Joining that Which Jesus is Doing in Russia
On the Quaker presence in Moscow
M o s c o w -- Thanks largely to the efforts of the Society of Friends – or “Quakers”, the peace church presence on Russian soil remains. The closure of Mennonite Central Committee’s Moscow offices in 2000 had led some to assume that the witness of North America’s pacifist, “historic peace churches” (Quaker, Mennonite, Church of the Brethren) had come to an end. That witness had been restarted in the mid-1950s when delegations from these denominations began with regular visits to the Soviet Union. (Small Mennonite communities stemming from immigration to the Russian empire after 1780 remain in Western Siberia.)
“Friends House Moscow”, which was founded in 1994 and now calls Shosse Entusiastov 31/38 its home, remains active as an NGO committed to social and humanitarian causes. (See “fhm.quaker.org”.) In addition, two small groups of Moscow Quakers are meeting. Interested individuals or groups are active in Kazan, Lipetsk, Elektrostal (near Moscow) and Barnaul – also in the Baltics, Minsk, Tbilisi and Ukraine. Yet total Quaker membership within Russia numbers less than 50, with 20 of them in Moscow. Worldwide, they number less than 400.000.
Quakers were among the earliest to champion individual rights and civil society. They have in recent times been instrumental in the founding of groups such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace. They have always counteracted their modest numbers by seeking dialogue with the powerful. Russian Quakers point out that their church has a long history of involvement in Russia, actively opposing serfdom during the 19th century. Already the founder of the movement, the Englishman George Fox (1624-1691), wrote a letter to Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich in 1654. Their fame in Russia was due not least of all to Czar Alexander I (1777-1825), who is sometimes described as an evangelical. He had become enamoured with the Quakers during his 1814 visit to London. Quakers are mentioned in Alexander Pushkin’s novel “Eugene Onegin” of 1823. Leo Tolstoy’s daughter-in-law, Olga Tolstaya-Voyekova (1858-1936), joined the Quakers in 1924.
Quakerism has practiced equality of the sexes since the days of George Fox. In the Russian context, they were regarded by some members of the intelligentsia as a liberating alternative to the Orthodox church. Quakers stress an egalitarian and non-hierarchical approach; an official pastoral role was not instituted until late in the 19th century.
Quakers were also involved in Russian agricultural and economic matters. Between 1818 and 1832, the Quaker family Wheeler succeeded in draining large areas of swamp in the vicinity of St. Petersburg. A small Quaker cemetery at Shushary remains as a reminder of that feat. Driven by concerns for humanitarian relief and peace, Quakers were able to maintain an office in Moscow from 1923 to 1931. Their office was possibly the very last Western NGO operating in Moscow during the Stalinist period.
Though Quaker work on Russian penal reform goes back as far as 1819, they are presently refused access to prisons. (Which is possible in Ukraine.) Yet surprisingly enough, despite being involved with Russia’s conscientious objectors, they also work with units of the Russian army in Moscow and Lipetsk. Along with the other two peace churches, Quakers are stressing peaceful conflict resolution world-wide. Sergei Grushko, Director of Moscow Friends House and head of its “Alternatives to Violence Project” (AVP), describes it as its primary practical project. It teaches communication skills in every-day situations with the intent of reducing violence within the military - as well as in schools and other social groupings. Friends House is striving to open an AVP programme in South Ossetia; a small effort is already in place in Grosny.
Other Quaker social programmes in Russia presently include a hospice for the dying in Yaroslavl, aid for young people leaving orphanages to live on their own and for the children of migrants. Programmes are also aiding foster children and their new parents to become better accustomed to each other as well as a programme for children suffering from cancer.
The spiritual arm of Quaker work was restarted in 1991 with Moscow worship meetings in the living quarters of the now-deceased history professor Tatiana Pavlova. They presently meet in a downtown basement room on Sunday evenings. At their “meeting for worship”, there are no religious trappings other than a candle, no sermon and usually no music. The meeting on the evening I was there began with five in attendance. It ended an hour later with nearly 15. The hour was spent in silent meditation except for the reading of several Scriptures. The second group, which meets bi-weekly, could be described as a discussion group.
The stress is on dialogue. Johan Maurer, a US-American from Oregon residing and teaching in Elektrostal, describes his strategy as: “Finding out what Jesus is doing in Russia - and joining in.” That joining also intends to involve the constituency for Maurer’s work in the US Pacific Northwest. Becoming neighbours to the neighbours in Elektrostal is a way for him and his wife Judy to become rooted in Russia. Regarding his work as a language instructor, he states: “We want to find ways to bring a redemptive message into the classroom. We have a special message to give, but we do not proselytise.”
The Quaker belief in the “inward light”, in “that of God” within each individual, lends itself strongly to dialogue. It makes the convictions of every person worthy of consideration. But the belief that the Holy Spirit speaks directly to each individual has led Quakers at times to go beyond the teaching of “sola scriptura”. If God speaks to each person, then it indeed becomes difficult to claim that I am speaking at the behest of the Holy Spirit - and the other person is not. At this point, Friends’ teaching on corporate discernment is crucial.
Can a Quaker also be a Muslim – which is the case of their partner in Grosny? Quaker teaching became increasingly broad during the last century. Maurer concedes that it is no longer clear to all Quakers whether they are a Christian community, or rather an inter-religious order driven by a common concern for peace and social justice. Many Russian Quakers also regard themselves as Orthodox. Maurer, an evangelical believer, states: “I think anyone who maintains that Christianity is not necessarily a part of Quakerism, is wrong.” But he adds: “I am only useful in Russia if I do not police the movement. I am here to win people for Christ – I cannot do both. I want to work warmly with anyone who claims to be a Quaker, but my accountability is to a group in the US which is biblically-grounded.” Maurer is a member of the “Evangelical Friends Church International”(EFCI) branch of Quakerism. He dreams of a Quaker churches gathering in Moscow – something more substantial than simple ecumenical discussion groups.
Maurer admits that a church community with little structure and no sacraments (no baptism, communion nor church calendar) lacks the sensuality so common to Slavic worship. He sees it as a possible impediment to the growth of the Quaker movement in Russia – or, more positively, an invitation to merge the simplicity of traditional Quaker worship with the depth and directness of Russian spirituality. But the weakness of the Quaker movement is also its strength: The absence of outward forms also opens it for dialogue with a very diverse community of human beings.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 23 February 2010
Press service of the Russian Evangelical Allianc
Release #10-03, 1.209 words, 7.475 keystrokes and spaces.
Note from September 2020: In 2017, Johan Maurer and his spouse, Judy, moved back to Portland/Oregon. He remains an occasional visitor to Russia. Moscow Friend's House remains active.