A New Cloak For The Old Dagger

To drive a wedge between the pro-democracy middle class and the rest of the country, the Kremlin embarked on defending "family values".

Better known by its late Soviet name - the KGB, Cheka was the original name of the secret service created by the Bolsheviks to conduct the policy of Red Terror. KGB veterans, like those in Vladimir Putin’s circle, still fancy calling themselves the chekists. But unlike Cheka’s founding fathers, who are responsible for killing thousands of priests and monks, their modern heirs are striving to come across as pious Christians.

It is for historians to deduce who was the first to coin the term Orthodox Cheka, which stands for the fledgling alliance between Vladimir Putin’s ex-KGB circle and the Orthodox church, but it probably happened soon after Putin was re-elected for the second term in 2004.

By that time Putin had already met father Tikhon Shevkunov, the prior of Sretensky monastery located right near the FSB (ex-KGB) compound on Lubyanka square in Moscow. Russian media has been persistently dubbing Shevkunov the spiritual guide of the Russian president. Both parties neither deny nor confirm that allegation.

What’s beyond doubt is that Shevkunov was a key figure in devising the Orthodox lifestyle for the Russian elite, which involved frequent visits to churches and compulsory pilgrimages to Mt Athos in Greece - a monastic republic that became a kind of a closed club hotel for members of the Russian political, business and criminal elite.

But throughout his first two terms, Putin behaved as an arbiter watching the struggle between the liberal and conservative wings without taking any of the sides. There were persistent rumours towards the end of his second term that the Orthodox Cheka wing would prevail and someone like Vladimir Yakunin, the (now ex-) Russian Railways chief who fancies himself to be a philosopher and a preacher of Christian values, would become the next president.

But eventually Putin opted for the liberal option and nominated Dmitry Medvedev as his successor. The duumvirate became known as the tandem and was epitomised in the photos of the two leaders riding bicycles together like a holidaying couple. But it was probably not the happiest of times for Putin as at the end of the term he decided to push Medvedev aside and become a president again.

That decision prompted an outrage on social networks which led to the emergence of numerous grassroots groups preparing to observe the forthcoming Duma election in December 2011. On the election day, the observers registered hundreds of gross violations, including massive ballot stuffing and so-called carousels (when groups of people were bussed around to cast their vote at multiple stations).

Social media hype that ensued eventually led to the emergence of Bolotnaya protest movement, known by the name of the square where major rallies were taking place. As dozens of thousands started converging in the streets of Moscow on a regular basis, the authorities had to confront what they perceived as an existential threat.

Bolotnaya movement was largely comprised of young and well-off urbanites of mostly libertarian convictions. It was critical for the authorities to drive a wedge between them and the poorer and culturally Soviet majority.

It so happened that in October and November of the same year, Vladimir Yakunin’s St Andrew’s Foundation took a major Orthodox relic from Mt Athos, known as Virgin’s belt, on a tour around Russia. As it travelled from city to city, its route deliberately shaped as a cross, the relic was drawing worshippers in their millions. When it eventually arrived in Moscow on November 27, around one million people queued for up to eight hours in order to spend a few seconds near the relic at Jesus Christ the Saviour cathedral, Moscow’s largest. Over three million in total attended the display all over Russia.

The first rally on Bolotnaya took place only two weeks later - on December 10. Impressive and optimistic as it was, it drew no more than 50 thousand people. It was immediately clear that the religious and conservative message, however simulative, was a much stronger tool of mobilisation than the predictable items on Bolotnaya menu - fair elections, the fight against corruption, modernisation and better urban environment.

There was no need to invent a wheel as the toolbox had been long ago devised by radical Bible Belt preachers, Obama-bashing Tea Party activists and far-right parties in Europe. But the simple populist trick of branding political opponents as sexual perverts, sodomites and child abusers worked even better in the post-Communist Russia.

Make no mistake, modern Russia is about as conservative and religious as a Sex Pistols concert. It has some of the highest divorce and abortion rates in the world. As for religion, although 68% of Russians claim to be Orthodox Christians, only 14% of them attend church services every month or more frequently, according to Levada-Centre. A whopping 62% of “Orthodox Christians” in Russia have never taken communion. Yet, simulative piety, more reminiscent of the worship of Communist idols than of real religiousness, is in a surprisingly high demand. And so is the Soviet version of “family values” whereby homosexuality is criminal, but abortion is generally ok.

The campaign began with a personal attack on pro-Bolotnaya blogger Rustem Adagamov, who was accused of being engaged in pedophilia while living in Norway - something that the Norwegian authorities deny. The propaganda meme of Norway, the epitome of European perversion, grew out of that story. The trend culminated in the arrest of Pussy Riot members for their punk performance at Jesus Chris the Saviour cathedral, but there was more to follow - the gay propaganda law, the ban on the adoption of Russian children by US parents and violent attacks on gay rights groups and art exhibitions by militants who claimed be defending Orthodox values.

The mediagenic subjects of gays, “desecrated” churches and “abused” children helped Putin not only to mobilise the pseudo-conservative support, but also to distract attention of Russian liberals and the West from real issues - a brutal clampdown on Bolotnaya movement coupled with the continuing robbery of Russian natural resources and the laundering of the resulting profit in the West. The gay propaganda law turned to be a particularly useful way of making the Western media completely overlook the tragic story of Bolotnaya prisoners - entirely random people selected by law-enforcement bodies for show trials aimed at preventing other ordinary people from joining protests. The double effect of making the West believe that the Russian story is all about gays and making Russians believe that the West cares only about gays was invaluable for the Kremlin.

The transition to the new paradigm was so abrupt and successful, it was almost revolutionary. So the idea of exporting that revolution came about quite naturally.

The Orthodox Cheka, along with the Russian intelligence, has been actively building links with far-right parties and conservative movements in Europe since at least 2009.  It didn't really matter if organisations or individuals they approached had strongly anti-Soviet and anti-Russian background. In fact, sworn Russophobes proved easier to convert than liberals. This is how such parties as Jobbik in Hungary, National Front in France and Golden Dawn in Greece became Kremlin's staunch allies in Europe. In the case of Marine Le Pen’s National Front, Russian funding has been proven and admitted by the party.

The extent of these links and especially their financial side has only started being uncovered by journalists and academic researches. But for the Orthodox Cheka it is already safe to call hundreds of European and national MPs and party operatives "our men in Europe".

Leonid Ragozin is a freelance journalist, based in Riga. Having worked for the BBC and Russian “Newsweek”, he is currently contributing to “Bloomberg Business” and other publications in the US and EU. He is on the Re:Baltica advisory board.