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A growing number of white nationalists identify with Vladimir Putin

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Today in Russia, a celebration 77 years old.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: At 10 a.m., the gigantic parade starts. A mass Red Army band is first in line, as Soviet Russia hails the dawn of victory.

FLORIDO: In May of 1945, Russians celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany, something they still do each year on May 9, Victory Day.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

That is sound from today. It's a military band in Moscow's Red Square, where tanks and thousands of soldiers paraded, with Russia now occupying a very different position on the world stage than it did at the end of World War II.

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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

FLORIDO: In the third month of Russia's attack on Ukraine, international observers braced for what Russian President Vladimir Putin might say in his big speech. There was speculation Putin might use the day to celebrate victory in Ukraine or signal Russian plans to mobilize for a larger conflict. In the end, Putin didn't do either.

CHANG: Though he acknowledged Russian deaths in Ukraine, there were no claims of victory and no signal of widening action. Instead, Putin, addressing Russian soldiers, committed to stay the course in Ukraine and tied Russian action there to its fight against fascism 77 years ago.

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PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

CHANG: "You are fighting for our motherland," he said, "its future, so that nobody forgets the lessons of World War II." He added, "there is no place in today's world for Nazis." Putin has used false claims of Nazism in Ukraine to justify Russian attacks.

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PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

FLORIDO: And while today's Victory Day celebration was smaller than in recent years, it's a holiday that's grown under Putin, who has used it to rally nationalist sentiment, which brings us to a story about a surprising place where Russian nationalist sentiment is growing - right here in th U.S..

CHANG: We're talking about Russian Orthodox parishes sprouting up in the South and upper Midwest, in places with few direct links to Russia. These tiny congregations are mostly made up of American evangelicals and Catholics who've converted, but among them is a growing network of white nationalists, some of whom closely identify with Vladimir Putin. NPR's Odette Yousef has the story.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: In the fall of 2017, anthropologist Sarah Riccardi-Swartz moved to a tiny Appalachian town in West Virginia. She was there to study a religious community known as the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, or ROCOR for short. And what she really wanted to understand was why this lesser-known faith tradition was appealing to American Christians who had absolutely no links to Russia.

SARAH RICCARDI-SWARTZ: It's typically an immigrant faith, so I was really interested in that experience and why it spoke to converts.

YOUSEF: Riccardi-Swartz is a postdoctoral fellow at Arizona State University. Her book based on her research came out last month. What she found was a community of white American Christians who were disillusioned with change in the U.S. and who longed for the social and gender boundaries of the past.

RICCARDI-SWARTZ: They are anti-abortion. They're pro-heteronormative families. They're anti-trans. There's very distinct gender roles in the church and in the domestic sphere.

YOUSEF: Riccardi-Swartz said these converts believed that, in ROCOR, they had found a church that has remained the same, regardless of place or politics, where tradition and hierarchy rule. But she also found that some of these converts weren't only searching for religious purity.

RICCARDI-SWARTZ: I really didn't see the racism up close until I talked to a man named Dean.

YOUSEF: Dean is a pseudonym. Riccardi-Swartz doesn't use real names in her published work in accordance with the ethics of her field.

RICCARDI-SWARTZ: And he said, I'm so angry. And I said, well, why are you angry? And he said, I - you know, I'm a white guy. I've been pushed to the margins in this diverse society. And he said, my whole neighborhood is changing. There's all of these gays, and there's all of these different people. And you can't even get a job now as a white guy because you're oppressed.

YOUSEF: Views like these aren't unheard of. But Riccardi-Swartz was surprised by what Dean said next.

RICCARDI-SWARTZ: He also talked about how much he supported Vladimir Putin and Russia. And then he, like, stopped, and he sort of smiled. And he said, do you know what I have upstairs? And I said, no. What do you have upstairs? I've never been to your house before. And he said, I have a gun safe, and I have lots of guns. And I know that there's a war coming, and I want to be on the right side of that war. And I said, who is the war with? Who's the right side? And he said, Russia's the right side.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You will not replace us.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) You will not replace us. You will not replace us. You will not replace us.

RICCARDI-SWARTZ: When neo-Nazis and white nationalists rallied in Charlottesville almost five years ago, the language they used was new to many Americans. Since then, talk of a so-called great replacement and, quote, "forced multiculturalism" has bled into more mainstream rhetoric on the right. Some orthodox converts were among those stoking those fears from the beginning. Perhaps the most notorious was Matthew Heimbach. He had established the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Worker Party, which helped organize the rally in Charlottesville. Years before that deadly rally, he had been excommunicated from a non-Russian Orthodox church after clergy became aware of his, quote, "nationalist, segregationist views." But orthodoxy is decentralized. There are nearly two dozen branches, including Greek, Russian, Coptic, Antiochian and more. When Heimbach was booted from one, he joined another.

Those who track the rise of extremism in orthodoxy say it's particularly acute in ROCOR, the Russian church, but other branches of the church haven't been immune. Inga Leonova is founder of The Wheel, a journal on orthodoxy and culture. She says as soon as she started writing about this, the floodgates opened.

INGA LEONOVA: There are people who are studying this stuff, and so they've been coming out of the woodwork and supplying me with a lot of information.

YOUSEF: Those who study the influx of extremists to orthodoxy say in terms of numbers, it's small. Orthodox Christians are less than half a percent of the U.S. population. And within orthodoxy, these elements are considered fringe. But they also warn that it would be dangerous to ignore. They note that these few extremists are networking with outside groups and producing online media that evangelize hate in the name of orthodoxy. Their podcasts and internet shows revolve around anti-Semitism, contempt for women's and LGBTQ rights, xenophobia, and full-throated support of white nationalists, including some who've been convicted of violent hate crimes. More recently, some have used their channels to amplify pro-Putin propaganda.

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LAUREN WITZKE: Here's the deal, also. You know, Russia is a Christian nationalist nation. They're actually Orthodox Christian or Russian Orthodox. So...

YOUSEF: The day before Russia invaded Ukraine, a clip from a far-right talk show on the web made the rounds on social media. It featured a woman named Lauren Witzke, who was the 2020 GOP candidate for Senate from Delaware. Witzke is also in the process of converting to Russian Orthodoxy.

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WITZKE: I identify more with Russian - with Putin's Christian values than I do with Joe Biden.

YOUSEF: Witzke declined to speak with NPR for this story. A loyal MAGA supporter, she aligns with the white nationalist America First Movement and ran on an anti-immigration platform. At one point, she seemed to support QAnon conspiracies but has since renounced it. Aram Sarkisian says this pro-Putin stance is common among far-right converts to orthodoxy.

ARAM SARKISIAN: They see in him an orthodox leader who stands for their perspectives on these culture wars issues, who speaks in the same blustery language that they look for in a strong leader.

YOUSEF: Sarkisian is a post-doctoral fellow who studies the history of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the U.S. at Northwestern University. He says Kremlin propaganda has styled Putin as a pious defender of orthodoxy and traditional values. This has appealed to Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. Putin has also positioned himself as a foil to pluralist democracies of the West. That has appealed to America's white nationalists. Now with the war, Putin has received religious cover from the head of the church. The patriarch in Moscow claimed the invasion of Ukraine is necessary to protect Orthodox Ukrainians from Western influence, namely gay pride parades. In the U.S., some lifelong ROCOR adherents have left their churches because of this.

LENA ZEZULIN: You know, somebody just said we should stand and pray for both sides. Well, were the Brits supposed to pray for Hitler and Churchill at the same time?

YOUSEF: Lena Zezulin grew up in a ROCOR community in Long Island. She's bewildered by the admiration these new converts hold for Putin and by the draw that her beloved church holds for white nationalists. But Zizulin says she's seen a growing tolerance for racism in the church.

ZEZULIN: Suddenly you would, like, turn around and go, I don't recognize this.

YOUSEF: Four decades ago, when she married her African American husband, they were welcomed. But as the church expanded into new areas of the U.S., their kids experienced racism. Those shifting attitudes may have signaled to white nationalists that this church would be a place where they would be tolerated. Inga Leonova uses the word infiltration when she talks about this. And she feels bishops across orthodoxy are intentionally looking the other way. She says it's frustrating, but still, she chooses to remain orthodox.

LEONOVA: It's a treasure that I cherish that has formed me, that has formed paradoxically, maybe for some people, my views on the value of each human person.

YOUSEF: Whether Black, white, Asian, female, gay or transgender, Leonova says this is what she understands orthodoxy to be. Odette Yousef, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF D.P. KAUFMAN'S "BRAVERY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.