Last week, I posted parts 1 and 2 of a discussion about the LDS Church’s involvement with the World Congress of Families.  Part 1 gives an overview of the origins of WCF and its global anti-LGBT advocacy.  Part 2 describes the Church’s connections with and involvement in WCF.

But the LDS Church has been involved with this group since 1996–so why the interest now?  Well, because Russia invaded Ukraine. While this is only one of many imperialist activities Putin has undertaken in the last 20 years, it is the most blatant example of Putin’s desire not just to control strategic locations but to undermine democracy and United States and European Union influence globally and especially in Eastern Europe.  WCF has supported Putin’s agenda of culturally and politically aligning Eastern European countries to it instead of the West and has specifically targeted countries where there is strife between pro-Russian and pro-EU factions to hold its world congresses, which often include sessions that specifically address geopolitical topics and attempt to grow support for pro-Russian factions. If this seems conspiratorial, you don’t have to look any further than the numerous high-profile members and supporters of WCF who are either pro-Putin Russian imperialist oligarchs or pro-Putin European fascists, as well as WCF’s U.S. leadership’s praise of Putin.   

Before I get into the details, let me be clear about what I am not saying.  I am not saying that WCF “caused” or “enabled” Russia’s invasion into Ukraine. I really couldn’t even comment on the extent to which WCF’s activities in Eastern Europe have materially aided Russia’s imperialistic cultural and political aims. I’m also not going to address here WCF’s connection to the rise of the Russian Christian Right (which commentators note did not exist in Russia before recent years) or its connection to the U.S. Christian Right / Trumpism, although that would be an interesting topic for exploration.  

I am also not saying “Russians are bad.” I think that authoritarianism, the erosion of democracy and human rights, and Russian imperialism (i.e., attempting to annex / take over independent countries) are bad. But please don’t mistake my references to “Russia” and certain Russians who are participating in Putin’s agenda to be a wholesale attack on Russia or the Russian people or culture. We can criticize the Russian government, and certain Russian individuals and institutions, while recognizing that the Russian people are not monolith, many oppose the war, many who do not oppose the war are victims of a misinformation campaign, and, above all, they are all humans just like us.  

Having said that, let’s first look at the prominent pro-Putin Russian imperialist and European fascists involved with WCF and the support that even American WCF leaders have shown for Putin.  Then we’ll look at why and how they are using WCF to further Putin’s agenda.  

Russian and Far-Right WCF Participants

As described in my initial post, WCF’s Russian roots go straight to the beginning as it was always a joint effort between Russian sociologists concerned about the West’s influence on population decline and a U.S. researcher who wrote about the negative impacts of gay rights and feminism on the population.  

That involvement in Russia has now expanded to other private actors who act as a “parallel state” and are “aligned out of personal conviction, patriotism, and commercial interests with the political ambitions of the Kremlin [and have] been the primary channel of Russian influence and funding into the global anti-gender movement” as well as funding pro-Putin far-right allies throughout Europe.  

Some specific high-profile Russians involved in WCF include:  

  • Vladimir Yakunin, a WCF Founder, railroad magnate and Russian government official who is on a U.S. sanctions list because of his ties to Putin and Russia’s annex of the Crimea Region of Ukraine.  He was also placed on Australia’s restricted trade list because of his close personal and professional connections to Putin. He is, in fact, so close to Putin that he was once considered a potential successor.  He continues to participate in WCF events. His wife, Natalia Yakunina, has spoken at most WCF events I reviewed. 
  • Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, who has given millions in funding to WCF.  Malofeev is notoriously pro-Putin, has been put on U.S. sanctions lists for his support (financial and personnel) of Russia’s invasion into Crimea and other Russian military activity in Ukraine, and has also been put on Ukraine’s “Wanted” list for sponsoring paramilitary activity in Ukraine.  The European Commission, United States, and Ukraine have all put him on watch and sanctions lists for trying to destabilize and financing separatism in Ukraine. Bulgaria banned him for 10 years because of his involvement in a spy affair aimed at turning the country away from a pro-Western orientation and towards Russia. Malofeev is a monarchist who wants Putin to be appointed as Tsar and rule forever, and U.S. intelligence services “consider him as Putin’s right arm for operations of political interference in Europe” and as a key player in Russia’s disiniformation campaign in Russia and abroad.  He founded a television station (with the help of a former Fox news producer) that is known for supporting Putin. Although Malofeev delegates much of his international activities to his employee and close associate Alexey Komov, Malofeev is on the attendee list of numerous WCF events.   
  • Alexey Komov, WCF’s official Russian representative and a close associate of Malofeev who generally carries out Malofeev’s objectives abroad. Most recently, Komov was involved in a scandal revealing Russia’s attempts to secretly finance Italy’s far right (including the host of the most recent WCF event held in Verona).  
  • Former Duma member Yelena Mizulina, author of numerous anti-LGBT and anti-abortion laws in Russia and one of the first seven people put on the U.S. sanctions list after Russia’s 2014 invasion of the Crimea region of Ukraine (because of her role in authorizing the invasion).
  • Alexander Dugin, an ultranationalist Russian philosopher and founder of the “Eurasianist” movement who believes that “concepts of liberalism, freedom and democracy are alien to Russian culture” and has called for the creation of “an illiberal totalitarian Eurasian empire stretching from Dublin through Vladivostok” (the Russian Far East), which would require the annexation of Ukraine and Finland. Dugin held a Eurasian conference in Moldova in 2017, where it was announced that Moldova would also be the location of the next WCF congress. He works for Malofeev’s media company and has been sanctioned by the U.S. and Canada for his role in the invasion in Crimea. 

Outside of Russia, far-right politicians were attending events as early as 2007 in Warsaw but have increased involvement since 2017.  They include:

  • Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who hosted WCF’s Budapest event (themed around “Making Families Great Again”) and is blamed for Hungary’s democratic backsliding and descent into kleptocracy.  Orban is regarded as a dictator, white supremecist, and “Putinist,” but WCF loves him and has congratulated him on his victories. He attended the 2016 Georgia, 2018 Moldova, and 2019 Verona events.   
  • Katalin Novak, president of Orban’s far-right party in Hungary, who attended the 2017 Budapest and 2019 Verona WCF events.   
  • French WCF Representative Fabrice Sorlin, former head of the nationalist organization Dies Irae, member of the ultra-right National Front, and former president of the France-Europe-Russia Alliance, whose goal is to strengthen ties between Europe and Russia, unite “Christian civilizations”, and stand against Islam and America. Sorlin is a proponent of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, the Russian breakaway state in Ukraine.  Sorlin organized the first regional WCF conference in France, where the agenda included a number events that seem puzzling for a “family” congress:
    • 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 
  • Former Moldovan President Igor Odon.  The WCF Congress that was held in Moldova under his watch was during a Moldovan conflict between pro-EU factions in the country and pro-Russians, lead by Dodon.  He asked Yakunin and Malofeev to finance the Moldovan WCF event. 
  • Italian politician Matteo Salvini, part of the Italian far-right party La Lega (which received illegal funding from Russia operatives). Salvini is an open-admirer of Putin who opposed 2014 sanctions against Russia for Russian’s invasion of Crimea and who cannot even bring himself to condemn Putin in the wake of Russia’s latest invasion. He is also extremely racist and anti-immigrant.
  • Spanish / French Monarchist Luis Alfonso de Borbon, who claims he has the right to the French throne, supports the late Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco, and works for what is referred to as “Hugo Chavez’s bank”.  He attended WCF’s 2018 and 2019 events.  
  • Levan Vasadz, a Georgian politician who made his fortune in Russia and is known for being stridently xenophobic, homophobic, and has called for Russia and Georgia to unite against Western influence.  He has close ties with Dugin, advocates for Moldova to become a Russian vassal state, and attended the 2015 Salt Lake City and 2018 Moldova events.  

Finally, WCF’s American leadership has also expressed support for Putin.  

  • Larry Jacobs, former managing director of WCF, has expressed support for the Russian right as “the Christian saviors of the world” and bragged about his work with the Kremlin.  
  • Scott Lively, long-time associate of WCF, frequent speaker at their events, and one of the most well-known anti-gay crusaders in the U.S., wrote a “thank you” letter to Putin praising him for his example of “moral leadership” and concluding “Once again, thank you, President Putin, for standing firm in defense of the natural family, which is the essential foundation of all human civilization. Perhaps through the inspiration of your leadership, an alliance of the good people of our countries with those of your own, can once again in some cooperative fashion, redeem the future of mankind from a Fascist Leviathan, just as we did in World War II.”  (Ya’ll, this letter is totally bonkers.)
  • WCF Spokesman Don Feder defended Putin after Russia’s invasion of Crimea in Ukraine, calling him “a power player who cares more about Russia’s national interests, and Russian minorities in his near abroad (smaller countries around Russia that were formerly part of the Soviet Union), than in that mythical force known as world opinion,” agreeing with Putin’s desire not to have the EU “on his doorstep”, and stating that he doesn’t “care about a possible Russian annexation of the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine (with its Russian-oriented, Orthodox population)”.  (This letter is also totally bonkers.)  In Feder’s words:

Putin is a strong man. Obama is a weak man (except when it comes to bullying our allies). Obama venerates multilateralism. Putin is willing to go it alone. Obama is committed to the entire LGBT agenda (including gay “marriage”). He’s also the only sitting president to address Planned Parenthood, such is his commitment to abortion without borders. Putin believes the foregoing is the road to national annihilation.

Where does the threat to America lie?

Indeed, WCF did not seem to care about Russia’s aggression in Crimea–in 2014, the Congress was scheduled to take place in Moscow.  Just before the conference, the United States and other countries imposed sanctions on Moscow resulting from its invasion of the Crimea region of Ukraine. While WCF publicly announced it was canceling the conference, an identical conference—featuring largely the same lineup of speakers, including American WCF leaders who were arguably flouting U.S. sanctions law–was held during the original timeframe.    

One wonders if WCF has been duped by Russians using its resources to mask a pro-Russia expansionist geopolitical agenda as a holy war. And if so, whether the LDS leaders who would have rubbed shoulders with the fascists listed above had a clue that their biases were being exploited.  This involvement is what I’ll address next.  

WCF and Cultural / Political Support for Russia in Eastern Europe

Apart from ties to pro-Putin oligarchs and politician, how does allying with WCF actually advance Putin’s agenda in Europe? For this, I’m going to rely and quote heavily from two reports to the European Parliament about the Russia and the far right in Europe generally and WCF specifically.  

A 2021 report from the European Parliamentary Forum for Sexual and Reproductive Rights describes the ways that Russia has “over the past decade … positioned itself as the global champion of Christian values.”  Why?  The report continues: 

This new role as an Orthodox Christian Champion serves several simultaneous purposes, namely as a shield to deflect human rights criticism from the West (or what are perceived as Western-dominated institutions), and to offer itself as an authentic alternative to a perceived hegemonic West which has turned its back on its Christian heritage. Antigender discourses thus play an important role in Russia’s domestic policymaking and political legitimation, as well as in its international geopolitical positioning. Adopting anti-gender positions also opens the possibility for new alliances with likeminded actors beyond Russia’s borders or those with similar axes to grind with the West.

While some of Russia’s support for this agenda comes from state-funded government agencies, much of it is channeled through private Russian actors and through dark money chanelled to political actors outside of Russia (like Salvini).  And the two largest private actors in this arena are Yakunin and Malofeev, both of whom have close ties for WCF.  Indeed, the parliament report describes them as WCF having for years “acted as the primary link between sanctioned Russian oligarchs and leaders among the American religious right.” 

A 2021 briefing prepared by the European Parliament more specifically called out this relationship with WCF:  

The WCF is a prime example of an ideologically motivated actor. WCF’s longstanding cooperation with the Russian government, where both parties take advantage of their complementary status, motivates their marriage of convenience. The partnership allows the Russian government to act through a strategic partner and local proxy actors, and hide behind an alliance of like-minded motivated by religious and ideological convictions. The WCF’s religion-based normative agenda can thus be successfully used to conceal the real end goal – an EU weakened by ideological tensions and strife. It is an effective alliance. The EU Members States’ internal debates and different opinions and policies on LGBTI+ issues, laced with traditional bigotry and intolerance, are utilised and taken advantage of to polarise and erode the foundation for a common understanding of equality, fundamental rights and protection of minorities- but also of democracy and rule of law, as demonstrated by the procedures against Poland and Hungary[.]

In sum, WCF has framed gay rights as a culture war between Eastern Europe and a (morally bankrupt) West. Russian members of WCF and their sympathizers have used the European Union’s more progressive stance on gay marriage as a reason to encourage Eastern European countries to remain less integrated with Western Europe and more closely aligned with Russia, including specifically in the Ukraine–arguing that Ukraine signing an association agreement with the EU would “lead to the inevitable ‘homosexualizing of Ukraine.”  Many of the events WCF has sponsored have taken place in countries experiencing division between pro-Western / EU vs. pro-Russian factions, such as the events in Moldova and Georgia, and are intended to orient governments to and gain popular support for Russia. And LDS Church representatives were there, watching.     

Concluding Thoughts

I don’t think the LDS Church actually wants to support Russia’s imperialist efforts–on the contrary, I think it probably doesn’t, which is why it is so puzzling and frustrating that they’d turn a blind eye to this just so that they could have some anti-gay allies. It only takes about ten minutes of digging into the WCF to see its deep ties to pro-Putin Russian imperialists and Eastern European fascists and that the Russian arm of WCF took advantage of WCF Western allies to pursue an anti-gay, imperialist, fascist agenda in Eastern Europe. How did Elder Feo feel attending an event sponsored by a racist, xenophobic, Putin-loving Italian fascist in his home country?  Were Elders Kacher or Golden uncomfortable during the overtly political portions of the Georgia and Moldova conferences or the anti-western sentiment expressed there, or the fact that there were numerous individuals present who were sanctioned under U.S. law for their participation in the unlawful annex of Crimea and paramilitary activities there?  Was Professor Wardle concerned about being hosted by a notorious dictator at the Budapest event?  Did Sister Gay, who has spent years living in Africa and has done a tremendous amount of service and good things there, find anything troubling about rubbing shoulders with people who advocated for the death penalty for homosexuals in Africa during her tenure on the WCF board?  Did the former Utah Supreme Court Justice and purported proponent of democracy and the rule of law Dallin Oaks find it troubling when his fellow WCF Board members wrote love letters to Putin?   

Well, I hope so. I hope they were uncomfortable. But then, why continue to participate? Either way, the Church’s continued involvement with WCF is a compelling example of yet another rotten fruit springing from the Church’s unrelenting assault on queer families–an assault it seems willing to carry on with at any cost. 

That cost is high because gay rights are human rights. Waging a battle against human rights–in addition to making the world a worse, not better place–will inevitably support, directly or indirectly, a deterioration of the rule of law and global democracy. There’s nothing less at stake than that.