LGBT rights are under attack from Christian conservatives in Ukraine. Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
At the entrance to the Kyiv conference and event centre, copies of the New Testament were on sale along with a handbook for followers of Ruslan Kukharchuk entitled “The Mandate”, and several books on journalism and “eternal values”, published by his organisation, Novomedia.
Kukharchuk, a Protestant minister, is a prominent “pro-family” figure in Ukraine who has led an anti-LGBT campaign in the country since the early 2000s. In early November, he opened the annual forum of Novomedia, an association of Christian media workers in Ukraine.
Journalism, he told his audience of around 350 current and future media workers, is “a civic profession, which is why values are important for it. These are eternal values — the values of truth, facts, goodness, Christian traditions and a balance of opinion that serves the search for truth”.
He contrasted a “fight for a balance of opinions which serves the search for truth” with “propaganda and popularisation of deviations and unhealthy inclinations”, giving as examples interviews “with both victims of violence and maniacs”, or “with a paedophile who says that’s his sexual orientation”.
“You know this is a new trend”, Kukharchuk elaborated. “Paedophilia is starting to be seen as a sexual orientation! And believe it or not, in five years time they’ll prove it! Then we have to save and preserve our children”.
Conservative and far-right voices have become louder in Ukraine since the 2014 EuroMaidan revolution and the fall of President Viktor Yanukovych. Defending “universal” or “traditional” values, they’ve attacked proposed laws they don’t like, artists, feminists and LGBT rights activists.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and war in Donbass, also in 2014, these groups have increasingly looked west for ideas and support, from the US and other European countries where conservative and far right movements enjoy growing power.
The Novomedia forum in Kyiv offered an up-close look at the communications strategies of these internationally-connected movements – and how they’re trying to influence journalism, and politics, in Ukraine.
Along with frequent references to Christian values, speakers echoed US President Donald Trump’s obsession with “fake news”.
Kukharchuk claimed that few people in journalism, as in academia, are searching for truth anymore – referencing the recent case of three US researchers who published fake research in sociology journals to expose what they saw as ideological bias.
He also shared supposed examples of “fake science” – for instance, ideas he summarised as “we need to abolish all gender roles and differences between men and women. They are all the same, and daring to say that boys and girls are different is flagrant obscurantism”.
Further ridiculing struggles against gender stereotypes, he asked the assembled participants: “What has more value for an audience, a real event or the personal emotions and concerns of someone who interprets events?”
Answering his question, he said: “For men, as I understand it, it’s a question of events; for women, it’s interpretations. Of course, what I’ve just said is a blatant gender stereotype of the type that we need to ‘fight against’”.
Preaching “eternal values”
Novomedia was founded more than a decade ago, in 2004. It has preached about “eternal values” at its annual forum in Kyiv since 2011.
More than 100 media experts and journalists have attended these events, including those from leading Ukrainian publications. In 2017, the headliner was Seva Novgorodtsev, a former BBC radio presenter legendary in the Russian-speaking world.
This year’s programme mixed sermon-like talks from figures like Kukharchuk with popular master classes by prominent TV or radio hosts on how to become a professional radio DJ; live presentation techniques; conducting interviews; and working as a multi-platform journalist.
Discussions at the forum also touched on topical themes like the safety of journalists, freedom of speech, and war and political journalism – increasingly relevant subjects in Ukraine.
But the event’s links to Christian conservative movements were not hidden. On registration, participants received folders containing the conference programme along with “pro-family” advertisements, leaflets and magnets bearing the words “All together for the family”.
CBN, a US evangelical TV and radio network, was among the forum’s sponsors along with a Ukrainian construction and investment company, NovaBudova, whose director-general Yevhen Savochka has participated in the annual US National Prayer Breakfast.
Donald Trump the National Prayer Breakfast, 2017. Photo: Win Mcnamee/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
After Kukharchuk took the stage, the forum was blessed by Mykola Myshkovsky, a Roman Catholic priest and editor of a Vinnytsa-based religious media outlet. As the audience stood for the prayer, the room was filled with the sound of people repeating Myshkovsky’s words.
This year’s headliner was well-known Ukrainian TV presenter Olha Freimut, whose recent book (“Miss Freimut’s Etiquette School”) was published to scandalous reception. Commenters on social media have slated Freimut’s advice on how to become a “real lady” as misleading and potentially harmful.
Brushing over this, Freimut talked at the forum about the long road from her childhood in a small village in western Ukraine to stardom in national journalism. It took more than hard work and daring to get there, she said.
“I always knew that I was being led by a higher force. And what is impossible for people is possible with God. Everyone has their own source of strength, but I have always followed my path with help from heaven”.
“A global right-wing renaissance”
A whole panel session was devoted to conservatism and the media, with Kukharchuk, Ukrainian MP Ihor Lutsenko, and editor-in-chief of the Vgolos news agency Yury Gritsyk. They talked about the need to create conservative media or the possibility that some existing outlets could swing to the right.
“The global right-wing renaissance is a revolution”, said Lutsenko, himself a former journalist and prominent figure in the 2014 EuroMaidan protests. This “sharp confrontation”, he said, “could also have quite an interesting future” in Ukraine, where there are “a wide range of possibilities”.
“But we lack the ability to translate these ideas into reality”, continued the MP, whose parliamentary advisor is Serhiy Mazur, a coordinator of the far-right C14 group which human rights activists say is one of several radical groups that have recently attacked Roma settlements and LGBT people.
“And since this confrontation is already before us, in this context these media can give us an opportunity to reduce the level of hate and even prevent violence”, Lutsenko said, clicking through his presentation slides which included a portrait of Donald Trump.
“We know that there have been attacks on Gay parades and inter-ethnic clashes”, he said, “but this was because these were the only possible form of protest and expression of Ukraine’s conservative renaissance”.
Ihor Lutsenko, 2012. Photo: Leonst/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Lutsenko read out a list of left-liberal opponents for Ukrainian conservatives, starting with independent TV and radio station Hromadske (which was ironic, as its programmes have received several Novomedia awards for their coverage of Christian themes).
Other named “agents of left-liberal influence” included the International Renaissance Foundation, part of the Open Society Foundations network, “thousands” of sexual and reproductive rights organisations “with massive budgets”, and Ukraine’s Commission on Journalist Ethics.
“This is a kind of lobbying industry, copied from the Western model”, Lutsenko claimed. Along with Kukharchuk, he accused left-liberals of vanity, antagonism towards dissenting views, and “double standards”.
“A particular model of thought is being promoted as an absolute truth which rejects any alternative thinking”, Kukharchuk said.
“We haven’t even got to the stage of creating a national education system, but we’re already readily accepting that which others are trying to force on us, those things that Europe itself is now starting to reject”, added Gritsyk.
Universities are dropping history and other courses that could raise responsible parents and “defenders of our fatherland”, he said, replacing them with those teaching tolerance of “sexually depraved minorities”.
“Liberalism is destroying Europe,” the Vgolos editor continued. “We are all being brainwashed into thinking that traditions are bad… We will all quietly, imperceptibly turn into liberals”.
The specific, “pro-family” and evangelical rhetoric of the forum was hardly surprising, given Kukharchuk’s public and political activities.
In addition to leading the Novomedia association, Kukharchuk heads the “Love versus Homosexuality” movement, which holds counter-demonstrations during Kyiv’s annual March of Equality (for the fifth time this year), and the ‘pro-family’ “All Together” (Vsi razom) movement.
The “All Together” movement – which defines families narrowly, excluding those with LGBT parents – organises a “Marathon of Family Festivals” in cities around Ukraine. Its activists have also lobbied local and central government to pass laws protecting “traditional family values”.
This fall, more than 50 local councils called on the Ukrainian government to criminalise “homosexual propaganda”; delete the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” from the Labour Code; and preserve the constitution’s definition of marriage as between a man and woman only.
A recent draft bill, aiming to implement most of these changes, cited the work of “All Together” as evidence of social demand for them.
The Novomedia association has also defended Hanna Turchynova, a head of faculty at the National Pedagogical Dragomanov University, after she wrote a controversial series of articles against “gender ideology”, which prompted calls for her dismissal from human rights campaigners.
“The main aim [of gender ideology] is overcoming heterosexuality”, wrote Turchynova, who is married to Oleksandr Turchynov, the current Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council (who recently became coordinator of the country’s Union of Protestant Churches).
As the Zaborona media outlet reported, before the EuroMaidan revolution and the war in eastern Ukraine, Kukharchuk had also enjoyed friendly relations with Christian activist organisations in Russia, although later these groups supported the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass.
In his opening remarks, amid references to “His Excellency, the Fact”, Kukharchuk showed off his pastor skills, reproving his audience (“you’re missing the places where you need to clap”).
Several of the journalists who spoke at the forum, however, privately admitted they hadn’t realised quite what sort of event it was, and have no intention of attending again.