The following article is based on a joint investigation by Mother Jones and openDemocracy.
Over the past 12 years, a prominent conservative nonprofit led by one of Donald Trump’s impeachment lawyers has provided $3.3 million in funding to a Russian organization run by a legal activist with ties to Vladimir Putin’s government.
The American Center for Law and Justice, founded in 1990 by right-wing evangelical Pat Robertson to pursue legal cases that benefit Christian conservatives, has been annually sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to its Moscow-based affiliate, the Slavic Center for Law and Justice (SCLJ), according to ACLJ’s tax records. The chief counsel for the ACLJ—and its driving force—is Jay Sekulow, who famously shepherded Trump’s impeachment defense as one of his private attorneys. The SCLJ is directed by Vladimir Ryakhovsky, an evangelical activist and Russian lawyer who serves on Putin’s human rights council.
The funds sent by the ACLJ to the Russian group, the ACLJ says in its tax filings, are meant to underwrite “litigation and legal services related to religious freedoms and human rights in Russia.” On its website, the SCLJ says it provides “legal assistance to religious organizations and citizens” and mounts “court cases related to the protection of the rights of citizens and organizations to freedom of conscience and religion.” Its focus tends to be on issues related to evangelical churches, but in some cases it has sought to protect Muslims’ rights. In one instance, the SCLJ defended the Word of Life Evangelical Church when a local prosecutor targeted it for violating a law against missionary activity.
The SCLJ and the European Center for Law and Justice, another ACLJ-financed affiliate, generally embrace a fundamentalist view when it comes to civil liberties. In 2013, the SCLJ expressed support for Putin’s law banning gay-rights advocacy. A year earlier, after the punk band Pussy Riot held an anti-Putin protest inside a church, the SCLJ called for a law to criminalize such “blasphemous” activity, as well as the “dissemination of such information on the Internet.” (OpenDemocracy has reported that the ACLJ has sent at least $14 million to the ECLJ, which has been involved in numerous European court cases against sexual and reproductive rights. The ACLJ is one of 28 American Christian right groups, according to openDemocracy, which have spent more than £280 million of dark money around the world since 2007. None of these groups disclose the identities of their donors or the full details of their global spending.)
For the past 26 years, Vladimir Ryakhovsky, who has directed the SCLJ since 1993, has served in influential posts within the Russian government. In 2018, he was appointed by Putin as a member of the Presidential Council on the Development of Civil Society and Human Rights, a governmental group that supposedly monitors assaults on political rights. Last year, Putin overhauled the council, booting off members who had criticized his government and replacing its head with a former TV host widely seen as a Kremlin loyalist. The four members bounced from the committee had sought to investigate actions taken by Russian security forces and the courts against participants in protests that had challenged the fairness of recent elections. The new head of the council said in an interview that he intended to pay less attention to political rights and more to “social rights.” At the time of Putin’s remaking of the council, the Irish Times noted the panel “has gained a reputation as a toothless advisory body that soft pedals when criticising the authorities.” After Putin’s assault on the council, Ryakhovsky remained a member.
This year Ryakhovsky joined the Public Collegium on Press Complaints, a group that says it “self-regulates and co-regulates the media” and handles “complaints from the media audience about violations of the professional ethics of a journalist.” The outfit includes several journalists allied with the Putin regime.
Ryakhovsky’s brother Sergei is a leading evangelical Christian in Russia: the chief bishop of the Russian United Union of Evangelical Christians (RUCEF). The pair grew up in a family that belonged to the Pentacostal church, which at the time was outlawed.
Bishop Ryakhovsky has “provided all-round support” to the SCLJ, according to his spokesperson, and the SCLJ has been “one of the main legal support centers for evangelical believers in Russia.” Sekulow, the spokesperson notes, “noticed it in good time and then the cooperation between the SCLJ and the ACLJ” began. The bishop, he adds, “knows Jay Sekulow well and considers him one of the most competent and respected human rights defenders.”
Bishop Ryakhovsky, too, is tied to the Putin government. In 2006, he was appointed by Putin to be a member of the Kremlin’s Civic Chamber, a consultative group that monitors the federal government and parliament and that analyzes draft legislation—and he has served on that body since then. (Vladimir Ryakhovsky was a part of the Civic Chamber in the mid-1990s.) The bishop also sits on a religious council that advises Putin.
The bishop often posts photos on social media of himself with Putin and has called cooperation with the Russian leader easy. His spokesperson notes that photos of the bishop with Putin are “very important” because they send “a signal to the whole society that times have really changed” and that the evangelical church in Russia is no longer outlawed or persecuted by the federal government.
In an email to openDemocracy, the spokesperson explained the bishop’s support for Putin in religious terms: “Bishop Sergei Ryakhovsky, and the churches of RUCEF as a whole, support the head of state, as the Holy Scriptures clearly states that. The Bible records the words of the Apostle Paul, in which he asks to ‘perform prayers’ for ‘kings and for all rulers.'” But he adds that Bishop Ryakhovsky also backs Putin because of his policy stands: “The pronounced conservative position of Vladimir Putin on the issues of traditional moral values and his pronounced support for the traditional family evoke great sympathy among the Evangelical believers. Unfortunately, this position is quite different from ones of certain European leaders and some former US presidents.”
Bishop Ryakhovsky has indeed been a firm supporter of Putin’s regime. In 2011, he denounced anti-Putin protesters who charged that his government was rigging elections; the following year he endorsed Putin’s presidential bid. In May 2018, according to his online biography, the bishop was awarded a letter of gratitude from Putin “for his active participation in the preparation and conduct of Russian presidential elections”—an election that Putin won but that was marred by serious allegations of voting irregularities and fraud. On Russia Day 2019, Sergei Ryakhovsky received a personal congratulation from Putin and invitation for a gala reception at the Kremlin. Alexander Verkhovsky, director of Sova Center for Information and Analysis, notes that Sergei Ryakhovsky is loyal to the Putin regime “like all other mainstream religious leaders in Russia.”
An outfit led by an attorney for the US president financing an activist tied to the Russian president might once have seemed odd. But as Putin in recent years has courted evangelical Protestants in Russia—where the dominant religion is that of the Russian Orthodox Church— conservative Christians in the United States have displayed an affinity for the Russian autocrat. Sekulow and the ACLJ financing Vladimir Ryakhovsky is in sync with this trend.
In 2016, though, Sekulow published a book that denounced a supposed global conspiracy comprised of Putin’s Russia, Iran, and radical Islam. The volume was alarmingly titled Unholy Alliance: Russia, Iran, and Radical Islam’s Agenda for World Domination. Sekulow, a Messianic Jew affiliated with Jews for Jesus, claimed that this axis of evil was an existential threat to the United States and Israel and that the Obama administration at the time was failing to counter the danger. On its website, the ACLJ vowed “to monitor this ever-ramifying national security situation.” Yet the following year, Sekulow became a high-profile legal crusader for Trump and echoed the president in calling the Russia scandal “a witch hunt.” He was now enthusiastically working for a client who embraced Putin, denied or discounted Moscow’s attack on the 2016 election, and belittled concerns about the threat Russia posed to the United States.
“The relationship between the Ryakhovsky brothers and the Putin administration is analogous to the relationship between some evangelicals and the Trump administration―including Jay Sekulow,” says Frederick Clarkson, a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank that studies right-wing movements. “It appears that the White House model of courting evangelicals has been exported to Moscow.”
Long before he became famous for his defense of Trump, Sekulow was well-known as a crusader for conservative Christian causes, the host of his own radio show, and a frequent guest on right-wing media outlets. And during his rise as a big-time player of the right, there has been controversy about the ACLJ’s finances. In 2005, Legal Times reported that Sekulow, with the ACLJ and a string of interconnected nonprofit and for-profit entities, “has built a financial empire that generates millions of dollars a year and supports a lavish lifestyle—complete with multiple homes, chauffeur-driven cars, and a private jet that he once used to ferry Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.” In 2017, the Washington Post revealed that Sekulow’s “charity empire” brought in nearly $230 million in donations from 2011 to 2015—and $28.5 million of that ended up with members of Sekulow’s family or their companies. That year, CharityWatch.org reported that the family connections and other associations among the various groups in Sekulow’s charity network (which included the ACLJ) raised a “red flag.”
Neither Sekulow nor Vladimir Ryakhovsky responded to requests for comment.
Tatev Hovhannisyan of openDemocracy contributed reporting for this article.