Under Vladimir Putin's government, Russian families are being rewarded for displaying ‘orthodox’ values, including one family that has 18 children.
On the banks of the River Don in the southeast of Russia, an extraordinary service is taking place. Members of Russia's 1000-year-old Orthodox Church are washing away their sins with an icy swim. Incredible as it sounds, scenes like this are taking place across Russia today because this is the Feast of Epiphany, people are jumping into cold water everywhere. But this place has a special significance. This is the Don River. This is the Cossack heartland of Russia, and the Cossacks are seen as the guardian of the eternal Russian values of patriotism, God and family.
This is also the sign of an extraordinary revival. For most of the last 100 years, the Church was persecuted by the Communist government. Now, the Orthodox Church and President Vladimir Putin are new best friends.
FATHER EVGENIL OSYAK (Translation): Come on, show them what you’re made of.
Leading the service is Father Evgenil Osyak, one of 18 children in a family who are becoming national celebrities. At the Church of the Holy Trinity in nearby Rostov-on-Don, the Osyak sisters form the core of the choir. Down below is the patriarch of the family, Father Ioanna Osyak. He and his children are a symbol of the new Russia - religious, conservative and deeply patriotic.
REPORTER: Did you ever imagine that the Orthodox Church would have the importance that it has today?
FATHER IOANNA OSYAK (Translation): I remember going to church in my childhood, towards the end of the 60s, when people were dragged from the church by their hair. It's different now, we have freedom. I’m very grateful to our President, Vladimir Putin. No matter how strange it seems, this man is like a father and like a father, he looks after everybody, especially big families.
The church looks ancient, but it's barely 20 years old. Since President Putin came to power, 25,000 new churches have been built.
REPORTER: Oh, hello. I’m Marcel. What is this place?
MARIANNA, CHRISTIAN TV STATION WORKER: This place is a TV studio.
REPORTER: Wow, OK.
MARIANNA: Yeah, the first Christian TV in the south of Russia.
REPORTER: It's the first Christian TV station?
MARIANNA: Yeah, it is.
From next door, there's the sound of gunfire. They’re editing a new show and it's not Songs Of Praise. I’m scared. I think they’re going to attack me.
DEEMA: They’re doing this type of stuff to be sure that a child can protect himself, his family.
Russian Orthodoxy is not a turn the other cheek religion. This military training was organised by a local priest. Rostov's just 100km away from the contested border with Ukraine. Father Ioanna has invited me to meet his family in the suburbs of Rostov-on-Don. This is where Father Ioanna lives with his wife, Nadezhda. I’ve come to meet her to find out about the reality of being the mother to 18 children.
REPORTER: Wow, it's big. Hello, nice to meet you. Hello. She speaks English, as well as her other talents.
The Osyaks have 10 sons and eight daughters, ranging in age from seven to 33, and 25 grandchildren too. Nadezhda had her first child at 18.
NADEZHDA OSYAK, IOANNA’S WIFE (Translation): As soon as I graduated from school, I started working at a bread factory. Then we got married and had our first baby and I went on maternity leave, and that lasted for 28 years without a single interruption, without a single interruption.
Her daughters are also starting their families young.
FATHER IOANNA OSYAK (Translation): This is Ivan Illyich. Here is his mother, my daughter, and here is her second child.
REPORTER (Translation): What is your name?
MARIA (Translation): Maria.
Maria's 18. She's the Osyak's twelfth child. Serafim is the 13th.
REPORTER: And 13, is that an unlucky number in Russian?
SERAFIM (Translation): No, it's lucky.
FATHER IOANNA OSYAK (Translation): Let's go upstairs.
The Osyaks are exceptional. In a country where the population has been shrinking for the last 20 years, their exemplary fertility has been recognised by the Government with a special medal.
FATHER IOANNA OSYAK (Translation): This is the Order for Parental Glory Award. We were one of the first in Russia.
To be eligible for the Order of Parental Glory, you must have seven or more children and be morally upstanding. The Osyaks tick all the boxes.
REPORTER: Oh, Nadezhda's coming out with hers.
FATHER IOANNA OSYAK (Translation): She has an international one as well.
REPORTER (Translation): An international one, congratulations.
NADEZHDA OSYAK (Translation): Here is the Order of Parental Glory that we were awarded.
REPORTER: What did you feel when you met the President and he gave you the award?
NADEZHDA OSYAK (Translation): It was very moving. I was touched that they noticed us for having so many children.
FATHER IOANNA OSYAK (Translation): A woman herself is a creation of God and when she's pregnant, she fulfils the highest human mission - she gives new life.
Their youngest, 7-year-old Anastasia, also has something to boast about.
REPORTER (Translation): Oh, that's your tooth. Do you put it under your pillow?
ANASTASIA OSYAK (Translation): Sometimes, but sometimes I just throw them away.
The most striking thing about this house is how amazingly tidy it is. It looks like it's ready for a magazine shoot. In this showpiece home, even the teenagers’ bedrooms are immaculate. Anya is 16.
FATHER IOANNA OSYAK (Translation): She is in charge of the whole floor and here is her room.
REPORTER (Translation): Oh, OK. So tidy.
FATHER IOANNA OSYAK (Translation): Her room is the cleanest.
REPORTER: Anya, do you want to have a big family too?
ANYA OSYAK (Translation): Yes, as many as God gives me, but I want lots, just like my parents. It's good that the family is Orthodox, this is most important, and my father is the best.
We go in search of the rest of the family and find most of them hanging out in the basement.
REPORTER: Wow. My goodness. There's so many people. Alright. Sorry.
FATHER IOANNA OSYAK (Translation): They’re having a tournament.
I’m whisked off to see the rest of the facilities.
REPORTER: OK, let's look at the swimming pool. Wow.
I’m wondering how he paid for all this on his church salary.
FATHER IOANNA OSYAK (Translation): In Russia, there are a lot of kind people, and this house was built entirely on charitable donations.
He tells me the donors include the country's richest woman, the head of the national railways, and a billionaire MP - all keen to associate themselves with the Osyaks’ family values. Father Ioanna is not just free to practise his religion, he's well rewarded for it. His family has become a shiny advert for the new values that Vladimir Putin wants to promote - family, God and country.
There's another side to the resurgence of the Orthodox Church - a wave of intolerance, with homophobic views and graphic descriptions of abortion on TV.
NEWS READERS (Translation): These people, so-called ‘gays’, ‘camp people’, whatever you call them... Sodomites.
In the West, political power has been captured by a minority of perverts.
Just like the Nazis had thousands of methods for exterminating millions of people, so today those butchers in white coats have thousands of methods for scraping out a living human being from a woman's womb.
This is brand new broadcaster, Tsargrad TV. It's like this bizarre amalgam of Fox News and the Russian Orthodox Church, but they’re deadly serious about this. Their message is that liberal values are over and this is the future.
REPORTER: Wow, this is nice.
I’m meeting its founder, Konstantin Malofeev.
REPORTER: Hi. Marcel Theroux, nice to meet you.
KONSTANTIN MALOFEEV, FOUNDER OF TSARGRAD TV: Nice to meet you.
He's a banker with vast riches, huge energy, and Kremlin connections.
KONSTANTIN MALOFEEV: Our audience is pretty young. These people who grew up after the millennium, they’re very Orthodox, they’re conservative, they’re traditionalist, and they believe that liberals, it's sort of hippy.
He's got a vision for Russia.
KONSTANTIN MALOFEEV: Back to Russian Empire time, when we were Orthodox, when we had seven children for one family, when we were proud to be Russian.
Konstantin Malofeev's pride in Russia has led to him being hit with international sanctions for giving money to the rebels in Ukraine.
REPORTER: You felt this was necessary, an Orthodox TV channel was something you wanted to do?
KONSTANTIN MALOFEEV: Yes, of course. Orthodoxy is a way of life.
REPORTER: But people in the West see the rise of Orthodoxy here also as an attack on gay people, an attack on women's right to abortion. That's something that you’re very strongly critical of.
KONSTANTIN MALOFEEV: We are believers and in the Bible they are called “Sodomites”, so we call them Sodomites.
The guru of the operation is this man, Alexander Dugin. He sees Russia and the West as opponents in a global, spiritual battle. One writer called him “Putin's brain”.
REPORTER: You believe that it's not likely that Russia and the West should come into conflict, it's inevitable?
ALEXANDER DUGIN, PRESENTER TSARGRAD TV: The West is very aggressive, colonial, imperialist, and tries to submit any other civilisation under its will. We reject that exactly in the measure it attacks us.
But there is one aspect of the hypocritical West that has caught his fancy.
ALEXANDER DUGIN: I really like Donald Trump. Trump's America is traditional and conservative, healthy, and worthy of respect.
I’m catching the Metro to an increasingly rare thing in Russia - a protest - outside the Russian Parliament or Duma. The Church believes there's such a thing as reasonable and loving physical punishment within a family, and wants violence against spouse or child decriminalised. It's -10, but a handful of women have braved the cold to protest outside the Duma. There's the second reading of the bill that would decriminalise domestic violence. 10,000 Russian women are estimated to die at the hands of their partners every year. Government has clamped down so much on protests in the last few years, they’ve become very scarce, and when protesters come here, there's a law that says they have to stand 50 metres apart. The new law would reduce the punishment for domestic violence from prison to a fine. It's a play on the Mastercard ad.
REPORTER: It says to hit a wife, 5,000 roubles. To beat up a child, 7,000 roubles. Family values, priceless. What do family values mean?
PROTESTER (Translation): In our country there’s an understanding that family values mean Orthodox religious values based on patriarchy, male violence and the weakness of women and children.
REPORTER: Do you think it's a lot to do with the influence of the Church, and on the Government?
PROTESTER 2 (Translation): The Church in Russia often quotes Saint Paul, who said that a woman should fear her husband, and the Church advises women to bear their cross in silence.
A week later, President Putin signed the bill into law. As the bill was being passed, I went to see Konstantin Malofeev at one of his other projects - a vast new school outside Moscow. I’d heard he was a supporter of the bill.
REPORTER: There's a bill in Parliament right now to decriminalise domestic violence.
KONSTANTIN MALOFEEV: Oh, we are for that. That was us behind it. We are the lobbying group behind this, of course.
REPORTER: Which lobby? You personally or the channel, Tsargrad?
KONSTANTIN MALOFEEV: All of us.
REPORTER: So isn’t it bad when someone beats their wife?
KONSTANTIN MALOFEEV: Never allow State to interfere in your family. We know exactly what would happen if State would start to interfere in the family. Family is sacral.
People like Konstantin Malofeev want a Russian Empire 2.0 – great like the USSR, but which doesn’t meddle in its citizens’ lives. And it's part of a whole family values agenda, but not only should families be big, but the State shouldn’t intervene, even when there's violence going on in the home.
I’m back in Rostov-on-Don. I’m on my way to visit another big family, in fact, the biggest family in the entire country. They show a very different side of Russia. The woman I’m about to meet has been a mother to more than 70 children. While the Government wants upstanding Russians to have bigger families, an estimated 600,000 children have parents who can’t or won’t take care of them. The Government can’t persuade enough Russians to adopt and is relying on a few exceptional people, like Tatiana Sorokina. She's adopted 48 children and fostered more. In all, she's taken in 76.
TATIANA SOROKINA, FOSTER MUM (Translation): You can put off any kind of work. You can wash the clothes tomorrow, clean the house tomorrow, but you have to eat every day.
REPORTER: Can you tell me how you end up adopting the children?
TATIANA SOROKINA (Translation): Many children come from the families of alcoholics. They arrive hungry. So hungry that in the first few days, they smuggle food from the table and hide it under their mattresses or pillows. That's how little they had.
Children, dinner's ready.
Six-year-old Kostya was abandoned by his parents and left to fend for himself on the streets.
TATIANA SOROKINA (Translation): Hurry up and eat.
Next to him is Kolya, aged five.
TATIANA SOROKINA (Translation): Look how well Kolya is eating.
He's already been rejected by one adoptive family, now Tatiana's trying to socialise him.
TATIANA SOROKINA (Translation): Behave yourself! That's not the way people should eat. Only piglets eat like that. Kolya, close your mouth and eat nicely.
There's two ways here - there's Tatiana's way and the highway and Kolya's a new arrival, he's only been here a couple of months. So that's why she is being kind of tough with him, she wants him to behave properly.
After supper, the children let off steam in the basement they’ve named the 'sports hall’. You can see they’ve gone a bit crazy down here. Well, I suppose there's 18 of you living in a house, however big it is. There's got to be somewhere where you go and just go completely nuts, and this is it.
Once, thousands of Russian children found homes abroad, but Russia has clamped down on adoption to countries that permit gay marriage, and banned adoption by Americans outright. I’ve got a sort of ringing headache from being down in the sports hall with all those kids going crazy, and it's incredible to think that is Tatiana's reality 24/7, looking after so many children. But it's also moving when you think that a lot of those kids came from difficult circumstances and if it weren’t for her, they would be leading lives that are considerably worse. The next morning, Tatiana and family are off to the supermarket. The State gives Tatiana some money for the children, but it barely covers food.
TATIANA SOROKINA (Translation): Expires on the 18th. Expires on the 19th.
I ask Tatiana what kind of family Kolya comes from.
TATIANA SOROKINA (Translation): His mother had mental health problems. She had six children. Kolya and three others were adopted. They kept three, but returned Kolya when they discovered his issues.
REPORTER (Translation): What kind of problems do you have with him?
TATIANA SOROKINA (Translation): He has tantrums, he misbehaves, but it's been two months and he's getting better. We’ve found the right approach.
She tells me Kolya is desperate to start kindergarten next week. She said he can if he behaves.
TATIANA SOROKINA (Translation): So, he's making little efforts.
I want to know if he’ll make it. But first, it's time to say goodbye to the Osyaks. I’m joining them for church. They’re in their Sunday best, mink coats, even though it's Friday. Today is a special service to honour Father's Ioanna's patron saint, John the Baptist. Five of his sons are serving alongside him. Whether you’re devout or not, this is an amazing spectacle. It's like a piece of theatre. The doors keep opening and closing, the air is full of the smell of incense. It's got some undeniable power.
After the end of the Soviet Union, many people thought it was only a matter of time before Russia became like the West. Instead, the Orthodox Church and Putin's government are rejecting the West and its values, as they strive to make Russia great again.
FATHER IOANNA OSYAK (Translation): It was written in the holy books that I grew up with that Russia will come to great glory, but at the price of great suffering. The nations of the world will see that Russia was on its knees, but then it rose again. They will see its beauty, joy and kindness to all, and all nations will bow down before Russia.
I’ve got one last goodbye to make. We’ve got up at the crack of dawn to go to Tatiana’s house because today is a big day for Kolya. Thanks to Tatiana's efforts, Kolya is ready to start kindergarten.
KOLYA (Translation): You expect me to wear these?
REPORTER (Translation): Do you think this is your last first day at kindergarten?
TATIANA SOROKINA (Translation): I think this is the last one. I don’t think there will be any more.
REPORTER (Translation): Are you sure?
TATIANA SOROKINA (Translation): No, I’m not sure.
Thanks to Tatiana's love and hard work, Kolya now has a chance to be one of the citizens who will shape Russia's future. Thanks to the rise of Russia's church, that future looks set to be conservative, religious and nationalistic.
9th May 2017