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How US Evangelicals Fueled the Rise of Russia’s Anti-Gay Right

An alliance is born between anti-gay, anti-abortion American groups and the Russian Orthodox Church.

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“We want to promote the idea of the unity between the West and Russia on the basis of common Christian roots,” Sevastianov told Inside the Vatican magazine in 2009. “We believe in this alliance among traditional Christian countries…and we believe that, with a united voice, we can be a strong force against the radical secular world which has become dominant in our societies.” 

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The push to deepen ties with American evangelicals, to present a united front, coincides with the church’s broadening influence within Russia. In State Department cables published by WikiLeaks in 2010, then–US Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle described a meeting with Alfeyev in which the bishop admitted that the Russian Orthodox Church “has been extending its reach further into heretofore secular areas of society” like education. “Calling the ROC ‘a significant actor’ in the life of the country,” Beyrle wrote, “Hilarion said that Patriarch Kirill is ‘not only symbolic,’ but can also influence major currents in Russia, including its political development.” 

In his remarks at Villanova in 2012, Alfeyev emphasized the importance of bringing together the symbolic and political power of the church. “It is essential,” he said, “to protect and support a cultural tradition which is favorable to the family,” and to take “an active part in the creation of legislation that favors the family and its natural foundation.” 

Clearly, the church’s efforts are beginning to pay off within the country, while Russia has also emerged as a leader in the international “pro-family” movement.

In 2011, the World Congress of Families held its first Demographic Summit in Moscow. Established in 1997 by Dr. Allan Carlson, the WCF is an interfaith, international movement whose mission is to “restore the natural family as the fundamental social unit.” Back in 1995, Carlson was invited to speak at Moscow State University by two professors of sociology who admired his book Family Questions: Reflections on the American Social Crisis. According to Jennifer Butler in Born Again: The Christian Right Globalized, “The professors and Carlson, joined by a lay leader in the Russian Orthodox Church, came to the conclusion that what they needed was to bring together scholars and leaders from ‘newly free Europe and Russia’ to meet with leaders from the West.” The first global conference was held in Prague in 1997 and drew more than 700 participants. 

The 2011 summit was attended by leading US evangelicals like Janice Shaw Crouse of Concerned Women for America and Larry Jacobs of the WCF. The meeting’s Russian attendees included not only church heavyweights but Natalia Yakunina, chair of the Sanctity of Motherhood Program and wife of Vladimir Yakunin, the head of the state-run Russian Railways and a member of Putin’s inner circle. In promotional material, the WCF claims that the 2011 summit “helped pass the first Russian laws restricting abortion in modern history.” The WCF held a follow-up Demographic Summit in Ulyanovsk in 2012.

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The organizer of the events and the WCF’s representative in Russia is Alexey Komov, a 41-year-old doctoral candidate in the social sciences at Moscow State University. Komov, who studied in the United States and the United Kingdom, is part of a new generation of young anti-choice activists in Russia who are drawing on tactics that have come to define the battle over reproductive rights in the United States: they have adopted the phrase “pro-life” to describe themselves, regularly picket health clinics that perform abortions, and have launched national campaigns that stigmatize the procedure, often using graphic and misleading language and images. In recent years, anti-choice groups in Russia have developed hundreds of websites and attracted funding from several foundations supported by leading political and cultural figures. “They are growing like mushrooms,” says Lyubov Erofeeva. “They are attracting young people with little knowledge, with little life experience.”

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