During Russia’s annual military expo event this past August, a strange and fearsome new weapon of war was unveiled: the inflatable military field-chapel. A blow-up church, it can be pumped up by an Orthodox priest in under ten minutes. If Russian troops are given sudden orders to march off to their certain deaths, then at least they can be properly blessed beforehand. There are even versions fitted with parachutes to be dropped directly onto battlefields!

Once herded inside the rubber church, however, what will Russian lambs to the slaughter actually experience? Most likely, they will hear the text of a new ‘Prayer for Holy Rus’ released in September 2022 by President Putin’s close political ally Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Written in archaic Russian, the war-prayer, as per Putin’s propaganda, speaks of Russia and Ukraine being one rightful God-ordained land, unjustly divided by the West, whose evil “battle of desire is against Holy Russia, to divide and destroy her one people.” 

“Grant us victory by Your power,” the prayer continues, addressing God directly. “The warriors and all the defenders of our Fatherland in Your precepts, establish a fortress of spirit for them, save them from death, wounds and captivity.” Given the current high rate of Russian military casualties, Kirill’s prayer does not appear to be working. 

Perhaps this was why, between May and September 2023, the Patriarch ran a special ‘All-Russian Prayer for Victory’ campaign, during which a sacred ark supposedly containing relics of St George was paraded all around Russia, with the public urged to pray to the Saint’s bones for “the successful completion of World War II” because, according to Kremlin propaganda, Putin is really fighting to free Ukraine from a secret neo-Nazi cabal in Kiev.

Patriarch Kirill has a previous record here. On June 21st, 2020, the domestic Orthodox ‘Feast Day of All Saints Who Shone in the Russian Land’, Kirill gave a sermon claiming that, thanks to prayers made to dead Russian saints during WWII, “many miracles took place” on the battlefield, which was what truly defeated the “godless” Germans. Apparently, “The enemy who attacked our Homeland did not know that it was … the saints [who] stood up for our land and saved us from a terrible foreign yoke.” I bet Generalissimo Stalin and Marshal Zhukov didn’t know that, either. 

Nonetheless, continued Kirill, “our country, which was largely inferior [militarily] at that time to the enemy” still won an impossible victory, thanks to the divine intercession of those domestic saints who patriotically “defended their sacred borders”. Indeed, they defended Russia’s “sacred borders” so well that, by the end of 1945, they extended as far west as Poland, Prague and East Berlin, never mind Kyiv and Crimea.

Kirill is cannily tapping into pre-existing Orthodox religious tradition. Consider the many tales of the Virgin of Vladimir, an allegedly miracle-working 12th-century Byzantine icon of Mother and Christ-Child said to have saved Russia from foreign invasion upon several separate occasions – the Poles, the Nazis, even Mongol conquerer Tamerlane the Great, all were supposedly repelled by its protective presence. Tradition says Mary appeared to Tamerlane in a dream radiating beams of holy light and ordered him to leave Russia, an instruction the terrified barbarian invader immediately obeyed.

As the Nazis came their nearest to Moscow in 1942, Stalin himself reputedly had the icon flown over the city via military airplane; quite an about-turn for a man who had previously counted dynamiting churches amongst his favorite hobbies. Whether apocryphal or not, that such a story started and spread amidst the officially atheistic Soviet Union is indicative of the inescapability of the Virgin for the Russian people. Reading into this myth, even under Stalin the Russian people never forsook Eastern Orthodoxy, and, given the inclusion of Soviet soldiers in Russia’s Cathedral of the Armed Forces (completed 2020), this is the Russian Orthodox Church’s interpretation of history.

Reciting Kirill’s new psalm is now a compulsory part of war-time Orthodox liturgy, though it is really little more than a crude geopolitical propaganda statement disguised as a prayer. Woe betide any priest foolish enough not to recite it; or even to change a single word. 

Father John Koval was until recently an Orthodox priest serving the parish of St Andrew the Apostle in Moscow. He was born a native Ukrainian from Luhansk, however, so whilst repeating Kirill’s prayer in one of his churches, repeatedly decided to replace the word ‘victory’ with the word ‘peace’ in the line: “Rise up, O God, for the help of Thy people, and grant us victory by Thy power.” 

Then, on February 2nd, 2023, in response to this allegedly ‘schismatic’ utterance, Patriarch Kirill issued an ukase (official proclamation) meaning Father Koval was immediately suspended from all priestly duties, and soon defrocked, for “spreading extremist materials”. By that logic, the Semon on the Mount must have technically constituted an anti-Russian hate crime.

Rain, Rain, Go Away, Come Back Another Day

The idea prayers can win battles may seem strange to many in today’s increasingly secularized West, but it was not always so. During WWII, the Western Allies, just like the Russians, also used prayer as a convenient weapon of spiritual warfare. 

For example, General George S. Patton, commander of the US Third Army in Europe in the wake of D-Day, and a faithful Episcopalian, contacted his chief military chaplain, Father James Hugh O’Neill, on December 8th, 1944 with the message “This is General Patton; do you have a good prayer for weather? We must do something about those rains if we are to win the war.” 

Patton was quite serious. Throughout the recent Moselle and Saar campaigns, the Third Army had been plagued by advance-impeding rains. Obeying orders, Father O’Neill composed an ad hoc prayer to the effect that “Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for battle.” Patton then had 250,000 copies of the prayer printed and distributed to his men, who were told to recite it.

Apparently, the mass prayer worked. Or, at least it did to General Patton’s own satisfaction. Taking advantage of a literal ‘fog of war’, the Nazis staged a temporarily successful advance in the Ardennes. But, following the prayer’s recital, suddenly the rain and fog lifted on December 20th, against military forecasters’ best predictions, allowing Allied planes to bomb the Germans backwards. “Well, Padre, our prayers worked. I knew they would,” Patton told Father O’Neill. He was not just being polite.

In realist terms, Patton summarized the matter thus: “Between the plan and the operation there is always an unknown. That unknown spells defeat or victory, success of failure. It is the reaction of the actors to the ordeal when it actually comes.” In other words, this “unknown” factor is that vital military supply called ‘morale’. “The soldier who ‘cracks up’ does not need sympathy or comfort as much as he needs strength,” Patton wrote in an official Training Letter to his field chaplains – the mental strength which came from believing in the power of prayer.

So, maybe Patriarch Kirill’s false creed really will have some positive effect upon the outcome of Russia’s war after all, even if only in boosting Kremlin troops’ willpower? Only if Russian troops actually believe his prayer’s words, surely: and, by all accounts, a large proportion simply do not. Soldiers recognizing its disingenuous uselessness might actually lower their morale, not raise it.

Recall Shakespeare’s old lines from Hamlet: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below;/Words without thoughts never to Heaven go.” For a prayer to work, the person saying it has to actually believe in it. Does this describe Patriarch Kirill or Vladimir Putin?