Religious networks made up of the Christian right in the US, militant European Catholics, Russian orthodox hardliners, and oligarchs are growing their influence worldwide. Under the guise of protecting “family values”, they are fighting to roll back gains for women’s and sexual minorities’ rights and sowing unrest in democracies around the world. After a two-year investigation, Klementyna Suchanow uncovers their Kremlin backing and the very real threat they pose to democracies.

Klementyna Suchanow was on our first panel discussion commemorating 10 years of publishing and political change in Europe. You can register here to join the last event of the series.

Krystyna Boczkowska: Your book This is War. Women. Fundamentalists and the New Middle Ages is the result of a thorough journalistic investigation into international religious-fundamentalist organisations and their networks. You started your investigation at a time when the new Polish far-right government, led by the Law and Justice Party, wanted to pass a law prepared by the religious organisation Ordo Iuris to completely ban abortions. Were these events a motivation to start working on the book?

Klementyna Suchanow: Definitely. Previously I was focused on literary studies – I wrote the biography of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. In autumn 2016, the “Stop Abortion” project aimed at banning abortion was presented in the Sejm (lower chamber of the Polish parliament). Like many others, this led me to the streets to protest. I joined the Women’s Strike movement that was behind huge protests that took place in recent years. As a researcher, I started to take note of anti-women and anti-LGBT legislation in different parts of the world. It seemed suspicious that similar problems were experienced by women in Poland, Argentina, and later on in South Korea. This struck me and led me to look at the situation in a more methodical manner. 

Fundamentalist organisations are developing their networks and branches all over the world. Among them are CitizenGo, El Yunque, Tradition, Family, Property (TFP), World Congress of Families, and Agenda Europe. They are very active in Europe. In 2013, Russian President Putin joined the game and after forming an alliance with the church, he became the “Lion of Christianity”. Can you briefly map these movements and their role in this struggle for power over half the world?

The first thing we need to keep in mind is that entities promoting conservative values have been largely infiltrated by the Kremlin since around 2012. Its traces are everywhere, whether in the Polish Ordo Iuris or the French La Manif Pour Tous. At first they organised spontaneous protests against same-sex marriage, and soon after they started to be taken over by people connected to the Kremlin, such as the head of the World Congress of Families (WCF), Brian Brown.

WCF plays an important role in this story. WCF is an annual congress where fundamentalist initiatives and different churches from around the world meet. WCF was created in Moscow in 1995 after discussions between the American sociologist Allan Carlson and the Russian sociologist Anatoly Antonov. Carlson was invited to Moscow out of the blue. It turned out that the WCF – especially in recent years – was great at matching Russian political goals. A great example is their congress in Verona in March 2019, which was effectively a pre-European elections rally for Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni.

Entities promoting conservative values have been largely infiltrated by the Kremlin since 2012.

The WCF network includes the Spanish CitizenGo that was created in 2013, also with Russian money. It is a petition platform active especially in Africa, conducting suspicious and unethical activities. Each of WCF’s member organisations can use its network to exchange tactics and ideas for fundraising, campaigning, and social media strategy. It was around 2013 when WCF members started planning their attacks on human rights and executing them in a systematic manner, gaining footholds in governments, public institutions, the US Supreme Court, and the UN.

One of the main sponsors of the organisation, an Orthodox oligarch and Putin’s friend from the KGB Vladimir Yakunin developed his espionage activities in Berlin where he helped connect WCF with conservative elites. Curiously, while he was a target of US sanctions, Europe did not move against him, either in 2014 or now. Russia started to use this “religious” channel for its own political goals. While Putin proclaims the West as “Satan” and wages a war, we still naively think that these are just “culture wars” or that abortion is a moral issue. My book is an attempt to showcase this threat looms over the democratic world order and human rights.

What are the goals of these organisations? We see them as enemies primarily of women, but their programmes are much more extensive.

Their stance on women’s rights is often portrayed as “ideological”. But from my research, I gather that their stance is part of a broader goal. Their plan was to wage a total war for their beliefs in 2013 and by 2023, achieve their goal. Although they have been unsuccessful, they have some victories in the US, Poland, and Africa.

They are now focusing on limiting or banning abortions, conscience clauses for pharmacists and doctors, scrapping contraception funding, limiting access to it and – eventually – taking it off market. Next targets include LGBT people, euthanasia and divorces. The same groups that promote things like banning abortion also took part in anti-vaccination campaigns, supported Donald Trump, and argue that global warming is not happening, or that the war in Ukraine is NATO’s fault. Let us not forget that all of the actions aimed at stirring up conflicts in our societies will be useful to Russia.

Our present world order is heading in the direction of authoritarian rule. This is the main danger of such movements. And this danger can take many different forms in different parts of the world. At first, it looks like baby steps that can be traced basically everywhere. In time these activities intensify, leading to authoritarianism.

Russia showcases how easy it is to change the hierarchy of legal acts – Putin decided to put the national constitution above international law, eliminating opportunities for people convicted through anti-gay legislation to appeal to international institutions. This shows how fast you can slide from anti-gay legislation passed in 2012 to withdrawing from international law protecting basic human rights, including LGBT people.

Your book mainly talks about Europe and the Americas, but isn’t the situation similar across the world?

I do think so. I do not know the exact situation in Asia, as it is built on a different religious order and has distinct local contexts. For example, the so-called West is facing demographic decline whereas in Africa and much of Asia, the situation is different. In Africa, fundamentalist organisations are very strong and are responsible for implementing far more restrictive laws, such as punishment for homosexuality. Africa is under a fierce attack, and the situation in places like Uganda or Ghana is very serious. However, Europe, the US, and Latin America remain the main targets for such attacks.

Such large-scale activities by ultra-conservatives require systematic funding. Who is backing these activities?

We know that their coffers are full. A lot of money comes from conservative funds from the US, as well as from the Kremlin – as revealed in an e-mail leak from CitizenGo. Such leaks are the main source of intel on how these organisations are financed. We also know that they also receive payments connected to money laundering. For example, Luca Volontè, an Italian politician, was sentenced in January 2021 for offences linked to money laundering through Azerbaijan and funnelled into anti-abortion entities in countries like Poland, Ireland, and Hungary. [Editor’s note: Between late 2021 and 2022, he was subsequently cleared of the money laundering charge and the statute of limitations linked to other charges expired.]

Another part of the story is that Russians financed far-right groups such as Le Pen’s National Rally in France or Salvini’s League in Italy. We are observing different types of deals, such as non-refundable loans for Le Pen or a situation in which Salvini’s party was said to get money out of interest from the transaction between a Russian and an Italian gas company. We are not talking about suitcases of cash anymore. Crowdfunding actions, in which anonymous donors give cash (therefore looking like a bottom-up mobilisation) are also popular. Such activities are carried out by the Brazilian Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), Polish Ordo Iuris or Spanish CitizenGo. And let’s not forget cryptocurrency.

Let us not forget that all of the actions aimed at stirring up conflicts in our societies will be useful to Russia.

In the case of the US, fundamentalist organisations with a charity status are exempted from paying taxes. Their activities are not limited to US borders. Between 2008 and 2019, at least 80 million dollars from families, such as Koch, DeVos, or Prince was sent to Europe.

These funds are not transparent. Establishing the full picture is difficult as both the money and its sources are obscured from the public eye. Even if such entities talk about them, it often turns out they are lying – as was the case with CitizenGo. Leaked emails showed that information about individual donors passed on by the CEO of the organisation, Ignacio Arsuaga, was false. It turned out that oligarch Konstantin Malofeev had given 100,000 euros. The total sum of the global conservative movement’s funds is not known but this is what we know at this point.

Your book gives the impression that the ultra-conservatives are waging a cultural war against the present world order. What world order do the organisations described in the book want to create?

I have heard the phrase “This is a war” in several languages. I thought that if they define the status quo in such terms while we do not do so or talk in terms of a “culture war”, then maybe we do not understand what really is happening. Fundamentalists want to return to a medieval system in which women, LGBT people or minorities are not equal. A system, in which the rich are higher in the social hierarchy and education is available just for the well-off. The poor don’t need it as much, as they should just be a source of labour force. Homeschooling is preferred as a child can be shaped in whatever way they want, far from egalitarian values or influence.

How does the “new Middle Ages” relate to the new order?

On abortion in Poland, we very often hear that we are witnessing ideas that come from the Middle Ages. When we start to look at philosophical roots of such movements we see that in some cases – such as the Brazilian TFP – their founder created a series of publications praising social hierarchies from that era. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira scorned the world order after World War II, and the 1968 sexual revolution in particular. His next target was voting rights gained after World War I in several European countries after toppling their monarchies.

Fundamentalists want to return to a medieval system in which women, LGBT people, or minorities are not equal.

Plinio went further back, to the 19th century, dismissing the achievements of the French Revolution, such as equality – and equality amongst people in particular. According to him equality is bad, as people are not equal. There are the chosen ones and the others that should be servants. He does not stop there and rejects the whole Enlightenment period. Finally, he reaches the Middle Ages and argues that monarchy is the only proper regime.

So talk of going back to the Middle Ages on the streets or media articles is no exaggeration; it’s embedded in the ideas of these organisations.

You end the introduction to your book with an optimistic statement that freedom will win. In light of new events such as the pandemic, Russia’s attack on Ukraine, restrictions on abortion in Poland, are you still optimistic?

In such a context – when we see what is happening in Ukraine – it may be hard to envision such a scenario. But when we look at it from a historic point of view, I think that conservatives are making a huge mistake, for which they will pay dearly. In the end, the situation will turn to our advantage. It is not a question of optimism but processes currently taking place.

The current fight with fundamentalists leads to a massive, bottom-up mobilisation and strengthening of (progressive) values that we believe in. Poland is a great example here with Ordo Iuris and its fight to ban legal abortion, supported by just 12 per cent of society with almost 70 per cent opposing such restrictions. It is huge progress as just a few years ago support for the right to abortion was at a level of about 40 per cent. With this level of support from the public, I think we will be catapulted to a completely different place when the current government leaves.

We are now in a difficult moment, but it is hard for me to believe that it will turn out in another way than with a more progressive outcome. The only question is what will be happening in the Kremlin and how willing is it to intervene in our affairs by spreading disinformation and financing different organisations for their own geopolitical games.

Your book is a warning for women all over the world. Consciousness is the first important step in fighting demons. How do we fight back?

The first step is our awareness. The second? Going to politicians and raising their awareness. It is quite surprising that people in the high echelons of power are not briefed by the intelligence services about this threat – while such movements on the surface seem like familiar conservatism they have fingerprints of foreign influence over them. This is a national security issue. A friendly advice? Constant mobilisation, while tiresome (I know that from my own experience) is necessary. It does not have to mean permanent protests, but finding an individual space of action. Such a bottom-up mobilisation will allow us to monitor and react to current events as we are in a midst of a huge political crisis. We need to look at politicians’ hands – especially with regards to who finances them, as contemporary politics is marred in corruption. A model well know by the inhabitants of the Kremlin. As US secret services declare since around 2013 Russia invested over 300 million dollars in supporting political parties and movements that are responsible for all the turmoil that we are witnessing right now.

Correction 10 February 2023: An earlier version of this interview did not state that Luca Volonté’s sentence had been lifted.

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