On a snowy field in the Ryazan region, 100 miles southeast of Moscow, five burly, bearded Russian Orthodox priests fall to the ground, arms held skywards. They’re not praying, however – but preparing for their next parachute jump.
Soon, the chaplains will take to the skies with regular military cadets in an Air Force plane, jump and pull the cord – hoping that God is watching over them, and their parachutes open.
The priests are the latest recruits to the growing army of military chaplains – now almost a thousand – who now serve with Russia’s armed forces, including abroad, at bases across the former Soviet Union.
The recruitment of military chaplains has been stepped up in recent months, as President Vladimir Putin has increasingly put traditional Orthodox values at the heart of his administration’s policy since his return to the Kremlin last year. (He has also unveiled plans to increase defence spending by 11 pc a year.)
The chaplains’ mission – to boost the morale of Russian soldiers and reinforce a sense of patriotic duty in society – comes as Mr Putin is seeking to build support for a conservative coalition to counter the threat of Western liberal influences, such as those exemplified by anti-Kremlin street protestors, foreign-funded NGOs and the Pussy Riot punk rockers.
On the field with the parachuting priests is Father Mikhail Vasilyev, 41, a veteran chaplain who has served alongside Russian troops in military conflicts in Kosovo, Chechnya and Kyrgyzstan, and is now in charge of the Church’s relations with the Parachute Forces.
A 10-by-30 foot flatpack church also lands on the drop zone, and is quickly assembled by the priests and cadets. The IKEA-style kit “comes very convenient in the mountains, where there are no airfields,” Father Vasilyev says, adding that about 7,000 servicemen received Communion “in the field” last year.
On the last of Father Vasilyev’s 11 parachute jumps, the unthinkable happened: his first parachute didn’t open, and the second one only began to open at 2,000 feet above the ground, which was too late to cushion the blow completely.
He suffered a spinal fracture, and hasn’t jumped since. “I survived by the grace of God,” he says. “When you jump out of a plane with a bag behind your back, only God knows whether the bag will turn into a parachute.”
The jumps are just one form of training undergone in two-month courses by prospective chaplains, who also learn to load and fire a rifle, work as a tank gunner, drive an armoured personnel carrier and use a flamethrower.
The chaplains are carrying out the Orthodox Church’s patriotic mission: holding religious services for the military, and consecrating all kinds of military kit with holy water, from ships to rockets.
Next week, Father Vasilyev will personally consecrate the tanks, rocket launchers and other military vehicles that will rumble onto Red Square for Moscow’s May 9 Victory Day parade, held in front of Mr Putin and other world leaders to celebrate the 68th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany.
"This tradition started about 10 years ago,” says Father Vasilyev. “I do it every year with one or two comrades-in-arms. We consecrate all the vehicles in the parade, at the commanders’ request. The Church blesses the use of these weapons for defence of the weak, not for conquest.”
The Orthodox Church’s association with Russian patriotism goes back a long way, to the times of the tsars, whose credo, “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality,” has strong echoes in Russian politics and society today.
Source: YouTube / Zvezda TV Channel
Although the Church was persecuted under the Bolsheviks and churches blown up by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, during World War II he allowed Orthodox priests to hold services to promote a patriotic crusade in defence of the Soviet motherland.
The drive to recruit more chaplains has really taken off since the appointment of Sergei Shoigu, a close ally of President Putin’s, as Defence Minister late last year.
The ministry has hired 15 chaplains in the last month alone, says Archpriest Sergiy Privalov, who is in charge of the Church’s relations with the Armed Forces. Recruitment was slow under the previous Defence Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, who was sacked amid a corruption scandal. "Serdyukov obstructed the hiring of chaplains," he says.
For Father Vasilyev, however, the government’s big picture plans for chaplains are less important than just offering moral guidance and support to soldiers in difficult situations.
Before his first stint as a chaplain in Kosovo in 1999, he recalls, “I never saw wounds or bleeding people – it makes you feel sick.”
During the next four years, he made five to 10 trips to Chechnya a year, from several days to a month, to conduct religious services for soldiers during the Second Chechen War. “Many of the soldiers were teenagers, just teenagers who were handed guns,” he says. “They needed a priest’s help to retain their sanity.”
Reflecting on this month’s bombing of the Boston marathon by two Chechen brothers, Father Vasilyev says that it is “no coincidence” that radical Islamic terrorism has taken root in the North Caucasus – but he puts it down to a lack of traditional Muslim education.
"One reason for escalating extremism is poor education and a misunderstanding of Muslim traditions,” says Father Vasilyev. “Islamic traditions in the North Caucasus aren't old or strong enough – there people did not convert into Islam until the 17th and 18th centuries. Because traditions have not taken root there, it's a fertile ground for evangelists of extremism."
More servicemen are baptised in wartime, Vasilyev says. “One often turns to God in the face of danger,” he says, recalling “how natural it felt to pray walking on a minefield.”
In addition to conducting services, he organised care packages for Russian soldiers in Chechnya, bringing them everything from sweets, socks and mittens to shaving kits, satnavs and chainsaws.
He also helped evacuate elderly Russians from Grozny to the Moscow region, where they were later housed in retirement homes.
“They were abandoned old people, many had lost their families,” he says. “We had to search for them in ruined houses, in dugouts and elsewhere.”
Soldiers seek Father Vasilyev’s advice in all sorts of situations: about a girl they want to propose to, if they doubt whether if they should stay in the army, or when they’ve suffered a serious injury.
“My aim is to help as many soldiers as possible to go into the Kingdom of Heaven,” he says. “We help servicemen stay humane, keep them from turning into beasts.”
But he admits the job of a chaplain is often much more mundane. “Realistically, it’s to have as few of them as possible cheat on their wives or betray their motherland. It’s not my responsibility to deal with hazing, but I still set unrealistic goals for myself – to fight sin, humiliation and bad language.”