox missionaries appear to be especially vulnerable in Russia's regions. Many regional administrations have passed their own laws on spiritual affairs (often contradicting the Russian Constitution and federal laws), mostly aimed at banning or restricting foreign missionary activities.

In some regions, the level of surveillance is reportedly even higher than during the Soviet period. Thus, for example, it is now apparently common practice in several regions for lists of all individual members of Protestant churches to be demanded by the local justice officials. The head of the Protestant churches in Russia, Bishop Sergei Riakhovskii, stated in an interview in March 2004 that,

In the event of refusal to provide the list of members of the church the pastors are summoned to the FSB, they demand collaboration, they threaten to close down the church The methods of work with the list are also well-known: prominent people are summoned to the leadership and presented with an ultimatum 'either work, or faith'; whereas the so-called centres for the rehabilitation of victims of sects, and FSB staff, 'work' with the simple people according to the list.

As this quotation indicates, despite the professed focus on new 'totalitarian' sects, the established mainstream churches are also suffering discrimination. Shortly after the consecration of the FSB Church in March 2002, for example, four prominent Roman Catholic priests based in Russia, including the Bishop of Irkutsk, were told, upon attempting to return to Russia from abroad, that their names appeared on a blacklist prepared by the Russian security apparatus, and they were consequently refused entry visas. While no official justification for this was given by the Russian authorities, representatives of the special services hinted, at least in the case of Father Stefano Caprio, the first Catholic priest to be effectively deported in early April 2002, that he may have been involved in espionage.

Spiritual security and historical amnesia

According to prominent forces within the Orthodox Church and the FSB, then, non-Orthodox priests are 'spies', and non-Orthodox religious denominations are 'totalitarian'. The terms in which these charges are framed are especially ironic in light of the Soviet-era record of leading Orthodox hierarchs, and of Patriarch Aleksi II in particular. For many Russians, the consecration of the FSB church would surely have served as a reminder of the revelations regarding Patriarch Aleksi's own past as a KGB agent - something which the Church continues to deny officially, flying in the face of conclusive documentary evidence from the KGB archives.

Of course, great caution needs to be exercised in identifying and condemning collaborators and informers on the basis of materials contained in secret police files. In the case of Patriarch Aleksi, however, the situation appears to be quite clear-cut. As late as 1988 he received a KGB prize for outstanding services, for example, and other KGB documents leaked to the press also indicate that he was an especially diligent and valued agent.

The defenders of Soviet-era Orthodox collaborators argue that such compromises were crucial in order to ensure the Church's survival under the Soviet regime. However understandable this position might be given the historical circumstances of the time, the Moscow Patriarchate's continuing refusal to address this issue openly has compounded the considerable damage done to the Church's moral credibility.

The documentary revelations of KGB penetration of the Orthodox Church hierarchy in the early 1990s naturally prompted a major scandal at the time; but the moral issues surrounding Soviet-era collaboration with the KGB have become increasingly ambiguous and murky in Putin's Russia. In part this reflects a paradigm shift in Russian historical consciousness since the mid-1990s. The intense historical debates of the late 1980s and early 1990s were framed very much in terms of the need to confront the past. Now, while open historical debate is still possible, and is still going on, it has come under threat from a strengthening official line which construes uncontrolled discussion of the past as irresponsible. Again, this is often presented as a function of Russia's spiritual security, on the grounds that Russian society is undergoing such a profound crisis, sparked in part by the collapse of the old narratives of Russian history, that Russians risk losing any sense of pride in their national identity. Hence over the past five years there has been much celebration, especially by FSB historians, of what is hailed as a shift towards a more 'balanced' view of the Soviet past, and of the role of the state security organs in that past in particular.

The new trend towards selective historical amnesia is being actively fostered by the FSB and sections within the leadership of the Orthodox Church's Moscow Patriarchate. These institutions have an obvious interest in bringing down a veil over the past, and have no wish to investigate the ways in which the legacy of this past may still be making itself felt in today's Russia. Consequently, they are contributing to a process whereby the space for genuine public debate on the Soviet past is shrinking. In most cases this is a subtle and gradual process, as opposed to a matter of the re-imposition of outright censorship, coercion or repression. The rhetoric of spiritual security is adding momentum to the progression of this trend.

Spiritual security and civil society

The import of the emerging preoccupation with spiritual security extends beyond the sphere of religious freedom. More far-reaching implications in terms of other civic rights and liberties are suggested in a number of recent speeches on the topic by communist parliamentary deputy Viktor Zorkal'tsev.

In June 2003, Zorkal'tsev, who was then chair of one of the key parliamentary committees responsible for liaising with religious organisations and civil society, offered the following remarkable definition of spiritual security: 'Freedom of conscience is only freedom when this is the freedom not only to believe, but to act. However, freedom of conscience has boundaries And these boundaries can be defined by a single expression - spiritual security Spiritual security is, if you like, one of the conditions of a civil society.'

This statement exemplifies the ways in which concepts taken from liberal human-rights discourses are being appropriated and inverted in contemporary official parlance in Russia. Despite its poor record in terms of its treatment of Russian grassroots and international non-governmental organisations operating on the ground in Russia, typified by the notorious statement made by Putin shortly before his appointment as prime minister in 1999, in which he described ecologists and members of non-governmental organisations as foreign spies, the Putin regime has continued to employ high-sounding rhetoric emphasising its support for a strong civil society.

A recent but little-noted development in this sphere has been the appearance of 'security'-based, new, non-governmental organisations and civic movements. While these may be ostensibly independent, and are presumably cited by the regime as evidence of the flourishing of civil society, at least some of them also appear to be linked with the security apparatus. One example is the 'Civic Security' group established in Yaroslavl' in August 1996, which cooperates with the security and law-enforcement agencies by providing information on 'non-traditional' religious groups operating in the region. Other new groups, such as the regional public Committee for the Defence of Young People from Destructive Cults, protest the dismantling of Soviet-era social control institutions, lamenting the fact that 'previously parents could turn to the party or Komsomol organisation, and [people] there knew what measures to take, and took them, but today they simply have nobody to go to.'

Some of these new non-governmental organisations and regional hardline anti-sectarian nationalist groups with a focus on spiritual security have assembled their own vigilante-style armies, usually made up of unemployed young men in provincial towns who are taken in and given access to bodybuilding equipment and martial arts training. This is just one example of the ways in which Russian society is increasingly often under threat precisely from those forces who claim to be protecting Russia's security.

Spiritual security and media freedom

The notional crisis of spiritual security currently faced by Russia is also supplying fresh arguments for those advocating the reinstatement of censorship and increased state control over the media in Russia. Thus, for example, in July 2004 Aleksandr Dugin, philosopher and head of the Eurasian Movement, asserted that 'All air-time and information space must be subordinated to spiritual security ... A genocide of Russian spirituality, of Russian culture is taking place today... The media are directed ... against our spiritual identity.'

Calls for the restoration of censorship are not always made explicit. More often, the euphemism 'information security' is used, as in Zorkal'tsev's May 2003 statement that 'One of the key roles in preserving public security is played by spiritual security ... Spiritual security is closely linked with other forms of public security and, first and foremost, with information security.' Such references to information security are in turn often connected with the idea that the Cold War is still continuing, but in the form of a covert 'information war', aimed at destroying Russian culture; and with the notion that the failure of the first Russian military campaign in Chechnya in the mid-1990s was a direct result of subversive 'information warfare' waged by the oligarch-controlled Russian media.

There are several key points at which the arguments made in favour of restricting media freedoms in the interests of spiritual security intersect with ideas whose origins can be traced to Soviet ideological categories and terminology. Thus, for Zorkal'tsev, the independent media in Russia have been used to spread disinformation, and to conduct psychological warfare by brainwashing the population. The underlying assumption that people are incapable of exercising independent judgement, and that mass consciousness is something that can be easily manipulated, echoes Bolshevik theories of propaganda. Zorkal'tsev's statements on spiritual security also draw upon Soviet-style notions of ideological subversion. On one occasion, for example, he describes spiritual security as 'a shield against the fifth column'. Elsewhere he makes it clear that by the fifth column he means not only foreign spies allegedly operating under cover as religious missionaries, but also those Russian citizens who hold elitist 'pro-western', liberal opinions.

Sacralising the FSB

The consecration of the FSB church in Moscow exemplifies an ongoing push to formulate and justify the FSB's mission in new terms, to provide new ideological and intellectual underpinnings for the Russian security apparatus with a view to restoring its prestige and moral credibility.

This has been paralleled by a campaign to sacralise the Lubianka, the district of Moscow that has been home to the secret police since the capital was moved from Petrograd to Moscow in 1918. For most Soviet citizens the word 'Lubianka' was synonymous with terror, but a number of recent FSB texts seek to erase this association. This current trend in self-representation is typified by the high-profile publication No. 2 Lubianka, a glossy coffee-table book launched in April 1999 which chronicles the history of the site of the FSB building. No. 2 Lubianka, like other recent official FSB histories, projects the history of the FSB and of the Lubianka district back into the pre-revolutionary period, and emphasises the district's status as an 'ancient' site. Lubianka Square is shown to have provided the setting for a string of famous battles in which foreign invaders were repulsed, including Minin and Pozharskii's expulsion of the Poles, and the defeat of Napoleon in 1812 - both highly significant and emotionally charged moments in Russian history. The intended effect is plainly to sacralise the FSB's current occupation of the site, lending it an aura of timelessness and constancy. By extension, of course, the aim is to legitimise and sacralise the 'mission' of the FSB itself.

Meanwhile, since the late 1990s, references to 'spirituality' have proliferated in FSB public relations materials. One of the key figures here has been Colonel Vasilii Stavitskii. During his tenure as head of FSB public relations in 1999-2001, Stavitskii published several volumes of poetry with a strong 'spiritual' bent, including Secrets of the Soul (1999); Light a Candle Mamma (1999), a book of 'spiritual-patriotic' poems for children; and Constellation of Love: Selected Verse (2000). Many of Stavitskii's poems have been set to music and produced as CDs, and are reportedly an obligatory feature of the entertainment at FSB functions.

The saccharine titles of his books notwithstanding, much of Stavitskii's poetry is in the revanchist mode. The poem 'Aren't You Ashamed', for example, talks of settling accounts with those who have crucified and prostituted Mother Russia, stolen milk from her children, and lied to her people. While the author does not identify the culprits by name, he is presumably referring to the 'oligarchs', and/or the liberal reformers of the early 1990s. Elsewhere, Stavitskii eulogizes the Cheka, and its holy fight against:

... our enemy behind a mask - the two-faced Satan Around us diplomats, agents, businessmen - Flatterers talking of friendship...

- and so on, in a similar vein. Were it not for the reference to 'businessmen', one might be forgiven for dating this poem to the high Stalinist period.

Stavitskii's writings highlight the disturbing ways in which a resurgent cult of the secret police in Putin's Russia is intertwined with issues of spirituality. The danger is that by cloaking itself in spiritual rhetoric, the FSB will not only attain moral respectability, but will effectively place itself beyond the reach of any legitimate criticism, scrutiny or control.

This paper is a condensed version of an article forthcoming in Intelligence and National Security. Detailed references for citations and other materials can be obtained from the author.


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