Since the re-election of Pres. Vladimir Putin of Russia in 2012, the Kremlin has clamped down on independent media, established a draconian ban on “gay propaganda” and invaded the Ukrainian Republic of Crimea.
This new Russian government is aggressive, autocratic and moving further to the political right, argues Anton Shekhovtsov, a London-based expert on the Ukrainian and Russian far right—who originally hails from the Crimean city of Sevastopol.
The Kremlin is also reaching out to American conservative evangelicals as a means to find potential allies sympathetic to Russia’s rightward shift. In the following op-ed, Shekhovtsov explains why that’s dangerous.
On March 25, the World Congress of Families—a U.S.-based organization described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBT hate group—declared that it suspended planning for its eighth congress, initially scheduled for September in Moscow.
WCF dedicated the event to the topic, “Every Child a Gift: Large Families—The Future of Humanity.” The group hoped it would be a high-profile event. In addition to Pres. Vladimir Putin, the conference was to include Russian Orthodox leader Vladimir Gundyaev and oligarchs Vladimir Yakunin and Konstantin Malofeev.
But Russia’s invasion of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea threw the planning into turmoil. According to a statement by WCF, “the situation in the Ukraine and Crimea (and the resulting U.S. and European sanctions) had raised questions about travel, logistics and other matters necessary to plan WCF VIII.”
Once U.S. sanctions compromised holding the event in Moscow, WCF pulled out. But WCF doesn’t have a problem with Putin’s politics, or his arch-conservative domestic allies.
On the contrary, the WCF’s choice of location, speakers and promotion of anti-gay and fundamentalist rhetoric reveals a budding relationship between Russia’s autocratic government and sympathetic American allies on the Christian right.
Russia’s new Orthodoxy
Leaving aside—for the time being—the reasons for suspending the preparations for the event, let us discuss the rationale behind cooperation between the WCF and Putin’s Russia.
Dmitri Trenin—a political scientist with the Carnegie Moscow Center— writes that Putin started as “a non-ideological pragmatist, a moderate Russian nationalist, and a secular patriot,” whose “adherence to Orthodox Christianity was a personal matter,” but later “it has evolved into something akin to an ideology.”
Whether it was a personal matter or not, Orthodox Christianity did not play a significant role in the ideological narratives of Putin’s regime in the beginning of his presidency. However, it became an increasingly important element of the Kremlin’s posture—both internally and internationally.
There are several reasons why. During the late 2000s, Putin’s popular support began slipping. The global financial crisis inflicted severe pain on Russia’s un-modernized economy—a crisis exacerbated by the country’s dependence on the hydrocarbon industry.
To secure the well-being of the elites and maintain Putin’s majority, the Kremlin needed a different strategy.
This meant promoting a combination of anti-Western sentiment, Russian imperialism and Orthodox Christianity. Thus, rather than being “Putin’s spiritual guide,” Orthodox Christianity was simply a means for the Russian political and financial establishment to keep control over the population.
But since the internal strategy of maintaining Putin’s majority was at odds with constructive relations with Western democracies, the Kremlin badly needed loyal allies in the West.
Furthermore, Russia’s self-isolation from the West would not have been psychologically comfortable for Russian society had the Kremlin failed to present Western advocates of Russia’s anti-Westernism.
American evangelicals meet ‘Christian Russia’
The WCF first appeared in Russia in mid-1990s, but it was not until the late 2000s when the group increased its cooperation with Russia. In 2012, Konstantin Malofeev co-founded what later became the Charitable Foundation of St. Basil the Great with a budget of $42 million—an official partner of the WCF.
Last year was especially important for the cooperation between the WCF and its partners in Russia. Malofeev took part in WCF VII in Sydney, where he ardently promoted the idea of Russia being a bastion of traditional Christian values opposing the decadent West.
“Now Christian Russia can help liberate the West from the new liberal anti-Christian totalitarianism of political correctness, gender ideology, mass-media censorship and neo-Marxist dogma,” Malofeev said.
The WCF was clearly convinced by Malofeev’s offer. “The Russians might be the Christian saviors to the world; at the U.N. they really are the ones standing up for these traditional values of family and faith,” Lawrence Jacobs, WCF’s vice president, said.
On June 13, Yelena Mizulina—a Russian politician and a major adherent of the hard right agenda in Russia—chaired the Committee for Family, Women and Children Issues in the Russian parliament, to which she invited a number of Western “experts” to endorse social conservative policies in Russia.
Among them were François Legrier, president of the right-wing Catholic Movement of Families; Hugues Revel, president of Catholics in Campaign; Brian Brown, president of the U.S.-based anti-gay organization National Organization for Marriage which is a partner of the WCF; and Aymeric Chauprade, the foreign adviser to the French far right National Front’s leader, Marine Le Pen.
Officially, they discussed laws that would prevent gay couples from adopting Russian orphans. However, the presence of several Russian foreign affairs officials—including parliamentary foreign affairs committee chief Aleksey Pushkov—revealed that the committee was not simply a matter of internal politics.
Some speeches of the participants corroborated this. Legrier attacked the “individualistic and freedom-loving philosophy of Enlightenment that was allegedly trying to free a man from any law that was alien to him.”
Chauprade condemned the U.S. and NATO that, in his view, were conspiring against Russia and European sovereignty, undermining “the foundations of civilization, individual dignity, family and sovereign nation,” as well as “terrorizing the European ruling class while being financially supported by the globalist and American business circles.”
The same day, Malofeev and the Charitable Foundation hosted a round-table discussion—with almost the same participants—on the topic “Traditional Values: The Future of the European Peoples.”
The message of the discussion was unambiguous. “Civilization is on the verge of destruction, and only Russia can become a center of consolidation of all the healthy forces and resistance to the sodomization of the world, that is why the whole Europe is looking at it with hope.”
The alliance backfires
Politics necessarily come into play when Christian evangelicals make friends with Russia’s right-wing “ambassadors.”
The political side of this cooperation comes into play in cases such as the illegal annexation of Crimea following Russia’s invasion. Milenko Baborac and Zoran Radojicic, representatives of the Serbian ultra-Orthodox Dveri movement—and a partner of the WCF— were “observers” at this “referendum” together with other far right and far left politicians loyal to the Kremlin.
However, the outrageous annexation of Crimea by Putin’s Russia backfired on the WCF and its Russian colleagues.
The U.S. imposed sanctions on three Russian individuals—Vladimir Yakunin, Yelena Mizulina and Aleksey Pushkov—who have cooperated with WCF, among others.
Since the WCF is, above all, a U.S.-based organization, they most likely decided not to risk harming its reputation domestically by dealing with the sanctioned individuals.
At the moment it is not clear whether the Russians will be able to resume its cooperation with U.S.-based Christian groups. A recent conference hosted by Malofeev in Vienna—which brought together a who’s-who of prominent European neo-fascists—may suggest that the European focus is now more important to Putin’s Russia.
But in either case, the Kremlin is interested in building ties with allies on the American political right—and has already done so. The danger is that these allies may not realize the real dangers of a Russian-led “liberation” of Europe.