In November 2010, Russia's Sanctity of Motherhood organization kicked off its first-ever national conference. The theme, according to its organizers, was urgent: solving "the crisis of traditional family values" in a modernizing Russia. The day opened with a sextet leading 1,000 swaying attendees in a prayer. Some made the sign of the cross, others bowed or raised their arms to the sky before settling into the plush red and gold seats of the conference hall at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral.
On the second morning of the conference, the only American in attendance, a tall, collected man, stepped up for his speech. Larry Jacobs, vice president of the Rockford, Illinois-based World Congress of Families (WCF), an umbrella organization for the US religious right's heavy hitters, told the audience that American evangelicals had a 40-year track record of "defending life and family" and they hoped to be "true allies" in Russia's traditional values crusade.
The gathering marked the beginning of the family values fervor that has swept Russia in recent years. Warning that low birth rates are a threat to the long-term survival of the Russian people, politicians have been pushing to restrict abortion and encourage bigger families. Among the movement's successes is a law that passed last summer and garnered global outrage in the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors," a vague term that has been seen as effectively criminalizing any public expression of same-sex relationships.
Anti-gay groups have made tormenting the LGBT community a national and organized affair: Vigilante gangs have used social media to lure hundreds of gay people to fake dates and then disseminate videos of them being beaten or sexually humiliated, garnering hundreds of thousands of followers. Arrests and beatings at gay rights demonstrations are commonplace. This month, LGBT activists were arrested in Moscow and St. Petersburg hours before the Olympic opening ceremony and have been detained in Sochi itself.
Since Jacobs first traveled to Russia for the Sanctity of Motherhood conference, he and his WCF colleagues have returned regularly to bolster Russia's nascent anti-gay movement—and to work with powerful Russian connections that they've acquired along the way. In 2014, the World Congress of Families will draw an international group of conservative activists together in Moscow, a celebratory convening that Jacobs foreshadowed on that first visit, when he ended his speech triumphantly: "Together, we can win!"
How the World Congress took Russia
The Sanctity of Motherhood conference represented a homecoming of sorts for WCF, which was conceived in Russia in 1995. Since the Soviet Union's collapse, two sociology professors at Lomonosov Moscow State University, Anatoly Antonov and Victor Medkov, had been watching with mounting concern as marriage and birth rates fell precipitously—this was not how capitalism was supposed to play out. But they thought they knew who could help.
They turned to Allan Carlson, president of the Illinois-based Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, a historian who made his name studying family policy, earning an appointment to President Reagan's National Commission on Children. His 1988 book, Family Questions: Reflections on the American Social Crisis, had set out to define and explain how a similar demographic decay—spurred by the postwar feminist and sexual revolutions—had played out in America. Medkov and Antonov read his work with enthusiasm, invited him to Moscow, and took him to meet Ivan Shevchenko—a Russian Orthodox mystic in whose Moscow apartment the WCF was hatched.
They envisioned the World Congress as a global gathering for social conservatives dedicated to protecting their vision of the family in a changing society. They soon launched plans to host their first conference in 1997 in Prague. It proved an unexpected success, drawing more than 700 participants. That year Carlson, who had raised most of the money to host the event, helped establish and became president of the Howard Center, which adopted the WCF as a core project.
WCF has since put on conferences in Europe, Mexico, and Australia that have been attended by thousands. The group has deep ties with the most powerful organizations in America's religious right, including Concerned Women for America, Focus on the Family, and Americans United for Life. These groups and many others pay $2,500 annually to be WCF partners, and some give additional funds—Focus, the Alliance Defense Fund, and the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute each chipped in $20,000 to help put on the 2012 World Congress in Madrid. In Russia, they've tapped the support of the nation's religious right and its billionaire sponsors.
Since 2010, WCF has helped host at least five major gatherings in Russia where American evangelicals put their views before Russian audiences. At a 2011 demographic summit in Moscow, the event's loaded two-day schedule of panels and speeches included just one 10-minute slot without an American presenter.
Two Orthodox billionaires are footing many of the WCF's bills: Vladimir Yakunin, the president of the Russian railways, and investor Konstantin Malofeev.
These gatherings have helped WCF's American leaders establish tight relationships with key Russian government officials, like Duma member Elena Mizulina, the country's foremost anti-gay legislator, who has met with Jacobs in Moscow at least three times and is a frequent attendee at WCF events. This June, National Organization for Marriage President Brian Brown, who serves on WCF's Moscow 2014 planning committee, flew to Russia two days after the lower chamber of parliament approved her gay propaganda ban to meet with Mizulina about crafting her next piece of landmark legislation, a gay-adoption ban. They were met by another 2014 planning committee member, former Fox News producer Jack Hanick, for a round table on the topic.
WCF has lent its support to anti-gay politics elsewhere in Eastern Europe—Serbia, Lithuania, Romania—but it has had its biggest and most notable successes in Russia. Indeed, the rise of anti-gay laws in Russia has mirrored, almost perfectly, the rise of WCF's work in the country, with 13 new anti-gay laws passed since Jacobs first traveled there. When I ask Jacobs if WCF's work has contributed to this pattern, he laughs and says, "Yes, I think that is accurate."
To be sure, the country was already fertile ground for WCF's efforts: "On the issue of sexuality, its no secret that Russia is a conservative country," says Tanya Cooper, Human Rights Watch's Russia researcher.
Russians have increasingly adopted the kind of language the American religious right has long deployed to fight acceptance of homosexuality—terms like "natural family," "traditional values," and "protecting children," with rarely a mention of the word "gay."
The Orthodox Church's family lobbying arm is led by Archpriest Dmitri Smirnov, a powerful Moscow clergyman.
"This does not seem like native Russian policy," Cooper says. "It's the rhetoric of homophobic activists in the States."
A Powerful Church
But the fight is not just about what happens in Moscow. With same-sex marriage now legal in 16 American states and counting, elements of the US religious right have come to see Russia as a redoubt in a global battle against homosexuality. "The Russians," Jacobs has said, "might be the Christian saviors of the world."
That's in large part due to the Russian Orthodox Church's immense political influence. Post-Soviet Russia saw a huge revival in Orthodoxy after communism's restrictions were lifted, and harsh new economic realities increased the appeal of the faith. By making common cause with the church and its goals, Putin has not only cast his regime's opponents as enemies of Russian tradition, but shored up his popularity: Today, about 90 percent of Russians identify as Orthodox. The church is a marker of national identity, a source of political endorsements, and an official participant in the legislative process: In a 2009 agreement with Putin's ruling United Russia party, the country's top Orthodox official, Patriarch Kirill, won the right to review (and suggest changes to) any legislation being considered by the Duma. Since then, both Putin and Patriarch Kirill have stated explicitly and repeatedly that they believe in collaboration between church and state—a partnership that is helping to drive the government's campaign against homosexuality.
Archpriest Dmitri Smirnov is one of the church's most prominent officials, the host of a weekly TV show and the head of eight Moscow congregations. When I arrive at one of them on a rainy Sunday, mass is still ongoing. In his office, two men are setting up tripods and camera equipment. Archpriest Dmitri explains that our interview will be uploaded to his personal blog to ensure he won't be misrepresented.
Dmitri was recently appointed to head the Patriarch's Commission on the Family, Protection of Motherhood, and Childhood, a church body established in 2011 to influence legislators and act as a policy development shop for the Putin administration.
"We don't even use the word 'gay.' We use the word 'homosexualists,'" Archpriest Dmitri explains. "What's 'gay' about it? I think it's pretty sad, actually. We see homosexualism as a sin. And not just homosexualism, but also alcoholism, drug use, murder of people on the streets, or robbing a bank."
The commission has worked closely with Mizuluna's Duma committee on family policy, and confers with a variety of international organizations; of these, Dmitri says, "our main connection is the World Congress of Families."
What can "homosexualists" birth?
Sociologist Anatoly Antonov is a WCF cofounder and an intellectual leader of Russia's anti-gay forces.
To learn more about the work of WCF, I've arranged to meet Anatoly Antonov, the WCF cofounder, at his office at Moscow State University, one of the country's most prestigious institutions. Antonov, who has slicked back salt-and-pepper hair and wire-rimmed glasses, pulls a book off his shelf—there are at least 10 more copies—signs it, and presents it as a gift. It is a compilation of Carlson's essays that Antonov personally translated, got published, and now distributes to students.
Family, as Antonov sees it, is crumbling in the contraception-happy, gay-friendly West. "Today, this is Aldous Huxley's brave new world!" Antonov says, shaking his fist. "I ask my students all the time: Can two stools give birth to something? So it is with two homosexualists—what can they birth? Nothing."
Antonov has been influencing Russian lawmakers for decades. When Yeltsin came to power in 1991, he helped push for a formal ministry on the family. In 2010, Antonov helped draft a report advocating that Russians adopt three-child families as the norm—a position the Putin administration recently embraced. ("Putin is repeating our words," he boasts.) Recently, he's written academic articles backing anti-gay legislation and has spoken to Mizulina's committee against gay adoption.
"Unlike other European countries, we refused to ratify proposals supporting adoption of children by gays," he says. "The World Congress was happy that Putin stood up against the European governments. It's our influence on Putin and his administration."