'Under Putin 25,000 churches have been built. Can you believe it? Twenty-five thousand churches!” Malofeev exclaims. “In addition, 800 monasteries ...'
This article originally appeared in the Financial Times Magazine, October 16, 2015
On a sunny afternoon in Moscow, the Russian tycoon Konstantin Malofeev is holding court in the studios of his newly launched 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 tonne. Behind him are 24ft-high windows through which the Kremlin’s red towers are visible, their glass communist stars glistening.
Malofeev, who has the cheeks and figure of a man who likes a good meal, 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 tête-à-tête before he departs on his summer holiday.
Over the past few years, Malofeev, 41, 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 back in vogue during Vladimir Putin’s third term. As the founder of private equity firm Marshall Capital Partners, Malofeev accumulated substantial personal wealth, largely through an investment in the Russian telecoms giant Rostelecom. (His friend Igor Shchegolev, a fellow Russian Orthodox and now Putin adviser, was telecoms minister at the time.) Now he is paying it back as a self-styled Christian philanthropist and one of Putin’s loudest ideological supporters.
It is as part of this next act that Malofeev has launched Tsargrad TV, his own Russian Orthodox TV channel, which aims to put a conservative yet modern spin on global news. In June, Tsargrad began broadcasting daily on Spas, a religious channel run by the Russian Orthodox Church, in addition to an online platform. According to Malofeev, Tsargrad’s closest international equivalent is Fox News in the US, making him something of a Russian Roger Ailes.
“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,” Malofeev says excitedly. “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. I’m still not sure what he has.”
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 cultivated an image of a man of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Connecting Malofeev to leading Russian and western conservatives is like playing a far-right, Orthodox 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 defence 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. The connections landed Malofeev under EU and US sanctions last year. Ukraine’s interior ministry has accused him of financing “illegal armed groups” and branded him a “sponsor of terrorists”.
Malofeev has denied the allegations, which have played well for him domestically. According to Sergei Markov, a well-connected pro-Kremlin analyst, the claims have actually boosted his standing as a successful lobbyist and ideologue: “Malofeev ended up in the middle of all these news events accidentally enough, I think. But when he did, of course he was happy about it. It meant that all of his money hadn’t been spent in vain.”
The new TV channel is the latest example of Malofeev doing what he does best: leveraging his Orthodox credentials and wealth to catapult himself into the zeitgeist of Russian politics. While some oligarchs who tried to get involved in TV in the early 2000s were exiled or jailed under Putin’s new regime, Malofeev is so far enjoying carte blanche with his channel, which he boasts is even more patriotic than the Kremlin’s own state-run TV stations. “We’ve always stuck to our Orthodox, patriotic, imperialist positions. The mainstream hasn’t.”
Tsargard’s primary goal, Malofeev insists, is a proselytising one. “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.”
At the same time, the channel has adopted a clear anti-western geopolitical stance on the news that can make Russian state TV look tame by comparison. In a segment about migrants this summer, 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 told the audience calmly. “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. A news item about Planned Parenthood turned into a cautionary exposé on “American Satanists” who “openly supported the killing of children”.
The mastermind behind Tsargrad’s editorial ideology is Alexander Dugin, a rightwing ideologue 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 travelled 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.”
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, before its official launch. Hanick, the former Fox News executive, was in town and helping the other producers prepare for an interview that evening with Alexei Vaits, a leader of the Night Wolves, a pro-Putin motorbike gang that has become one of the symbols of the new brand of Russian nationalism. The atmosphere was pandemonium.
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 Ivan 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.
Hanick was raised Catholic but says he and his wife now hope to baptise their son in the Russian Orthodox Church, so inspired have they been with their experience at the 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 third term, Orthodoxy has taken on the additional role of a political tool, used to unite the mostly Christian population against western liberalism, seen as the cause of the 2012 anti-government protests. In the wake of those protests, the Kremlin pushed for a 2013 law banning so-called gay propaganda to minors, and jailed the punk group Pussy Riot for a 2012 protest concert in a Moscow church, while pushing a more nationalist agenda on state TV.
The main concern now for the Russian Orthodox Church is that “religious, ideological, nationalist dialogue” will replace faith, says Georgy Mitrofanov, a St Petersburg priest. “Modern Orthodox Christians in Russia are not so much religiously motivated by church life as they are searching for a new authoritarian ideological system,” he warns.
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, Russia’s sole opposition 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 realised 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 and largely down to one man. “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 this 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.”