One of Vladimir Putin’s favorite businessmen wants to start an Orthodox Christian Fox News and return Russia to its glorious czarist past.
If being the subject of international sanctions is causing Konstantin Malofeev any stress, he’s not showing it. “The sanctions are a very stupid instrument that only Obama and his administration could believe will have any impact. It has not damaged my business,” he says. The 40-year-old multimillionaire, though, does allow that the sanctions have “had some impact on my personal movements. I cannot go on vacation in the Alps. This weekend, my Greek friend who invited me to be the best man at his wedding had to come to me to have his wedding with 90 Greeks, instead of me going to him. That’s the impact that it had.”
The reason Malofeev’s Greek friend had to be so accommodating is that he has beenaccused by Ukraine’s government of financing the rebels in eastern Ukraine on behalf of the Russian government. Both Alexander Borodai, the former prime minister of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, and Igor Strelkov, formerly one of the main commanders of the rebel forces, are ex-Malofeev employees. Malofeev himself is now subject to sanctions from the EU and Canada—though not the United States, despite his distaste for Obama—including a travel ban and a freeze on his foreign assets.
Sitting in a conference room decorated with Orthodox icons in his Moscow office, Malofeev dismisses accusations that he has provided any weapons to the rebels. “We have an agreement between the Donetsk People’s Republic and my foundation,” he says, but “it’s only food, medicine, and other things that could be used only for humanitarian purposes.”
Malofeev’s involvement in Ukraine may be what attracted the attention of Western governments, but that’s not the only reason he warrants scrutiny. In many ways the deeply religious private equity maven personifies Western liberals’ worst fears about Russia’s recent turn toward nationalism and social conservatism. With close ties to the president’s inner circle, he also represents a new type of power player that has emerged since Putin’s return to the presidency. At a time when the Russian government has been making life difficult for unruly oligarchs, Malofeev—intensely conservative, patriotic to a fault—is the type of businessman who’s well-positioned to prosper. But while he may at first look like just another Putin crony, his views are actually much more extreme than those of the typical loyalist, and much stranger.
Malofeev, who’s been called “Putin’s Soros” for his close ties to the Kremlin elite, certainly isn’t alone in being a staunch supporter of Russia’s crackdown on “gay propaganda.” As much as anyone in Russia, he’s put his money where his mouth is,sponsoring conferences on traditional family values attended by gay marriage opponents from the U.S. and Europe. “An adult person can choose the own way he wants to entertain himself in the bedroom,” he tells me. “But the state and taxpayers should not support teaching children different ways of sexual perversion.”
He is also adamant that the Russian people must be protected from perversion online. The Safe Internet League, of which he is one of the primary backers, successfully lobbied for the creation of an Internet blacklist law that went into effect in 2012. The law, billed as a crackdown on child pornography and other illegal material, was criticized by human rights groups as a potential prelude to greater online censorship. (To wit, videos by the band Pussy Riot have been blocked within Russia on the grounds that they are “extremist” content, and there is now acontroversial law requiring bloggers to register with the authorities.) But the father of three says these fears are overblown and that the law was purely meant to protect children. Prior to the legislation’s passage, “there was not any limit on the Internet in Russia and the Russian Internet was the most dirty Internet in any developed country,” he says. “It was full of pedophiles, child pornography, drugs, suicide.” He described Russia’s control over the Internet as “very light” compared with that of the United States.
Malofeev, whose St. Basil the Great Foundation is the country’s largest Orthodox charity, says that these cultural issues don’t stop at Russia’s borders. His mission is larger than just restoring Orthodoxy in Russia. Rather, it’s a global struggle.
“Just as Christians in the West in Ronald Reagan’s time helped us against the evil of communism, we now have to return our debt to Christians who are suffering under totalitarianism in the West,” he says. “This so-called liberalism, tolerance, and freedom, these are just words, but behind them you can see the totalitarianism.”
Asked for examples of this totalitarianism, he cites legal battles over U.S. businesses not providing flowers or cakes for gay weddings and the use of tear gas against anti-gay-marriage protesters in France. “We saw all of this in the 1920s in the Soviet Union. We know how it starts when the protection of minorities becomes the policy of the state,” he says.
Malofeev sees the conflict in Ukraine in the context of this international culture war. He says the ousted government of President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the EU last year in part due to concerns over regulations enforcing tolerance for gay rights. “For Ukrainians, who are a very traditional society, this propaganda for untraditional values was extremely unacceptable,” he says.
His involvement in the Ukraine conflict began in January 2014 under somewhat bizarre circumstances. Malofeev had been traveling with a church delegation bringing holy relics on a tour through Belarus and Ukraine when his plane was diverted and forced to land in Crimea. Weeks before the territory was annexed by Russia, thousands turned out to view the relics, but Malofeev denies the trip had any political intent. “We are all Orthodox. There is nothing political about that,” he says.
Malofeev, who founded his firm Marshall Capital in 2005, has only very recently become a well-known figure. He is often associated with a group of well-connected Orthodox figures, including Russian Railways head and close Putin ally Vladimir Yakunin, as well as Igor Schyogolev, a Putin aide and former minister of telecommunications. Schyogolev held that position when Malofeev acquired by far his most lucrative asset, a 10 percent stake in the state-controlled telecoms group Rostelecom.
Putin himself has made his devout faith a major component of his public persona: The Russian president has surrounded himself with religious advisers, and has madesome comments about the West’s lack of Christian values that aren’t that far off from Malofeev’s arguments. But the Orthodox oligarch dismisses the idea that his very public faith has been good for business, pointing out that he was Orthodox long before it became fashionable among the Russian elite. “I didn’t come to Orthodoxy so I could get connections. Connections came to me because I am Orthodox,” he says.
In any event, Malofeev says his business interests are now in the hands of professional asset managers. “Because you cannot serve Mammon and God simultaneously, I decided two years ago that I needed to stop with my financial activities.”
The sanctions, which don’t appear likely to be lifted anytime soon, don’t appear to be hampering those financial activities. In addition to his foundations and a religious school he founded near Moscow, the oligarch has a number of new ventures in the pipeline.
He has teamed with a French developer to build two “Tsargrad” theme parks in Crimea that will present a family-friendly recounting of Russian history. He’s also developing Tsargrad TV, a cable network—for now it’s just a YouTube channel—that will provide a conservative Orthodox perspective on the news. “We want to build up [a network based on] Orthodox principles the way Fox News was built,” he says. “We want to show the news in the way that Orthodox people, who are 70 to 80 percent of the population, see it.” (Jack Hanick, a former Fox News employee, will be a producerfor the network.) I ask if Russia’s existing TV networks aren’t conservative enough. “Aren’t Orthodox enough,” he counters.
Like the theme parks, the network is an attempt to provide an explicitly religious perspective he feels is missing from Russia’s media landscape. Malofeev believes that if “50 percent of the country [attended] the church not only for Easter but for every Sunday, a lot of things would change. Corruption would disappear immediately.” (The current number of weekly church attendees is close to 3 percent.)
But his goals go beyond making Russia a more religious society. A self-described monarchist, he favors a full return of the Russian Empire, including the restoration of the czar.
“Monarchies have been alive in history for thousands of years,” he says. “Republics, just for several centuries, yet we assume that monarchies belong to the past and republics to the future.” He points out that seven of the 10 wealthiest countries in the world are monarchies. (The exceptions: Switzerland, Singapore, and the United States. Malofeev evidently wasn’t counting the tiny republic of San Marino.)
For Malofeev, the Russian Empire is both a cultural idea—he speaks approvingly of Russia’s pre-communist birth-rate of seven children per family in contrast to today’sdemographic decline—and a geopolitical one.
“The current borders [of the Russian Federation] reflect the revolution of 1991 and the revolution of 1917,” he says. “We the Russian people are a divided nation, just as the Germans were after the Second World War. We are the biggest divided nation in the world.” He declines to comment on how the borders should be redrawn.
When asked if he expects the monarchy to be restored anytime soon, he responds: “I lived in Soviet Union. We would never have believed that we would have the regime that we have now.”
Joshua Keating recently traveled to Russia thanks to a religion reporting fellowship from the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University.