Meet Tsargrad, the Major Christian TV Channel of Russia

Here is the story of its mission and its founder, Konstantin Malofeev--the Russian tycoon who decided to open an Orthodox news channel

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Originally appeared at: FT

On a sunny afternoon in Moscow, the Russian tycoon Konstantin Malofeev is holding court in the studios of his television channel Tsargrad TV, dressed in a designer suit, a blue silk handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket. Above him is a makeshift cathedral cupola weighing in at half a ton. Behind him are 24ft-high windows through which the Kremlin’s red towers are visible, their glass stars glistening.

Malofeev is in a buoyant mood. In a sign of his growing clout, he has just had lunch with two of the richest oligarchs on the Forbes list. Yelena Mizulina, a leading conservative senator, who has come to Tsargrad’s offices, is patiently waiting for the businessman to fit in a conversation before he departs on his summer holiday.

Over the past few years, Malofeev, in his mid-40s, has morphed into one of Russia’s most influential businessmen and lobbyists, in part thanks to his devout Russian Orthodox faith and conservative values, now in vogue thanks to Vladimir Putin’s Presidency. As the founder of private equity firm Marshall Capital Partners, Malofeev accumulated substantial personal wealth, largely through an investment in the Russian telecom giant Rostelecom. Now he is paying it back as a Christian philanthropist.

Inside Tsargrad TV’s studios, complete with a cathedral cupola

Five years ago, Malofeev launched Tsargrad TV, a Russian Orthodox TV channel, which presents global news from a conservative-yet-modern perspective. Tsargrad broadcasts daily over the airwaves, and is also available for online viewing. According to Malofeev, Tsargrad’s closest international equivalent is Fox News in the US, making him something of a Russian Roger Ailes.

Malofeev explains it this way:

“When Fox News entered the American market in around 1996 to 1997, they were very different from CNN and ABC. Fox talked about things that people would discuss among themselves in their kitchens but which other channels were too scared to say, or didn’t want to say on air.”

“In many ways Tsargrad is similar to what Fox News has done. We started from the idea that there are many people who adhere to traditional values and they absolutely need a voice.”

The nod to Fox is not accidental. To get Tsargrad TV up and running, Malofeev hired Jack Hanick, one of Fox News’s founding producers, whom he met when they were both speakers at a Moscow conference on morality in the media. “They put us all in the room and I thought, another speaker, great,” Hanick says. “He seemed like a very humble guy. I had no idea he had a lot of power or political pull.”

Konstantin Malofeev

Born in the Moscow suburbs in 1974, Malofeev studied to be a lawyer but switched to investment banking as capitalism took hold towards the end of the 1990s. By 2005, at the age of 31, he had founded his private equity firm Marshall Capital Partners. It was at university that he says he found God, and throughout his business career he has openly professed his allegiance to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Connecting Malofeev to leading Russian and western conservatives is like playing a far-right, conservative, Orthodox Christian version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. In Kremlin circles, the tycoon mingles with Shchegolev and Vladimir Yakunin, the former chief of Russia’s state railways company. In the west, he has been linked with France’s Marine Le Pen and is acquainted with US presidential candidate Rand Paul. Panos Kammenos, the former Greek defense minister, has been a guest at his country estate.

Malofeev gained further notoriety during the Ukraine conflict in 2014, after he emerged as one of the key figures linking pro-Russia forces in east Ukraine with the Moscow political establishment. One of his former employees, Alexander Borodai, was at one point the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic prime minister; another, Igor Girkin, briefly served as the pro-Russian rebels’ chief military commander.

Tsargrad TV producers at work

This TV news channel is an example of Malofeev doing what he does best: leveraging his Orthodox credentials and wealth to catapult himself into the zeitgeist of Russian politics. So far, Malofeev is enjoying carte blanche with his channel. He puts it this way:

“We’ve always stuck to our Orthodox, patriotic, imperialist positions. The mainstream hasn’t.”

Tsargard’s primary goal, Malofeev insists, is evangelistic:

“There are a lot of people who wear crosses, identify as Christians but at the same time don’t go to church, or go to church just once a year for Easter. Our job is to reach out to these people and pave the way to the cathedral for them.”

The channel has also adopted an anti-western geopolitical approach to news, which can make Russian state TV look tame by comparison. In a segment about migrants, one of the channel’s correspondents suggested that Europe’s refugee crisis had been the deliberate work of either George Soros or the Rothschild family. “The Rothschilds are called the masters of money,” the anchor explained. “Their resource is money and their goal is world domination.”

In another segment, the topic of Russian interest rates was used as a launch pad for discussing the questionable morals of US monetary policy. Also, a news item about Planned Parenthood was presented as a cautionary exposé on “American Satanists” who “openly support the killing of children”.

Editorial Director Alexander Dugin

The mastermind behind Tsargrad’s editorial ideology is Alexander Dugin, a conservative thinker who, since 1997, has called for Russia to rebuild a Eurasian empire, “constructed on the fundamental principle of the common enemy” — primarily the US and its exported ideal of liberalism. A Dostoyevskian figure with piercing eyes and a long, greying beard, Dugin says that many Russians are turning to conservatism after being disillusioned with the liberalism promoted by Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.

“Liberalism has been strongly discredited by the west’s politics,” Dugin says. Tsargrad, he claims, reflects the opinion of this silent majority:

“Our goal is to take patriotic discourse out of the ghetto it was kept in during Soviet and liberal times . . . When people aren’t often given a chance to speak, they forget how to talk so they grunt or make faces. It’s very important to give these people a language.”

One of the main demographics to identify with this swing towards conservatism is younger Russians, Dugin says. One of them is Andrei Afanasiev, a 26-year-old Tsargrad news anchor. Though he used to work for the English-language channel Russia Today, speaks fluent English and has traveled widely, Afanasiev says his experience of studying abroad in Spain left him disillusioned about the west. “The lifestyle and values of the young people I saw there weren’t close to mine. It was sick hedonism: consumerism, entertainment. Everything was very vulgar.”

With Tsargrad, Afanasiev says he has found a whole new group of people who share his Orthodox beliefs and conservative values. “The concept of our channel is that we’re all like-minded. It’s great!” he says. “You can envy me: for the past year as a journalist, I have not once gone against my heart.”

News anchor Andrei Afanasiev – "We’re all like-minded. It’s great!"

I first got a glimpse of how Tsargrad’s internal ideology was shaping up during a visit to the studio, on Moscow’s main drag, in late April. Hanick, the former Fox News executive, was in town and helping the other producers prepare for an interview that evening.

While Hanick has the résumé of an experienced TV producer, he lacks the Russian language skills. “Zhen, could you light this up?” he said to a non-English-speaking employee, gesturing up at the image of Christ hanging above the set. “How do you say, ‘Cupola! Lights! Pozhaluysta?’” he asked somewhat rhetorically, dousing the Russian word for “please” with a heavy New York accent.

The cupola in question is the work of Ilya Glazunov, a prominent Russian Orthodox artist. As the producers prepared for the interview, Glazunov oversaw one of his assistants painting a plywood column to make it look more like an Elgin marble. When it was time to shoot, the two painters were brusquely shooed from the set. “For the artist, this is the compromise,” Glazunov said drily.

The studio’s concept, as Hanick, puts it, is “Byzantium meets the 21st century”. The space’s lofty windows and natural light are not the easiest fit for broadcast television. “Anyone who wanted to do a TV station would say that this is a nightmare,” Hanick says. But he notes that the natural light adds a certain touch of holiness to the production.

Recording the news

Hanick was raised Roman Catholic, but says he and his wife decided to baptize their son in the Russian Orthodox Church, because they have been so inspired by their experience at the Tsargrad channel. On one of his first trips to Russia, Hanick said that he had been shown around several churches in Moscow. “It was February and miserably snowing and every church was packed,” he says. “People were standing outside in the snow and listening on speakers. And I was thinking, you’d never see this in America.”

Russia has a complex relationship with the Orthodox Church. During the Soviet period, religion was officially banned, and all church property was seized. Between 1917 and the Soviet Union’s fall, more than 300,000 church workers were killed or imprisoned by the Soviet secret police and security services. But since the fall of the Soviet Union, Orthodoxy has become not just popular but fashionable, says Geraldine Fagan, author of Believing in Russia — Religious Policy after Communism. Well-heeled Muscovites have started wearing crosses round their necks. Most restaurants in Russia’s big cities now offer Lenten menus.

Under Putin’s leadership, Orthodox Christianity has taken on the additional role of a political aid, used to unite the mostly Christian population against western liberalism. For example, the Kremlin pushed for a law banning homosexual propaganda to minors, as well as jailing a punk group for protesting inside a Moscow church.

TV camera

At Tsargrad, there are signs that the channel’s ideology is attracting a broader group of supporters. Yuri Grymov, a leading Russian producer, recently signed on as director after working at Dozhd, a Russian TV channel — and other Dozhd employees are following suit. “I was a producer on Dozhd for a year-and-a-half, but we parted ways because we realized we were different,” Grymov said. “I’m friends with people of different confessions, I work with people of different confessions. It’s just that recent experience has shown me that people who go to church are different than atheists in a way that’s for the better.”

For Malofeev, this is all good news. “Under Putin 25,000 churches have been built. Can you believe it? Twenty-five thousand churches!” Malofeev exclaims. “In addition, 800 monasteries were restored, and at the previous Pascha (Easter) 1.5 million people in Moscow went to church — a new record. This is all happening before our eyes. Putin has become a historical leader, the best that Russia has had in 100 years, since before the revolution. We got very lucky.”

Konstantin Malofeev

Photographs: Peter Antonov

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