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Boosting protection. How Russian military enlists mystical forces to its cause

Mystical inclinations are gaining strength within the ranks of the Russian armed forces. Enchanted objects are being included in packages sent to the front lines for protection against bullets, while Orthodox priests and Buryat shamans are making their way to the front. The saying “there are no atheists in the trenches under fire” has held true throughout history, a fact substantiated by anthropologists. However, in contrast to conflicts of yesteryears, the magical mindset is now being embraced in Russia not only from grassroots levels but also from the higher echelons: battalions are being named after saints, and national media unreservedly report on wonders. 

  • “The eparchy specifically selected three potent prayers for the troops”

  • Protection against Ungern and Genghis Khan

  • Holy battalions

  • Wartime miracles

“The eparchy specifically selected three potent prayers for the troops”

Tatyana Loginova, once a physics teacher at a school, now curates specialized kits for the spiritual protection of Russian soldiers, dispatching them to the military through the Tomsk division of the All-Russian People's Front.

These packages are intended to be placed in soldiers' individual medical kits. Each package contains a blue cloth ribbon inscribed with words from the 90th psalm (“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High”), a consecrated cross from the eparchy, a thread for it, and a paper icon. Loginova arranges for the printing of these icons free of charge at two Tomsk printing facilities.

“On one side of the icon is Saint George the Victorious. On the other is a specially chosen prayer. Our senior figure in the eparchy was tasked with this and deliberately selected three potent prayers for the fighters.”

Buryat dressing gown

In the mythological beliefs of Mongolian peoples, one of the souls of a person which is intricately linked to their life force and spiritual energy.

Band with words from the 90th psalm, part of the spiritual protection kit for Russian soldiers
Band with words from the 90th psalm, part of the spiritual protection kit for Russian soldiers

Since every military item should come with instructions, right next to the prayer, a set of instructions is printed: put on the cross, tighten the ribbon, and place the icon in the chest pocket. The Tomsk branch of the All-Russian People's Front has already sent to the front a few thousand of such kits - Tatyana Loginova can't recall the exact number. It all began, according to her, in June 2022 when Tomsk clergy “discovered” the magical properties of ribbons with the 90th psalm:

“These ribbons have been around for a long time, long before the Special Military Operation, but few people used them, and hardly anyone paid attention. Ordinary parishioners took them if, for example, someone was going to the North. I didn't even know about them. But then I came to the eparchy for insurance matters. And the church workers were discussing a miracle that had happened on the front.”

And then follows a classic legend, in a way. The mother of one of the soldiers sent him a package with prayer ribbons. He, not particularly believing in them, out of respect for his mother, put on two of them: one under his army belt, the other under his helmet. And miraculously, he survived. Loginova tells it like this:

“He was in reconnaissance, and they came out into a clearing. From the other side, the enemy came out onto the same clearing. You know, there's no other way, they would have definitely killed each other. And one of the soldiers said that the enemy fired a shot at that guy with the ribbons, and the bullet changed its trajectory and, instead of killing him, flew in the other direction. The AFU even stopped shooting, their jaws dropped. This happened to him several times. After that, one of the soldiers from their unit, who was either on leave or in hospital for treatment, bought up all the prayer ribbons in Tomsk.”

There weren't enough ribbons, but the demand was rising, so the eparchy officials asked Loginova to organize their production. She found a local businessman who deals with the production and sale of flags and made a deal with him. In November, he produced a batch of 500, the activist says.

“But it turned out to be very expensive - 100 rubles per ribbon. Luckily, prayer ribbons from Moscow had just arrived at the eparchy. Now we all chip in and buy ribbons from the eparchy for 50 rubles apiece.”

By the way, protective ribbons with the 90th psalm are available for 42 rubles each from the online store of the Sofrino factory - the largest manufacturer of Orthodox paraphernalia. They became very popular after the war started. To confirm this, you just need to call Sofrino, say you're putting together a package for the front, and ask what people usually buy. “Ribbons with 'He who dwells in the shelter' won't hurt,” they'd promptly respond on the other end of the line.

As it turns out, these ribbons come in different colors. The standard one is black, but a khaki version has been released specifically for the military, although you don't necessarily have to wear the ribbon over the uniform, store sales staff explain; you can simply put it in your pocket. Demand for them was especially high in the fall, after the start of mobilization. Even now, it's harder to buy ribbons of the protective color. They're simply out of stock in the factory store and delivery service, but there are 728 of them available from the factory's flagship store in Sokolniki, Moscow.

Buryat dressing gown

In the mythological beliefs of Mongolian peoples, one of the souls of a person which is intricately linked to their life force and spiritual energy.

A khaki version of the prayer ribbon has been released specifically for the military

As for the icons, wooden ones are not recommended for the front. Typically, laminated paper icons are preferred for the military, Sofrino sales staff say. The most popular military item is the “Spas Nerukotvornyy” (Uncreated Savior) icon, 5×8 cm in size, with product code 2070201-0023141. These are the ones most frequently sent to the front. The second most popular is the “Nikolay Chudotvorets” (Nicholas the Wonderworker). “But any icon provides protection, consult with your priest,” adds the saleswoman.

Buryat dressing gown

In the mythological beliefs of Mongolian peoples, one of the souls of a person which is intricately linked to their life force and spiritual energy.

The most popular icon is the “Spas Nerukotvornyy” (Uncreated Savior)
The most popular icon is the “Spas Nerukotvornyy” (Uncreated Savior)

Crosses were also being sent to the front in large numbers at one point. An Insider interviewee does not recommend aluminum ones, stating that they break easily. A much more reliable choice is the brass cross number 6; you can buy them in bulk, in a box.

Protection against Ungern and Genghis Khan

Other confessions follow suit. In the spring, a Munko Lama from the Tsugol Datsan, the oldest Buddhist monastery in the Trans-Baikal region, visited Bakhmut. He arrived there with officials from the Agin Buryat District and brought 15 quadcopters, 18 thermal imagers, 25 monoculars, and an unspecified number of talismans for Russian soldiers.

Balzhinima Tsyrenov, working at the Tsugol Datsan, explains that there were a thousand amulets. This magical item is called “Dugar Garzhama”, providing reliable protection against bullets, Tsyrenov adds.

“This amulet has a mantra for all war gods. Baron Ungern always charged into battle ahead of his hundred, but bullets never got him because he wore the Dugar Garzhama around his neck. After the battle, he would take off his terlig with general's epaulettes, and bullets would rain down from him. Baron Ungern perished because of human treachery - he was arrested, the talisman was removed from his neck, and then he was executed.”

During the time of Mongolia's conqueror, Baron Roman Fedorovich von Ungern-Shternberg, the Dugar Garzhama was a bronze plate. Now, it's simpler and more tech friendly. The amulet is printed on paper, laminated for protection against moisture, and hung on a ribbon. So, it's entirely possible to provide magical assistance to all those currently at war in Ukraine, not just the Buddhists. Tsyrenov assures that Russian fighters also approached the Lama en masse for blessings and amulets.

Buryat dressing gown

In the mythological beliefs of Mongolian peoples, one of the souls of a person which is intricately linked to their life force and spiritual energy.

Buryatia provided 15 talismans, consecrated by the Dalai Lama, to participants in the SMO
Buryatia provided 15 talismans, consecrated by the Dalai Lama, to participants in the SMO

The Trans-Baikal Buryats hold strong faith in the protective properties of the talisman, as recently evidenced by an experiment, Tsyrenov says.

“We had a man at our datsan who decided to test Dugar Garzhama. He hung it around a goat's neck, tethered the animal, and instructed two colonels-hunters to shoot at it from a distance of one and a half meters. Astonishingly, the goat emerged without a single scratch! Our comrades who perished in the Special Military Operation, such as the tank crew from Kyakhta, must have simply lacked these talismans.”

Nonetheless, Balzhinima Tsyrenov himself still favors shamanic amulets. Since the onset of the war, he personally crafted several dozen. He carved images of the Mongolian spirit-sulde from a mammoth tusk and dispatched them to the front.

Buryat religion embraces syncretism. The same people may visit the datsan one day and consult a shaman the next. Even adherents of shamanism actively contribute to supporting the Russian army.

For instance, Oleg Bulutov, a close acquaintance of Tsyrenov and the head of the public organization Hun Foundation, transported three shamanic yurts and shamans to the Rostov region:

“At first, I brought two shamans, and later another four. Then three or four people came on their own. Among them were Mongolians from the Temujin clan, tracing their lineage to Genghis Khan. Shamans used to frequently go 'to the front,' but in recent months, such visits have become infrequent. However, the presence of shamans is crucial there. A person might witness something during warfare that causes their spirit to waver. It must be brought back. A person cannot endure for long without their spirit.”

Shamans carry packages for the soldiers, including magical items like soil from revered sites in small bags, silver and copper amulets. The choice of metal depends on the soldier's clan, Bulutov explains:

“The talisman is not intended for the soldier to cause harm, but to return home alive and well. The events on the battlefield are determined by the supreme gods; it's a higher-level conflict, beyond our realm. Recently, a Russian soldier recounted an incident: Buryats advanced into battle alongside him, and he witnessed a massive horse galloping above them, guarding them. He promptly informed his mother, 'Mom, quick, bring me an amulet from Buryatia.'“

Anthropologist Alexandra Arkhipova, well-versed in Mongolian and Buryat folklore, is acquainted with this legend:

“It's a narrative of a Mongol or Buryat heading to war, with numerous variations spanning conflicts from the 19th century to World War II. They take a pebble from 'obos,' a ritual ensemble of stones and branches. Amidst the battle, they perceive an immense horse or a rider on horseback guiding soldiers into the fray or, conversely, rescuing them from the battle. The conclusion involving a Russian person who witnessed the miracle and became a believer is characteristic of legends among the Buryats and other Central Asian communities.”

Another “miracle,” equally familiar to anthropologists, shared with enthusiasm by Oleg Bulutov, revolves around a Buryat soldier in a trench. Hearing Buryat voices nearby, he was intrigued and went to investigate. Simultaneously, a shell struck precisely where he had been standing. Clearly, protective spirits aided him. Now, according to Bulutov, his Russian comrades-in-arms stick close to him, like thread through a needle. Since the war's onset, both in Buryatia and the Trans-Baikal region, he notes a heightened interest among the populace in the faith of their ancestors:

“Nowadays, people are flocking to the shamans. All the deputies walk around with 'Toli' sewn into their jackets. Those who can converse with shamans or partake in a ritual inquire about their children's situation at war. When soldiers come on leave or for treatment, they unfailingly visit the shaman to ascertain if they should return to the front.”

Balzhinima Tsyrenov mentions that Buddhist fortune-telling during the war is also seeing increased demand, as everyone endeavors to learn about the fate of their loved ones on the front lines.

While Buddhists engage in divination, the Orthodox offer prayers. Alexandra Arkhipova observes the remarkable proliferation, during the invasion, of the so-called “prayer letters”—the military equivalent of “happiness letters.” Shared on platforms like Odnoklassniki, VKontakte, and WhatsApp chats, these messages urge forwarding to acquaintances to “form a prayer chain.”

Buryat dressing gown

In the mythological beliefs of Mongolian peoples, one of the souls of a person which is intricately linked to their life force and spiritual energy.

The so-called “prayer letters”—the military equivalent of “happiness letters”—became popular on social media during the invasion

Arkhipova highlighted three main texts. The first one goes, “Fighters ask for prayers! PRAY FOR OUR SOLDIERS, FOR THE STRENGTH OF THEIR SPIRIT! AND FOR THE CONFUSION AND SHAME OF THE ADVERSARIES.” The second post posits that “in the next few hours, a decisive battle will take place in Ukraine, which will either lead us to victory and NATO will not interfere, or, if we lose it, to crushing defeat.” It also calls for prayerful assistance.

Buryat dressing gown

In the mythological beliefs of Mongolian peoples, one of the souls of a person which is intricately linked to their life force and spiritual energy.

The third piece is titled “Predictions of a Russian prophet about the third world war.” It's a lengthy text in the form of questions to a certain seer and their answers. The contents of these answers would be familiar to anyone who has watched Russian television. However, stories about Putin's mission, NATO aggression, and the notion that Ukrainians are, supposedly, corrupted Russians manipulated by evil forces, are generously infused with mysticism. The text mentions gods, Tibetan lamas, and shamans. Well, and at the end, of course, there is a request to forward the letter to “true friends.” And people, according to Arkhipova, do not leave this request unanswered: “These texts are actively forwarded to one another, for example, by members of the Wagnerite wives' chat.”

Analysis by the Medialogia service shows that three-quarters of those who spread the “prayer letters” are women. Almost all of them are over 40, and the majority are over 65.

Professor Stuart Vyse, a member of the American Psychological Association and author of the book “Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition,” believes that clinging to superstitions and prayers becomes increasingly prevalent when people feel they lack control:

“The death of Russian soldiers must be devastating for their families and friends, but they have almost no control over the situation. When a person prays or buys a talisman, this action creates what psychologists call an illusion of control. The feeling that they have done something positive to achieve a favorable outcome, even though the person often understands that prayer or a talisman cannot help. Having no effective way to guarantee the safety of their loved ones, people often resort to superstitions and magical thinking.”

Holy battalions

The mystical sentiments surrounding this war are fueled by the nature of the conflict itself, according to Alexandra Arkhipova:

“People don't really understand why they are fighting. They are scared, and the commander is lousy. In such a situation, a person really wants to believe that they are fighting and dying for a just cause, that the Mother of God is with them.”

This observation is also noted by security services researcher Andrey Soldatov. The course of the war is unclear, with events such as the capture of Bakhmut followed by Ukrainian counteroffensives:

“These emotional swings have already led to an increase in mystical sentiments within the army. Units have started to be named after saints; military personnel are increasingly sharing icons and prayers in Telegram channels; and pro-war priests are gaining popularity in the military.”

The most popular priest in the armed forces, according to Soldatov, is Andrey Tkachev, a 53-year-old cleric currently residing in Moscow. He is a spiritual leader in the Youth Department of the Moscow City Eparchy and a popular TV presenter. This man is known to the general public for his call to prayer when the Grad rocket system was being loaded and his approval of the shelling of civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.

As for the naming of military units after saints, the practice is actively promoted by Komsomolskaya Pravda. “In one of the battles, a special forces soldier with the call sign 'Nevsky' was killed. He resembled the legendary warrior prince. It was technically and bureaucratically impossible to permanently include 'Nevsky' in the unit's records. So, in his memory, the battalion was named after Saint Alexander Nevsky,” writes propagandist Dmitry Steshin.

In the same article, he mentions a battalion named after the uncanonized Yevgeny Rodionov, a participant in the Chechen War who died in captivity. Many Orthodox believers, especially military personnel and members of the Izborsky Club, consider him a new martyr and venerate him as a saint. Steshin's article bears a very characteristic headline: “We named our battalion after saints - and there are no heavy losses anymore.” In general, assigning the name of a patron saint is perceived as a magical act.

In the Russian Armed Forces, there is already the Rostov Saint George Motorized Rifle Battalion and the Saint Ilya Muromets Battalion. In the occupied part of the Zaporizhzhia region, a battalion named after Apostle Andrew the First-Called was formed. And Zakhar Prilepin is recruiting the Saint Seraphim of Sarov Motorized Rifle Battalion in Nizhny Novgorod.

Buryat dressing gown

In the mythological beliefs of Mongolian peoples, one of the souls of a person which is intricately linked to their life force and spiritual energy.

 Ilya Muromets
Ilya Muromets

Unlike Ilya Muromets and Alexander Nevsky, Seraphim of Sarov isn't a particularly martial saint. According to legend, he would greet visitors to his hermitage with the words “My joy.” Once, when bandits attacked him, he allowed them to beat him and strike him on the head with the blunt side of an axe without offering any resistance. Such behavior is hardly what one would expect from a battle unit. However, it seems that the choice of the saint's name in the unit's title is not for a moral example but for a simple miracle.

Buryat dressing gown

In the mythological beliefs of Mongolian peoples, one of the souls of a person which is intricately linked to their life force and spiritual energy.

The choice of the saint's name in the unit's title is not for a moral example but for a simple miracle

Wartime miracles

Miracles are multiplying, especially in the Russian press. Tsargrad TV reports a miraculously saved soldier, the son of a Novosibirsk priest: “During one of his missions, he was spotted by an enemy drone that dropped three grenades on him. None of them exploded. He thanked his father for the prayers during a phone conversation with his parents.”

On another Orthodox website, wartime miracles have become a regular section. There you can read, for example, about how “an icon of the Mother of God standing in a trench protected the soldiers. A shell exploded nearby, and the shrapnel flew not towards them but to the right and left of them.”

Argumenty and Fakty tells the story of a mobilized soldier from Samara who was saved from shrapnel by a patch depicting the Virgin Mary. Not in the sense that the shrapnel didn't penetrate the patch, but in the sense that divine power specifically diverted the lethal fragments away from the soldier.

Even more stories of miraculous salvation can be found on Russian social media now. Here's another well-known legend to anthropologists from past wars, this time retold as an incident during the assault on Rubizhne:

“Our soldiers got stuck near a low hill with a partially destroyed house, from where an enemy machine gunner was firing. This machine gunner made it impossible to make a decisive move. And then a young man called out to one of the soldiers from behind and showed a path to bypass the house. The soldier immediately turned to the commander, showed the direction, and when he turned back, the young man was gone. They took the hill, bypassing the machine gun point as the young man had shown. Later, in a different part of the city, those soldiers entered a ruined church dedicated to St. George the Victorious. Looking at the ruined building without a roof, with brick debris, and dust underfoot, it was difficult to recognize a church. But on the remnants of the altar screen, two icons were preserved. One of them, pierced by bullets fired from an assault rifle by an AFU soldier, was an icon of Archangel Michael. Upon looking at it, our soldier recognized the same young man who had shown him the way to avoid machine gun fire.”

According to Alexandra Arkhipova, this plotline entered scholarly discourse for the first time in 1915. Since then, it has been reproduced in various wars. The difference in the current situation is that such stories are not confined to trench anecdotes. They are eagerly disseminated by major state and quasi-state media. Arkhipova suspects that all of this is not happening by chance:

“This could be part of a larger state narrative. Attempts to show that this war is not for territories, not for a land corridor to Crimea, but that we are waging a holy, divine war. And God is on the side of Russia in this. This also fits with the words of priests who go to the front lines and say that this war is a trial for the Russian people.”

Recently, another popular military priest, Svyatoslav Churkanov (he even has a profile picture in protective gear and a helmet), recounted a mystical event at the Vishnevsky military hospital where many of this war's wounded are being treated. Here's what Churkanov writes in his Telegram channel:

“A month ago, doctors fought very hard for the life of one young guy in this military hospital, but this time, there was no miracle. He died on the operating table. At the moment of his death, the image of the Virgin Mary appeared on all glass doors leading from the first to the sixth floor to the intensive care unit room.”

As evidence, he provided a video from the hospital corridor showing semi-circular condensation streaks on the doors. With the right mystical mood, one can indeed see the head of the Virgin Mary or some other saint in a headscarf. And it's precisely this kind of mood that is now being cultivated among Russian people.

Buryat dressing gown

In the mythological beliefs of Mongolian peoples, one of the souls of a person which is intricately linked to their life force and spiritual energy.

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