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How the anti-cult movement has participated to fuel Russian anti-Ukraine rhetoric

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Jan Leonid Bornstein
Jan Leonid Bornstein
Jan Leonid Bornstein is investigative reporter for The European Times

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So Kirill is activating his network behind the scene to prevent Sevastianov to succeed, which is not without risk for the latter. Kirill is a former agent of the KGB and does not back off from dirty tricks to reach his goals. Sevastianov, who in fact is a former colleague of Kirill, and worked for years as the director of the St. Gregory the Theologian's Charity Foundation, the biggest Orthodox Foundation in Moscow founded by Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion, has recently declared that the support of the Moscow Patriarch to the war was to be considered has a heresy, from a religious point of view. That’s no shy statement by far.

Anti-Cults – Since the Maidan events in 2014, when then President Yakunovich was forced to resign after huge protests in the streets of Ukraine, the pan-European Anti-cult movement, led by the European Federation of Centers of Research and Information on Sectarianism (FECRIS), has been participating in the Russian propaganda machine that finally led to the current war.

In 2013, after Ukraine had been on a pro-European trajectory some years and was about to sign an association agreement with the EU which would have more closely integrated political and economic ties between the EU and Ukraine, Putin’s forces pressurised Yakunovich to scuttle the agreement. Yakunovich, who was known as a pro-Russian corrupted leader, caved in and that started what has been called the Maidan revolution in Ukraine.

Counting on religious forces against the West

The Maidan revolution represented a major threat in the mind of Putin, who then started a propaganda machine to discredit the new authorities. Since then, the Russian rhetoric against Ukraine’s new democratic forces in power, which were definitely not pro-Russian, included accusations of being neo-Nazis, but also to be puppets of Western democracies hiding an anti-Russian agenda. For his propaganda, he counted largely on his “religious forces”, mainly the Russian Orthodox Church, which still had quite an important influence in Ukraine.

The Russian Orthodox Church’s main leaders, such as Patriarch Kirill, have always backed Putin’s efforts to get the rid of pro-European forces in Ukraine, accusing them of persecuting Ukrainian Orthodox members affiliated to the Moscow Patriarchate (which might have been true to some extent, as the opposite was true in Russian controlled-occupied territories in Ukraine), but also to threaten the “Old-Rus’” unity[1], and are still doing so as we could see recently when Patriarch Kirill accused those who oppose Putin’s war in Ukraine to be the “forces of evil”.

Alexander Dvorkin, the “sectologist”

Patriarch Kirill and Vladimir Putin could also count on the “anti-cult” movement, which in Russia was led by Vice-President of FECRIS Alexander Dvorkin, a Russian-Orthodox theologian who was often presented as an expert in “sectology” by Russian authorities. FECRIS is a French anti-cult organization with pan-European influence. The French government provides the majority of FECRIS’ funding, and in fact it was founded by a French anticult association called UNADFI (National Union of Associations for the Defense of Families and Individuals against cults) in 1994.

At the very beginning of the new Ukrainian government that had been elected after Yakunovich’s resignation, on April 30, 2014 Alexander Dvorkin was interviewed by radio Voice of Russia, the main Russian Governmental Radio (that a few months later changed its name to Radio Sputnik). Dvorkin, introduced as an “anti-cult activist and Vice-President of the European Federation of Centers of Research and Information on Sectarianism, which is the umbrella organization for anti-cult groups in Europe”, was asked to comment on the “hidden religious agenda behind Maidan and the Ukrainian crisis”. He then forwarded the Russian State propaganda in a very interesting way[2].

Greek Catholics, Baptists and other so-called “Cults” targeted

In that interview, Dvorkin first accused the Uniate Church, also known as Greek Catholics, to be behind the revolution: “There are several religious groups and several religious cults which play quite a prominent role in those events. First of all, the Uniate church…played a very prominent and a very, I’d say, violent role for lots of Uniate priests who preached there in all their liturgical vestments…” When the interviewer asked Dvorkin what the Vatican could do, as it had called for “the necessity of returning to peace developments in Ukraine”, Dvorkin’s answer was to explain it could do nothing, because the Vatican was now led by Jesuits, which had become very much pro-Marxist and in favor of revolution through the centuries, adding: “Well, the present Pope Francis, he is not really pro-revolutionary, but the way he behaves shows that he accepted part of this legacy”.

DVORKIN WITH CLERGY FROM THE BULGARIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH - How the anti-cult movement has participated to fuel Russian anti-Ukraine rhetoric
Alexander Dvorkin with Bulgarian Orthodox Church Clergy discussing about Ukraine on July 17, 2019

Then Dvorkin goes after the Baptists, accusing them of playing an important part in the Maidan and to be very nationalistic in Ukraine. He further goes into accusing then Prime Minister Yatsenyuk to be a “hidden Scientologist”, while pretending to be Uniate: “There were a lot of media reports which called him Scientologist… If he would have been an open Scientologist, it would have been very bad. But still, at least you would know what to expect from him. But when a person, actually Yatsenyuk, called himself a Greek Catholic Uniate [while being a Scientologist], and there was a Uniate priest that confirmed that he was Uniate, I believe this is very dangerous.” Then in an interesting conspiracy theory manner, he extrapolated on the fact that this was a way for CIA to control him, using Scientology techniques in order to “control his behavior and control his actions”.

Last but not least, Dvorkin led an attack on what he calls “neo-paganism”, which he accused of being tied into neo-Nazis, a rhetoric that has taken a very important significance in current Russian propaganda, as we can see with the “Denazification” advocated today by Putin to justify the war in Ukraine.

Gerry Amstrong’s love letters to Putin

Dvorkin is of course not the only member of FECRIS to have participated to the Russian anti-West propaganda. Amongst others, a Canadian supporter/member of FECRIS, Gerry Amstrong, wrote two letters to Putin which have been published, one on the Russian Orthodox Church website “proslavie.ru”[3] and the other on the FECRIS Russian affiliate’s website[4]. Amstrong is a former Canadian Scientologist who became an apostate of the Church of Scientology, and who flew to Canada to avoid a warrant arrest after he was convicted by an American court for some of his anti-Scientology activities. In the first letter, published on 2 December 2014, he says that after visiting Russia, “at the invitation of people in the Russian Orthodox Church…I became pro-Russian.” He adds: “I did not become anti-West or anti-US, although I am dead set against the West and the US’s superpower hypocrisy.” Then he praises Putin for having offered asylum to Edward Snowden, and being “highly intelligent, reasonable and presidential.” After complaining about his conviction in the US, he thanks Putin “for whatever officials in your government have done to facilitate my being in Russia and being able to communicate to your citizens” as well as for standing against a European Court of Human Rights decision which had condemned Russia for violating the rights of Scientologists. He then blames the West for its “black propaganda” against the President of Russia.

While this letter does not explicitly mention Ukraine it is written on the eve of the new Ukrainian democratic era and is aligned with the rhetoric of Russia being threatened by Western ideologies and cults, and being the last rampart for maintaining “a moral position” against such.

FECRIS MEETING RUSSIA - How the anti-cult movement has participated to fuel Russian anti-Ukraine rhetoric
Gerry Armstrong, Alexander Dvorkin, Thomas Gandow and Luigi Corvaglia at a FECRIS conference in Salekhard, Siberia, on September 29, 2017. In the center, Archbishop Nikolai Chashin.

In his second letter to Vladimir Putin, published on 26 June 2018 on the Russian FECRIS website, Amstrong, introduced on the website as a “Christian activist” and good friend of Mr Dvorkin – who is said to have taken care of the translation of the letter in Russian – starts by congratulating Putin for his re-election. Then, he goes on to congratulate Putin for his actions in occupied Crimea: “Congratulations on the opening of the Crimean bridge for vehicular traffic. I congratulate the whole country on such an amazing achievement. This is a blessing both for Crimea and for the rest of Russia.” He then takes the defense of Putin against the campaign by “the West” writing that it is “dangerous, cruel, hypocritical, unreasonable and based on obvious ideological motives”

The letter goes on: “You know that there are people in Canada and other Western countries who do not believe the smear campaign against you, realize it is wrong, see it as a threat, and even admit that it can be used as a pretext or trigger for nuclear war. On the other hand, it’s easy to see that there are plenty of people out there who want this threat and other similar threats to succeed and grow, and to do so, they plot, act, pay, and get paid to make this threat effective. These are the same people who are running a campaign here to defame you.” Again, this is a conspiracy rhetoric that is of great significance, because it puts the blame of war on the West and its so-called “smear campaign”, that would be the underlying cause of Putin’s obligation to start a war in Ukraine.

USCIRF report on the anti-cult movement in Russia

In 2020, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) published a report called “The Anti-cult Movement and Religious Regulation in Russia and the Former Soviet Union”[5]. The reports explains that “While both the Soviet legacy and the ROC [Russian Orthodox Church] are major influences, current attitudes about and approaches to religious minorities also stem from other factors, including post-Soviet socio-economic developments, the Putin regime’s desire for national unity, individual fears about family security or change generally, and transnational concerns about the perceived dangers from new religious movements (NRMs)”. Ironically enough, it goes to the roots of the anti-cult movement which definitely originate in the West.

The report explains that after 2009, “the rhetoric of the anti-cult movement and the Russian state have converged noticeably over the subsequent decade. Echoing Putin’s concerns about spiritual and moral security, Dvorkin claimed in 2007 that NRMs deliberately ‘inflict damage on Russian patriotic feelings’.” And that’s how the convergence began, and why the Russian Orthodox Church and the Anti-cult movement became key in Putin’s propaganda agenda.

Speaking of Dvorkin the report says: “Dvorkin’s influence has also extended outside of the post-Soviet orbit. In 2009, the same year in which he was appointed head of Russia’s Council of Experts, he also became Vice-President of the European Federation of Research and Information Centers on Sectarianism (FECRIS), a French anti-cult organization with panEuropean influence. The French government provides the majority of FECRIS’ funding and the group regularly spreads negative propaganda about religious minorities, including at international forums like the OSCE Human Dimensions conference. Dvorkin’s center is the primary associate of FECRIS in Russia and receives significant financial support from both the ROC and the Russian government.”

Then in a chapter called “exporting intolerance in Ukraine”, USCIRF goes on: “Russia brought along its restrictive religious regulation framework when it invaded Crimea in 2014, including the symbiosis between anti-cult ideas and national security. The occupation regime in Ukraine frequently has used religious regulations to terrorize the general population as well as to target activists in the Crimean Tatar community.” In its conclusion the USCIRF report makes clear that “Alexander Dvorkin and his associates have carved out influential roles in government and society, shaping the public discourse on religion across numerous countries.”

Donetsk and Luhansk’s fight against so-called cults

Interestingly enough, Donbass pseudo-states Donetsk and Luhansk, have been the only places in the world that makes fighting “cults” a constitutional principle. Bitter-Winter magazine on religious liberty concluded from that and other evidence of their brutal denial of religious liberty, that “what is happening in the pseudo-‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ and ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ is a clear representation of the dystopic Orthodox theocracy Putin’s ideologists have in mind for a ‘Russian World’ whose borders they continuously expand.”[6]

It’s also not the first time that the Anti-cult movement in general, and FECRIS in particular, is linked to nationalistic and pro-war propaganda across Europe. In a report published in July 2005 and signed by a French attorney and Miroslav Jankovic, who later became the OSCE National Legal Officer in Serbia, it was pointed out that the FECRIS representative in Serbia was Colonel Bratislav Petrovic[7].

FECRIS’ past in Serbia

colonel Bratislav Petrovic - How the anti-cult movement has participated to fuel Russian anti-Ukraine rhetoric
Colonel Bratislava Petrovic

According to the report, Colonel Bratislav Petrovic of the Yugoslav Army was also a neuropsychiatrist. During the Milosevic regime, he headed the Institute for Mental Health and Military Psychology of the Military Academy in Belgrade. From that position, he specialized in the selection and psychological preparation of the soldiers of Milosevic’s army before they were sent to war. Colonel Petrovic was also instrumental in forwarding Milosevic’s propaganda that the Serbs were the victims and not the perpetrators of genocide in Bosnia, contrary to all reliable UN reports on the subject.

The report goes further: “Petrovic is now applying his psychological techniques of indoctrination to target religious minorities. Yet this is not new. In 1993, while ethnic and religious cleansing was underway in Croatia and Bosnia, Petrovic used that same ideology to condemn religious minorities within Serbia, accusing them of being terrorist organizations and conveniently labelling them ‘sects.’”

The report goes on by listing all the so-called cults that were targeted by FECRIS in Serbia: the Baptists, the Nazareens, the Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, the Pentecostals, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Alchemy, Kabala, the Yoga centres, Transcendental Meditation, Karma Center, Shri Chimnoy, Sai Baba, Hare Krishna, Falun Gong, the Rosicrucian Order, the Masons, etc. As you can see, Petrovic was far from falling short of cults to fight against. These were similar to those that have been targeted by Dvorkin and ROC propaganda in Russia in their attempt to justify the protection of “Russian patriotic feelings” and “spiritual security”.

FECRIS backed up by Orthodox leaders and churches in other places

This initiative from FECRIS was backed by the Serbian Orthodox Church, which, through the words of his representative Bishop Porfirije, laid out the need to have “authentic data in exposing sects one by one as groups which are spreading spiritual terror and violence”. Porfirije also stated that the “Fight against this evil will be easier when the Law on religious organizations comes”, referring to a bill that he and Petrovic had tried to get amended. The amendment they filed (but which was rejected) aimed to reduce the rights of minority faiths in Serbia. Again, this is very similar to what happened in Russia, excepting that in Russia the law restricting the rights of religious minorities that had been lobbied for by FECRIS was passed and used extensively against non-violent religious groups.

Interestingly enough, the FECRIS representative in Belarus has a link on the FECRIS website that links directly to the website of the Belarusian Orthodox Church, which is nothing less than a Branch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Bulgarian Representative of FECRIS, the “Center for Research on New Religious Movements”, publishes on its website calls from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church not to tolerate “non-canonical gatherings”.

Nevertheless, as stated by USCIRF 2020 report: “Dvorkin and his associates do not exercise a monopoly on Orthodox thought and opinion, and dissenting voices within the church [ROC] have criticized the anti-cult movement for relying on discredited theories and non-canonical sources”. Such “dissenting voices” have not been heard amongst FECRIS.


[1] The Rus’ were an early medieval group, who lived in modern Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and other countries, and are the ancestors of modern Russians and other Eastern European ethnicities.

[2] Interview of Alexander Dvorkin on Voice of Russia, 30 April 2014 in the talk show “Burning point”.

[3] https://pravoslavie.ru/75577.html

[4] https://iriney.ru/poslevoennaya-eklektika/sajentologiya/ostanovit-ochernenie-rossii-otkryitoe-pismo-byivshego-sajentologa-vladimiru-putinu.html

[5] https://www.uscirf.gov/publication/anti-cult-movement-and-religious-regulation-russia-and-former-soviet-union

[6] https://bitterwinter.org/donetsk-and-luhansk-denying-religious-liberty/

[7] Report on “The Repression of Religious Minorities in Serbia: The role played by the European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism (FECRIS)” – 27 July 2005 by Patricia Duval and Miroslav Jankovic.

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