How the World Congress of Families serves Russian Orthodox political interests

Hacked emails show how the American-run World Congress of Families advanced Russian political interests in Europe while offering Russian Orthodox oligarchs an entry point into U.S.-based Christian evangelical networks. 

In September 2014, the World Congress of Families representative in Russia, Alexey Komov, was contacted by a young woman who had spoken at a congress in Moscow on “Large Families: The Future of Humanity” a week earlier. Upon her return, she wrote, she had been harassed by American authorities. She was worried:

Since I returned to the USA, I have been living a nightmare in terms of finding myself—to my surprise—intimidated and harassed by the local authorities (first Homeland security in Houston, then Houston Police Department, EMS!) trailed by numerous cars when I leave my house and when I return, even at night, under surveillance elsewhere, and otherwise having my personal space bizarrely impinged upon, not only when I drive my car, but when I ride my bicycle. Absurd. I have reason to believe my Internet and cell phone use have also became the object of scrutiny. I realize the seriousness of what I am reporting and am scandalized and horrified to think what all this may imply.

The “Large Families” forum had already led to diplomatic conflict. The forum was initially organized by the influential World Congress of Families (WCF), an American-based Christian evangelical organization. An SPLC-designated anti-LGBT hate group, the WCF is dedicated to halting the spread of LGBT rights overseas in the name of the defense of the “natural family,” which they define as a husband and wife and their biological children. Since increasing its presence in Russia around 2011 after hiring Komov as a regional representative, in 2014 the WCF was planning its annual congress in Moscow. Like every year, the congress would unite anti-LGBT activists and politicians from all over the world.

But in February 2014, Russia’s invasion of Crimean territory in eastern Ukraine put a damper on those plans. The country was torn by protests in response to then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yakunovych’s decision to withdraw from an agreement with the European Union (E.U.) and move closer to Russia economically and politically. The situation eventually devolved into a full-blown civil war. The E.U. and the United States faced off against Russia’s desire to expand its influence and territory in Ukraine. As retaliation after the Crimean invasion, the U.S. and E.U. decided to sanction the high-level individuals who had been involved in the invasion, in which many WCF allies and backers soon found themselves embroiled.

For fear of American sanctions, the WCF’s American leadership publicly dropped its affiliation to the congress. Despite WCF officially pulling out, behind closed doors, a nearly identical conference was held the same day with a similar program, similar attendees, and — initially — the WCF listed as organizers. It was even attended by WCF communications director Don Feder and late managing director Larry Jacobs. Though Komov mentioned the WCF were organizers in the media, Jacobs maintained it was not. 

As a new look at a trove of emails released in 2014 by the Russian hacker collective Shaltai Boltai (Humpty Dumpty) reveals, the 2014 Moscow Congress was just the tip of the iceberg. WCF’s involvement in Russian geopolitics runs deep and led to a collaboration that gave Russian Orthodox oligarchs apparent access to the powerful American Christian evangelical political machine. 

“Persecutions against Christians in the West will soon begin”

Komov has been the WCF’s representative in Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (formed by 10 former Soviet Republics) for close to two decades. An influential man, he is deeply intertwined with various key figures within the Russian Orthodox Church. The young woman who wrote him was hoping he could help her with some advice, despite “the delicate situation in which our countries, quite unfortunately, find themselves.” 

After speaking to her, Komov emailed Konstantin Malofeev, one of the Russian Orthodox oligarch who bankrolled the “Large Families” forum in Moscow. As the founder of the investment company Marshall Capital, Malofeev heads the largest Orthodox charity in Russia, St. Basil the Great, which has a budget of over $40 million. Komov leads one of its charities. Both Komov and Malofeev are intimately tied to various facets of Russian politics, and Malofeev has a hand in everything from media to technology to security.

In his email to Malofeev, Komov suggested they bring the young woman’s case to trial in the U.S., fearing that her story revealed that “open persecutions against Christians in the West will soon begin.” To do so they could put the powerful American Christian evangelical apparatus in motion:

“Can discuss the plan of action with Brian [presumably, Brian Brown, who would become the president of the WCF but was then head of WCF ally National Organization for Marriage] to start? We can attract our best lawyers from the Alliance Defending Freedom or HLSDA, start collecting signatures under the appropriate petition all over the world through CitizenGO and launch a large-scale campaign in the press about this egregious case. It can turn out to be an excellent nationwide campaign, the guys from Personhood deal with such cases. If you do not answer with dignity, then they will break down and terrorize the entire American movement. What do you think?” 

The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is the most powerful Christian Right legal group in the U.S. and known for its recent case before the Supreme Court representing a baker who refused to provide service for a gay couple. The SPLC designates the ADF as a hate group

After Malofeev expressed skepticism at the authenticity of the young woman’s story, the men decided to run a background check on her. Based on the results, Komov abandoned the idea of a legal case, believing the young woman to be a plant. “Having carefully studied the profile of our martyr I am almost sure that she is sent to us,” he wrote Malofeev. 

Though the case itself never left the brainstorming stage, the email provides a rare look into how the U.S.-based WCF network operates and how its Russian representatives seek to impact American political and judicial discourse. It is only a small example of how the WCF network has been appropriated to serve as a soft power platform for the strategic interests of a small group of Russian Orthodox oligarchs.

A global alliance between Orthodox and Catholics

In 2013, Austin Ruse, who heads the U.S.-based Center for Family and Human Rights (C-Fam is also an SPLC-designated anti-LGBT hate group and part of the WCF network) recalledafter meeting Malofeev: “[Malofeev] wonders if some sort of grand global alliance between the Orthodox and Catholics can be achieved and what effect that might have on the global culture war advanced by the sexual left. I wonder, too.” 

An interfaith but overwhelmingly Christian network of global anti-LGBT “pro-family” allies, the WCF is an ideal platform to unify otherwise disparate groups. Anti-LGBT sentiment is the linchpin of opposition to the human-rights driven “liberalism” of the United Nations, the E.U. and, until recently, the U.S. While vehemently opposed to American cultural expansionism (equated to “the sexual left”), the WCF has become increasingly linked to some of the most prominent advocates for Russian expansionism.

Since the start of Putin’s third presidency in 2012, contemporary Russia has been defined by a “muscular, politically tinged Orthodox Christianity,” as Russian expert Charles Clover writes in Black Wind, White Snow. One feature of this Orthodoxy is “pro-family” values. Another is nostalgia for the strong Russia of old, united by Russian Orthodox values with its influence rippling across Europe, advanced by cultural, political or military means. Malofeev is a perfect embodiment of this duality, and one of Orthodox Russia’s most powerful figureheads. 

A longtime funder of anti-LGBT “pro-family values” in Russia through his foundation, Malofeev told The Financial Times, “I want the Russian Empire back. I don’t want to be head of it.” Malofeev is such a dedicated monarchist that he recently started a school to prepare the Russian elite’s youth for a future Russian monarchy. As he told the Guardian, he hopes Putin could be crowned tsar: “Everyone wants Putin to carry on forever.”

True to his expansionist ideals, Malofeev reportedly funded Russia’s 2014 Crimean invasion and is inextricably tied to it. Two of the leaders of the new pro-Russian Crimean Republic were his employees and also held short-lived minister positions in the rebel government of the self-declared Donetsk Republic, a Russian-backed separatist region in Ukraine. For his role in Crimea’s annexation and subsequent referendum, Malofeev was sanctioned by the U.S.and the E.U.

Using anti-LGBT sentiment as a wedge in Eastern Europe

Besides Malofeev’s role, the 2014 “Large Families” congress was inseparable from the invasion. A number of congress attendees or supporters were eventually sanctioned by the U.S. and/or E.U. for their support of it. 

One, for instance, was Russia’s hard-right parliamentarian Elena Mizulina, author of the infamous 2013 law banning “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” which led to a doubling of hate crimes against LGBT people in the five years since the law’s passage. At the “Large Families” congress, Mizulina led a legislative session in Russia’s lower chamber of parliament, the Duma, to teach attendees how to pass anti-LGBT legislation. 

At the congress, Malofeev spoke on a topic dear to him during a panel on “Family Policy in Ukraine: Conclusions and Warnings for Russia.” He pointed out that the battle over LGBT issues was instrumental to the struggle over whether or not the country would join the E.U., which forbids discrimination against LGBT people for employment:

In Ukraine, which is our fraternal country, association with European Union was not signed last year because, in this case, the Ukrainians learned that they had to allow propagation of homosexuality and gay parades.

At this stage, the WCF had already placed pressure on some groups in Ukraine to move away from the E.U. by raising the specter of E.U.-imposed LGBT rights. Under Komov’s leadership, the WCF sent a delegation to Ukraine in October 2013 (only a few months before the Crimean annexation) and declared in its subsequent press release that:

The Ukrainian leaders expressed concern about the pressure brought to bear on their nation to accede to the homosexual agenda (including ‘gay marriage’) as a condition for membership in the European Union.

In fact, the E.U. does not require the legalization of same-sex marriage from its member states. One of the groups that the WCF met with in Ukraine, the All Ukrainians’ Parents Committee, declared: “We oppose the signing of the association agreement with the E.U., because it will lead to the inevitable homosexualizing of Ukraine.”  WCF leaders also met with some members of the Ukrainian parliament.

WCF’s involvement in the campaign to push Ukraine not to join the E.U. — and into the Russian fold — is not a coincidence. By all accounts, people shuttling through the WCF advocate for the same kind of agenda that Russian orthodox oligarchs have been pushing for. 

In April 2017, the former French WCF representative, Fabrice Sorlin, organized the first WCF regional conference in Paris. The list of events seemed oddly skewed towards the Balkans and Caucasus, featuring the following panels:

  • Tactics and strategies of the gay lobby at the European Union
  • Georgia’s Liberal Experience
  • Russian Revival in the 21st century

  • Europe or European Union – which way for Serbia?
  • The aggressive anti-family policy of the European Union as a factor in destruction of Ukrainian statehood 

Sorlin is the former head of a brutal Catholic militia Dies Irae, whose mission was to prepare white French Catholic youth for a civil war against immigrants, black people and Muslims. He became the WCF French representative in 2013, during which time he traveled with the WCF leadership across Eastern Europe. Before his sudden death on April 30th, 2018, Larry Jacobs, the managing director of the International Organization for the Family, which oversees the WCF, denied that Sorlin was still employed when reached by Hatewatch. Sorlin, however, still lists his WCF position on his LinkedIn account.

The use of anti-LGBT politics by Russia to influence Eastern European countries to return to its fold and away from the E.U. has been well documented. This is a strategy that Putin has also used. For this, the WCF is a crucial platform.

In France, Sorlin was a non-negligible Russian ally: before his time at the WCF, Sorlin presided over the French group, Alliance France Europe Russia (AAFER). As historians Jean-Yves Camus and Nicolas Lebourg suggest, the AAFER was key in pushing the French far-right party, the National Front, toward Russia. 

In turn, Malofeev facilitated a loan of 2 million euros to the party from a Russian bank in 2014, when approached by National Front member Aymeric Chauprade, also a speaker at the “Large Families” congress. The WCF’s overseas allies, it turns out, are enmeshed in a network of extreme-right activists and politicians in Europe.

Eurasian networks: WCF members befriend neo-Nazis and the far-right 

In a piece written while serving as the WCF’s French representative, Sorlin supported the idea of an expanded Russia:

This Europe of the people and of nations would substitute technocratic Europe with a more traditional European civilization; it would promote Christianity within Europe, which has until now been dominated by the LGBT lobby. It must ally with Vladimir Putin’s Russia in order to create a version of Europe that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

This vision of a Europe led by Russia, also called Eurasianism, is one that is closely tied to the Russian Orthodox vision of the world. Its father, the influential ultra-nationalist philosopher Alexander Dugin, serves as the editorial director of Malofeev’s far-right Tsargrad TV channel. 

At its core, “Eurasia” is shorthand for Russian dominance of the Eurasian continent, though it is presented as a utopian vision for a unified but diverse civilizational bloc. For Dugin, who is fascinated with Nazi Germany, Eurasia would be a federation of countries led spiritually by Russia but Russia would be “the empire’s constitutive nation” and “the only national community within a supranational imperial complex.” 

Popular in white supremacist circles in Europe and the U.S., Dugin has identified white nationalists as potential allies for the Eurasian project insofar as they are traditionalists. Dugin was sanctioned by the U.S. for his role in the Crimean conflict. Since then, he and Malofeev have been involved in a plethora of influential foreign policy moves, seemingly not on behalf of the Russian state, though their reach leaves much to wonder. 

Dugin has been at the helm of a new strategic soft-power initiative, in which the WCF is also embroiled: a Eurasian conference, planned by Dugin alongside Emmanuel Leroy, the co-leader of the AAFER with Fabrice Sorlin. Leroy, who spoke at the same racist “White Forum” conference as white supremacist David Duke in 2007, has been involved with a shady pro-Russian “humanitarian” group in Ukraine.

A second installment of Dugin’s Eurasian conference was held in Chisinau, Moldova, in December 2017, and hosted by pro-Russian Moldovan president Igor Dodon. The WCF was present, with Alexey Komov attending. So did the Georgian WCF organizer and anti-LGBT activist, Levan Vasadze. Speakers and attendees included far-right figures, neo-Nazis and identitarians. 

The WCF ties to the Eurasian efforts seemed strengthened when it was announced that Moldova would also be the location of the next WCF congress, slated for September 2018. Moldova is currently in the midst of a tussle between pro-E.U. factions in the country, and pro-Russians, led by president Dodon. 

In August 2017, Dodon met with Malofeev to ask him to finance the upcoming congress according to Balkan Insight, which also alleges that Yakunin and Malofeev are the WCF’s main sponsors. Though WCF funding is hard to trace, as Christopher Stroop, a scholar focusing on Russia and the U.S. Christian Right, tells Hatewatch, “obviously [WCF] have a bigger budget than they let on.” 

Komov, though not directly involved in the Eurasian project despite being closely tied to its networks, might share its ideological vision. Emails released by the hacker collective Shaltai Boltai (Humpty Dumpty) show Komov emailing Dugin and Malofeev a picture of Serbia preparing for Putin’s visit with the caption "Our Serbs decorated the city for the arrival of Putin (the king of the Orthodox.)"

The emails also show Komov facilitating meetings between Malofeev and far-right and far-left European political figures. One email from November 2014 shows Komov emailing Roberto Fiore, the co-founder of the neo-fascist and violent Italian far-right party Forza Nuova. Fiore put Komov in touch with the far-right ELAM party in Cyprus, a Greek-only party that has ties to the neo-Nazi Greek party Golden Dawn.

In the email, Fiore, who seems to be planning on visiting Greece, also asks Komov to send a lawyer to a jail where leaders of the Greek Golden Dawn were being held: “can you send a lawyer for the 12 of December. We need name (sic) also to allow him, together with MEP and MP to enter the jail where the leaders of Golden Dawn are.”

Komov, referring to Fiore as “our pro-Russian Italian friend” then forwarded the email to the owner of the hacked account, Georgyi Gavrish. At the time, Gavrish was an employee at the Russian Embassy in Athens who, the emails show, is close to Dugin. He seems to have been running background checks on behalf of Komov and Malofeev. Komov wrote Gavrish:

“He [Fiore] asks if we can recommend lawyers and journalists in Athens - see below…”

What happened to the request is unclear. What is clearer is that the WCF’s Russian arm, through Komov, is intertwined with violent far-right political actors in Europe. More publicly, the WCF Russian representative is close to the Lega Nord (since renamed the Lega), the far-right anti-immigrant party that arrived at the top of the right-wing coalition in the recent Italian elections, which is a pro-Russian voice in Europe. Komov serves as the honorary president of the Associazione Culturale Lombardia Russia, ACLR, which orbits around Lega, and was essential to its formation.

As the cache of emails showed, Malofeev has also been a key agent in spreading Russian influence in various European countries. Malofeev sponsored a secret meeting for far-right parties in early March 2014 in Vienna through his Saint Basil the Great foundation, which he attended alongside Alexander Dugin. The meeting included Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right Austrian party the FPÖ and presently Austria’s vice-chancellor; the National Front’s Aymeric Chauprade and Marion Maréchal-Le Pen; as well as far-right groups ranging from Bulgaria’s Ataka party to Spain’s monarchist and radical Catholic Carlist movement. It was meant to commemorate the alliance of Russia with Prussia and Austro-Hungary. At the meeting Dugin said: “We must conquer and join Europe. We are supported by a pro-Russian fifth column in Europe.” 

Malofeev, a WCF funder, Komov, the WCF’s Russian representative, and Sorlin, formerly the WCF’s French representative, seem to be working to advance a coherent geopolitical vision, which is not far from Dugin’s own Eurasian vision. 

It is unclear how enthusiastically the American leadership of the WCF is backing this civilizational project. The head of the International Organization for the Family and of WCF, Brian Brown, has been traveling to Moscow often, seemingly to promote his organization and to push for anti-LGBT legislation. The American leadership has made sympathetic statements about Russia and Hungary’s “illiberal” political regimes, with the late managing director of the WCF Larry Jacobs declaring that “the Russians might be the Christian saviors of the world.”

In choosing who to save, the alliance between WCF and Russian Orthodox oligarchs might be more selective than Noah putting together his ark, with its ferocious anti-LGBT sentiment and exclusive focus on heterosexual married unions. Nonetheless, Malofeev sees it as equally redemptive:

Civilization is on the verge of destruction, and only Russia can become a center of consolidation of all the healthy forces and resistance to the sodomization of the world, that is why the whole of Europe is looking at it with hope.

Photo credit: Anton-Shekhovtsov, blogspot