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Last weekend a far-right group called America First held a political rally in Orlando. At one point, organizer Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist also involved in the 2017 Charlottesville rally, invited attendees to cheer for Russia. Soon the audience was chanting “Putin! Putin!”
Without context this may seem puzzling. Why would a group of ultra-nationalist Americans celebrate the invasion of a U.S. ally by someone both the left and right have largely understood to be an enemy of freedom?
In fact, though, the U.S. right wing has long cultivated ties with Russia. Some of these are self-evident quid-pro-quo affairs: The “sweeping and systematic” campaigns of election interference authorized by Putin in support of a Trump victory in 2016 and 2020; Trump’s attempt to leverage Congressionally allocated aid to Ukraine for political dirt on the Biden family; the confessed Russian agent who infiltrated the National Rifle Association and the National Prayer Breakfast in a bid to develop informal channels of influence on the Republican Party.
More broadly, however, U.S. conservative evangelicals have developed strong symbolic and institutional ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. In recent years, these have dovetailed with white racist fantasies of Russia as an ethnically pure land of traditional religion and gender roles, symbolized by the bare-chested kleptocrat on horseback, Vladimir Putin.
In the following vignettes, I explore how these connections came to exist, and what they reveal about the transnational currents of U.S. conservatism and white nationalism.
In the summer of 2018, the white supremacist League of the South debuted a bold new initiative on its website: in Russian, the neo-Confederates invited “the Russian people” to understand themselves as “natural allies” of white U.S. southerners in the fight “against the destructive influence of globalism.”
As descendants of white Europeans, we come from the same genetic pool. As heirs of the European cultural tradition, we share the same values, traditions, and way of life. And as Christians, we worship the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and our common Faith binds us as brothers and sisters. We Southerners believe in a society built on real organic factors such as Blood, Culture, and Religion.
If we are looking for historic roots of this imagined commonality between U.S. white nationalists and Russians, a good place to start is the 1975 address of Soviet dissident Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn to the New York chapter of the AFL-CIO labor union.
There’s a certain woman here named Angela Davis. I don’t know if you are familiar with her in this country, but in our country, literally for one whole year, we heard of nothing at all except Angela Davis. There was only Angela Davis in the whole world and she was suffering. . . . [T]hey set her free. Although she didn’t have a rough time in this country, she came to recuperate in Soviet resorts.
The Nobel laureate’s vituperation seems like a bizarre digression in a speech primarily devoted to denouncing the West’s weak, short-sighted capitulation to the ruse of Soviet détente. But in fact it was a window onto a fast-coalescing relationship between Solzhenitsyn’s Russian Christian nationalism and the new post-Civil Rights politics of whiteness of his American hosts.
The U.S.S.R’s defectors and escapees had helped shape U.S. definitions of freedom since the onset of the Cold War, but Solzhenitsyn was unique. Born the year after the October Revolution into a propertied and educated family whose land was collectivized, Solzhenitsyn later wrote that he began to lose faith in the Soviet system after witnessing Red Army war crimes while serving as an artillery officer during World War II. Letters critical of Stalin landed him in the infamous Lubyanka prison in 1945. In a politically tinged decision, the Nobel committee awarded him its prize for literature in 1970, and Soviet authorities handed the West a cause célèbre when they denounced the writer as a dupe of Western reactionaries. In 1972 he announced his faith in an open letter addressed to the Moscow Patriarch. Two years later, after the first volume of his massive, quasi-historical The Gulag Archipelago (1974) was published in the West, he was deported.
The first in the U.S. evangelical right to recognize Solzhenitsyn’s political utility was North Carolina’s white supremacist senator Jesse Helms. Helms was at the time involved in supporting Rhodesia’s ruling white minority as a bulwark against communism. Intrigued by a 1973 report from the World Anti-Communist League, Helms pursued the dissident writer, inviting him to North Carolina and proposing that Congress grant him honorary U.S. citizenship. When Solzhenitsyn finally traveled to the United States in 1975, Helms dispatched his own translator as interpreter and escort. The Nobel laureate’s first stop was the senator’s suburban Virginia home, where the two compared notes on their respective Christian faiths and the paramount necessity of religious freedom to all other human freedoms. Solzhenitsyn’s invitation to speak to the AFL-CIO during the same trip came from its conservative leader, George Meany. Meany’s enthusiasm for the dissident writer derived from the labor leader’s Catholic sexual conservatism, his support for the Vietnam War, and his decades dedicated to purging left tendencies in the U.S. labor movement.
Solzhenitsyn’s visit was a success, and his message was passed among evangelical champions in the United States and the United Kingdom. Evangelical periodicals lauded his denunciations of U.S. moral degeneracy alongside Soviet criminality. He was soon swept up into the pantheon of Christian intellectuals claimed by evangelical activists dedicated to the suffering church in Russia.
Also haunting Washington that summer was Chuck Colson, former special counsel to Richard Nixon who’d recently been released from prison after serving time for trying to obstruct the Watergate investigation. Now freed, he was feverishly assembling his prison conversion narrative, Born Again (1976). Colson had been a key architect of the new Republican electoral coalition forecast by strategist Patrick Buchanan in 1973—the white, Christian, conservative Silent Majority that combined the former “Dixiecrat” wing of racist Southern Democrats with the second- and third-generation children of white working-class immigrants. In the Nixon White House, Colson had been responsible for wooing Catholic and Eastern Orthodox “white ethnic” union members away from their New Deal allegiance to the Democratic Party—including, specifically, by building a relationship with AFL-CIO President George Meany. Colson had also been instrumental in promoting Nixon to Christian conservatives by staging church services in the White House. Shortly before his arrest in 1974, Colson had been converted to Christianity by the CEO of the defense contractor Raytheon Company, an influential member of the secretive, politically potent D.C. Christian organization The Fellowship Foundation, best known for organizing the annual National Prayer Breakfast that is obligatory for sitting presidents.
For Colson and his colleagues on the right, Solzhenitsyn was not only a celebrity “Slav”–one of the major European immigrant ethnic groups they courted as an alibi for “white”—just as “crime” and “welfare” were being inscribed on Black and Hispanic Americans. More specifically, he represented a way to control the narrative about who got to be called a political prisoner. At stake was the legitimacy of the “law and order” politics that had won white ethnics to the Silent Majority. The War on Poverty was transformed into a “war on crime” by shifting resources and responsibility for social programs to law enforcement. Social protest was managed through massively expanded incarceration.
But behind bars, members of the Black Power, New Left, and Puerto Rican independence movements embraced an identity as political prisoners and called their prisons “the fascist concentration camps of modern America.” Prison uprisings exploded, peaking at forty-eight in 1972. The United Nations Commission on Human Rights was bombarded with appeals for U.S. carceral systems to be subjected to international law. Andrew Young, the first African American ambassador to the UN, acknowledged that there were “hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people I would call political prisoners” in the United States. The most internationally recognizable was Angela Davis.
In speeches, editorials, and his book Loving God: The Cost of Being Christian (1983), Colson undertook a kind of counterintelligence campaign, promoting Solzhenitsyn as the paradigmatic political prisoner, a white man who had been persecuted for his anti-communist politics and his Christian faith. Over the next four decades, Colson’s Prison Fellowship ministry helped reframe the national conversation around criminal justice: arguing that rehabilitation could only come from the inner drama of religious conversion, Prison Fellowship justified the removal of secular, publicly funded services like GED classes, job training, and drug treatment from U.S. prisons.
In the contest over the meanings of captivity, Solzhenitsyn served the Christian right’s efforts to replace Attica with the gulag. American evangelicals leveraged his moral status to amplify the message: the people really suffering, in the United States and globally, were white Christians being crushed by the hands of godless government.
During the 1990s, the former Nixon aide Patrick Buchanan played political John the Baptist to Trump. Having delivered the Reagan Revolution, his wing of the GOP was resolute: they would not give up the ground they had gained for white Christian influence in the 1970s and ’80s. Via a 1992 insurgent presidential campaign, the “paleoconservative” made clear that rank-and-file Republican votes could be captured by populist white moral fervor. Speaking at the Houston convention that year, he declared a blood-and-soil “war for the soul of America” that clashed with the preppy monotony of the nominee supported by the party’s staid investor wing, former CIA director George H. W. Bush.
Buchanan’s jeremiads took particular aim at what he called “illegal” immigration. Wielding the slogan “America First,” he called for a “Buchanan fence” along the Mexico–U.S. border, and his best-selling book The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization (2001), did little to conceal the racial content of paleoconservative sentiments—nor did the movement’s flagship magazine, Chronicles, edited by a founder of the neo-Confederate League of the South. In its pages paleocons outlined the threat to the nation’s “Euro-American cultural core” posed by non-white immigration. “The civilization that we as whites created in Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people,” declared Chronicles paleocon Samuel Francis in 1994.
For more than twenty years, the chief sponsoring foundation behind paleoconservatism was the Rockford Institute, under the presidency of historian Allan Carlson. In 1995 Carlson was invited to Moscow by Anatoly Antonov, professor of family sociology and demography at the prestigious Moscow State University, to discuss their shared concern: declining rates of marriage and fertility. Many post-Soviet nations saw their life expectancy and birthrates plummet in the 1990s as neoliberal “shock therapy” destroyed social safety nets in the name of liberating market competition, and Antonov’s was already a public voice of concern over small families. Carlson’s writings had intrigued him with the argument that an “androgynous ideal” was replacing the fertile, male-headed “traditional family” and concrete policy recommendations for privileging larger families.
Antonov introduced Carlson to like-minded Russian academics, politicians, and priests, and their shared vision became the World Conference of Families. On the U.S. side of the relationship, Carlson cultivated longstanding allies such as the Utah-based Sutherland Institute, led at the time by Paul T. Mero, whose work included penning a report called How Congress Supports and Funds Organized Homosexuality for the office of California congressman Bob Dornan.
Carlson spun off the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society in 1997 as the U.S. center of this new superpower partnership for the “natural family.” According to its 2007 manifesto, the movement “seek[s] to liberate the whole world—including dying Europa—for light and life, for children.” WCF’s U.S. communications director was even blunter about where American children should, and should not, be coming from: in a 1998 article on the prospect of Puerto Rican statehood, Don Feder opined, “We need more non-English speakers in this country like we need more welfare recipients, higher crime rates and an alien culture—all of which we’ll get” if we grant statehood to this “Caribbean Dogpatch.”
However, it was the Russian branch of the organization that assumed international leadership, complete with a private laser show in the Kremlin for its 2014 Moscow meeting. Its stature was bolstered by a novel “family values” wing of the Russian Orthodox Church advising Putin-era family policy and by patronage from representatives of Russia’s flamboyant business class. The meeting took place while the European Union was sanctioning the meeting’s host, private equity financier Konstantin Malofeev, for funding illegal military units in support of ethnic Russian separatists in Crimean areas of Ukraine.
The public face of this ethnopolitics are anti-LGBTQ policies, the result of many years of cross-fertilization and strategizing among WCF partners. The “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” laws currently sweeping through Republican-dominated U.S. state legislatures, for example, echo Russia’s 2013 parliamentary ban on “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.” That is no coincidence: the Russian bill relied in part on U.S. junk social science, some of it funded by the American right.
The connections do not stop at the level of ideology; they are also thoroughly institutional. As reporting by Imara Jones reveals, the blitz of bills targeting trans athletes, gender-affirming medical treatments, acknowledgement of homosexuality and trans identity in schools, and first trimester abortions are being crafted for their Republican legislative sponsors by, among others, the Alliance Defending Freedom. The ADF is the legal juggernaut of Dominionist Christian fundamentalism, advocating for literal Christian authority over education, religion, family, business, government, entertainment, and media. This is the outfit that platformed Trump’s Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett for years and that won constitutional protection for religiously-justified discrimination in the Supreme Court cases Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. It is also a member organization of the World Congress of Families, and has been well represented at the organization’s Russian meetings.
Some of these individuals and organizations have won official status at the United Nations, allowing them to influence policy. But the public connections are only part of the story: a 2014 hack of emails revealed that WCF’s Russian funders also secretly promote a pro-Russian geopolitics through far-right anti-immigrant parties such as Italy’s Liga, France’s Front National, and Austria’s Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs. From their standpoint, the logic is self-evident: an “anti-civilization” aimed at the “physical extinction of people” is underway through the “sodomization of the world,” and only Russia can save the day. It is no surprise that last week Putin cited the need to defend the traditional family as a reason for invading Ukraine.
For English-speaking audiences, WCF documentaries on “Demographic Winter” paint a dire picture of falling white birthrates, brought about by the sexual revolution, easier access to divorce, and the end of the traditional family. “The most common boy’s name in Amsterdam is Muhammad,” WCF’s media director tells the viewer—all you need to know, that is, about the apocalyptic consequences of white women’s selfish refusal to reproduce. “Certain kinds of human beings,” one of the talking heads explains, “are on their way to extinction,” unless we can orchestrate a “return to traditional values: patriarchy, properly understood.” The paleocons voiced their explicit fears of non-white immigrant “invasions”; their new institutional platforms transmute white nativism into pro-natalism.
In the YouTube video, an SUV full of bearded men in cassocks explain that they are on a road trip to South Carolina to explore the surprising growth of the Russian Orthodox Church in the land of “barbecue, country music, moonshine, fireworks, rednecks, and much more.” Their first stop is the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. First the museum curator dismisses the myth that the prominently displayed Confederate battle flag has any “modern political meaning.” He then addresses the question of Orthodoxy’s attractiveness for southerners: “I think there’s a very manly appeal. . . . It’s not just that you guys have cool beards like I do. It’s simply there’s challenge to the faith. . . . There’s discipline and high standards and something to aspire to. . . . Tradition.” To be sure, the video puts an optimistic face on the statistically tiny trend of white Southern conversion to Orthodoxy; converts are still probably not quite half of the congregants making up the various Eastern Orthodox churches in the United States, and Orthodoxy can claim less than one percent of Americans, versus evangelicals’ 25 percent. But the phenomenon has important symbolic value for the larger network of both conservative white evangelicals and neo-Confederate “traditionalists.”
In the spring of 1987, American Orthodoxy experienced one of the largest mass conversion events in its history. Two thousand American evangelicals were incorporated, parish by parish, into the Antiochan Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Men who had spent years in the central institutions of conservative evangelicalism and Pentecostalism—the Campus Crusade for Christ, Dallas Theological Seminary, Biola University (formerly the Bible Institute of Los Angeles), Oral Roberts University, Wheaton College—led their flocks into full communion with world Orthodoxy, and were themselves transformed into its priests and bishops. The mass defection—the culmination of more than a decade’s seeking by a loose network of self-proclaimed “Evangelical Orthodox” churches—helped raise awareness of Orthodoxy as an alternative for conservative Christians who were growing disillusioned by what they interpreted as liberalizing trends in their churches. Just as the New Christian Right was at the zenith of its political and cultural power, some of its most committed adherents abandoned its churches for the exotic alternative that few had ever encountered in the flesh. This sudden influx of converts altered the landscape of the Orthodox Church, and laid the ground for the racist right’s appropriations in the twenty-first century.
This dramatic Reagan-era mass evangelical defection to Orthodoxy paved the way for a small but significant hemorrhage. Several Christian celebrity converts have kept the issue alive in conservative Christian circles. The typical conversion narrative starts with an extremely self-aware religious “seeker.” This believer appreciates the fervent search for communion with Christ and clear rules for right living, but finds evangelicalism flaccid where it should be militant, insipid where it should be imposing, relaxed where it should be rigorous. Particularly disturbing are the seeming compromises with gender liberalization: church feels like another place where men’s authority and basic nature are unwelcome. Often in their telling, the converts are driven to Orthodoxy by a dramatic apostasy by mainline Christianity or the culture more generally: Episcopalians allow gay priests, Methodists allow women as pastors, abortion remains legal, the Supreme Court makes gay marriage the law of the land.
In these conversion scenarios, the tradition that Orthodoxy offers is one that is forthrightly patriarchal and masculine. “There is something in Orthodoxy that offers ‘a deep masculine romance,’” explains a convert priest. “’Most romance in our age is pink, but this is a romance of swords and gallantry.’”
Southern traditionalists see the former slave states as a particularly promising mission ground alongside the original Pacific Coast efflorescence of evangelical defection. “Like the planter class of the South,” writes one former Catholic convert to Orthodoxy for the neo-Confederate Abbeville Institute, “the hierarchy of the Orthodox Church recognizes how irrevocable institutional change can be, and has therefore been wary to allow it.” Among such ill-considered sudden changes he includes the “radical and immediate emancipation” of enslaved Southerners which the rational, principled planters opposed.
Similarly convinced by the paleoconservative tradition was white nationalist Matthew Heimbach, who founded the hate group Traditionalist Workers Party and converted to Orthodoxy, citing the Eastern church’s subdivision into Greek, Russian, and other geographically rooted patriarchates as evidence that “[r]egional and racial identity is a fundamental principle of Christianity.” He applauded Putin’s aggressive promotion of Orthodox traditional values and racial nationalism in the fight against “anti-Christian degeneracy” and the erosion of white power. “Russia is our biggest inspiration,” Heimbach asserted. “I see President Putin as the leader of the free world.”
Heimbach was a principal organizer of the deadly 2017 Charlotteville rally, at which he appeared as a spokesman to the press. A number of other right-wing Orthodox communicants helped on social media to organize the event, as well. Despite credible reports of this activity by anti-racist Orthodox believers to their regional clergy and bishops, none of the American Orthodox jurisdictions took steps to distance the Church or denounce the white supremacist and anti-Semitic recruitment. After all, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America—the body that speaks officially for the fourteen Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States—had responded with alacrity and clarity to denounce gay marriage and lament the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Why did Charlottesville not merit an equally speedy and unequivocal national statement?
The Orthodox bishops finally released a statement on Charlottesville itself, but the larger problem would not go away. “Some of our priests openly display Confederate symbols on their Facebook timelines,” charged an open letter on the scholarly Canadian site Orthodoxy in Dialogue in early 2018, adding that at least one Orthodox seminarian was actively posting white supremacist materials under an alias. More than 150 priests and laypeople signed a letter forcefully requesting “a clear, unambiguous public condemnation of white supremacy, racism, and xenophobia” from the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America—to no avail. Matt Parrott of the Traditionalist Worker’s Party blasted back, asserting that “AltChristianity’s Church Militant is steadily and quietly working its way through the seminaries and sinecures just like the leftist radicals and homosexuals did in the 20th century.”
But meanwhile other devotees continue to build the mystical connection between aggrieved white Southern nostalgia, Putin’s authoritarian Russia, and Orthodox leadership of the global family values movement. At southernorthodox.org, the faithful quote Confederate General Stonewall Jackson and the neo-Confederate intellectuals of the Abbeville Institute. In the pages of Patrick Buchanan’s paleocon magazine The American Conservative, celebrity convert Rod Dreher advocates for an Orthodox seminary in Texas. And as new research by anthropologist Sarah Riccardi-Swartz shows, converts in Appalachia add another wing to the edifice of authoritarian white Christian nationalism. At the much broader level of institutionalized ambitions to “dominion,” the Russian partnership has proved invigorating to the American right’s overlapping agendas of white supremacy, masculine authority, and anti-democratic Christian authority. If Putin’s cooperation with the Moscow Patriarchate is a model for emulation, American theocrats are telling us what they seek here at home. We would be foolish not to take them at their word.
Bethany Moreton is a Professor of History at Dartmouth College. Her book Slouching towards Moscow: American Conservatives and the Romance of Russia” (HUP) is forthcoming. Her most recent book is To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise.
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