ThinkProgress

Russians and the American right started plotting in 1995. We have the notes from the first meeting.

In a congressional hearing last fall, Glenn Simpson, the man whose research helped lead to the now-infamous dossier on Russia and President Donald Trump, let slip a bombshell revelation about Russian infiltration in the United States.

“I would say broadly speaking, it appears that the Russian operation was designed to infiltrate conservative organizations,” Simpson said. “They targeted various conservative organizations, religious and otherwise, and they seem to have made a very concerted effort to get in with the [National Rifle Association].”

While Simpson’s comments drove ongoing investigations into relations between the National Rife Association (NRA) and now-sanctioned Russian officials, another aspect of the Russian strategy has received far less attention: Which conservative religious organizations were targeted by Russian operatives? And who within those organizations proved susceptible to Russian infiltration — or even helped further the Kremlin’s aims?

A series of interviews and never-before-seen documents, including testimonials and diaries obtained by ThinkProgress, sheds new light on how the relationship between the Religious Right and Russia first began, and how it led to several collaborative efforts in the years to come.

In examining both the individuals and organizations involved, it’s evident that as the 2016 presidential election was heating up, those same Religious Right figures — some affiliated with groups that were reportedly funded by sanctioned Russian officials — went out of their way to defend the Russian regime. Now, with Trump in the White House, relations between Russia and American social conservatives have waned, but they’ve hardly disappeared.

Gathering the world’s congress

Allan Carlson never expected a call from anyone in Russia.

“I was contacted out of the blue,” he told ThinkProgress. It was the early 1990s, and Carlson had just finished a stint with the Reagan administration’s National Commission on Children when he was contacted by Anatoly Antonov, then a sociology professor at the Lomonosov Moscow State University.

Carlson, a historian known for his work on family policy and a staunch social conservative, faced a sudden, unexpected question: Would he like to visit Russia, and maybe speak with scholars and policy-makers about his work on the so-called “natural family”?

“I went to sleep,” Carlson wrote, “content with the world.”

Carlson didn’t hesitate. “Family life [in Russia] just was in shambles,” he said. “They’re coming out of communism, and communism had done its damage to family life, to social life. But then on top of that, rushing in in the 1990s was the Western sexual revolution, and the two kind of combined in a whirlwind.” So he packed his bags and set off.

In time, Carlson’s partnership with Antonov and Victor Medkov, another Russian sociologist, would grow into the World Congress of Families (WCF) — the most prominent Russian-American anti-LGBTQ collaboration to date, and the foremost international anti-LGBTQ organization in the world.

But little has been reported about that first visit to Russia in 1995, when Carlson, Antonov, and Medkov originally began laying the groundwork for WCF. Carlson shared the diary he kept with ThinkProgress — written observations that help illuminate the earliest days of their partnership, and the emergence of what would become a Russian-American collaboration to unwind efforts at equality and acceptance.

Writing for God

Much of the diary is filled with minutiae: bags not appearing on the runway, the lack of potable water, “bad soup.” Carlson details his travels in Moscow, which included meeting with a raft of academics and members of Russia’s Duma, and a visit to the embalmed body of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.

In one entry, though — dated January 16, 1995 — Carlson describes the meeting that eventually opened the door for collaboration between American social conservatives and those close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Along with Antonov, Carlson visited the Moscow apartment of Ivan Shevchenko, a man Mother Jones referred to as an “Orthodox mystic.”

In his diary, which has been corrected for spelling, Carlson noted that Shevchenko was the chairman of the “Orthodox Brotherhood of Scientists and Specialists,” a man who was “urging the renewal of family production and payment of a family wage to men.” Surrounded by pictures of “American jazz greats,” Carlson wrote of Shevchenko:

I liked this fellow. He had the beard and eyes of a young [Alexander] Solzhenitsyn. Shevchenko is married and has, I believe, five children crowded into a very small apartment, along with thirty or so paintings (many of large size), icons, antique Russian furniture, and a ‘New Year’s Tree’ (our Christmas tree). He is also a photographer (and very able), as well as a friend of American jazz (there were a number of photos of American jazz greats playing in his apartment).

But Carlson wasn’t there just to look at holiday decorations and shots of saxophonists. As the diary continues:

Shevchenko wanted to talk ‘business.’ He sought help in organizing/recruiting for an international conference on the family planned that summer at an Orthodox monastery, near Moscow. I replied that I had been thinking, myself, about working to convene a conference of fairly compatible ‘pro family’ groups from across the globe, to serve as a kind of informal Congress of Families with the purpose of (1) defining the common pressures on families in modern countries, vis-a-vis state and economy, and (2) drafting an ‘appeal’ or ‘declaration’ to the governments of the world, including common demands. Such a conference, however, would not be possible until mid-1996 at the earliest, I said. After considerable discussion, I agreed to begin sounding out other organizations regarding interest and contemplating issues of location and cost. They agreed to send me a draft of a possible program, for my response.

With that, Carlson, Antonov, and Shevchenko had agreed to the earliest iteration of WCF, which would formally come into being in 1997.

In time, WCF would host American conservatives in Russia, Russian officials in the U.S., and rope in Russian oligarchs — including at least one who is now sanctioned — as reported funders.

It would also become the most wide-ranging organization dedicated to rolling back LGBTQ rights and, in the final years of the Obama administration, Russia’s main entrée with American social conservatives.

But that was all in the future. In 1995, during that first meeting with his Russian counterparts, Carlson could only dream of what would come — and of what the partnership could provide. They concluded the meeting with a round of vodka toasts, and Carlson returned to his hotel.

“I went to sleep,” he wrote, “content with the world.”

The right to bear witness

While Carlson was laying the groundwork for WCF with his Russian partners, G. Kline Preston IV was watching the post-Soviet region struggle through the morass of state collapse and bandit capitalism.

Traveling through the Soviet Union, and then Russia and Ukraine, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Nashville native even took part in the wheel-deal atmosphere. “I imported [Ukrainian] vodka to get through law school,” he told ThinkProgress, noting that his first visit to the region came while he was getting his law degree.

“They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.”

But Preston wasn’t interested in business. Rather, he was focused on the legal aspects of building a new state in Russia: helping formulate tax code, defining copyrights, explaining benefits and breaks. Building up personal ties throughout the country, he says he helped refine concepts of things like copyright for Russian lawmakers.

That’s what got him initially interested in the region. What kept Preston’s interest — and would eventually pave the way to him introducing Russian officials to the NRA — was God. Specifically, the explosion of religiosity in post-Soviet Russia, and Putin’s apparent role in expediting the return of Christianity.

Kline Preston's social media feeds are saturated in material from Russian propaganda outlets.

The thing that attracted Preston to Putin was the “rebuilding and building anew of churches in Russia,” he told ThinkProgress. “Since he came into power, there have either been renovated, refurbished, or built anew almost 10,000 churches across the country.”

After all, Preston added, Putin himself was “God-sent,” appointed by the “divine.”

Preston spent the 1990s and 2000s traveling throughout Russia when he could — larger cities like Moscow, smaller enclaves like Vladimir — to see these new churches, which to him represented a country returning to its religious roots. He talked with his Russian partners, and spoke multiple times in the Russian Duma. “Rather than go out to a bar on K Street, like you might do in [Washington] or something, we went to church, man,” he recalled.

During this time, Preston kept up with his work in Tennessee — including helping lead multiple re-election campaigns for Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) — but he felt an increasing pull, as he said, to Putin’s “morality.”

Dreaming of the apocalypse

Preston, at some point into the Putin era, eventually found a new goal, beyond simply building bridges between American and Russian Christians. “That idea of that role — I’m going to call it a mission — it hit me in the head,” he said. “I’m not too bright, but it hit me in the head.”

He decided he would write a book explaining Russia’s godliness, so Americans could see Putin the way he did — and could, like him, praise things like the Russian obliteration of Chechnya, annexation of Crimea, and invasion of Ukraine.

“My interest in the United States and Russia having a close relationship is so that my sons don’t have their lives wasted for some bullshit conflict.”

At some point in the late 2000s, Preston’s willingness to excuse the atrocities of Putin’s regime — he was the only American election observer to claim that the recent Russian election was free and fair — allowed him to gain more and more friends among Kremlin higher-ups. Though he sat “about 100 feet from Putin” during the Sochi Olympics, where he was being “hosted by the Russian [Duma],” Preston said he has yet to meet the Russian leader.

But he did meet, and befriend, a man named Alexander Torshin.

In his official capacity, Torshin works as a central bank official in Russia. In his unofficial capacity, though, Torshin has been accused of being one of the main figures involved in Russian money laundering across Europe, with numerous alleged ties to Russian mafiosi to boot. As Spanish prosecutor Jose Grinda recently revealed, a notorious Russian money launderer referred to Torshin as “godfather” on wiretaps — recordings that have now been passed to the FBI.

Torshin narrowly escaped arrest in Spain in 2013. Grinda said last month at an event in Washington, D.C. that Torshin “had conversations that led us to believe he was laundering money.” Added Grinda, “I wanted Torshin to be arrested.”

In April, Torshin was sanctioned by the White House for engaging in “malign activities.”

For Preston, the sanctions now placed on his friend — and the resounding accusations of money laundering and ties to organized crime — don’t cause much concern.

“He doesn’t get as emotional as I do,” Preston told ThinkProgress. “When we’re having lunch or dinner or whatever, I don’t pound my fist, but I’ll be very emotional about [how] this is stupid. He’s very level-headed, and his opinion about the sanctions are, ‘Eh, it’s just politics.’ It rolls off, man.”

Preston isn’t just someone who gets meals with Torshin. In 2011, the self-described “country lawyer” sparked what would become one of the strangest off-shoots of the entire investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Torshin had supposedly expressed an interest in gun ownership, so Preston decided to make a call. He rang up then-NRA President David Keene, and put Keene in contact with Torshin.

The rest, as they say, is history. Or if not history, then at least a series of events and payments — between Torshin and the NRA, and between the NRA and the Trump campaign — that the FBI is still looking into, and the NRA refuses to say much about.

Preston doesn’t seem to mind the new scrutiny on his connections with sanctioned Russian officials; just a few months ago, he traveled to Crimea, observing Russian “elections” in the occupied region. He saw no problems, exclaiming that “Crimea was, is, and will be Russian.”

His interest in Russia, and how to bring Russian and American Christians together, hasn’t waned either. “My interest in the United States and Russia having a close relationship is so that my sons, and other sons, and daughters of good American people, and the sons and daughters of good Russian people, don’t have their lives wasted for… some bullshit conflict,” he said.

Preston added that he knows a priest who had an “apocalyptic vision” of Hillary Clinton’s presidency, and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad doesn’t actually gas his own people — and then he said he had to go, and hung up.

Sanctions and sanctity

As Preston was using his religiosity to bring the NRA and Torshin together, Allan Carlson was busy working with his Russian partners to create an anti-LGBTQ empire. In 1997, WCF held its first international conference in Prague, followed by additional gatherings around the world: Geneva, Mexico City, Warsaw.

In 2010, Alexey Komov, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, flew to a WCF meeting in Colorado Springs and pitched the idea of holding a conference in Russia. Other members demurred about having the official conference there, but a spin-off in 2011, known as the Moscow Demographic Summit, brought Carlson back to Russia, along with Larry Jacobs, another WCF leader who has been outspoken in his praise of Russia.

After the conference ended, as Mother Jones’ Hannah Levintova recounted, Duma member Yelena Mizulina — another Russian official who would eventually be sanctioned by the U.S. — “introduced the first package of anti-abortion laws in Russia since the USSR’s collapse.” WCF would later take credit for helping shepherd the new anti-abortion laws.

At some point around that 2011 conference, WCF — the “most prominent bridge-builder” between Russia and American Christians, as one analyst said — attracted the support of a pair of Russians in the Kremlin’s immediate orbit: Vladimir Yakunin, a former Russian Railways chief and one of Putin’s oldest confidants, and Konstantin Malofeev, known as “God’s oligarch” for his wealth and staunch Orthodoxy alike. Both Yakunin and Malofeev reportedly began funding WCF ventures. The two would later be sanctioned by the U.S., although a series of American academics still work with Yakunin’s “think tank.”

Meanwhile, Komov, who worked as the director of Malofeev’s far-right St. Basil the Great Foundation, became WCF’s official Russian representative. His “Family Policy” organization, which WCF helped co-found, would also continue to help Mizulina craft retrograde legislation; in 2012, WCF helped outline some of Russia’s most extreme anti-LGBTQ restrictions to date.

All of this took place amid the Kremlin’s attempts to become the leader of anti-LGBTQ forces around the world, and the lodestar for social conservatives across the West.

“We can see how many of the Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilization,” Putin said in 2013. “They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.”

Moscow’s shift into a bastion for social conservatism was a bright, blinking red light for social conservatives in the United States — many of whom started coming out in droves to defend Russia’s increasing return to dictatorship, becoming some of Putin’s staunchest defenders in the West. Franklin Graham began lauding Russian policies, claiming Russia maintained the moral high ground over the U.S., as did notorious creationist Ken Ham. Praise started to flow in from paleo-conservatives like Pat Buchanan and theocrats like Bryan Fischer.

WCF’s Larry Jacobs was even more succinct: “The Russians might be the Christian saviors of the world.” Or as he later added, “I think Russia is the hope for the world right now.”

In 2014, though, geopolitical developments appeared to stifle the budding relationship between Russia and America’s Religious Right. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the sanctions that followed, scuttled plans for WCF’s 2014 conference in Moscow. Instead, the conference proceeded without WCF branding.

But the close ties between Russia and the American Religious Right continued just under the surface. While WCF may have been forced to pull its branding, the conference went off all the same — any changes were only cosmetic, and Yakunin and Malofeev still spoke alongside WCF’s leading American figures. For good measure, Komov later admitted that WCF still helped plan the conference.

The 2014 conference, as scholar Christopher Stroop noted, was the moment in which “Russia [took] on the mantle of leadership of global social conservatism… [It] gave Russia the chance to say, ‘We’re the leaders here.’”

The WCF may have removed its branding, but the conference in Moscow went on all the same.

God’s chosen country

The swelling ties between Russia and American social conservatives continued in the years that followed, at least as long as Barack Obama was in the White House.

In 2015, Franklin Graham — perhaps America’s leading evangelical, who has run defense for Trump’s immoralities at every possible turn — posted a photo in which he’s shaking hands with Putin, claiming during a visit to Russia that Obama was interested only in “promot[ing] atheism.” Graham even announced a “World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians” in Moscow, although that was later moved to Washington.

“Definitely not everyone is as enthusiastic as Kline Preston.”

The 2015 WCF conference was held in Salt Lake City, with Komov, the man charged with helping the sanctioned Konstantin Malofeev spread his influence, in attendance. (For good measure, by the time of the Salt Lake conference Malofeev had by then been accused of funding Russian troops and Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine.)

At the conference, Komov proclaimed that “Eastern Europe can really help our brothers in the West” to resist the “new totalitarianism” of “political correctness.” A few months later, WCF head Brian Brown announced that WCF would transition into the International Organization for the Family (IOF), and traveled to Moscow to help promote its new global anti-LGBTQ manifesto.

With Obama in the White House, relations between Russia and American social conservatives seemed promising — as did Russia’s ability to use social conservatives to Moscow’s own ends. Along the way, however, Donald Trump made his official foray into politics, and began swiping evangelical endorsements from the likes of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

Soon, with the Religious Right firmly in his pocket — and American Christian leaders like Graham, fresh from meeting with Russian Orthodox Church officials, willing to defend his crudities, infidelities, and inability to grasp basic biblical doctrine — Trump began challenging Moscow for primacy in the eyes of the global Christian right.

And then Trump won. And, suddenly, America’s far-right Christians didn’t need to look to Russia for a government dominated by nominal social conservatives. Instead, for the first time in years, they had one of their own.

Trump’s election, in a certain sense, deflated the growing comity between Moscow and America’s religious conservatives, with the two no longer allied against a common foe in the White House. (It didn’t help that Russia in 2016 also began forcefully curtailing missionary work from American churches.) And tensions between Russia and the U.S. have endured, with expanding sanctions and ongoing friction in Syria and Ukraine.

Aside from Brown’s early 2017 trip to announce the IOF’s new platform, and a meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and one of the Russian Orthodox Church’s top clerics a year ago, there have been few high-level contacts between the Religious Right and Russian officials since Trump’s inauguration.

“The left and the right… have a shared narrative right now, and it’s ‘Russia bad, Trump bad,’ at least on this matter,” Carlson told ThinkProgress. “Russia has no friends in Washington right now.”

Meanwhile, the FBI continues to investigate just what the NRA was up to with Alexander Torshin — a relationship that began thanks to inroads Russian officials were able to make with Kline Preston, a man whose Christian fundamentalism, and love of Russian propaganda outlets, is impossible to miss.

“I’ve never known how deep the admiration for Russia goes,” Christopher Stroop, a leading scholar on Russian and American religious relations, told ThinkProgress. “I’ve seen it anecdotally in my evangelical connections, but it doesn’t come up all the time. Definitely not everyone is as enthusiastic as Kline Preston.”

Future friendships

But cooling relations doesn’t mean ties have been severed altogether. A recent homeschooling conference, which Komov helped organize, brought numerous American social conservatives back to Russia — including Carlson, who spoke at the conference. (“I think it was a very significant event,” said Carlson. “Russia, despite being called authoritarian, actually seems to be liberating its schools.”)

And while WCF, now known as IOF, won’t be organizing any conferences in Russia anytime soon, it will host a major get-together later this summer in Moldova. Moldovan President Igor Dodon has manicured a reputation as a pro-Russian politician, and recently hosted both Brown and Russian neo-fascist Alexander Dugin. For good measure, Balkan Insight reported that Dodon even asked Malofeev, despite still being sanctioned by the U.S., to fund the conference.

The conference roster hasn’t been finalized, but Carlson told ThinkProgress he’d be there, alongside his Russian counterparts. Carlson won’t be alone; American social conservatives will likely show up en masse at the conference, itself the next major gathering held by a group founded by Russian and American far-right fundamentalists, first brainstormed nearly a quarter-century ago.

IOF folks “are often sort of quiet about what they do, at least in certain circles,” Stroop said. But the IOF and its conferences have “always been predominantly a Russian-American project, so I’ll eat my hat if there won’t a very substantial contingent of Americans.”