An ally at arm’s length? | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

An ally at arm’s length?

American pro-family groups have worked closely with Russia for years, but some say recent actions by Putin’s government are cause for keeping a distance

Putin Adam Berry/Getty Images

An ally at arm’s length?
You have {{ remainingArticles }} free {{ counterWords }} remaining. You've read all of your free articles.

Full access isn’t far.

We can’t release more of our sound journalism without a subscription, but we can make it easy for you to come aboard.

Get started for as low as $3.99 per month.

Current WORLD subscribers can log in to access content. Just go to "SIGN IN" at the top right.


Already a member? Sign in.

THE SNOWY JANUARY DAY in Moscow began with breakfast at Pizza Hut and ended late at night with vodka toasts. It was 1995, and conservative Lutheran Allan Carlson, then leading the Rockford Institute in Illinois, had flown to Russia at the invitation of two Russian academics who had read his work on the family. They saw the potential for collaboration between church leaders, academics, and government officials on marriage and pro-life issues. Smog was in the air, and about 8 inches of snow covered the ground. Carlson was frustrated that he had forgotten his scarf back in Illinois.

Strange that a relationship should begin between American social conservatives and Russians so soon after the Cold War—when feelings remained frosty and travel to Russia was somewhat unusual.

On that January day, Carlson met with academics at Moscow State University over caviar sandwiches. Then his hosts drove him to the apartment of Ivan Shevchenko, a painter, Orthodox mystic, and advocate of the “natural family.” Carlson wrote in his diary from the trip that Shevchenko reminded him of “a young Solzhenitsyn,” living in a small apartment filled with his family of seven, paintings, and icons.

That night the two agreed to start an international conference of pro-life and pro-family groups—what would become the World Congress of Families (WCF), an umbrella organization for large international meetings of social conservatives. They toasted their collaboration with vodka.

This trip began years of collaboration between American pro-family groups and their emerging counterparts in Russia. Sometimes the collaboration has been civic, Russians and Americans exchanging ideas, information, and resources. Sometimes the collaboration has been political, supporting legislation in Russia or working on joint resolutions at the United Nations.

But in recent years some American organizations have distanced themselves. In light of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s human rights abuses and provocations in Ukraine, skeptical social conservatives worry that working closely with Russians on life and family issues may give the appearance of too cozy a relationship. Others are walking a line: They cooperate with Russia on mutual goals while acknowledging disagreement over certain matters of human rights. The issue is especially sticky at a time when the U.S. Trump administration is under political scrutiny over its supposedly warm relationship with Moscow.

“[The Russians] are often supporting the good cause … at a diplomatic level,” said Grégor Puppinck, a French lawyer who heads the Strasbourg-based European Center for Law and Justice, a conservative human rights group that has worked with the Russians at the UN in Geneva. “Now my question is … what do they do internally?”

In 1995, pro-life and traditional marriage movements were just emerging from beneath recent Communist rule. On his Moscow trip, Carlson met with Russian government officials who showed him copies of a new journal they had created called The Family in Russia, modeled after the Rockford Institute’s The Family in America. They agreed to work jointly on their journals and translate some of Carlson’s work into Russian.

When Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, the emerging Russian family groups saw more opportunities. Practically speaking, Russia was in a demographic crisis where birthrates were low and death rates were high. (Russia also has the highest abortion rate in the world, according to the latest UN data.) The Russian government—bidding for survival—showed a renewed interest in addressing gay marriage and abortion, with support from the Russian Orthodox Church.

Putin in turn has aggressively promoted the Orthodox Church. Last year the Kremlin financed a grand new Orthodox church on the banks of the Seine River in Paris, France. In a 2014 speech, Putin defended his annexation of Crimea by explaining the territory was of “sacral importance” to Russia, “like the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.” Crimea was where, in the 10th century, Vladimir I was baptized before bringing Christianity to modern-day Russia.

“It was a different ballgame under Putin,” said Janice Shaw Crouse, a former director of Concerned Women for America’s Beverly LaHaye Institute who has worked closely with WCF for years. “He wanted Russia to be a great country again.” In a few short years, Crouse said, American and Russian groups developed an effective pro-family movement in the country.

In Moscow in 2011 WCF hosted a large “Demographic Summit” focused on abortion and the family, with a roster of American social-conservative speakers such as former presidential candidate Alan Keyes, Steven Mosher of the Population Research Institute, and Peggy Hartshorn of Heartbeat International. Also among the speakers were members of the Duma (the lower chamber in the Russian parliament), Russian Orthodox leaders, academics, an adviser to then-President Dmitry Medvedev, and even a decorated cosmonaut.

Later that year the Duma passed several restrictions on abortion, including a ban on abortion after 12 weeks of gestation. WCF’s managing director, Larry Jacobs, said WCF never formally “lobbied” but he was “very proud of that conference, and the results.” The next year, a Russian group called “The Sanctity of Motherhood” held its own conference: Jacobs said he was the only American there.

“It’s got a self-momentum now,” said Jacobs.

In 2013, the Population Research Institute, WCF, C-Fam, and other international family groups signed a statement supporting a new Russian law forbidding “gay propaganda” to minors. The law was extremely popular in Russia. Gay rights groups say the law’s language is so vague that it prevents any form of public advocacy for their cause. Some U.S. supporters of the law argued it was the equivalent of banning curse words on broadcast television.

“With its new law Russia is protecting genuine and universally recognized human rights against artificial and fabricated ‘values’ aggressively imposed in many modern societies,” the statement defending the law said.

SOME PRO-FAMILY GROUPS, though, have become skittish about getting involved in domestic Russian policy issues, such as the gay propaganda ban. Instead, they want to keep the focus on international cooperation. Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and the European Center for Law and Justice, for example, say they are ready and willing to work with Russia on mutual goals at the United Nations. Without powerful allies at the UN, groups that promote traditional marriage and pro-life principles are often pushed to the fringes.

The UN Family Rights Caucus won’t even publicly list its member organizations. Gay rights advocates have labeled some of the organizations as hate groups, and the pressure from the United States and Europe over gay rights in the last few years has been intense.

“A lot of mainstream human rights groups at the UN don’t feel threatened by these [socially conservative] groups, tend to ignore these groups, and may even look down upon NGOs that talk to these groups,” said Michael De Dora from the Center for Inquiry, a secular advocacy organization. De Dora heads up the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion or Belief at the UN. He attended a side event of the UN Family Rights Caucus in Geneva in 2013 and recalled that the speaker thanked Russia for reserving the room.

An alliance with Russia at the UN can help in other small ways for groups with few powerful backers. Wendy Wright, a former vice president of C-Fam (Center for Family and Human Rights), recalled when the group was trying to gain accreditation at the UN. The organization had been blocked on a previous attempt, in part due to Belgian opposition. She met with all the diplomats on the accrediting committee, and a Belgian diplomat mentioned to her that he knew C-Fam had a good relationship with the Holy See and with Russia. Wright said she made it clear C-Fam didn’t have the ability to do any quid pro quo with Russia—but the diplomat assured her this time would be different. Sure enough, C-Fam got its accreditation.

“You work with everyone you can get a vote from,” said Wright. “[The Russians] knew we were only there to work with them on specific and narrow issues.”

Social-conservative groups have mostly worked with Russia to pass resolutions or to preserve certain language on the family in treaties. Usually the work isn’t enthralling, but sometimes minor language becomes important. Stefano Gennarini, a lawyer with C-Fam who works with UN delegations in New York, said Russia and the pro-family groups are “on the offensive” at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, where they have consistently passed resolutions affirming “traditional values” and protection of the “natural family.” Gennarini calls that a very significant development—one in which he says Russia was instrumental.

But in New York at the UN General Assembly, which has more institutional weight, those groups are typically on the defensive. In Geneva 90 countries make up the “friends of the family” bloc, and in New York it’s only 32 countries. The Human Rights Council is like a congressional committee, in Gennarini’s description, while the General Assembly is like Congress.

Last year Russia led a fight to block the creation of a new “independent expert” on LGBT issues in Geneva and later in New York, with support from groups such as C-Fam. They failed, but garnered support from 80 countries opposing the new office. The position is supposed to investigate violence and discrimination against LGBT persons, but C-Fam and others argued it would be used to “promote a broad sexual rights agenda.”

IN 2014, the social-conservative alliances shifted with Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The World Congress of Families had planned to host that year’s meeting in Moscow, and specifically in the Kremlin; but after the United States imposed sanctions, the WCF decided to cancel the meeting.

Still, the Russians held a conference with the same title as the canceled program: “Large Families and the Future of Humanity.” Thousands attended, including original WCF organizers such as Larry Jacobs. Austin Ruse of C-Fam attended, as well as Janice Shaw Crouse, Sharon Slater of Family Watch International, and other American social conservatives. Crouse estimated the conference drew around 3,000.

At C-Fam there was internal disagreement about the conference—Wright was concerned about the organization’s participation.

“I immediately thought, ‘This is different than the UN,’” said Wright.

The groups Concerned Women for America and Alliance Defending Freedom decided not to send representatives to the meeting. Leaders of both organizations said they did not want to appear to be endorsing Putin’s actions. Benjamin Bull, the chief counsel for ADF International, said the Moscow conference hosts were “very public in their enthusiastic support of the invasion.”

The head of the European Center for Law and Justice, Grégor Puppinck, also did not attend in his personal capacity. “Maybe I was busy, or winter was too cold,” Puppinck said with a wry laugh. (His group is an arm of the American Center for Law and Justice, and its affiliate in Russia, the Slavic Center for Law and Justice, focuses on handling religious liberty cases against the Russian government.)

Konstantin Malofeev, a Putin ally and billionaire who claims he wants to restore a monarchy to Russia, co-chaired the 2014 conference in Moscow. Malofeev delivered opening remarks at the conference, where he decried the low birthrate and high abortion rate post-1917 (when the Bolsheviks took power from the czars). In a recent interview with The Guardian, Malofeev said Putin was “sent by God.” Another of the 2014 conference organizers, Vladimir Yakunin, was a longtime member of Putin’s inner circle and under U.S. sanctions as a result.

The conference featured not only speakers but family acts from around the country. Performers danced and sang about the importance of the family. One family had a weightlifting routine in which an older brother lifted bars while the small children did acrobatics on the bars. An orchestra played on the concluding night in Red Square, “a show that I’m sure the Russian government had to subsidize,” said Crouse. “The quality was jaw-dropping.”

In 2016, with sanctions still in place in Russia, the WCF held its congress in Tbilisi, Georgia. About two dozen Russian leaders attended.

Asked about his organization’s cooperation with the Russians, Jacobs, the WCF managing director, acknowledged that Russia has its problems: Its government still funds abortions, its state-run orphan care is horrendous, and it has persecuted evangelicals. But Jacobs said much criticism of the government’s measures is a misunderstanding of Russia. He said Americans tend to assume the country is a dark totalitarian state when it simply implements laws badly.

For example, Russia’s anti-extremism law, which forbids the “propaganda of the superiority of one’s own religion,” has been used recently to target any religious proselytizing. According to Jacobs, the intention behind the law was valid in targeting Islamic extremism, but it has been badly implemented. He compared it to the botched rollout of Trump’s first executive order on immigration.

Ultimately, Jacobs thinks a “boycott” of Russia isn’t the answer, and that’s partly why the group held its most recent congress in Georgia.

“Georgia is the only country that I’m aware of right now where Europeans, Americans, and Russians can all go without a special visa,” said Jacobs. “We still work with our Russian friends that are pro-life and pro-family … but we have to pick places like Georgia where we can all gather together.

Emily Belz

Emily is a former senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and also previously reported for the New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City.



Please wait while we load the latest comments...