Both in 2014 and 2022, the Russian FECRIS affiliates unequivocally supported Putin, contributing the conspiracy theory that “cults” were used by the West in Ukraine against Russian interests.
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).
After the Ukrainian war started, the groups listed until the end of March on FECRIS’s web site as FECRIS Russian affiliates unequivocally supported the war.
Some of the texts they published were truly disturbing, such as the comment in an article republished on the website of Archpriest Alexander Novopashin, who is or was the Vice President of the FECRIS affiliate Center for Religious Studies, that Mariupol after 2014 was “occupied by pure, unalloyed Nazis,” which is the usual Russian propaganda argument to justify the atrocities perpetrated there. It would be no defense, in this as in other cases quoted in this paragraph, that Novopashin only reprinted articles from Russian media. Reprinting is in itself a political act, and implies approval
On the same Novopashin’s website, echoing again the usual propaganda, another article explained that “Ukraine’s problem is fascism… fascism must be destroyed… Fascists cannot be defended. One of the main tragedies of Ukraine is that the neo-Nazis seized power and forced the army to fight for their ideology. Ordinary Ukrainian boys are dying—not for their land, no. No one takes the land from the Ukrainians, and even the leadership of the cities does not change when Russian troops enter there. The guys are dying defending the interests of the Nazis.” Yet another text republished on the same website, titled “May God Help Give Peace to Ukraine By the Hands of Russian Peacekeepers,” argued that “in reality, there is no Ukrainian statehood. There is, on the one hand, a gang of thieves and international speculators, and on the other hand, a gang of fanatics and murderers.”
As for the website of the St. Irenaeus Center, Dvorkin’s own organization, it summarized on March 18 an interview given by another leading Russian anti-cultist, Roman Silantyev, who mused about “the upcoming parade of victory over Ukrainian Nazism,” and claimed that what the media described as school shootings by disturbed teenagers in Russia had been in fact organized by “the centers of information and psychological operations of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.” Silantyev stated that “so far the majority of the population of Ukraine considers themselves Christians, but this was also the case in the openly anti-Christian Third Reich.” In fact, he claimed, the real religion in Ukraine is a ritualized hatred of Russia with the intention of destroying Russia. For Russians, it was “better to hit first.”
The Saratov branch of the Center for Religious Studies, still a FECRIS affiliate at that date, published a letter to its supporters and friends on March 2 claiming that “the West has long understood that we cannot be defeated in a war on the battlefield,” but was waging a proxy war through the “cults,” which contribute to spread such absurd theories as that “Russia is an aggressor” and it “bombs civilians.” The Saratov anti-cult center tried to recruit police informants “to help in monitoring the activities of this kind of provocateurs. Please send screenshots, the data indicated by them (names and surnames, phone numbers and e-mail addresses) for further analysis, which is carried out by our anti-cult organizations together with law enforcement agencies of the Russian Federation” (by the way, at the time of this writing the website still mentions that the Saratov Branch is affiliated with FECRIS).
FECRIS may tell us that the Russian FECRIS branches have been expelled or suspended. However, at the time of this writing Dvorkin is still a FECRIS board member. More importantly, the aggressive attitude against Ukraine is not something the Russian FECRIS branches developed only in 2022. It went on for many years before the 2022 war, without any criticism by the FECRIS leadership.
The Russian policy on Ukraine was not created all of a sudden in 2022. It developed from 2004 on, when Russia built a narrative that the “Orange Revolution” was an American-Western anti-Russian conspiracy, and continued in 2014 when the second popular revolt against the filo-Russian politician, then President, Viktor Yanukovych, was again branded as an American plot, which justified the Russian invasion of Crimea and of Donbass, where the two pseudo-“independent republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk were proclaimed.
The role of the Russian FECRIS and the anti-cult movement was to insist that the American-Western conspiracy against Russia included “cults” as a tool to Westernize Ukraine. The importance of FECRIS’ role, of course, should not be exaggerated. “Cults” were certainly not the main theme of the Russian rhetoric about a Western plot whose aim was to separate Ukraine from Russia. However, the importance of the “cult” argument should not be underestimated either. As we have seen in our previous articles, Putin’s ideology derives from an old nationalist tradition dating back to Ivan Ilyn and the beginning of the 20th century, which promoted the idea that Russia is under siege and the West tries to destroy the Russian spirit through three main tools, the propaganda of democracy, the apology of homosexuality, and the “cults” used to undermine the Orthodox identity of Russia and the Russosphere. “Cults” are not the only element of this alleged conspiracy, but are a significant part of it.
Since the Orange Revolution of 2004 the Russian FECRIS devoted considerable resources to prove that “cultists” maneuvered by the United States were playing a key role in the creation of a Ukrainian identity separate from Russia. They mentioned three smoking guns allegedly proving the Western conspiracy.
The first was that Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who was Ukraine’s Prime Minister between 2014 and 2016, after Yanukovych was removed from the presidency, was a Scientologist, or at least he was “controlled by the CIA through Scientology,” as Dvorkin told in 2014 a Serbian web site. “Behind the Ukrainian crisis, there is a secret plan of a group of religious cults and sects in which the political leadership of Ukraine itself is participating,” Dvorkin claimed. In an interview published in his own web site, Dvorkin offered more details. Scientologists “put Yatsenyuk into a trance, pumped out all compromising information about him. And the person passed under the control of the Scientologists. Scientology concluded a secret agreement with the U.S. CIA; therefore, it is clear under whose control Arseniy Yatsenyuk is.”
That Yatsenyuk is “controlled by Scientology” has been repeated time and again. There is only one problem about this story, it is not true. Not even Tony Ortega, one of the most extreme anti-cultists and critics of Scientology in the United States and one who would normally believe all sort of anti-Scientology propaganda, bought Dvorkin’s story. From the beginning, he wrote in February 2014, “we had serious doubts about that story, which was thin on details. For its allegation about Scientology, it pointed to Yatsenyuk’s Wikipedia entry, which claimed that Yatsenyuk, 40, was primarily involved in Scientology through his sister Alina Steel, 47, who lives in Santa Barbara and was supposedly an auditor and heavily into the church. But shortly after the Dallas story appeared, that allegation was scrubbed from the Wikipedia entry in English (the assertion still exists in Wikipedia’s Russian-language version).” Ortega found no evidence of Alina’s involvement in Scientology, either, and her daughter dismissed it as “crap.”
Perhaps because he became aware of criticism even within the international anti-cult network, Dvorkin later offered the version that “we cannot directly call Yatsenyuk a Scientologist. We can only say that, according to many experts, he had connections with them.” But he insisted that, “There is a curious fact: As soon as the Kiev junta, which came to power as a result of a coup, where the prime minister is suspected of having links with Scientology, began to have problems, the director of the CIA arrived incognito in the capital of Ukraine and held secret meetings.”
“The Atlantic” also investigated the matter and concluded that Yatsenyuk was not a Scientologist. “Despite popular online rumors that he is either a Scientologist or Jewish, Yatsenyuk identifies himself as a Ukrainian Greek Catholic,” i.e., a “Uniate,” as Orthodox call those who maintain a Greek liturgy but are united with the Holy See. But perhaps, “The Atlantic” noted, for Russian propaganda “it’s a difference without a distinction.” In fact, Dvorkin claimed in 2014 that “Euromaidan is an explosive religious mixture. Secretly influenced by Scientologists. Uniates, neo-Pentecostal, neo-pagan; Baptists spoke openly. First of all, Euromaidan was Uniate. The Uniate Church is one of the aggressive parts of Roman Catholicism.”
The second smoking gun was the fact that some Ukrainian anti-Russian politicians were Evangelical or Pentecostal. Oleksandr Turchynov, who was Acting President of Ukraine for a few months after Yanukovych’s fall in 2014 and held other important political positions, is a Baptist minister. He is associated with Word of Life Ministries, a missionary organization founded in 1940 by Jack Wyrtzen (1913–1996), which has a considerable success in Ukraine. Very few people, even in the anti-cult camp, would call Baptist churches or mainline missionary groups such as Word of Life “cults.” However, this is what Word of Life is according to the Russian FECRIS. They maneuvered to have it banned as “extremist” in Russia, as well as in the pseudo-republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. Dvorkin’s website still calls it a “totalitarian cult,” Dvorkin acknowledges that Turchynov has internationally recognized credentials as a Baptist minister, but claims he “preaches not like an average Baptist pastor, but much more harshly, manipulatively,” and uses techniques of “manipulation of consciousness.”
The Russian FECRIS also mentions that Leonid Chernovetskyi, another political opponent of Yanukovych, who was major of Kiev between 2006 and 2012 (and later moved to Georgia and became a Georgian citizen) was a member of the Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God for All Nations, known in short as Embassy of God, a Pentecostal denomination established in 1993 in Ukraine by Nigerian pastor Sunday Adelaja. The Embassy of God claims some 100,000 members in Ukraine and has expanded into several foreign countries.
Pastor Adelaja supported the Orange Revolution in 2004, something the Russians did not forget. After the Russian invasion of 2022, according to his Facebook page, he was informed by the Ukrainian authorities that he had been placed on a Russian hit list, and had to leave the country. On the other hand, judging from the same Facebook page, Adelaja does not fit the profile of a rabid anti-Russian. He praised Putin for his opposition to same-sex marriage and criticized those who believed Ukraine should join the NATO.
Nonetheless, the fact that the Embassy of God has converted thousands of Ukrainians baptized in the Orthodox Church is enough for the Russian FECRIS activists to identify it as a “cultic” organization. The fact that Adelaja is a “black native of Africa” is also regularly mentioned, with easily detectable racist implications. “Ukrainian Neo-Pentecostals” such as those in the Embassy of God, Dvorkin’s website proclaimed, are not Ukrainian at all. They are “Americans” and evidence that “the West has been diligently introducing, encouraging and financing cultic groups in Russia and the post-Soviet space.”
The third “evidence” the Russian FECRIS organizations offer of the presence of “cults” infiltrated by the West into Ukraine with anti-Russian purposes is that some of the right-wing Ukrainian nationalists opposing Russia are neo-pagans or even “Satanists.” Speaking in November 2014 at a conference in Stavropol, Dvorkin stated that “the neo-pagans were very active on the Maidan,” and that “the neo-pagan project is also sponsored from abroad. This is a very, very serious danger.” At the same conference, as Dvorkin’s website reported, Metropolitan Kirill of Stavropol and Nevinnomyssk, also spoke, and claimed that neo-pagan movements have their “funding roots in the West: this is the work of special services, this is the same as the creation of the NGOs that prepared the Maidan.”
Neo-pagans who dream to restore pre-Christian traditional religions do exist in Ukraine, as they exist in Russia and other countries. Scholars have evaluated their strength in Ukraine between 0.1 and 0.2% of the population. The interest of mentioning Ukrainian neo-pagans for the Russian FECRIS affiliates is that some of them (not all) have right-wing political ideas, and neo-pagan symbols have been used by nationalist militias. Specialized scholars have warned that, apart from the symbols, neo-pagans are a minority (as are neo-Nazis, although they do exist) within nationalist Ukrainian militias, and that there are as many, if not more, neo-Nazis and right-wing neo-pagans fighting for, rather than against, Russia in the Donbass war.
Yet, the Russian FECRIS affiliates offered their supports as “experts of cults” to the campaign depicting Ukraine as dominated by “neo-pagan Nazis” busy destroying its Christian, Orthodox, and Russian identity. They added the preposterous claim that Ukrainian neo-pagans are “sponsored” and “funded” by “the West.” In 2021, Father Alexander Kuzmin, signing as Executive Secretary of the umbrella organization gathering the various FECRIS affiliates in Russia, insisted about the alleged connection between neo-pagan movements and Western intelligence services. He wrote that “some ten years ago, when we, experts on cults, talked about the fact that intelligence services were involved in destructive cults, their creation, promotion and direction of their missionary activity, it sounded like exotic, like declassified counterintelligence information. Now information wars are not surprising to anyone, just as it is not surprising that cults have long become an instrument of political struggle.”
Even Satanists were said to be part of the picture. In 2014, Dvorkin’s website reported that a “Church of Satan” was building a place of worship in the Ukrainian village of Pasty’rskoe. It claimed the temple was being built with the authorization of Ukrainian authorities, and commented that Ukraine was becoming a “laboratory for cults,” and “they are trying in every possible way to reduce the popularity of Orthodoxy.” Unmentioned was that Satanists exist in Russia too. In 2016, a Satanic Church of Russia, established in 2013 and whose leader goes by the name of Oleg Sataninsky was legally registered in Russia—perhaps because Sataninsky expressed his support for Putin’s anti-extremism and anti-proselytization laws.
The triple infiltration into Ukraine, allegedly organized by “the West,” of the Church of Scientology, Evangelical or Pentecostal “totalitarian cults” such as Word of Life or the Embassy of God, and neo-pagans and Satanists, was used by the Russian FECRIS affiliates to slander the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan. The Greek Catholic Church was also attacked as an accomplice. “Maidan was compared by many experts of cults to a well-organized destructive cult,” Dvorkin’s website proclaimed. In 2016, Dvorkin gave a lecture on “Totalitarian Cults and Color Revolutions,” where he explained that “the first Maidan  was made by neo-Pentecostals and they got their own mayor of Kyiv, Leonid Chernovetskyi. The composition of the second ‘Maidan’ is more complex: the Uniate [Greek Catholic] Church, Scientologists, and neo-pagans participated in it.”
FECRIS Russian affiliates did not create the propaganda against Ukraine’s democratic movement. Yet, as “experts on cults” they provided the necessary caution to the theory that “cults” were one of the tools “the West” used to organize this movement, whose aim is to separate Ukraine from Russia. In 2014, they also immediately went to the newly proclaimed pseudo-republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, where “cults” and several Evangelical and Pentecostal churches were banned with the cooperation and applause of the Russian FECRIS, giving a taste of what would happen in a “Russified” Ukraine.