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America’s right-wing homeschooling movement – ThinkProgress

The group and its origins sound innocuous sufficient. However the Residence Faculty Authorized Protection Affiliation (HSLDA) — a right-wing group based 36 years in the past — has deepened connections between America’s spiritual proper and Russians even because the latter have been sanctioned by the USA, in accordance with a ThinkProgress investigation.

By networking with Russians, the HSLDA — now America’s largest right-wing homeschooling affiliation — has offered the Kremlin with a brand new avenue of affect over a few of the most conservative organizations in the USA.

And whereas investigations by Particular Counsel Robert Mueller, intelligence organizations, and congressional committees have targeted on Russia’s efforts to affect U.S. elections, Russian ties to teams just like the HSLDA reveal the Kremlin’s broader makes an attempt to carry sway over American insurance policies.

Different ties between sanctioned Russians and the American far-right are properly documented. From Christian fundamentalists to white supremacists to secession actions to fascists within the so-called “alt-right,” the hyperlinks are as diffuse as they’re damning. Not solely have these networks introduced Russian brokers into shut contact with higher-ups within the Republican celebration, however they’ve introduced a few of the main threads of the Kremlin’s efforts at upending and unwinding American democracy.

However on the similar time that particulars — and criticism — of those hyperlinks between Russia and American right-wing teams have been rising, the HSLDA co-sponsored a proper homeschooling convention in Moscow and St. Petersburg, ThinkProgress discovered. One of many convention’s different sponsors was a basis run by sanctioned Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev. The occasion featured a number of the most outspoken anti-LGBTQ officers in Russia, and included a Russian official who’s presently sanctioned by the U.S. for her position in stoking Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

This International Residence Schooling Convention, which hosted greater than 1,000 attendees from over 20 nations, offered a platform for these Russian officers and their networks to work with leaders of America’s homeschooling movement — all of it happening as Russian hyperlinks with the American far-right proceed to spill out elsewhere.

Sanctioning homeschoolers

Since its founding in 1983, the Virginia-based HSLDA has turn out to be America’s most outstanding homeschooling group. The group, which advocates on behalf of homeschooling households, has a right-wing spiritual bent. It describes its staff as “Christians who seek to honor God” of their work. Its founder, Michael Farris, has described homeschooling as “a way to obey God’s command to teach our children to love God.”

“HSLDA has pretty much always existed… for the religious right to train up kids to take over in politics.”

“[HSLDA] is probably the major player who’s driven American homeschooling in the last 30 years, and they’ve always been a very far-right, religious-right organization,” stated Kathryn Brightbill, a legislative analyst with the Coalition for Accountable Residence Schooling, a nonprofit that advocates for accountability in homeschooling. “HSLDA has pretty much always existed in part to create that next generation of soldiers for the religious right to train up kids to take over in politics,” she stated.

Because it grew into probably the most outstanding homeschooling group within the U.S., it attracted the eye of Russians main efforts to construct relationships with the American far-right.

These teams and people would assist obscure the true nature of Moscow’s kleptocratic dictatorship to People, particularly to segments of the American proper. In 2014, the Kremlin pushed these relationships additional: as U.S.-Russian relations fractured following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that yr, Russians near the Kremlin seemed to propel themselves immediately into the varieties of teams and actions pushing “traditional values,” particularly inside the American spiritual proper.

One among these teams, the World Congress of Households (WCF), performed an outsize position linking sanctioned Russian officers to the broader U.S. spiritual proper. The WCF, which the Southern Poverty Regulation Middle has designated a hate group, is a joint Russian-American venture that reportedly receives funding from sanctioned Russian oligarchs like Malofeev and Vladimir Yakunin, the latter of whom is the previous head of Russian Railways and an in depth Putin confidant.

The WCF took credit score for serving to cross a 2011 Russian regulation proscribing abortion entry, and has likewise helped construct a world coalition of anti-LGBTQ forces. It boasts some 50 membership organizations who pay dues, together with the Alliance Defending Freedom and Household Analysis Council, that are additionally designated hate teams by the SPLC. The WCF took credit score for serving to push Russia’s 2013 “Anti-Propaganda Law,” which successfully demonizes your complete LGBTQ group.

In 2014, the WCF introduced it might host its annual convention in Moscow. (The group’s most up-to-date convention, which ThinkProgress coated, was held in Moldova, and featured most of the similar Russian figures who joined the HSLDA in Russia final yr.) After the U.S. started issuing sanctions on Russia in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Russian funding for separatists in Ukraine, the WCF introduced it might not be organizing the convention, citing considerations about probably breaching these sanctions.

However the convention was held anyway, and appeared virtually similar to what the WCF had initially deliberate. And whereas some American teams just like the Conservative Ladies for America determined to skip the convention, a lot of People confirmed up — together with Michael Donnelly, the HSLDA’s director of worldwide outreach.

The HSLDA didn’t publicize Donnelly’s go to to Russia. (Different teams, like Texas secessionists, have additionally traveled to Russia in recent times whereas refraining from posting something publicly about their visits.) However Brightbill, with the Coalition for Accountable House Schooling, found that Donnelly adopted by way of on his pledge to talk on the convention.

In a collection of Fb posts that Brightbill uncovered, Donnelly wrote that he “met with senior leaders of the [Russian] Orthodox Church.” As Donnelly famous on Fb, “[The] family conference I’m attending today is being held at the Kremlin and says a lot at least on its face about the value of family in Russian government.”

Donnelly confirmed he attended the convention, writing in a textual content message that he was “there on official business.”

Donnelly’s go to, Brightbill stated, was “super hush-hush.” And for good cause: In 2014, People’ ties to Russia have been all of a sudden beneath U.S. scrutiny. Russia had simply invaded Ukraine and provided separatists with weaponry that introduced down Malaysian Air Flight MH17, killing 298 individuals.

However for these following Russian outreach efforts to the American far-right, that 2014 convention was a turning level. It marked a second through which Russia “[took] on the mantle of leadership of global social conservatism,” stated scholar Chris Stroop, an skilled on hyperlinks between between Russia and the American spiritual proper who acquired a doctorate from Stanford in Russian historical past.

Enemies of America, buddies of the HSLDA

By 2018, these ties between the HSLDA and networks of sanctioned Russians had continued, and had deepened. One of many main hyperlinks between the HSLDA and sanctioned Russian officers is Alexey Komov. A Russian nationwide, Komov speaks fluent English and has spent the previous few years because the official Russian consultant to the WCF. He additionally works immediately for Malofeev — a person nicknamed “God’s oligarch” for his position in financing religious-right ventures in Russia and overseas. Malofeev can also be presently beneath U.S. sanctions for having helped fund separatists in japanese Ukraine.

Alexey Komov and Elena Milskaya, both of whom work for sanctioned Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, huddle at last year's homeschooling conference in Russia. CREDIT: GHEX

Alexey Komov and Elena Milskaya, each of whom work for sanctioned Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, huddle eventually yr’s homeschooling convention in Russia. CREDIT: GHEX

Komov helped the HSLDA deliver the annual International Residence Schooling Convention to Russia final Might — the primary time the convention was hosted there. The choice successfully represented the end result of Russia’s efforts to liaise with the American right-wing homeschooling movement. One of many retailers that promoted the convention was a pro-Kremlin website referred to as Russian Religion, which is run by the rabidly anti-Semitic Charles Bausman; one other WCF adviser, Pavel Parfentiev, who claimed credit score for Russia’s ban on adoptions by LGBTQ couples, additionally spoke on the convention.

Donnelly stated the 2018 convention wasn’t particularly an HSLDA venture, however that HSLDA was merely one of many occasion’s co-sponsors. He additionally stated that HSLDA offered no direct monetary help for the convention. “The conference is a project supported by HSLDA, but it’s not HSLDA [as] the organization that actually did the conference,” he advised ThinkProgress. “We felt that [Russia] was a good place to go — and it turns out it was.”

However it seems the HSLDA performed an essential position in organizing the convention: The official contact for the convention is an HSLDA e-mail tackle, and the convention’s official webpage was registered by the HSLDA.

“[Komov] was the primary organizer, Russian organizer, of this homeschooling event,” stated Allan Carlson, one of many WCF’s co-founders and a speaker on the convention. “The chief American sponsoring group was the… HSLDA.”

Conferencing with the Kremlin

The convention, held in St. Petersburg and Moscow, billed itself as a “forum to cultivate awareness about home education, its legal framework, social and academic research, and practical experience around the world.” It was, in line with the official web page, “hugely successful.” Or as Carlson put it: “I think it was a very significant event.”

“[It] makes sense that we would find the leaders of America’s Christofascist homeschooling movement networking with Russians with whom they share ideological affinity.”

And which will have been true, within the context of homeschooling. Nevertheless it was additionally a coup for sanctioned Russians looking for to attach with the American proper.

One of many convention’s official co-sponsors, alongside the HSLDA and the far-right Alliance Defending Freedom, was Malofeev’s St. Basil the Nice Charitable Basis. And among the many audio system — which included a few of Russia’s most well-known anti-LGBTQ figures, like Dmitri Smirnov — was Yelena Mizulina, a Russian official sanctioned by the U.S. and extensively credited for serving to lead Moscow’s lurch towards far-right social insurance policies over the previous decade.

Because the Obama White Home introduced when sanctioning Mizulina in 2014, she was partly answerable for “contributing to the crisis in Ukraine,” alongside Russian ultra-nationalists like Dmitry Rogozin and Sergey Glazyev. The Trump White Home has continued to sanction Mizulina.

Donnelly advised ThinkProgress that the HSLDA has “no links with sanctioned Russian officials and oligarchs.”

Sanctioned Russian official Yelena Mizulina, seen here at last year's WCF conference in Moldova, has been sanctioned by the U.S. since 2014. CREDIT: CASEY MICHEL

Sanctioned Russian official Yelena Mizulina, seen right here finally yr’s WCF convention in Moldova, has been sanctioned by the U.S. since 2014. CREDIT: CASEY MICHEL

However in an interview with Pravoslavie, an internet site targeted on Russian Orthodox affairs, Donnelly particularly pointed to Mizulina — who’s now in her fifth yr beneath American sanctions — as a mannequin companion for the HSLDA. “I think that Russia has a bright future in the field of family education,” Donnelly stated. “[Russia has] official and very influential people who support this idea. For example, Yelena Mizulina.”

Brightbill famous that Mizulina’s help for homeschooling seems to be a part of a broader Russian playbook, particularly in relation to constructing alliances with American far-right teams. “That probably plays a big part in what they were doing with Russia, and how they became so easily played by Russia, since Russian officials are telling them that they are on board with this idea of homeschooling as a human right,” Brightbill stated.

A few of those that spoke on the convention, such because the WCF’s Carlson, tried to downplay the importance of sanctioned Russian officers’ and oligarchs’ involvement. “The thing just happened,” Carlson stated.

Mike Donnelly speaks at last year's homeschooling conference in Russia, which hosted at least one sanctioned Russian official. CREDIT: GHEX

Mike Donnelly speaks eventually yr’s homeschooling convention in Russia, which hosted at the very least one sanctioned Russian official. CREDIT: GHEX

“[It] makes sense that we would find the leaders of America’s Christofascist homeschooling movement networking with Russians with whom they share ideological affinity, even though homeschooling, like gun ownership, is uncommon in Russia,” Stroop stated, utilizing a time period to seek advice from fundamentalist Christian concepts utilized in pursuit of totalitarian rule.

Donnelly stated the HSLDA’s Russian companions made the choice to host Mizulina. “We didn’t invite her, the locals invited her,” he stated. “It was a global event, but the locals had some control over who got to come. They wanted her there because of her support of homeschooling and because she’s very influential.”

However Brightbill doesn’t purchase it. “HSLDA has acted as a clearinghouse for all these international homeschool organizations for years, so for them to say — ‘Oh, this isn’t them, they’re not the ones who are involved’ — it’s giving them distance and plausible deniability,” she stated.

Honored to be talking on the International Residence Schooling Convention in St. Petersburg. Homeschooling taking off in Russia. Nice individuals; nice convention. On to Moscow now. Spasibo! #homeschool

— Brian S. Brown (@briansbrown) Might 16, 2018

Donnelly stated that it doesn’t essentially matter that Mizulina is sanctioned, as long as she continues to again homeschooling.

“I’m very supportive of having people who are in power in a country speaking favorably about home education,” he stated. “Mizulina, she’s on the sanctions list, but she’s obviously very influential in the Russian Duma. And so if the homeschooling movement in Russia is going to survive and thrive, they need to have support from influential people. And so [the U.S.] may not like Yelena Mizulina as a country for whatever reason, but in Russia she’s very influential, and she’s very interested [in] and supportive of home education.”

Homeschool infiltration

Donnelly added that no American officers have requested him why the HSLDA participated within the 2018 convention, or why the HSLDA co-sponsored an occasion that featured a sanctioned Russian official like Mizulina.

“If you want to get me in trouble, go ahead and make that the focus of your article.”

“No one’s knocked on my door [to ask why HSLDA co-sponsored an event with Mizulina],” he stated. “Maybe they will if you start publicizing it. If you want to get me in trouble, go ahead and make that the focus of your article.”

Alexey Komov (back-center) appears with others at last year's homeschooling conference in Russia. CREDIT: FACEBOOK

Alexey Komov (back-center) seems with others eventually yr’s homeschooling convention in Russia. CREDIT: FACEBOOK

Whereas Donnelly stated he has no plans to return to Russia within the foreseeable future, Russians who’ve been making inroads with the American spiritual proper seem wanting to proceed their work.

“Our movements have the same issues, the same challenges, and as parents we really want what’s best for children,” Donnelly stated in a 2017 video with Komov. “Would you agree that that’s what’s motivating Russian homeschooling?”

“Absolutely,” Komov responded, smiling beneath falling snow. “I think we have very similar issues — and we should be close together.”