One More Dot on the Russian Church Map
Developments among Russian Baptists since February 2008
M o s c o w -- It’s been 13 months since Alexander Semchenko gave up his leadership role in the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” (RUECB). It’s been a long year, for this Baptist philanthropist left behind a large financial hole when he departed. Renovation of the RUECB’s Moscow headquarters was only one of the many projects he had financed. As a relatively progressive leader, Semchenko (born 1948) has in recent times done something to help move Russian Baptists onto the stage of contemporary Russian society. His loud-and-lively Easter concerts have presented a dynamic, happy picture of Russian Protestantism very different from the stodgy stereotypes of the Soviet era.
Thanks to his underground “samizdat” work, his career as a publisher began with a stint behind bars in 1982. But his monthly “Protestant”, which was founded in 1989, initially took off like a rocket. Hitting a peak of 170.000 subscriptions, it was for a time available even in countryside kiosks. Though no longer an RUECB-paper, it remains today with its circulation of 12.000 Russia’s highest-quality Protestant newspaper. His publishing house has actively produced Christian literature; one of his own periodicals rightly labels him a “pioneer”. Yet it was his metamorphosis from dissident publisher and youth leader to millionaire businessman which made much of his church work possible. His “Teplo-Technika” construction firm has produced heating systems for more than 100 Moscow buildings or building complexes – including renovation of Moscow’s renowned “Bolshoi Theatre”.
In print, Alexander Semchenko attributes his departure from the RUECB to a “conflict with the President” (Yuri Sipko). The other side reports of Semchenko’s expectation that he as a holder of non-elected, honorary positions within RUECB-leadership be given the right to authorise significant decisions. It also cites differences regarding the relationship of Baptists to the government. The departed leader describes that he had in the 1980’s “taught young people how to best resist the godless state authority”. Yet the constraints of being a successful businessmen have pushed his thinking in another direction. The relationship between the RUECB and its primary Russian donor always was a tedious one, for the two sides had differing strengths. Semchenko had financial power, RUECB leadership had the power of wide Baptist approval.
Semchenko thinks result-oriented, he’s committed to doing what “works”. It is said that he is not afraid to try the untried – hardly a common trait among Russian Protestants. The businessman wants another church: innovative, modern in style, open and committed to the present Russian government. One observer claims Semchenko is eager to send the RUECB’s 55 Senior Presbyters – or “bishops” – into early retirement. His allies are found in the younger crowd. Two of his most important workers are Leonid Kartavenko and Simon Borodin - both former heads of RUECB’s missions department. Semchenko’s break with the RUECB is for some an expression of the tension between modernizers and traditionalists. For others, he is simply a seculariser.
After the parting in February of last year, Alexander Semchenko immediately continued the process of instituting parallel Baptist structures. What had until then been independent branches on the RUECB-tree, developed a life of their own. Though most of Moscow’s Protestant seminaries are hard-pressed for students, Semchenko is attempting to found an educational programme including an institute for homiletics. His news service (www.protestant.ru) hopes to compete with “Invictory”, the Charismatic, Internet-based agency located in Kiev and seen as the most-popular, Russian-language, Protestant news service.
Though not regarded as a theologian, Semchenko was named bishop of the 26-congregation-strong “Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians” last year. This grouping, constituted in 1992, is also known as the “Prokhanovtsy” after the Russian Baptist leader Ivan Prokhanov (1869-1935). This parallel movement’s crowning event should be a conference on Prokhanov scheduled for a prominent Moscow hotel in late April. Insiders claim the conference will cost a hefty seven million roubles ($200.000 US) – roughly the price of five annual National Prayer Breakfasts.
Observers note that these events do not indicate the movement’s complete break with the RUECB. Some Baptists work for both and the borders remain fluid. But when Semchenko pays, his own projects are expected to have priority. Since the break, it is no longer possible to work strictly for the RUECB while receiving a salary from Semchenko.
Cooperation with Sergey Ryakhovsky
Semchenko is aware that he cannot do everything alone. The process of joining forces with that segment of the Charismatic movement particularly loyal to Sergey Ryakhovsky, Bishop of the 2.000-congregation-strong, loosely-structured “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE in Russian), is gathering momentum. One initial sign for the coalescing of their forces was a statement on 28 August 2008 supporting Russian recognition of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The statement was signed by the two of them along with Seventh-Day Adventist President Vassily Stolyar.
Indeed, it can be maintained that Semchenko is repeating what Ryakhovsky had done before. In 1998, Rhakhovsky broke with the traditional Pentecostal “Russian Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith” – now headed by Pavel Okara - to organise a second association of churches more contemporary and Western in style. Both are now somewhat alienated from the denominations out of which they came.
Both Ryakhovsky and Semchenko recommend themselves to the government as more loyal than others. Semchenko’s media repeatedly applaud and encourage Russian military service. Ryakhovsky has criticised present Ukrainian interpretations of political events during the Soviet period and the Estonian decision to remove the Soviet-era war memorial in Tallinn. The two of them and the Adventist Stolyar are the sole Protestant members of the “Council for the Cooperation with Religious Organisations at the Seat of the Russian President”, which on the basis of a meeting in Tula on 11 March is becoming closely allied with the Moscow Patriarchate and President Medvedev itself. Though they had helped bring the National Prayer Breakfast into being, none of the three Protestant leaders chose to attend this annual Moscow event six days later.
Despite celebrating independent church leaders in print, Alexander Semchenko also expresses his concern regarding the disunity present among evangelical Christians. An indication of that concern might be his newest parallel organisation: the ”All-Russian Union of Evangelical Christians” (VSEKh in Russian). It is a kind of second “Public Council” hoping to unite Baptist-oriented denominations under one umbrella. Yet VSEKh exists almost strictly on paper and the businessman admits that the road to its general acceptance is long. The hope of uniting all by splitting off from an existing church and creating an additional one committed to unification is by no means new.
Undoubtedly, the efforts of Alexander Semchenko can create an additional dot on the Russian church map, but they cannot unite the whole. They will more likely contribute to the atomisation of the evangelical movement. Neither Ryakhovsky nor Semchenko could be described as spiritual authorities - they are above all church diplomats committed to achieving specific church and political ends. One observer labels Semchenko’s efforts a unique kind of unification – driven by monetary rather than spiritual concerns.
Some RUECB-leaders assure that Semchenko has done commendable work and remains a brother in the faith. The businessman himself rarely polemicizes publically against the RUECB and admits that not only his own, tiny new denomination may regard itself as heir to the Prokhanov legacy. The hope for reconciliation and renewed cooperation is weakening, but it is still alive.
Dr. William Yoder
Department for External Church Relations, RUECB
Moscow, 20 March 2009
This report intends only to inform and lays no claim to representing a unified, single position of RUECB-leadership. May be published with permission. Release #09-09, 1.215 words, 8.095 keystrokes
Note from October 2020: Despite Semchenko's misfortunes as a businessman, VSEKh has done surprisingly well during the past decade. It can no longer be considered a minor actor among Russia's Protestants.