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


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)

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.”

Komov has established his own group, FamilyPolicy.ru, whose mission is to create a network of “grassroots pro-family activists” in Russia to influence legislation, policy-makers and the media. A rising star in Russia’s conservative movement, Komov began working with the Orthodox Church’s Department of External Relations under Alfeyev in January 2012. According to a WCF newsletter, “His responsibilities include Church relations with institutions in foreign countries,” from political parties and think tanks to foundations and NGOs. In December 2012, with support from the Duma’s Committee on Family, Women and Children and the Orthodox Church, Komov announced the creation of the National Parents Association. Janice Shaw Crouse attended the organizing conference in Nizhny Novgorod and hailed the NPA’s effort to “strengthen the two-parent, mom-and-dad family.” Komov will serve as the group’s CEO.

The anti-choice lobby in Russia has been winning slow but steady change in the laws governing access to abortion. In the early 1990s, there was strong federal support for family planning services in Russia, and hundreds of clinics providing free reproductive healthcare were established. Though the coverage was uneven, the effort represented an important push to integrate women’s reproductive needs into the larger healthcare system. A public information campaign was launched, according to Erofeeva, who is also an ob-gyn. Postgraduate programs for gynecologists covering new methods of contraception—especially the pill, which had not been available during the Soviet period—were introduced. Abortions, which had become a default form of contraception during Soviet times, when methods of preventing pregnancy were limited, declined by almost 30 percent. “That was the flourishing of family-planning ideas,” Erofeeva says. But funding dried up after the collapse of the ruble in 1998 and the financial crisis that followed. The federal program was eliminated. According to a 2007 USAID report, “The future of family planning provision became unclear as regions were left to determine if and how to finance family planning at the regional and municipal levels.” At its peak in 1998, there were more than 400 well-financed family-planning centers throughout Russia, according to Erofeeva; in 2012, there were only twenty-one. 

In the next decade, little attention was paid to family planning. Instead, the Ministry of Health shifted its emphasis to incentivizing birth. By the time the Duma began drafting a new law in 2010 overhauling the country’s healthcare system, reproductive rights and women’s health were no longer a top priority. In early 2010, Yelena Mizulina, the chair of the Duma’s Committee on Family, Women and Children, established an interdepartmental working group to draft anti-choice legislation. The group was made up of nineteen people, seven of them representatives of the Orthodox Church, including Dmitry Pershin, head of the church’s youth council, and Maxim Obukhov, founder and chair of the church’s anti-abortion medical center, Zhizn (Life). (Pershin has been one of the most vocal advocates of the ban on gay “propaganda.”) 

Erofeeva, who was invited by chance to observe one of the group’s early meetings, says she was horrified to discover that the committee did not include a single medical doctor: “They worked for nine or ten months and prepared the new law, which of course was not called the ‘anti-abortion law’—it was called ‘In the interests of the unborn child.’… So they were playing this card that in Russia there are so many abortions and the birthrate is very low and we’re killing our unborn babies.” 

Rather than risk a protracted battle over the controversial law, Mizulina took parts of the legislation drafted by the working group and inserted them into the health reform bill signed by Medvedev in November 2011. The law limits abortions to the first trimester (with the exceptions of rape and risk to the life of the mother) and institutes a mandatory waiting period of two to seven days. Similar laws restricting abortion access have been passed throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Even if the health law fell far short of what the church hoped to achieve—that is, ending federal support of all abortion services, requiring that women receive the approval of their spouses before having an abortion, and requiring prescriptions for the morning-after pill—it marked a decisive shift in Russia’s evolving battle over reproductive rights. Just after the bill was introduced in the Duma, Patriarch Kirill met with Tatyana Golikova, head of the Ministry of Health, and signed an agreement of cooperation on future initiatives that included combating abortion and promoting motherhood and the traditional family. “This is not just joint projects,” Golikova said, “but also the solution to the problems at the legislative level.” 

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New legislation will be high on the agenda at the WCF’s 2014 congress in Moscow in September. The event, titled “Every Child a Gift: Large Families—the Future of Humanity,” will include a special parliamentary forum organized by Mizulina, who is known as “the Inquisitor” and drafted both the anti-abortion and anti-gay bills. “Pro-family” MPs from Europe and around the world are expected to attend.

The Moscow summit will be held at the Congress Hall of the Kremlin and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, where the punk band Pussy Riot staged its mock prayer denouncing Vladimir Putin in February 2012. Putin, whose close ties to the church hierarchy are well-known, said shortly after he was re-elected that conflict over “cultural identity, spiritual and moral values, and moral codes” will come to define Russia’s relations with other countries.

Oddly, the Orthodox-evangelical alliance marks one of the few bright spots in an otherwise strained relationship between the United States and Russia. As one American banker in Moscow with close ties to Hilarion Alfeyev told me, “It is surely one of the most positive things taking place right now regarding US-Russian relations.”


Read Next: Sean Guillory on “Repression and Gay Rights in Russia.”

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