In a speech in September 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin described the “dictatorship of the Western elites” as “directed against all societies, including the peoples of the Western countries themselves.” Russia, he said, would lead the resistance to this “overthrow of faith and traditional values,” this “outright Satanism.”  

The Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church have worked in lockstep to promote a conservative idea of “family values.” Russia has taken upon itself the role of principal opposition to the supposed excesses of Western progressives. Its soft power strategy, particularly evident since the start of its war in Ukraine, is to persuade much of the world that it is defending “traditional values” on the frontlines of the global culture wars. 

Kristina Stoeckl, a sociology professor at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, has spent years embedding herself in the transnational Christian conservative movement. It’s an alliance that spans borders and religions and is dedicated to protecting conservative values, a worldview that leads it to lobby and agitate against policies that protect women, the right to abortion and LGBTQ rights, among others. 

Co-authored with Dmitry Uzlaner, Stoeckl’s new open-access book, “The Moralist International,” examines how the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church have built up international alliances and support for its version of Christian social conservatism, in part by emulating the strategies of international human rights organizations.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Can you explain what the moralist international movement is?

It’s a movement of transnational moral conservatives, often religious, that try to work against liberal institutions and international human rights movements, which they see as too heavily driven by progressive liberal goals. These moral conservative alliances are often rooted in different religious traditions, but you also now get right-wing actors that are hooking onto the movement. Like Italy’s Lega Nord, or Hungary’s Fidesz for example. 

In the book, you talk about the World Congress of Families, a United States-based coalition that promotes conservative Christian values around the world and historically has strong ties with Russia. Tell me a bit about embedding yourself in this movement. 

I’m a sociologist and I do empirical research and fieldwork, and being inside that conservative milieu for a long time — it’s tiring. It’s also challenging. What I’m trying to do is to reconstruct their meaning. I want to understand why they think what they think, why they say what they say, and not just dismiss things at face value as illogical lies or propaganda. 

Because for them, it makes sense. And as scholars, we should understand how they construct their world and their meaning. So that’s the spirit in which I approach that world. Now that we’ve published our book, I’m not sure if it will be possible to go back.

I attended World Congress of Families events in Tbilisi, Chisinau and Budapest. My sense from the research was that a lot of people come to this milieu or begin attending something like the Congress of Families because of a very specific set of grievances. Maybe, for example, someone is worried about abortion and just thinks it’s wrong or it shouldn’t happen. Interestingly, I came across other people, like environmentalists who just think the world is heading in the wrong direction. 

And what this moralist movement does is couch their grievance in a bigger story. 

So what is that bigger story? 

The international moralist worldview tells the whole story of the 20th century in a new way. It reframes ideas around the society we live in and the political divisions we face. It tells people that capitalism and communism have both been equally bad for family values because in both systems, women have to work. 

It talks about how rights pertaining to sexual orientation and gender identity are useful to the capitalist system because confusing our identities means we can more easily be controlled as consumers. One layer of this worldview after another is introduced. And then a proposal for a new order of things is proclaimed. 

So for that person who is against abortion — maybe they’re not against gay marriage at first. But then this story is told to them, that gay marriage and abortion are both part of a bigger design that’s bad for families. And it becomes one big narrative all packaged up. And that’s threatening for democracies because it prevents solutions. 

What kind of solutions does a worldview like that prevent?

Take domestic violence for example. Domestic violence is a real problem, both in Russia and in many other countries. But it can’t be discussed properly in this movement. Because if you start talking about women’s rights, you also talk about gender, and then you talk about homosexuality, and then it all goes down a slippery slope. Real solutions to real problems are blocked by ideology.

In the book, you describe Russia as a “norm entrepreneur” for international moral conservatism. Can you describe what that means?

For a while, Russia wanted to become a leading actor in that moralist international world. And it did quite well at first. So in places like the U.N., Russia was very effective in pushing certain resolutions. For instance, the resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council that says that a better understanding of traditional values can contribute to the protection of human rights. That’s clearly an agenda to say, ‘Well, the West should stop pushing a certain definition of human rights, and other definitions are also legitimate.’ At one point, the Russian Orthodox Church started to become very attractive to conservative Christians outside of Russia. Especially for those who believe that laws against hate speech are threatening conservative Christians. Russia became a kind of hero when it passed its so-called gay propaganda laws. And so, Russia began to push for this conservative agenda abroad, by financing NGOs, and I think that for a while, transnational moral conservative alliances were thriving because Russia was leading the way.  

What’s been the response from this movement since the war?

So the Christian groups that used to engage directly with Russia — for example, the American Homeschool Legal Defense Association and [conservative activists] CitizenGO — I get the sense they’re trying to hide or obfuscate their relationship with Russia. But I don’t think they have changed their views.

What has been Russia’s goal in establishing and funding these transnational conservative alliances?

One goal is basically to disturb what they perceive as a Western-dominated liberal world order, made up of the United Nations, the international human rights regime and so on. They do that by sponsoring and funding NGOs in the West that criticize these institutions and say, ‘We don’t agree with the direction our society is taking.’ 

From the Kremlin’s side, I think the second goal — which hasn’t really worked out — has been to build more stable alliances. Perhaps, when they invaded Ukraine, they thought that sanctions wouldn’t happen and protests against the war wouldn’t happen because of the alliances they had built around traditional values. That has not really worked, but Hungary is an example of how the moralist alliance can effectively lead to the blocking of EU sanctions.

Now with the war in Ukraine, it’s all become a lot more difficult for Russia. But things might easily have gone another way. Think about Italy. The response to the invasion might have been different if, instead of the Brothers of Italy, Salvini or Berlusconi, who are much more pro-Putin, had won. Or if Marine le Pen had won in France. So for Russia, it was about weaving political alliances from the beginning.