A growing number of white nationalists identify with Vladimir Putin : NPR



ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Today in Russia, a celebration of 77 years.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: At 10 a.m., the gigantic parade begins. A Red Army mass orchestra is in the front line, as Soviet Russia greets the dawn of victory.

FLORIDA: In May 1945, the Russians celebrated the defeat of Nazi Germany, which they still do every year on May 9, VE Day.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This is the sound today. It’s a military orchestra in Moscow’s Red Square, where tanks and thousands of soldiers paraded, as Russia now occupies a very different position on the world stage than it did at the end of World War II. world.

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PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (speaking Russian).

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

CHANG: Although he acknowledged the Russian dead in Ukraine, there were no claims of victory and no sign of widening action. Instead, Putin, addressing Russian soldiers, pledged to stay the course in Ukraine and linked Russian action there to his 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 no one forgets the lessons of World War II.” He added, “there is no place in the world today for Nazis.” Putin used false claims of Nazism in Ukraine to justify the Russian attacks.

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PUTIN: (speaking Russian).

FLORIDO: And although today’s VE Day celebration was smaller than in recent years, it’s a holiday that grew under Putin, who used it to rally nationalist sentiment, which brings us to the story of a surprising place where Russian nationalist sentiment thrives – right here in the United States.

CHANG: We’re talking about Russian Orthodox parishes sprouting up in the south and upper Midwest, in places with few direct ties to Russia. These tiny congregations are mostly made up of converted American evangelicals and Catholics, but among them is a growing network of white nationalists, some of whom identify closely 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 small town in Appalachia in West Virginia. She was there to study a religious community known as the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, or ROCOR for short. And what she really wanted to understand was why this lesser-known religious tradition appealed to American Christians who had absolutely no connection to Russia.

SARAH RICCARDI-SWARTZ: It’s typically an immigrant religion, 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 United States and longed for the social and gender boundaries of the past.

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

YOUSEF: Riccardi-Swartz said these converts believed that in ROCOR they found a church that has remained the same, regardless of location or politics, where tradition and hierarchy rule. But she also discovered that some of these converts were not just looking for religious purity.

RICCARDI-SWARTZ: I really didn’t see racism up close until I spoke to a man named Dean.

YOUSEF: Dean is a pseudonym. Riccardi-Swartz does not use real names in his published work in accordance with the ethics of his field.

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

YOUSEF: Views like these are not unheard of. But Riccardi-Swartz was surprised by what Dean said next.

RICCARDI-SWARTZ: He also talked about his support for Vladimir Putin and Russia. And then he stopped, and he kind 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 safe, and I have a lot of guns. And I know 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 good side? And he said, Russia is the good side.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You will not replace us.

UNIDENTIFIED BAND: (Singing) You won’t replace us. You will not replace us. You will not replace us.

RICCARDI-SWARTZ: When neo-Nazis and white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville nearly five years ago, the language they used was new to many Americans. Since then, talk of a so-called great replacement and, quote-unquote, “forced multiculturalism” has morphed into more mainstream rhetoric on the right. Some Orthodox converts were among those who fueled these fears from the start. Perhaps the most notorious was Matthew Heimbach. He had created the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Workers’ Party, which helped organize the rally in Charlottesville. Years before that murderous gathering, he had been excommunicated from a non-Russian Orthodox church after the clergy became aware of his, quote, “nationalist and segregationist views.” But Orthodoxy is decentralized. There are nearly two dozen branches, including Greek, Russian, Coptic, Antiochian and more. When Heimbach was kicked out of one, he joined another.

Those who follow the rise of extremism in Orthodoxy say it is particularly acute in ROCOR, the Russian church, but other branches of the church have not been spared. Inga Leonova is the founder of The Wheel, a journal on Orthodoxy and culture. She says that as soon as she started writing about it, the floodgates opened.

INGA LEONOVA: There are people who study this stuff, and so they came out of the woodwork and gave me a lot of information.

YOUSEF: Those who study the influx of extremists into Orthodoxy say that in terms of numbers, it’s small. Orthodox Christians make up less than half a percent of the US population. And within Orthodoxy, these elements are considered marginal. But they also warn that it would be dangerous to ignore it. They note that these few extremists network with outside groups and produce online media that evangelizes hate in the name of orthodoxy. Their podcasts and internet shows revolve around anti-Semitism, disregard for women’s and LGBTQ rights, xenophobia, and wholehearted support for white nationalists, including some who have been convicted of violent hate crimes. More recently, some have used their channels to amplify pro-Putin propaganda.

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LAUREN WITZKE: This is also the market. You know, Russia is a Christian nationalist nation. They are actually Orthodox Christians or Russian Orthodox. So…

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

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WITZKE: I identify more with Russian – Putin’s Christian values ​​than Joe Biden.

YOUSEF: Witzke declined to speak with NPR for this story. A staunch supporter of MAGA, she aligns herself with the white nationalist America First Movement and ran on an anti-immigration platform. At one point, she appeared to support QAnon conspiracies but has since backed off. 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 represents their views on these culture wars issues, who speaks in the same loud language that they look for in a strong leader.

YOUSEF: Sarkisian is a postdoctoral fellow studying the history of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the United States at Northwestern University. He says Kremlin propaganda has branded Putin a pious defender of orthodoxy and traditional values. This appealed to Christian fundamentalists in the United States. Putin has also positioned himself as a foil for the pluralist democracies of the West. This appealed to American white nationalists. Now, with the war, Putin has received religious cover from the head of the church. The Patriarch of Moscow claimed that the invasion of Ukraine was necessary to protect Orthodox Ukrainians from Western influence, namely gay pride parades. In the United States, some lifelong ROCOR adherents have left their churches because of this.

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

YOUSEF: Lena Zezulin grew up in a ROCOR community on Long Island. She is baffled by the admiration these new converts have for Putin and the appeal his beloved church has for white nationalists. But Zizulin says she has seen a growing tolerance for racism in the church.

ZEZULIN: Suddenly you want to turn around and leave, I don’t recognize it.

YOUSEF: Four decades ago, when she married her African-American husband, they were welcomed. But as the church expanded to new parts of the United States, their children faced racism. These changing 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 talking about it. And she feels that bishops across Orthodoxy are intentionally looking the other way. She says it’s frustrating, but she still chooses to stay Orthodox.

LEONOVA: It’s a treasure that I cherish that formed me, that paradoxically shaped, perhaps for some, my vision of the value of each human person.

YOUSEF: Whether she’s black, white, Asian, female, gay or transgender, Leonova says that’s what she understands about orthodoxy. Odette Yousef, NPR News.

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