Karrie J. Koesel is associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, where she specializes in the study of contemporary Chinese and Russian politics, authoritarianism, and religion and politics. She serves as a fellow of the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion and is also a fellow with the Institute for Educational Initiatives, the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, the Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies, and the Pulte Institute for Global Development.
In this conversation, Koesel explores how Russian President Vladimir Putin has used religious rhetoric to justify the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She also highlights research and teaching projects that focus on religion as well as authoritarian states.
Q: How is religion being used to the Russian war in Ukraine?
A: We've seen the appropriation or instrumentalization of religion, particularly on the Russian side. With Vladimir Putin, this is not new—he's been invoking religion for the past 10, maybe 15 years. But you see the securitization of religion where the state is appropriating religious identity, religious values, it sees itself as the protector and the defender of religion, of religious identity and is using that to mobilize a base of support, but also to justify Putin's war in Ukraine.
And so, this sort of playing up on the sentiment that not only ethnic Russians, but Orthodox Christians are at risk within Ukraine—which is false—but nevertheless, using that rhetoric is kind of a “rally around the flag” strategy. What's damaging about this is it's not just rhetoric that Putin is using, but you also see it from religious leaders at the highest levels in Russia. This includes the patriarch of the Orthodox Church talking about Ukraine and Russia as a shared country, a shared people, a shared religious identity. So, essentially not recognizing Ukrainian statehood, or the fact that there's a tremendous amount of religious diversity within Ukraine. You see people who are generally considered very trusted, the head of the Orthodox Church, feeding into the propaganda agents from the Kremlin. Which is very unfortunate and also can be very powerful in providing legitimacy to Putin's propaganda.
There is this idea of the church as junior partner of the state. There has been that relationship of co-opting religion from Soviet and imperial times.
Q: How does this compare with how past Russian leaders have instrumentalized religion?
A: There are different ways I could answer that question. Even though the Soviet state was Marxist-Leninist-Atheist, and at various points, horribly attacked religious communities, including Orthodox Christians, there also were different points in Soviet history where the Orthodox Church was deeply co-opted. There were “red priests” (red meaning Communist) who were essentially co-opted as agents of the state. And although they may have had religious identities as well, they were very much state first and religion second. And there's been a close relationship between the Orthodox Church and the state, which precedes the Soviets. There is this idea of the church as junior partner of the state, or as secondary. There has been that relationship of co-opting religion from Soviet and imperial times.
Q: How do you see Putin following in this tradition?
A: One of the ways in which Putin has mobilized religion or instrumentalized religion on his behalf in the past 10 years, is that he has really articulated the Kremlin and Russia as the defender of religious identity and religious values against the West.
So, the West is deeply secular—Western liberalism, Western democracy, same-sex marriage, feminism. Moscow, meanwhile, is the next Rome, the third Rome [note: this is a historical and theological concept that Russia is the true successor of the Roman empire and the protector of the Orthodox Church]. And I don't think that's true. I think this is just a way for Putin to promote his conservative anti-liberal values. He’s anti-LGBTQ and so he mobilizes the church to join that fight, and says he’s doing this in defense of religious freedom and religious values, where really it's using religion to target minority populations in Russia that are already deeply discriminated against. To be clear, this is not something that has just happened in the past few years, and certainly not since not the invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, but something Putin’s been developing for the past 10 years.
It's a pushing back against the West. And what he sees is everything that is negative (in his mind) about the West—the decline of religion, LGBTQ rights, same-sex marriage, feminism, women’s rights. All of these things go together in the anti-liberal basket that he is propagating.
Q: Broadening our discussion a bit, could you talk a bit about your teaching, which deals with authoritarian regimes as well as religion?
This semester I’m teaching a senior seminar called “Despots and Dictators,” which is looking at comparatively at the origins, development and strategies of autocratic regimes. How do they stay in power? What tools do they use? Is it repression? Is it co-optation? How do they manage threats? Whether that’s religion they see is a threat or political opposition, how do they control information? It’s really a fun class to teach because I've taught it in a variety of ways for senior seminar, graduate seminar, and also as a lecture class. We think about the politics of autocracy within a global context.
Another class I teach is called “Gods and Governments,” which is an introduction to the global politics of religion, thinking about how religion and state intersect in different arenas. So not just the United States as a model, but also China and Russia as examples. We think about right-wing groups and populism within the course and how populist parties within Europe are also embracing religious identities. We look at religious groups as proponents of peace and stability, but also as bringers of conflict. Religion and politics, my grandmother used to say, these are the two things that are not polite dinner table conversation, but that's the focus of the class: the ways that they intersect and, often, the tensions around them.
Scholars of democracy have long proven that civics education is a guardian of democracy. It has this positive impact on political participation. So this book asks, what is the relationship within a less than democratic context?
Q: You’re currently working on your third book, Learning to Be Loyal: Political Education in Authoritarian Regimes. Talk a bit about that project, and some of the themes you explore.
A: It is a comparative project on political or often called patriotic education in autocracies. So, what that means is, in democracies, in junior high and high school, young people often take government classes or civic education classes, where they learn about the nuts and bolts of the political institutions, why it’s important to vote and become politically active and engaged. This project is looking at what civic education looks like in non-democracies, across the authoritarian world, where they also have these same classes, they just tend not to call them civics. They might be social studies, but often they're called political and ideological education or in the Russian case, “patriotic education.” The project is examining such questions as: What is the content of political education? How does it change over time? And what are the implications of it? Is it socializing young people to be supportive of their regime, their leaders, their economy, their social system? Essentially, does it work?
Scholars of democracy have long proven that civics education is a guardian of democracy. It has this positive impact on political participation. The more exposure you have to civics, generally, the more politically active you may be. So this book asks, what is the relationship within a less than democratic context? What does “civics” look like there? What is the landscape of it? And then, are there core pillars of legitimacy that the state is using to try to build support among young people?