Anti-cult activism helping to enforce religious restrictions in Russia

The anti-cult movement has had significant influence in Russia since the government adopted a series of amendments which enhanced the scope and penalties of previous religion and anti-extremism laws in 2017, according to a July report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). The law targets sharing religious faith, or extending invitations to religious services, as illegal missionary activity if they take place outside of officially registered spaces (including in private homes or over the internet). The practical consequences of this law have led to activism against such faiths as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Alexander Dvorkin, a Russian anti-cult leader, has been the most active in this field, spending years lobbying for strong measures against groups he frequently refers to as “totalitarian cults” and “destructive sects.” He claims the Jehovah’s Witnesses maintains strict control over every aspect of its members’ lives in a Stalinist mode. The organizational base of Russia’s anti-cult movement is the Saint Irenaeus of Leon Information-Consultation Center (SILIC), which is under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church. Using such terms as “totalitarian sects,” Dvorkin has incorporated Western anti-cult ideas, including brainwashing and deprogramming into the post-Soviet context.

Russia brought along its “restrictive religious regulation framework when it invaded Crimea in 2014, including the symbiosis between anti-cult ideas and national security,” according to the report. Groups illegal in Russia but allowed in Ukraine, such as the Muslim Tablighi Jamaat (JT) or Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), have been charged with terrorism, even for only organizing meetings on Islamic philosophy. The Russian Federation’s return to Soviet-era religious regulation has had a spillover effect in many countries of the FSU, especially in relation to Muslims in Central Asia. The online newsletter Bitter Winter (July 18, 2020), which focuses on religious freedom, reports that Dvorkin’s anti-cult activity has extended to China’s campaign to restrict new religious movements, such as the Church of God Almighty. “Dvorkin has regularly supported the CCP in its repression of movements labeled as xie jiao (`evil cults’). Dvorkin went repeatedly to China and Hong Kong to offer his support to the persecution of Falun Gong, to deny that the CCP is harvesting organs from prisoners of conscience, and to applaud the repression of The Church of Almighty God. In turn, the CCP has supported Dvorkin’s campaigns against the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia, and ‘imported’ them to China.”

(The USCIRF report can be downloaded here,; Bitter Winter,