- Russian Orthodoxy and the Russo–Japanese War by Betsy C. Perabo
The Orthodox Church has never developed a systematic ethic of war. After Constantine’s conversion, the church accepted the inevitability of war and Christians’ participation in it. The attitude has, overall, been ambivalent: God promises peace, and war inevitably involves killing and destruction, so it can never be “good” (let alone “holy”). Wars may be unavoidable, a kind of necessary evil; defensive wars, when one’s homeland has been attacked, are justifiable, and individuals serving in the military can (and are called to) conduct themselves virtuously. Moreover, the church prays for soldiers as well as for victory over one’s enemies.
Betsy Perabo’s book explores these issues in the Russian context as manifested during the Russo–Japanese war (1904–1905). The book focuses on the extraordinary figure of the Orthodox missionary to Japan, Nikolai Kasatkin (1836–1912), canonized by the Orthodox Church as St. Nicholas of Japan. Nikolai was distinctive in his approach to missionary activity, in that he sought to learn Japanese language and culture for a decade before beginning his missionary activity, and aspired for the mission to be led by Japanese converts rather than Russian missionaries.
This book is distinctive first because Perabo approaches the subject as a specialist in Christian ethics, not in Russian (church) history. The early chapters of the book provide background in terms of Christian discussions of war such as the western “just war” concept as well as the notion of “holy war.” It also gives background to church-state relations (relying, for the most part, on rather outdated sources that exaggerate the church’s subordination to the state), the Russian Orthodox mission in Japan, and the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the military.
In the introduction, Perabo argues that this war was “characterized by Orthodox believers as both a just war and a holy war” (6). While the evidence is certainly convincing that most regarded the war as justifiable, she presents no convincing evidence that any more than perhaps a very few regarded it as a “holy” war. She suggests that there are three [End Page 239] elements of holy war: the war is fought for or under the leadership of a transcendent or religious authority, it is fought for a religious cause or purpose, and “religion influences or motivates the conduct of the individual soldier and shapes the military as an institution” (6). From there she asserts that, because imperial Russia and the church viewed the Tsar as “divinely anointed,” the Tsar’s decision to enter the war is given divine sanction. Such a notion hardly reflects the views of the imperial Russian Church and would be profoundly problematic, implying that every decree made by the Russian Tsars (most of whom had a clearly secular orientation after Peter the Great) had divine sanction (even if such a view is today embraced by the Monastery of St. John the Forerunner of Mesa Patmos in their profoundly problematic book The Romanov Rural Martyrs). Bishop Nikolai (Kasatkin), for one, is very clear that the Emperor does not have religious authority and is not the “head” of the church (105). Second, although the propaganda supporting the war effort in Russia certainly painted the Japanese as racial and religious “others” (“yellow menace” and “heathens”), the war was sparked off and motivated by a clash of imperial interests. As for the third criterion, the notion of the “Christ-loving army” was not so much descriptive as aspirational—a model that clergy used in exhorting soldiers to act virtuously even in the midst of war (78). By Perabo’s criteria, every war Russia fought should have been considered “holy,” since all were declared by the Tsar, fought against religious “others,” and fought by the “Christ-loving army.” In fact, however, virtually none of the wars against the Ottomans or Western European powers were understood primarily in religious terms, with the possible exceptions of a few such as Alexander Nevsky’s battles against the Teutonic Knights, or the Crimean War, which was motivated by...