Holy war! The Russian Orthodox Church’s discourse of legitimization of Russia’s military intervention in Syria



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Tartu Ülikool


In late September 2015, Russia officially declared the deployment of military assets to Syria within the frame of a military intervention by invitation in support of the struggling Assad government. Leading up and parallel during the continuation of the intervention, analysts have observed another actor entering the political stage, both domestically in Russia and internationally on various bilateral and multilateral platforms: The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). The Church has significantly engaged in efforts of legitimizing the Russian activities in Syria. On the one hand, these efforts have exceeded any previous public engagement of the post-Soviet Church during times of Russian military activities abroad. During the 2008 Russo-Georgian War and the 2014-continous Russo-Ukrainian military conflict, the ROC showed self-inflicted restraints on speaking extensively in favor of Russian military action, nor much less to legitimize domestically or internationally to the extent as in the Syrian case. The Church in these situations wanted to avoid spill-over effects of politico-military conflicts into its ecclesiastical-canonical sphere of supervision. The Syrian case, Russia’s first major military engagement outside the post-Soviet space laid bare a strong conflation within the Russian state-church-nexus. Church officials have presented a new, complex political discourse under the frame of Holy War, ought to legitimize the Russian intervention. This study is set out to analyze how the ROC has constructed this new discourse of Holy War and attempts to unravel what it curtails. Paul Chilton’s approach of mapping the ontology of political discourse delivers the bases by explaining how political actors construct discourses in construal operations of space metaphors. This approach has been further developed by Piotr Cap for the specific study of discourse space in crisis situations and the subsequent legitimation of political action. In what he calls Proximization, a political actor employs proximization strategies to elicit support for her political action from the target audience by discursively narrowing the space between the threat (Other) and the center (Self). Attempting to map this new discourse, this study conducts a synchronic critical discourse analysis of the political discourse of the ROC in the time from 2015-2021. The textual corpus for the data consists of collected content from the ROC (e.g., press releases, statements, interviews etc.). The corpus is divided by context respectively by the target audience, which is either domestic or international. The data analysis mode relies on a framework developed by Cap: Macro themes, referring to the topical frame of the text, and microstructures, referring to the lexico-grammatical structures holding the linguistics of proximization strategies in spatial, temporal, and axiological terms.