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How US Evangelicals Fueled the Rise of Russia’s ‘Pro-Family’ Right | The Nation

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How US Evangelicals Fueled the Rise of Russia’s ‘Pro-Family’ Right

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Gay rights protest

Gay rights activists take part in an opposition protest march in Moscow, June 12, 2013. (Reuters/Maxim Shemetov)

This past June, the Russian Parliament passed an anti-gay law that came as a surprise to much of the rest of the world. The statute, an amendment to the country’s Code of Administrative Offenses, bans “propaganda” regarding “nontraditional sexual relations among minors.” (In earlier versions of the bill, it was simply referred to as “homosexual propaganda.”) The bill’s language is so vague that it could include just about any kind of gay rights advocacy, from newspaper editorials and advertisements to public information campaigns and demonstrations. Among the penalties: fines of up to 5,000 rubles for an individual and 1 million rubles for a media organization or other legal entity. (A few days later, a bill banning the adoption of Russian children by same-sex couples in countries that recognize gay marriage was also passed.) In November, the editor of a newspaper in the far eastern city of Khabarovsk was charged under the new law after quoting an LGBT activist saying, “My entire existence is credible proof of the normality of homosexuality.” 

Though it sparked worldwide condemnation at a moment when Russia is poised to host the Sochi Olympics, the bill in effect codified existing social policy. Several regions, including St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk, had already passed similar laws; gay rights demonstrations have been routinely banned; and LGBT activists have lived for years in a climate of fear, enduring beatings, arrests and harassment.

The anti-gay measure is the product of a growing conservative movement in Russia spearheaded by the Orthodox Church and sympathetic lawmakers. Its goals are not only to criminalize homosexuality, but to limit access to abortion and reproductive healthcare and to aggressively promote the “traditional family” through state subsidies and other benefits. In 2011, the parliament passed a law restricting abortion access that pro-choice activists regard as the first volley in an effort to ban the procedure altogether. Clinics were required to list the potential negative side effects of an abortion—like the warning on a pack of cigarettes—in any advertisements. More recently, a bill was passed prohibiting doctors’ offices or health clinics from advertising that they perform abortions at all. Yelena Mizulina, head of the Duma’s Committee on Family, Women and Children’s Affairs, which has formulated much of the new legislation, has said her primary task in the upcoming session will be to further restrict access to abortion and limit the availability of emergency contraception. Meanwhile, numerous think tanks, advocacy groups and charitable organizations with close ties to the Kremlin have taken up the cause.

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This rising Russian social conservative movement frequently invokes the argument that pro-gay and women’s rights groups are puppets of the West, which is seeking to undermine Russian autonomy and interfere in the country’s internal affairs. At an annual meeting of journalists and academics presided over by Vladimir Putin in Valdai in September, the Russian president said that European countries had strayed from their roots by legalizing gay marriage. He urged Russians to embrace the conservative values of the Orthodox Church and other traditional religions and issued a warning to those who might want to challenge those values. “Russia’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity are unconditional—these are red lines no one is allowed to cross,” he declared.

Several LGBT rights groups have been targeted under another new law, which requires any nongovernmental organization that receives funding from other countries for political activities to register as a “foreign agent.” Failure to do so can lead to investigations, legal action or crippling fines. The implication is that these groups are not only agents of the West but also out of touch with everyday Russians.

The irony is that it is the new conservative vanguard—anti-gay, anti-abortion and pro–“traditional family”—that has most successfully cultivated the West’s financial and institutional support. Scott Lively, an extreme anti-gay campaigner, all but took credit for the new law, calling it “one of the proudest achievements of my career,” while Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, visited Moscow with much fanfare just before the new law was passed. But the language of Russia’s anti-gay and anti-abortion movement seems to borrow most heavily from mainstream evangelicals and conservative politicians in the United States and Europe. Referring to the anti-abortion bill passed in 2011, Lyubov Erofeeva, executive director of the Russian Association for Population and Development, a women’s advocacy group, said: “It was 100 percent clear that everything was copied from the experience of American fundamentalists and conservative circles of several European countries where abortion is forbidden or restricted severely.”

The church’s close ties with American evangelicals reflect a shift in policy. For much of the post-Soviet period, the Russian Orthodox Church held evangelical denominations at arm’s length, fearing that they would compete for influence within Russia. But as the church has consolidated its power, it has come to view the evangelical community as a partner. “The ROC realizes that the evangelical denominations are not their opponents but rather their allies in the relations between the church and the secular population,” says Olga Kazmina, a professor of ethnology at Moscow State University. 

“It’s a re-envisioned paradigm,” says Father Leonid Kishkovsky, head of the Orthodox Church in America’s Department of External Affairs. In many ways, it makes sense, he adds: both religious groups share an ideological commitment and have grown disillusioned with the way mainline churches have dealt with issues like gay marriage and abortion. “But what I’m quite nervous about is the ideological core which actually motivates both sides,” Kishkovsky says. “Where is the motivating force? Is it in faith? Or is it in political ideology?” 

The Russian Orthodox Church’s chief emissary to the US evangelical community is Hilarion Alfeyev, a high-ranking bishop and chairman of the powerful Department of External Church Relations (the position previously held by Patriarch Kirill). In February 2011, the 47-year-old Alfeyev traveled to Washington, where he met with prominent evangelical and “pro-family” leaders; and then to Dallas, where he addressed thousands of members of the Highland Park Presbyterian Church and emphasized the importance of “creat[ing] new alliances,” especially around issues of marriage, abortion and the family. Alfeyev also visited the Dallas Theological Seminary and had an hour-long meeting with George W. Bush. 

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