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Empire and Religion: From the Greek Plan to the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed forces

Aleksandr Orlov | Blog Post | March 10, 2023

The categories "empire" and "religion" were interwoven from the outset of the very notion of "empire": all Roman Emperors acquired posthumous divine status—the cult of Emperors was a milestone of the Empire. After the Christianization conducted by the emperor Constantine, the Empire began to reflect the divinity of the transcendental God, but this interweaving did not disappear. Early modern empires also possessed religious connotations: the Habsburg Empire had the official name “the Holy Roman Empire” and positioned itself as the center of Christianity in its Catholic version, while the leaders of the Ottoman Empire, the sultans, proclaimed themselves the heads of the Muslim world.

This trend gained traction in Russia, where, unlike their Byzantine and European counterparts, tsars were compared to Christ rather than ancient Israel kings during coronations. In their turn, vicious monarchs were likened to the Antichrist rather than unholy Israel kings [1]. However, a broad overview of this phenomenon is beyond the scope of this essay; thus, I would like to focus on a series of concrete themes, beginning with Catherine II's Greek Plan and ending with the Main Army Cathedral and Putin's rhetoric in contemporary Russia.

The Greek Plan can be defined as an etalon imperial project combining a religious mission and territorial expansion. The Russian Empire was proclaimed the successor of the Eastern Roman One due to the Baptizing and marriage of prince Vladimir with a Byzantine princess and, thereby, deserved the role of the Greeks’ liberator from Muslims [2].

The religious and cultural features entangled: according to the constructors of the Greek Project, by receiving the Christian Faith from the Greeks, Russia simultaneously obtained the pre-Christian heritage of the Ancient Greeks, which transformed it into a full-fledged European Power. Furthermore, imperial greatness could not be sustained solely through brute force; it required religious and cultural foundations as well.

The considerable element of the Greek Plan was the endeavor of the Russian imperial elite to attain equal status with the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire (de facto the Austrian Empire) – the hypothetical center of the Christian world [3]. Had Russia convincingly presented itself as the defender of Eastern Christianity, the Orthodox population, it would have led to a new political role in the world.

The second significant attempt to achieve imperial greatness through religious tools was the Holy Alliance – the coalition of the European Powers created after Napoleon’s defeat. This project was not only a conservative and counterrevolutionary alliance but also (and more importantly) an ambitious endeavor to conflate the international imperial order and Christian virtues. The Russian emperor Alexander I was utterly obsessed by the religious components of this idea – he even offered a sentence: “a single people designated a Christian nation” for the Alliance Treaty by keeping in mind all Europeans [4].

However, being incompatible with the logic of imperial order, this noble aim was not achieved in Europe in the XIX century. After fading away from the Holy Alliance's religious dimension, the intertwining religious and imperial phenomena in Russia erupted in internal politics – through the concept of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality”. This concept has been dubbed “Official Nationality” or “the Uvarov Triade”, after being introduced by count Sergei Uvarov, the Russian Minister of Education, in his report to the emperor Nicholas I in 1833.

Unlike the genuine religious ambitions of the previous approach, the attitude to religion in this episode was relatively pragmatic [5]. It is worth noting that the French autograph of the report by Sergey Uvarov did not mention “Christianity” or “Orthodoxy” – it was about “l'église dominante” and “la religion traditionnelle”, i. e. the dominant Church and traditional religion. Accordingly, religion acquired instrumental features – it should have sustained imperial unity and durability. In this ideological construction, “Orthodoxy” means not the divine destiny of Russia or its emperors but the function of religion as social glue in the conditions of awakened nationalism.

As a result of the XIX century secularization, religious issues shifted to the periphery of the imperial building, leaving highly significant issues primarily for right-wing radicals—the so-called Black Hundred. However, the colossal turmoil of 1917, the Great Russian Revolution, reconfigured and revived both categories. The state emerged on the ruins of the Russian Empire – the Soviet Union has provoked multiple discussions, including debates about its imperial and religious nature.

The debate concentrated on “the Soviet Union as an empire” is enormous and presupposes more complicated answers than a binary opposition of “empire/non-empire”. Thus, American historians Terry Martin and Francine Hirsh have offered definitions of “Affirmative Action Empire” and “Empire of Nations”, particularly relevant to the Early Soviet period, the 1920s [6]. This period is also pertinent to the discussion devoted to “the Soviet religion”.

The most conspicuous example of “the religious perspective” on the Soviet Union is the book “The House of Government” by Yuri Slezkine, in which Bolsheviks are defined as “the millenarist sect” (Millenarism is the Christian movement based on the idea of the millennial God’s kingdom on the Earth) [7]. However, historians hold other arguments in support of this view, apart from the essence of the Bolshevik Party.

Thus, Bolsheviks introduced rituals that replaced traditional Christian ones: “kommunistiny” instead of baptizing and “the Red Eastern” instead of the usual Eastern. The new cult was topped by the Mausoleum on the Red Square in Moscow, the tomb of the first Soviet leader, Vladimir Lenin, the central role of which in the Soviet religion was noted by foreign observers, including a famous philosopher, Walter Benjamin [8].

However, this approach has faced significant reservations. The Soviet State possessed an unambiguously atheistic ideology; its proclaimed goal – communism – was devoid of supernatural and transcendental dimensions, an inextricable part of each religion. Furthermore, the debate about the Soviet religion is the debate about the borders of the term “religion” – and that is valid for the discussion about “the Soviet Empire” too. 

It is worth noting that the constellation of the imperial and religious components was not unwavering: the straightening of imperial features in the Soviet Union during the 1930s was accompanied by the fading away of religious ones. One can assume that the “religious” goal of the world revolution and communism was becoming increasingly vague, and it fueled the standard imperial pursuit – the enlargement of power in the contest with other countries. The exception that accumulated all other “spiritual” Soviet elements was the quasi-religious cult of Joseph Stalin.

Accordingly, the Soviet Union was an utterly paradoxical phenomenon: an empire soaked in antiimperialist rhetoric and a religious project with demonstrative atheism. On the Soviet ruins, this paradoxicality has acquired additional features: imperial aspirations have seemed to be at least weird in the post-imperial world, and the reconstruction of state-supported Orthodoxy in a highly secular space has not looked convincing.

The most visible example of this paradoxicality and oddity is the Russian Main Cathedral of the Armed Forced built in 2020 near Moscow. The Armed Forces are the crucial imperial institute, and this cathedral inherits in some respects military cathedrals of the Russian Empire: the St. Alexander Nevsky Military Cathedral in Tbilisi (the Caucasian Military Cathedral) and the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral in Saint Petersburg.

However, this cathedral contains highly noticeable markings of unauthenticity. The esthetics of the cathedral, its mosaics (both hypothetical with the images of Josef Stalin and Vladimir Putin and genuine with Russian soldiers), its elements, such as the stairs from melted down German tanks, and its “relics”, such as a cap of Adolf Hitler, have provoked tense discussions and profound doubts.

A highly eloquent sign of the illusiveness of this initiative was the behavior of Russian high officers in establishing worship: they were utterly passive; for instance, they did not cross themselves in suitable episodes. The plausibility of imperial restoration in Russia may cause ambiguous estimates, but without the persistent tradition, the attempt to reinvent “the fusion” of imperial and religious seems to be entirely simulative.

One can assume that religion has a more instrumental role here even than for count Sergey Uvarov. In the “Official Nationality”, religion should have unified “the Russian imperial nation”, but now it should only create a picture in the media. The additional problem is the inconsistency of this imperial-religious fusion: the political elite of contemporary Russia endeavors to inherit both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Empire, and they attempted to combine the cult of Victory in World War II with Orthodoxy and even embed this cult in it.

In 2022, which marked an unambiguously imperial war, religious manifestations increased in Russian political rhetoric. Claiming the annexation of four Ukrainian regions, Vladimir Putin highlighted that the dominant ideological trends in the West mean: “This complete denial of man, the subversion of faith and traditional values, and the suppression of freedom takes on the characteristics of "religion on the contrary" – outright Satanism” [9]. A more caricatured reflection of these words is the point of the Russian ex-chairman, Dmitry Medvedev, who argued that Russia seeks to struggle against Satan in the war.

This ridiculousness means that the reconstruction of the religious component of imperial projects is even more hopeless currently than the very imperial aspirations. Despite all questions about its implementability, The Greek Plan was a logical part of the Great Power politics of its age, and its religious foundations were convincing for a period before the French Revolution and the subsequent expulsion of religion by ideologies. Meanwhile, imperial and religious aspirations in contemporary Russia are entirely reconstructive and simulative, which is why these ambitions do not have a chance to succeed in the long term.


1. Uspenskij, Boris. Car' i Patriarh: harizma vlasti v Rossii (Vizantijskaja model' i ee russkoe pereosmyslenie).- M.: Shkola «Jazyki russkoj kul'tury», 1998. Pp. 20-21.

2. Zorin, Andrey. Kormja dvuglavogo orla. Russkaja literatura i gosudarstvennaja ideologija v poslednej treti XVIII pervoj treti XIX veka. – M.: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2001. P. 36.

3. Natsavadze, Mamuka. The Greek Project - for the Reconstruction of the Text // Theoretical and empirical scientific research: concept and trends, 2022. P. 148

4. Sluga, Glenda. The Invention of International Order: Remaking Europe after Napoleon, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021. P. 182.

5. Miller, Alexei. The Romanov empire and nationalism: essays in the methodology of historical research. Budapesht: CEU Press, 2008. P. 142.

6. Martin, Terry. The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001; Hirsch, Francine. Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union. Cornell University Press, 2005.

7. Slezkine, Yuri. The House of Government: А Saga of the Russian Revolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.

8. Benjamin, Walter. Moscow // Selected Writings. Vol. 2. 1927–1940. Harvard, Harvard Univ. Press Publ., 1999. P. 45.


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