Young supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin have staged several protests this month outside Mormon meeting houses, claiming that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an "authoritarian sect" with connections to the CIA and FBI.
The protesters are members of the Young Guard, a youth organization of Putin's United Russia Party. They insist their actions have nothing to do with Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate and Mormon who called Russia the "No. 1 geopolitical foe" of the U.S.
Ekaterina Stenyakina, the co-chair of the Young Guard, says the group was inspired to protest by a recent directive that Putin gave to law enforcement groups and legislators, asking them for ways to regulate the activities of "totalitarian sects."
Stenyakina says her organization decided to draw attention to some of the groups it considered to be totalitarian sects, and that the Mormons simply became the first on the list.
About a dozen protesters recently gathered outside a Mormon meeting hall in Moscow, holding hand-lettered signs that said, "No to totalitarian cults," and "CIA — stop!"
Mormon Population Grows
While the Mormons are a very small fraction of Russia's religious landscape, their numbers have grown steadily, from a few hundred in 1990 to just under 22,000 today.
Stenyakina says her group is relying on the research of experts to determine that the Latter-day Saints church is a cult. For the most part, however, that "research" just seems to repeat the claims found on anti-Mormon websites.
It includes charges that the Mormons are not really Christian and that they believe in multiple gods. The Young Guard's twist on this anti-Mormonism is the claim that Mormons are promoting an American political agenda in Russia.
"This is absolutely wrong, false [and] not true," says Andrey Filimonov, an LDS spokesman for Eastern Europe, based in Moscow. "The church in every country has nothing to do with political issues at all."
Filimonov points to the church's statement of political neutrality, which is published in every country where Mormons preach.
Stenyakina says the Young Guard sees the Mormon Church as an American enterprise, funded from the United States, with missionaries who act as American operatives. She says they would come under a recently passed Russian law that requires such groups to register as foreign agents.
Filimonov argues that the church is not American, but an international organization.
"The leaders in Russia of the church are Russians," he says.
Filimonov says that most missionaries in Russia today are not Americans, but Russians and people from other countries. In fact, the Mormon Church now claims more than 14 million adherents worldwide, fewer than half of whom live in the United States.
The Young Guard contends that Mormon missionaries in Russia cooperate with the FBI and CIA. They repeat another theme that's common on the Internet as well: that American Mormon missionaries go to work for the U.S. security agencies in disproportionate numbers when they return home.
The agencies don't divulge the religious leanings of their personnel, and Filimonov says he can only offer his own observations.
"I personally don't know anyone who went, and I've been in the church since '93," he says. "[And] it's their personal choice if they even do because everybody is looking for whatever they want to do and it doesn't mean they're spies."
Filimonov notes that missionaries' language skills and the cultural knowledge gained from living abroad suit them for many kinds of international jobs.
The Young Guard's Stenyakina says her group wants to alert young people in Russia not to get involved with the LDS church.
Still, she insists that the timing of the protests had nothing to do with the U.S. election or Romney's religious affiliation. The Russian press labeled Romney as "the main American Russophobe," she says, but that didn't trigger the protests.
For now, Stenyakina is not saying whether the Young Guard will continue to target Mormon missionaries or pursue other religious groups deemed to be cults.