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The Russian Christian Right, European leader of the global “moralist international”

by Kristina Stoeckl

interview with Kristina Stoeckl, Professor of Sociology at the University of Innsbruck and coordinator of the Postsecular Conflicts Research Project

by Asia Leofreddi, Confronti Study Center

Traditional family, abortion, Christianophobia: the central themes of the American Christian Right since the 1970s are now also at the programmatic core of European political movements on the right. According to Kristina Stoeckl, sociologist, project leader of POstSEcular Conflicts (Posec) and author, together with Dmitry Uzlaner, of the forthcoming book Moralist International: Russia in the Global Culture Wars (Fordham, 2022), one of the key players that brought us to this point, was Russia, which within a relatively short period of time has established itself as the leader of Europe’s ultraconservatives. We interviewed her for Confronti.

In recent years, especially during the Trump administration, we have often heard of the American Christian Right. Today, thanks to your project, we can also speak of a Russian Christian Right. What is this movement about?

In the last two decades, in Russia, we have seen the emergence of Orthodox Christian conservativeactors with strategies and ideas very similar to those of the religious Right in the United States. Starting in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, some Russian academics, activists and businessmen of Orthodox faith began to import ideas and strategies typical of the American Christian Right into Russia. Their activism mainly concerned the defense of the traditional family and the battle against abortion, so much so that one of the founders of the World Congress of Families (WCF), the pro-life and family gathering that took place in Verona in 2019, is Russian.

And today?

Over the past decade these groups have acquired significant political power, both domestically and internationally. In Russia, they have forged ever closer ties with the Moscow Patriarchate and the Kremlin, helping to shape the country’s political agenda – as well as its foreign policy – in defending so-called traditional values against gender rights and liberal democracy. Abroad, thanks to transnational organizations such as the WCF, they have forged ties with actors in various countries, including the United States and Latin America, and they have transformed Russia into a model for many right-wing actors in Europe, not just in Central and Eastern Europe, but also in Western Europe.

What is the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in this movement?

Until ten years ago, the Church played no role. The Russian pro-family movement originates from civil society and academia. Around 2010, with the arrival of Patriarch Kirill, the theme of traditional values entered fully into the ecclesiastical language of the Moscow Patriarchate and around 2012, it also became the dominant agenda of the Kremlin. Today, we are witnessing its full consolidation. Suffice to say that, in 2019, the Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, financier of many Russian activities of the WCF and other Christian fundamentalist organizations, became the vice president of an organization called the World Russian People’s Council, whose registered office is the same of the patriarchate of Moscow and whose president is the current patriarch, Kirill. Malofeev was also the person who successfully lobbied for including the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman in the Russian constitutional amendment of 2020.

What is the relationship, however, between the Russian Christian Right and “Putinism”?

As I said, traditional values ​​entered the Kremlin’s agenda only in 2012 [Putin has been in office since 2000]. This was the year that saw widespread public protest against what were perceived as fraud Duma elections and against the constitutionally questionable third re-election of Putin to presidency. In this period, Putin was looking for a program that would legitimize his presidency. “Traditional values” have become, today, the backbone of his government system. 

What, on the other hand, is the role of Russian public opinion on this conservative turn?

The positions of public opinion matters very little; it is really more a matter of a political change imposed from above. Analyzing the data from the European Value Study, it is evident that Russians have not become more conservative, but that the views on reproductive and sexual rights have become more polarized. As for abortion, for example, we see that both the camp of those who believe that abortion is never legitimate and those who believe it is always legitimate have increased. The same goes for homosexuality. This means, on the one hand, that Russian public information is crushed on conflicting positions and leaves no room for complex reflections on ethical and moral issues; on the other hand, that although Russia is still a predominantly conservative society, it is gradually becoming more permeable to progressive and liberal values.

One of the central aspects of this new Russian Right is its transnational activism and its impact on the culture wars in European. What do you mean by “culture wars”?

The term “culture wars” was coined, in the ‘90s, by the American sociologist James D. Hunter, who describes the escalation of the clash between American progressives and conservatives on issues such as abortion, egalitarian marriage, freedom of religion, or homeschooling. In recent decades, this phenomenon has taken on a global dimension, involving numerous countries and supranational organizations, such as the UN, and international institutions, such as those of the EU. However, if until a decade ago, on the conservative side, the undisputed protagonists of this ideological confrontation were the United States and the Vatican, today’s novelty is the entry on the scene of Russia which, in a very short time, has become a kind of leading figure in the European culture wars.

How is the Russian conservative leadership redefining the relationship between politics and religion in Europe?

Thanks to its activism and its transnational ties, the Russian Christian Right is pushing for a refocusing of the role of religion in the public sphere, in an anti-secular and anti-liberal key. It is no coincidence that European Right-wing parties are becoming more and more “religious”. The European Right, even the post-fascist ones, were not Christian, on the contrary. Today, however, populist leaders do nothing but emphasize their adherence to Christian values.

What are your predictions? Is this “moral moralist international”, which brings together Russians, Europeans and Americans, destined to last or to disappear?

For the moment, all the conditions continue to exist for it to last. But we are facing a complex phenomenon and I do not exclude that on some issues there may be friction between Russia and its Western partners.

For instance?

A prime example is religious freedom. The defense of freedom of religion and the rights of Christians has always been one of the themes of the American Christian Right. However, in Russia, non-Orthodox Christians, especially Protestant groups of American origin, continue to meet obstacles to their freedom of worship. Another theme is nationalism. In Russia, the idea of ​​a “pure” Russian Orthodox identity is central to conservative discourse, as is the struggle to defend it from Western influences. Transnational contacts, if visible, can therefore cause many problems. This is true not only for the Russian Orthodox Church, where most fundamentalists abhor any foreign contact as potential heresy, but also for the Christian Right of the United States, where any hint of collusion with Russia is cause for suspicion.

Ph. World Congress of Families XI, 2017. Budapest Congress Center © Elekes Andor from Wikimedia Commons

Kristina Stoeckl

Kristina Stoeckl

Professor of Sociology at the University of Innsbruck and coordinator of the Postsecular Conflicts Research Project

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