In mid-2016, Mikhail Morgulis, a Soviet-born theologian now living in Florida, offered to organize millions of votes among America’s Russian-speaking community for then-candidate Donald Trump. In his efforts, Morgulis pitched the idea directly to Sergei Millian, one of the key players at the heart of the ongoing investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign.
Morgulis’ offer arrived when the campaign was fully underway, around the same time that internal emails from the Democratic National Committee, stolen by Russian governmental hackers, were published. It also came around the same time that Millian — a man who described himself as Trump’s “exclusive broker” in Russia — began reportedly acting as a source for former British spy Christopher Steele’s infamous dossier, the document that claimed that Russian officials had compromising material on Trump. Millian reportedly claimed that Russian officials were feeding damaging information about Hillary Clinton to the Trump campaign.
In a July 2016 email first reported by the Washington Post, Millian told Morgulis that he would be meeting with Trump’s campaign, and that he could pass along information from Morgulis to the campaign. “If you want me to pass them any information, I will do it, and if they get interested, I will ask them to meet with you,” Millian wrote.
“We can organize the Russian community to vote for Trump,” Morgulis responded. “If you are interested in getting 5 million people, I am ready to participate in this campaign, together with you.”
Millian did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment, but has previously denied that he was a source for Steele’s dossier. Morgulis told ThinkProgress that he couldn’t comment on the Washington Post article because he hadn’t yet read it in its entirety.
Morgulis claims he was unable to connect with the Trump campaign in 2016, and further told ThinkProgress that Millian was “not important” in regards to the 2016 election. But the fact that Millian attempted to connect Morgulis with the Trump campaign speaks not only to the types of help Millian sought, but also to the role that Christian fundamentalism continued to play in attempts to link Washington and Moscow.
It also offers an opportunity to examine how Morgulis has himself whitewashed post-Soviet kleptocrats for years — becoming, in effect, one of the leading voices spinning anti-democratic, and pro-Russian, forces in places like Belarus and Ukraine for American audiences. Morgulis, currently one of two honorary consuls for Belarus in the U.S., also has ties to officials like Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), and even worked directly with at least one election observer who approved the sham elections among pro-Russian “separatists” in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Morgulis isn’t widely recognized, but he claims an out-sized presence among policymakers in both the U.S. and the post-Soviet space. Much of Morgulis’ work centers on trying to use Christianity as a bridge between Washington and governments in places like Russia and Belarus.
He is the head of a nebulous organization called the Spiritual Diplomacy Foundation. While the website for the Spiritual Diplomacy Foundation has been down for years — the landing page says the site is still “under reconstruction” — ThinkProgress unearthed old posts via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine that shed a bit of light on the group’s aims.
According to one of the posts, Morgulis said that the group’s aim is “to reduce hatred and eliminate wars between nations with the help of the vast unutilized [sic] resources of Love found in the Bible and other traditional Holy books… With the help of this most powerful source of Love we try to resolve conflicts in different countries of the world, including political, ethnic, national, racial, religious and social ones and others.”
“We try — through spiritual channels, though non-diplomatic traditional methods — to have more spiritual, more private connection with… people,” Morgulis told ThinkProgress. “And sometimes we have success.”
Morgulis, who first moved to the U.S. in the 1980s, did not elaborate on the types of “success” his group has achieved, or even what exactly the Spiritual Diplomacy Foundation does. However, he has claimed a wide, high-powered roster of associates — all of whom Morgulis says have praised his work as a theologian.
On his Facebook page, Morgulis boasted of links with other U.S. politicos. In one 2013 photo, Morgulis stands alongside Kevin Cramer, who was recently elected as a Republican senator from North Dakota. According to Morgulis, Cramer is an “adviser” to the Spiritual Diplomacy Foundation.
“We don’t have a very close relationship, but [it’s] normal,” Morgulis told ThinkProgress. “He’s a very good guy, very good guy.”
A spokesperson for Cramer told ThinkProgress via email that the senator “has no relationship with, or connection to, Mikhail Morgulis or his organization.”
On his website, Morgulis claims he’s received plaudits from politicians like former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev and former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. (According to Morgulis, Reagan praised the Soviet-born theologian for helping to “protect believers.”) Morgulis also claimed that Clinton wrote him a “personal letter,” saying, “Your spiritual encouragement helped me in the most difficult moments of life.”
But Morgulis’ efforts at improving the standing of post-Soviet kleptocrats in Western circles isn’t limited to vague calls for Christian unity.
Since 2013, Morgulis has published a pair of monthly publications that sought to spin Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorship in Belarus — as well as Viktor Yanukovych’s thuggish regime in Ukraine, which was ousted in 2014 — for American audiences. Neither the “U.S.-Ukraine Observer” nor the “U.S.-Belarus Observer” are still in publication, but both acted as outlets for Morgulis and his allies to whitewash the crimes and anti-democratic policies taking root in Belarus and, before the 2014 Euromaidan revolution ousted Yanukovych, Ukraine.
In the “U.S.-Ukraine Observer,” for instance, Morgulis wrote that Yanukovych was a “decent man with a good heart.” Shortly thereafter, Yanukovych’s regime killed dozens of pro-democracy protesters; Yanukovych is currently living in exile in Russia.
The “U.S.-Belarus Observer” was even more egregious: One article in the magazine claimed that Lukashenko, a dictator who has ruled the country for a quarter-century, “guards the country from corruption and crime.” Morgulis wrote in its inaugural issue that Lukashenko’s government “is doing everything possible to make the lives of regular people easier.” Morgulis even wrote on his personal website that Lukashenko is “bright” and “talented.”
Another article in the “U.S.-Belarus Observer” featured thoughts from so-called “election monitors” who followed Belarus’s 2015 election. Under Lukashenko, Belarus has never known a free and fair election — but that didn’t stop the monitors featured in the “U.S.-Belarus Observer” from praising the election. One monitor even said the election featured “happy people” who didn’t have “any complaints.”
For good measure, Frank Abernathy — a disgraced American attorney who worked with Morgulis at the “U.S.-Ukraine Observer” — even acted as one of the monitors for the sham 2014 elections among the pro-Russian “separatists” in eastern Ukraine. A press release noting Abernathy’s presence claimed that the elections “were held in conformity with all international standards.”
The Moscow Times described Abernathy as part of a “ragtag group of ‘international observers’ including a Spaniard who may not exist, a Nashville lawyer previously suspended for fraud, a far-right Serbian denied entry into Canada for his affiliation with convicted war criminals, and an Austrian nationalist renowned among U.S. neo-Nazis.”
Morgulis denied to ThinkProgress that Abernathy monitored the elections as part of his role at the “U.S.-Ukraine Observer.” However, the press release announcing Abernathy’s presence described him as the “director of U.S.-Ukraine Observer.”
By 2016, Morgulis had a clear preference for the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. As he said in an interview with the Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik, “I am a Republican and supported Trump from the very beginning. And I consider his election to be the victory of all healthy forces in America.” (Morgulis also admitted that he referred to Clinton as a “homosexual,” despite still claiming that she’d praised him in the past.)
He also said in the video that he’d met both Trump and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser.
Morgulis, as the emails made clear, also happened to be close with Millian — the man who claimed to have insider information about Russian officials feeding damaging information about Clinton to the Trump campaign.
Among Millian’s projects is a shadowy organization called the Russian American Chamber of Commerce (RACC). Despite having no presence at its listed address, the Financial Times described the RACC a week before the 2016 election as “appear[ing] to have close official ties [to the Russian government], arranging trips for visiting Russian regional governors to the U.S.”
One of the few other individuals identified as part of the RACC: Morgulis, whom the Financial Times described as “one of the chamber’s main backers.” As Morgulis told the outlet about Millian and the RACC, “We have soft power and we are trying to change relations now.” (Unlike Lukashenko or Yanukovych, there are no known photos of Morgulis and Russian President Vladimir Putin, although Morgulis posted on YouTube an interview he conducted with Sergei Kislyak, then working as the Russian ambassador to the U.S.)
Morgulis declined to describe how he and Millian first met. “That’s a more private question,” Morgulis told ThinkProgress. “I’m talking with you for the first time, and I don’t need to explain.”
It remains unclear what role, if any, Morgulis played in whipping up support for Trump in 2016. However, Millian’s communications with Morgulis fit within a broader pattern of trying to use fundamentalist Christianity as a bridge between Moscow and Washington — and of pushing the view that like-minded Christians in both the Kremlin and the White House can repair relations between the U.S. and Russia, as well as lessen American pressure on post-Soviet kleptocracies writ large.
Even after the election, Morgulis appeared to continue pushing that thread. As one of the articles published in the “U.S.-Belarus Observer,” written a few months after Trump’s election, read, “The 2016 U.S. presidential election wasn’t just a clash of parties, it was a battle between the liberal spirit of decomposition, and the cornered American faith in God, freedom, and human decency…”
“This is the realization of the words I said some time ago: ‘people vote, God chooses.'” And thanks to Trump’s election, “The sword hanging over America was removed by angels.”