Two years ago, evangelical pastor Franklin Graham landed in hot water when, during a trip to Moscow, he had a meeting with Vyacheslav Volodin, a sanctioned Russian official. At the time, it was the highest-profile one-on-one meeting between an American national and a Russian figure sanctioned directly by the United States.
But it was apparently not Graham’s last meeting with Volodin. This past summer, Graham flew to Moscow again—and once more had a one-on-one meeting with Volodin.
Graham did not publicize the meeting on any of his social media accounts, nor on any of the websites for the organizations he oversees. While Graham announced that he was in Moscow “to meet with church and government leaders,” and showed pictures from his interviews on Russian television and meetings with local religious leaders, he did not share any photos of or information about his highest-profile meeting in Russia, nor did he publish any details of his discussions with Volodin.
The only record of the late July meeting appears to come from the official website of the Russian parliament, the Duma, of which Volodin—a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin—is currently the chairman. As the Duma website details, Graham and Volodin “exchanged views on Russia-US cooperation” and “discussed issues related to traditional family values.” According to the Duma readout, Volodin told Graham that “Russia has a firm and unequivocal stance on this issue. Marriage is a union of a man and a woman.” The Duma readout also features a photo of the two smiling and shaking hands.
While in Russia, Graham also sat down for a 27-minute interview with Russian propaganda outlet RT. During the interview, which featured Graham discussing everything from Donald Trump’s presidency to relations between the United States and Russia, Graham declined to say whether he thought the 2020 election was conducted freely and fairly.
In an emailed statement yesterday, Graham told me his meeting with Volodin and other Russian officials was “excellent.”
“We talked about spiritual issues in Russia, and Volodin also shared about his grandfather who was a priest in the Orthodox Church,” Graham wrote. “We did not discuss the topic of sanctions during our visit. This was not a political meeting and I’m not a politician. I am a minister of the Gospel, and I’m working to strengthen relationships between the Christians in our countries. This is what my father did in Russia and it is what I continue to do in many countries around the world.”
While Volodin may not be a familiar name in America, he was one of the earliest figures directly sanctioned by both the United States and the European Union for his close ties with Putin. According to a Treasury Department press release from 2014, Putin launched the Russian invasion of southern Ukraine in 2014 “based on consultations with his closest advisors, including Volodin,” who was then Putin’s deputy chief of staff. The EU added that Volodin was “responsible for overseeing the political integration” of the Ukrainian region of Crimea into Russia.
Indeed, Volodin is widely recognized as one of the key figures in Putin’s orbit, alongside oligarchic figures similarly sanctioned by Washington, London, and Brussels. Perceived as one of the Kremlin’s “gray cardinals,” Volodin has played a key role in transforming Russia into a supposed bastion of so-called “traditional values.” As Mikhail Zygar noted in his acclaimed 2016 book on Putin’s inner circle, Volodin specifically focused on attempting to undermine the U.S. Magnitsky Act, which targets and sanctions corrupt and kleptocratic Russian figures. (Per Zygar, the sanctions left Volodin “livid.”) Shortly thereafter, since-jailed Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny revealed Volodin’s multi-million dollar estate, which included a helipad and trout pond.
In response to the Magnitsky sanctions from the United States, Volodin spearheaded Moscow’s decision to ban the adoption of Russian orphans by American parents. In the years since, Volodin has remained close to the Russian president, leading efforts to label civil society groups as “foreign agents” and even defending Russian legislation rolling back protections for victims of domestic violence.
None of those realities has prevented Graham from participating in multiple meetings with Volodin in the past two years. During his first meeting with Volodin two years ago, Graham posted a photo of his meeting with the sanctioned Russian official, saying they focused their discussion on the broader state of U.S.-Russia relations, including “the possibility of intensifying contacts between the State Duma and the U.S. Congress.” Separately, Graham said it was an “honor” to meet with Volodin, who was a “very gracious man.” “Remember to keep him in your prayers,” Graham added.
While it’s unclear what Graham or Volodin ultimately hoped to gain from the meeting, the meeting between America’s most prominent evangelical and one of the most prominent sanctioned politicians in Russia fits a broader, years-long pattern of Kremlin-connected officials cultivating relations with American Christian fundamentalists. Such efforts culminated in the mid-2010s, when multiple now-sanctioned Russian officials built links with fundamentalist groups like the World Congress of Families (WCF). With alleged financial ties to multiple sanctioned Russian oligarchs, the WCF has stood at the center of myriad links between American Christian fundamentalists and Russian figures close to the Kremlin. To take but one example, the WCF’s 2018 conference hosted sanctioned Russian politician Yelena Mizulina as one of the featured speakers. (Such linkages also mirrored efforts to infiltrate other nominally conservative organizations, including the National Rifle Association.)
However, the WCF is hardly the lone American Christian fundamentalist entity keen to build bridges with Moscow. If anything, Graham now appears to be the primary prong that sanctioned Russian officials are using to access American fundamentalists. In 2015, during a trip where Graham met directly with Putin—again, this was after Russia had launched its invasion of Ukraine—Graham praised Putin for “protecting Russian young people against homosexual propaganda.” In 2017, Graham further called for the United States to “ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism” with Russia, asking for readers to pray for Putin.
Following this year’s trip, however, Graham posted nothing about Putin. He stayed silent about the Kremlin’s slide into dictatorship. And he did not post anything about his meeting with Volodin—or any requests for his followers to pray for the sanctioned Kremlin insider.