Since Russian President Vladimir Putin's return to a third term as president in 2012, Moscow's metastasized into something of a global leader behind the push for "traditional values." Melding anti-LGBT, anti-abortion, and anti-Western rhetoric within its efforts to buttress pro-Kremlin factions abroad, the Russian government, over the past few years, has begun shouldering the mantle of an "international Right." As an American white nationalist, outspoken in his praise of Putin's leadership, recently told me, Russia is fast providing a home for a "Traditionalist International."
Few scholars are more well-versed in Russia's resurgence as a leader of global conservatism than Christopher Stroop, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of South Florida. In Political Research Associates earlier this year, Stroop offered one of the most detailed looks at the relationships between American evangelicals, Russian religious and political officials, and Moscow's newfound sense of agency - and leadership - as it pertains to radiating putatively "traditional" policies.
I had a chance to speak with Christopher, who can be followed on Twitter here, about his research, which looked at everything from the hard-right World Congress of Families - which held its annual conference in Georgia in May - to the bubbling, burgeoning phenomenon of "right-wing fellow-travelers," of which America has more founding members than many in the US may realize.
Here's a sampling of our conversation, which has been edited for clarity:
How would you describe the kind of research you’ve done on these far-right religious links between the US and Russia?
What I’m looking into is the weird pre-history of how everything’s inflected now, and Russia exporting its Slavophile version of moral superiority.
There are two parts of your piece that I appreciated: Tracing this through the Soviet and Tsarist eras, as well as the tensions you examine in terms of discussing who is exporting what to whom, and who owns the agency, or some part of the agency, within this relationship. The perception that’s lingered is that Western exporters of “traditional values” and anti-LGBT legislation - it’s a one-way street. But as you point out, now, it’s not exactly as clear as that, as clean as that.
I would even say that, oddly, now we’re coming into sort of an era of right-wing fellow-travelers, [including] Pat Buchanan [and] Franklin Graham. Since Buchanan wrote that  article, “Whose side is God on now?”, he has continued to be a Putin apologist of sorts. Franklin Graham, too. It’s really odd. He grew up in that Cold War, anti-communist environment, and he was still wary of Putin’s KGB past even in 2014, when he wrote about the Olympics and praised Putin for being more 'godly' on LGBT issues than President Obama and the US. But when it comes to America and gay rights, [Graham] has come to embrace [Moscow]. And Patriarch Kirill has called him and Western Christians who oppose LGBT rights “confessors of the faith.”
Russian social conservatives are using the history of anti-communism as a means of making a point. They’re saying: We survived communism, and so we know how to resist it. And they’re playing right into this whole script, which is a Cold War script, that communism and secularism are the same thing. But before it was a Cold War script, it was a Russian script, in the early 20th century.
Were the roots of this recent phenomenon already in place in the early '90s? Or is this something we can only start paying attention to in the last decade, or last half-dozen years?
The immediate roots, I think, we can find already during the time of the Soviet collapse, and even before, when religious philosophy was being published and read to a certain extent - samizdat, for instance - a bit more openly in the ‘80s. Also, what [President Boris] Yeltsin was able to capitalize on, of course, was this kind of sense of wounded Russian nationalism, relative to other nationalities in the Soviet Union, which already was for many people associated with an Orthodox Christian identity. At the same time, this was a period of great openness and exploration, so not only do you have groups like t.A.T.u., who were popular, but a whole lot of Russians taking interest in Krishnaism, in Mormonism, in anything and everything. They’d been living with such a dearth of information for such a long time that this upsurge in spirituality was kind of chaotic.
You don’t see a very significant attempt - I don’t think you do, anyway - to really mobilize social and religious conservatism on behalf of the state under Yeltsin to anything like the extent we're seeing now. It wasn't particularly played up in [President Vladimir] Putin’s first two terms, or [President Dmitry] Medvedev’s term. But there’s all this stuff that was and is out there. [For instance,] Alexander Dugin is out there making the modern neo-Slavophile, Russian nationalist case for Russian superiority. My piece covers the background of where the World Congress of Families came from. It was there, but the Russian government wasn't really trying to use it as one of the main planks of its ideological justification. That changed in Putin’s third term.
Can you take me through some of the early relationships between American religious organizations and post-Soviet Russia?
In a certain sense, you could argue, I think, that part of the ‘90s was, indeed, the exporting of the American culture wars to Russia and other post-Soviet countries, and Warsaw Pact countries. That resulted in a kind of tension with Russian nationalism associated with Orthodoxy. As an example, have you ever heard of the CoMission? The CoMission, in a nutshell, was a coalition of about 80 radical religious right American organizations, and was put together basically by Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, which was recently rebranded as Cru. And Campus Crusade is more radical than a lot of people realize, actually.
[Members of CoMission] would go and talk to Russian government officials, Russian Orthodox Church officials, and they would say, “We want to help you rebuild a post-communist Russia, and we would like to offer a Christian ethics curriculum in Russian schools.” And so they develop this curriculum, and they actually get permission to have it taught, if I remember correctly, [as] extracurricular or voluntary, but sometimes these classes are actually taught during school hours. And this curriculum is a hardline Protestant ethics curriculum. It uses that kind of language that the only way to have an ethical life is to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. And they’re selling this very differently to their missionary-supporting Protestant constituencies back home from how they’re selling it to the Orthodox Christian actors they’re trying to work with.
Eventually that catches up with them, and they get ousted over their covert proselytizing. But the course included the standard homophobia, and all of that, in Russian public schools, from 1992-1997. So there’s this back and forth, these tensions, this exporting is happening, but what’s also happening is Orthodox pushback. And I think we’ve seen an interesting crystallization in Putin’s third term of making this essentially the national line. You could look at it as nationalizing the culture wars, which were in part an American export, and then re-exporting them. So that’s not only things like World Congress of Families conferences at the regional level - in Moldova, in Georgia - but [Russian representative] Alexey Komov saying, “We know how to resist communism - we can help [the US] withstand the new totalitarianism.” What he means by that term, “new totalitarianism,” is "political correctness" and sexual revolution.
Continuing with the World Congress of Families, their 2014 conference, following everything that took place in Crimea and Ukraine, was effectively rebranded. Did this conference represent something of a turning point in terms of funding or impact?
I think everything we know about funding was published by Mother Jones. We know that a lot of it came from philanthropic organizations associated with [ultra-Orthodox oligarch Konstantin] Malofeev, but beyond that, I don’t know. It was quite late that certain names were scrubbed from the organizing committee, like [Larry] Jacobs - those guys were on the organizing committee until it became such a big problem that they disappeared. But they participated. [The conference] was pretty much what it was supposed to be.
But in my view, what it did, is it was also kind of a crystallization of this moment of nationalization and exporting on the Russian side - of Russia taking the lead. I watched the opening because it was live-streamed, and there was a moment when [lawmaker] Yelena Mizulina was saying that it would be impossible for this kind of conference to take place in Europe or America right now. Russia is taking on the mantle of leadership of global social conservatism. It was an interesting moment in that respect.
But if you look at what people, like these WCF guys, have said about Russia before, it had already been pretty fawning. Some of them were already looking to Russia for leadership. I think that’s a moment where Russians began to articulate more their leading role in fighting for the so-called “natural family” against the so-called “gay agenda.” To me, that was the thing that stood out the most. It gave Russia the chance to say, “We’re the leaders here.” And people have responded to that, and followed along.
Since then, this concept of “right-wing fellow-travelers,” has this continued on? Has that accelerated?
I don’t have a way to measure this, exactly, but I can tell you that Franklin Graham has not flinched from continuing to support Putin, and accepting praise from Patriarch Kirill. I can tell you that Pat Buchanan, when he goes on talk shows, will try to defend Putin’s policies. So does Donald Trump, of course, although in a less articulate way.