Home » With or without the Patriarch? The Rise of the Russian Christian Right and the World Congress of Families

With or without the Patriarch? The Rise of the Russian Christian Right and the World Congress of Families

by Kristina Stoeckl

Excerpt from: Kristina Stoeckl, 2020. "The rise of the Russian Christian Right: the case of the World Congress of Families." Religion, State and Society 48 (4): 223-238. https://doi.org/10.1080/09637494.2020.1796172. The excerpt was prepared by Vera Pozzi.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and during the years of economic and political transition, economic consultants, policy advisors, religious missionaries, and businesspeople from the West were pouring into Russia. They all found an audience that was eager to take up their ideas. The 1990s in post-soviet Russia was a period of chaotic economic transition and unprecedented ideological pluralization. In this climate, also conservative and reactionary ideas flourished, some of which were “imported” from the West. Among the Western actors eager to play a role in the transition, there were Christian Right groups from America. They saw themselves at the forefront of the American ‘culture wars’, i.e. conflicts between social progressives and social conservatives over issues such as abortion, family values, school prayer, or homosexuality. With the end of the Cold War, these culture wars started to globalize and to reach Russia. The founding moment of the World Congress of Families (WCF) falls precisely into this period, and it is an example for how Russia and Russian Orthodoxy have been drawn into the global culture wars.

In January 1995, the American college professor and pro-family activist Allan Carlson, then president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society in Rockford, Illinois, travelled to Moscow to meet the sociologist Anatoly Antonov, professor of family sociology and demography at Moscow State University. Antonov had reached out to his American colleague and proposed the meeting. The views of Antonov and Carlson matched in terms of their anti-Marxism and their shared experience of exclusion from western mainstream family sociology. Moreover, the main driving motive for Antonov’s interest in family sociology was the question how to boost Russia’s declining population, plagued by high divorce rates, high abortion rates, and low life expectancy. Antonov and his colleagues, and the evidence of a resurging Russian Orthodox Church, convinced the American visitor that Russia stood firmly on the conservative side of the culture wars divide. Whereas the Soviet Union had been a country of identification for the political left, post-Soviet Russia became a country of identification for the political right. Antonov introduced Carlson to many people in Moscow, to academics, intellectuals, and politicians. According to Carlson’s private travel diary, it was during these meetings that he developed the idea of setting up a World Congress of Families and promised to start to organize such an event by mid-1996. The first World Congress of Families took place in Prague in 1997 with the active participation Antonov and several other Russian participants.

The Russian founding moment of the WCF not only provides early evidence for Russia’s position on the right in the global culture wars, but it also showcases the emergence of a new type of religious player in the Russian religious field. Throughout the 1990s, the Russian Orthodox Church was busy with the process of institutional recovery after decades of Soviet repression of religion. Its leadership, the Moscow Patriarchate, was fighting against the influx of other religious denominations into Russia and against the influence of liberals inside the Church. An Orthodox type of civil society did emerge in those years, but it was not concerned with questions of social policy. One part of this Orthodox civil society was concerned with issues internal to the Russian Orthodox Church, for example questions about the role of the laity or liturgical language; these groups usually had liberal tendencies. Another part of Orthodox civil society formed around issues related to Russian culture and religion more generally, concerning the ‘spiritual rebirth’ of Russian society after communism; these groups were often conservative, fundamentalist, and anti-western in their ideology. The Russian branch of the WCF differs from both of these tendencies. It is concerned with concrete social policy issues (family, abortion), it has policy goals outside of the Orthodox Church, and it is open to contacts with Christians of other denominations. 

As a matter of fact, the Russian Orthodox Church did not initially play a role in the creation of the WCF in Russia, but it entered the orbit of the WCF later, when a younger generation of pro-family activists took over from Antonov. One of them, Alexei Komov, was not a sociologist and initially not even a pro-family activist, but a business consultant. By his own account, Komov dates his first contact with the WCF back to 2008, when the financial crisis put him out of business as a consultant and he was advised by the Archpriest Dmitrii Smirnov, whom he called his spiritual advisor, to contact the WCF in order to establish a collaboration. Archpriest Dmitrii Smirnov (1951–2020) was a conservative cleric, but rather advanced in his communication, and he headed the Moscow Patriarchate’s Commission for the Family, Protection of Motherhood and Childhood. It seems safe to say that without him taking an interest in the World Congress of Families, the organization would not have become part of the Russian Orthodox Church’s strategy on family. In the last ten years, the Moscow Patriarchate acted as a co-convener of the Family Congress in Moscow (2014), members of the WCF have participated in Church activities like the annual Christmas readings, and WCF activities started to feature regularly as news items on the Church’s press service. A particularly clear example of the WCF’s influence on Russian Orthodox Church policies was the official statement of the Patriarchate’s Commission for Family against legislative changes in the area of domestic violence (2019), which cited an expert report prepared by the WCF. 

The main sponsors behind the new generation of Russian participants in the WCF were two wealthy and well-connected businessmen, Vladimir Yakunin and Konstantin Malofeev, who had (and still have) good connections with the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate. Thanks to these sponsors and the clerical support of Smirnov, the WCF finally came to Russia in 2014, with the full support of the Russian government. As a matter of fact, the Moscow congress took place in August 2014 no longer under the official tutelage of the WCF and despite numerous withdrawals of participants from the West. Russia had annexed Crimea just months earlier and was under international sanctions; moreover, the congress’s main sponsor, Malofeev, was on the US sanctions list for financing Russian fighters in Eastern Ukraine. Anyway, this was only a temporary and superficial blow to cooperation, which intensified again in 2016 and 2017, when the Russian leaders of the WCF were involved in hosting international congresses in two countries of the former Soviet Union, in Georgia and in the Republic of Moldova, with the active participation of western partners.

To sum up, the case study of the WCF showcases the interaction between different types of actors, namely transnational civil society actors, Russian businessmen, politicians, and the Russian Orthodox Church. It also shows, however, that the Russian conservative turn has historical roots that pre-date the rise to prominence of ‘traditional values’ as a domestic and foreign policy goal, which is usually associated with Putin’s third presidential turn around 2012. And finally, it makes evident that, through the WCF, ideas and strategies more commonly associated with the American Christian Right, for example interdenominational cooperation, have been imported into the Russian Orthodox milieu. The Russian WCF is open to contacts with Christians of other denominations, much in contrast to the widespread hostility to other Christian denominations inside the Russian Orthodox Church. It stands for a type of interfaith cooperation which sees conservative Christians unite against common foes (liberalism, secularism, feminism etc.) while ignoring or taking a distance from the doctrinal and dogmatic efforts at reconciliation made by the official ecumenical movement as represented, for example, by the World Council of Churches. In fact, Andrey Shishkov has spoken about the WCF as a type of ‘conservative ecumenism’. 

The Russian branch of the WCF got integrated into transnational networks of the Christian Right and has established contacts with politicians of the European populist right and conservative interest groups in Europe. In 2013, the aforementioned businessman Alexei Komov spoke at the party congress of the Italian right-wing party Northern League. He returned to Italy in 2019 for the organization of the WCF in Verona, and he has regular contacts with the Italian organization Pro Vita & Famiglia. Komov also freely admitted to having contacts with members of the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and Alternative for Germany. In a published speech given in 2014, he combines a series of Christian Right ideas – elaborated in the context of the American culture wars – with a positive evaluation of Stalin and of the Soviet period. 

Inside Russia, the WCF promotes its social policy goals in religious-moral language, but without actual theological content: through the Patriarchate’s Commission for the Family and its head Smirnov the WCF acted as an agenda-setter on family issues inside the Russian Orthodox Church. This is an important point to make, because traditional Orthodox theological positions on the family emphasize asceticism and celibacy over family life and parenting. To sum up, the Russian chapter of the WCF is a new type of actor in the Russian religious field, one that, as stated by Marlene Laruelle, ‘mirrors’ the American Christian Right. It has, firstly, imported into the Russian Orthodox milieu arguments and strategies associated commonly with the American Christian Right in the context of the American culture wars. It is, secondly, open to contacts with Christians of other Christian denominations, much in contrast to the widespread hostility to other Christian denominations inside the Russian Orthodox Church. Thirdly, it is active transnationally and connected with populist right-wing groups in Europe. Fourth, it sustains an ideological agenda and view of history as a global culture war, without actual theological content.

This means that we cannot attribute Russian conservatism exclusively to Russia’s imperial past and Orthodox Christianity; on the contrary, a Russian Christian Right exists today at the intersection of religion, politics, and business, and it is closely connected with the American Christian Right, from which it has adopted key ideas and strategies. Whether the Russian Christian Right actually has a constituency of its own is a question that awaits sociological verification.

Ph. Ignacio Arsuaga rolling out the #FreeSpeechBus at the World Congress Of Families 2017 © CitizenGo from flickr

Kristina Stoeckl

Kristina Stoeckl

Professor of Sociology, University of Innsbruck. Coordinator of Postsecular Conflicts Research Project

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