The Russian affiliates were always among the most visible components of FECRIS, of which Russian anti-cultist Alexander Dvorkin was Vice President for twelve years.
by Luigi Berzano (University of Torino, Italy), Boris Falikov (Moscow State University for the Humanities, Moscow, Russia), Willy Fautré (Human Rights Without Frontiers, Brussels, Belgium), Liudmyla Filipovich (Department of Religious Studies, Institute of Philosophy of the National Academy of Sciences, Kiev, Ukraine), Massimo Introvigne (Center for Studies on New Religions, Torino, Italy), and Bernadette Rigal-Cellard (University Bordeaux-Montaigne, Bordeaux, France).
As mentioned in our previous articles, until the expulsion, or perhaps suspension, of March 2022, the Russian affiliates were among the most visible branches of FECRIS. We have mentioned the activities of Aleksander Dvorkin and of his Center for Religious Studies in the name of Hieromartyr Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, founded in 1994 under the aegis of the Russian Orthodox Church, in our first White Paper on FECRIS, and do not need to discuss them again here.
The Saint Irenaeus Center is the head center of the Russian Association of Centers for Religious and Cultic Studies (РАЦИРС/RATsIRS), later called “Center for Religious Studies,” whose Moscow and Saratov branches were listed among the FECRIS affiliates until the war in Ukraine.
There are two essential documents we recommend to read on the Saint Irenaeus of Lyons Center, the Center for Religious Studies, and FECRIS. One is the chapter “FECRIS and Its Affiliates in Russia: The Orthodox Clerical Wing of FECRIS,” in the book “Freedom of Religion or Belief. Anti-Sect Movements and State Neutrality. A Case Study: FECRIS,” published in 2012 as a special issue of the respected German academic journal “Religion–Staat–Gesellschaft.” The other is the 2020 report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) “The Anti-cult Movement and Religious Regulation in Russia and the Former Soviet Union.” The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). Its Commissioners are appointed by the President and by Congressional leaders of both political parties.
These documents demonstrate that the Russian FECRIS affiliates were at the very core of the repression of dozens of religious minorities, including the “liquidation” of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Center for Religious Studies also denounced as “extremist organizations” or “cults” a number of religions it called “non-traditional,” including Pentecostal and Evangelical churches, whose sole sin was to be perceived as competitors by the Russian Orthodox Church. And, as we mentioned in our first White Paper, Dvorkin did not stop at that. He also offended believers of historical religions. As we wrote, he created considerable problems in the relationships between Russia and India by attacking the Bhagavad-Gita as an “extremist” book and stating that “We won’t be mistaken if we say that, from the Orthodox viewpoint, Krishna is one of the demons.” He called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, “a coarse neo-Pagan occult cult with fairly serious totalitarian tendencies.” As for the Prophet of Islam, Dvorkin claimed that “either Mohammed suffered from a disease and it was a delirium vision; or it was a demonic obsession; or, once again, the Byzantine fathers claim that he was a sort of fantasizer who made it all up and then, which he hadn’t expected, his relatives believed in it. But of course, the combinations of all the three are possible as well” (this generated a strong reaction by Muslims).
In short, the massive repression of religious minorities that took place in Putin’s Russia was not only supported, but was often organized by the Russian FECRIS affiliates. Before the war in Ukraine, this situation was known, and had been denounced in dozens of international human rights reports and scholarly works about religion in Russia. Yet, FECRIS never distanced itself from its Russian affiliates and Dvorkin. In fact, it continued to give Dvorkin a podium in its international conferences, and actively supported the Russian narratives on the crackdown on religious minorities in Russia.
The extent of this support was revealed in a court case decided by the District Court of Hamburg on November 27, 2020. FECRIS had been sued there by the Jehovah’s Witnesses for thirty-two statements published on the FECRIS’s website they regarded as defamatory. The court found seventeen of these statements defamatory, one partially defamatory, and fourteen non-defamatory. On March 24, 2021, Bitter Winter published a commentary of the decision. The article led FECRIS, which had until then remained silent on the case, to issue a press release on March 30 where it tried to persuade the most gullible of its followers that it had “won” the case since not all its statements were declared defamatory (but seventeen out of thirty-two were). Later in 2021, on September 13, Bitter Winter published an internal document of FECRIS where FECRIS’s legal consultant admitted that the organization had been taught “a lesson” in the Hamburg case, and should learn that in the future FECRIS speakers “should be able to prove what they assert.”
The Court of Hamburg also warned against any use of its decision to argue that the fourteen statements it declared non-defamatory were true, explaining that statements can be at the same time “inaccurate” and not defamatory. Ignoring this warning, FECRIS implied in its press release that the Court of Hamburg had certified that these statements were not false. Among them, there was one numbered as 1.6 in the court case, which read: “All tales of alleged ‘persecution’ against Jehovah’s Witnesses [in Russia] are nothing more than a primitive propaganda stroke. This information is not true.”
This is a clear example of a statement that it is obviously “inaccurate” but was regarded as not constituting defamation by the German judges; stating that somebody who is clearly persecuted is not persecuted is silly and immoral, but is not defamatory. However, what is interesting here is that as late as March 2021, after documents from several international institutions and governments had condemned Russia for its persecution of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, FECRIS was still claiming that there was no persecution and that reports of persecution were “nothing more than a primitive propaganda stroke.” This attitude is highly significant, and indicates that support for the Russian persecution of religious minorities labeled as “cults” was so crucial for FECRIS that it would defend it even in court.
Just as they went to China to support persecution of Falun Gong and other religious minorities, FECRIS representatives went to Russia to support persecution of groups labeled as “destructive cults” there. The fact that FECRIS disassociated itself from its Russian affiliates in 2022 over the war in Ukraine does not change its decade-long support for the Russian aggression against religious liberty, nor have these positions been publicly repudiated.
On May 15–16, 2009, a FECRIS symposium was organized in St. Petersburg, during which Dvorkin became FECRIS’ Vice President. Significantly, we read in a press release that “during the conference, the Minister of Justice of the Russian Federation A.V. Konovalov, met with the leadership of FECRIS and the Rector of St. Petersburg State University N.M. Kropachev, in a meeting which took place in the office of the latter. A similar meeting was also held in the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation, where a group of conference participants was received by Judge of the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation S.M. Kazantsev. During these meetings, the parties exchanged information and discussed ways to prevent the negative consequences of the activities of totalitarian cults.” The then President of FECRIS, Friedrich Griess, later noted, as if it was not a coincidence, that “A few days later, on 20 May 2009, FECRIS was granted Special consultative status by the United Nations Organization’s Department of Social and Economic Affairs, ECOSOC.”
At the same conference, Pastor Thomas Gandow from Germany presented the case for an American conspiracy and asked: “Is the USA using such pretexts with an anti-European political slant because of the organization or for them, or do the USA only use such organizations and cults as a pretext and means for interventions?” A paranoid version of the same argument was offered by a representative from Belarus, Vladimir A. Martinovich. He claimed that the American CIA decided “to exploit missionaries in the interest of the secret service,” and connected the infiltration of “cults” into Belarus with the birth of local democratic movements criticizing the Lukashenko regime. Hailing the Russian anti-cult campaign, Dvorkin said, “We felt that we are not alone and that the most sincere, responsible, honest, and wise people in Europe [meaning the FECRIS representatives] support our work and offer us to work together.”
One speaker at the 2009 FECRIS conference in St. Petersburg was Canadian anti-cultist Gerry Armstrong. He is not a member of any FECRIS affiliate, but showed up repeatedly at lectures and conferences in Russia organized by the Russian FECRIS organizations. He was a speaker even in remote Salekhard, on the Arctic Circle, in 2017 at an anti-cult conference, together with FECRIS leaders such as Dvorkin and the Italian Luigi Corvaglia, and Pastor Gandow.
Armstrong is not a representative of FECRIS, but is an interesting character. He is a former Scientologist who in 1986 entered into a settlement where he received $800,000 (reportedly, $300,000 went to his lawyer), against his undertaking to maintain in the future “strict confidentiality and silence with respect to his experiences with the Church of Scientology and any knowledge or information he may have concerning the Church of Scientology, [Scientology’s founder] L. Ron Hubbard [1911–1986], or any of the organizations, individuals and entities” associated with Hubbard and Scientology, and to return to Scientology documents the Church claimed he had stolen. By his own admission, Armstrong breached the agreement hundreds of times, lost several court cases for this reason, and a warrant for arrest was issued against him in California.
Armstrong, thus, cannot go to the United States, but he can go to Russia. And he had been there several times. While his anti-cult lectures are of no great interest, what is more interesting is his political propaganda on behalf of the Putin regime, which is propagated both by Armstrong’s own web sites, which have a certain audience within the anti-cult circuit, and by Russian Orthodox and anti-cult media outlets.
Going well beyond the issue of “cults,” Armstrong wrote in 2014 a letter to “Dear President Putin,” telling him that “US propaganda has been inciting enmity toward Russia with the sort of war level rhetoric and claims that were used to ratchet up support and pave the way for US military action in Iraq, Libya, Syria, etc. US media has worked assiduously to turn the term ‘pro-Russian’ into something automatically negative.” “I am dead set against the west and the US’s superpower hypocrisy,” Armstrong told Putin. Speaking about Russia’s actions in Syria, Armstrong called Putin’s attitude “highly intelligent, reasonable and presidential.” He wrote to Putin that his actions in Syria “averted a catastrophe in the region, and brought relief and hope to many other people like me around the world. Thank you.”
This is another example of how the anti-cultists’ support of totalitarian regimes tend to move from “cults” to a broader approval of their non-democratic attitudes and even wars of aggression. Perhaps some anti-cultists believe that only by eliminating democracy and democratic control on the governments’ actions, if necessary destroying one Syrian city or two in the process, may crackdowns on “cults” become really effective.
The Russian FECRIS has also made a concerted effort to export its model of anti-cultism and governmental repression of “cults” into countries friendly to Russia. This has created serious problems for religious liberty in the countries of Central Asia, Armenia, and elsewhere, where Russian anti-cultists participated in conferences and lectures, and disseminated an ideology that led to the repression of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups. Moscow-based rights advocate Sova Center confirmed in a 2020 report that “Russian extremist legislation has been and remains the model anti-extremist legislation for Central Asian countries.”
In Kyrgyzstan, in 2021, when the Prosecutor General’s Office tried to ban books and brochures of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as “extremist,” it largely relied on material produced by the Russian FECRIS affiliates, although it eventually lost the case at the Pervomayskiy District Court of the City of Bishkek. On March 22, 2022, the European Court of Human Rights, ruling against Armenia in a case concerning the Jehovah’s Witnesses, noted how this material had reached even the war-thorn Nagorno-Karabakh and was used to promote religious repression there.
In May 2020, President Vladimir Putin approved a new version of the “Strategy to Counter Extremism Until 2025,” which included the promotion and funding of “international anti-extremist cooperation,” including in the field of “religious extremism” and combating organizations endangering “traditional Russian spiritual values.”
One country where the Russian FECRIS’ and Dvorkin’s material has been largely disseminated is Serbia. There is a FECRIS affiliate in Serbia too, the Center for Anthropological Studies, which during the course of its history had among its leaders some curious characters. One is Colonel Bratislav Petrovic a neuropsychiatrist by trade who, according to a critical report published in 2005, had been also involved in the ethnic hate propaganda of the regime of President Slobodan Milošević (1941–2006).
Another is Zoran Luković, a police captain who publicly stated that two homicides committed in 2007 by a madman (who was found by the court as having no connection with any “cult”) were clearly “modelled after the Satanist rituals of Count Dracula” (neither the historical nor the fictional Dracula of Bram Stoker’s [1847–1912] novel was a Satanist).
Among “cults” (“секте“ in Serbian) in general, Luković listed the Baptists, the Seventh-day Adventists, the Mormons, the members of the Theosophical Society, and the Freemasons. He characterized “cult members” as “mental manipulators,” “mentally ill people, alcoholics and drug addicts who end up in psychiatric institutions or in cemeteries, perpetrators of the worst criminal acts like murder, robbery and rape, people who deal in prostitution.”
Once again, there is no evidence that FECRIS has ever disassociated itself from the outrageous claims of its Serbian affiliate.