The Debate is Over
Alexei Smirnov New President of the Russian Baptist Union
M o s c o w – The matter is finally official: At the 33rd Congress of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB) in Moscow on 24 March, Pastor Alexei Vasilevich Smirnov was elected to succeed Yuri Sipko as President. Smirnov had garnered the vote of 326 of the congress’ 432 delegates (75%); 71 delegates cast a dissenting vote. A heated debate immediately prior to the vote revolved around two concerns: the fact that the Union’s Council had presented only a single presidential candidate as well as the recognition that Smirnov remains unknown to large portions of RUECB membership.
Smirnov’s lack of notoriety is due to the fact that he has served and headed the tiny, 17-congregation-strong “Association of Brethren Congregations” (ABC) concentrated in Dedovsk on the Western outskirts of Moscow. That group grew out of the unregistered, underground Baptist movement which had split off from the official “All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” in 1961. Smirnov’s father was among the many who thereafter spent time in prison. According to the ABC’s own description, the Dedovsk community was forced out of the unregistered movement 30 years later due to its commitment to evangelisation and inter-denominational relations. The ABC’s church-planting efforts grew to include “Rucheyok” (Little Creek), a campground to the west of Dedovsk. The camp made headlines when it landed on the receiving end of major state-bureaucratic repression during and following the national RUECB-convention there in August 2008. Despite its name, the ABC is not a church with historic, denominationally-Brethren roots.
Though formally outside the RUECB, the ABC could be described as its closest ally. The ABC was a founding member of the “Public Council”, an umbrella organisation of 10 denominations within the Baptist tradition, in 2006. Smirnov has served as its head since February 2009. Rev. Smirnov had joined RUECB-headquarters in November 2006 as head of its newly-formed Pastoral Department. That department has recently begun innovative programmes offering counselling services to Baptist pastors mired in personal crises.
Aleksey Smirnov, born in Dedovsk on 24 May 1955, is an auto mechanic by trade. His theological training is limited mostly to correspondence courses offered by Moscow’s Baptist Bible institute. Both he and Yuri Sipko are autodidacts and speak only Russian. In a private conversation at the Moscow convention, Smirnov’s wife of 32 years, Inna Nikolayevna Smirnova, stressed that her husband is an eager learner. It was the repression of the Soviet era and family commitments which prevented him from receiving academic training. The couple has six sons aged between 17 and 31 years.
Regarding the issue of democracy: At the last session of the Union’s Council in Moscow on 19 November, the Council had reached the decision to propose only Smirnov as the successor to Sipko. Some weeks thereafter, the matter of democratic practice surfaced on the Internet. In a recent Internet-forum, the Ukrainian Sergey Rakhuba, the Chicago-based Senior Vice-President of „Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries”, chided the Council for its democratic deficiencies. He conceded that Smirnov was a worthy candidate: “But the deliberate rejection of any alternative approach to elections will keep the system from taking a courageous and strategically proper step towards progressive future development.” The election process for the new President of the Belarusian Baptist Union in Minsk on 20 March had offered the assembled delegates a choice between two candidates.
The Union Council meets twice annually and consists of the Union’s 57 superintendents (also called “bishops”). The congress, for which roughly 800 pesons gathered in Moscow’s Izmailovo Hotel, convenes every four years to elect the Union’s leadership and discuss major business.
Other members of the team
Only hours after Smirnov’s election, Evegeny Yurevich Bakhmutsky became the RUECB’s new Senior Vice-President. The 33-year-old Bakhmutsky, who grew up in Kemerovo/Siberia, was educated as an economist and manager and graduated from the Baptist seminary in Akademgorodok near Novosibirsk. He very successfully managed the Union’s youth programme during the past seven years. He succeeds Dr. Peter Mitskevich as Senior Vice-President. Mitskevich, Rector of “Moscow Theological Seminary”, remains a Vice-President along with Ruvim Voloshin, the RUECB’s Mission Director. All three Vice-Presidents were elected (or re-elected) by the delegates without the option of alternative candidates.
Bakhmutsky associates closely with the Illinois-based, non-denominational “Slavic Gospel Association” (SGA), which has been the RUECB’s official representative to the English-speaking world since 1997. He is also head pastor of Moscow’s recently-formed “Russian Bible Church”. This initiative, which is still meeting at Baptist headquarters, is one of numerous attempts by Baptist leaders to plant new congregations bereft of the cultural baggage usually associated with the Russian Baptist movement. Protestant subcultures are understandably uncomfortable to persons of secular or Orthodox orientation. The Baptist transition to a more urban and intellectual stance will obviously lead to a certain distance between the generatons.
In North America, the name “Bible Church” is used heavily by congregations fundamentalist and independent-non-denominational in orientation. Many of them belong to organisations such as the “Independent Fundamental Churches of America” (IFCA International). IFCA’s partners include SGA and the RUECB (see “www.ifca.org”).
One speaker at the Congress’ outset on 23 March reported on the fears “native” Baptists felt of falling victim to foreign influence after the political gates opened in 1991. Later that evening, several speakers proclaimed that the danger of foreign theological influence had been successfully repulsed. The claim of successful repulsion was also made by a North American Calvinist – the spokesman for a movement never native to Russian Baptists prior to 1991.
In his brief closing sermon two days later, Alexei Smirnow spoke of the children of Israel circling through the desert rather than moving decisively forward. It was clear from other statements, that he is committed to making his Union more visible in Russian society. “Our stress must be on the creation of healthy, evangelical-Baptist churches,” he stated in an interview. “Such churches will be able to influence society. Churches need to understand themselves as God’s blessing to society.”
Yuri Sipko, who served as Union President for eight years and had been a Vice-President for eight more prior to that, was a gifted, charismatic preacher and communicator. He was noted for his often temperamental and courageous statements on government and society. Observers believe President Smirnov will be more team-oriented. He stated in an interview after his election: “I believe our position on relations with the state and all other outside forces needs to be formed within a team of leaders.” Sipko apologised at the end of his lengthy report on opening evening for being less than organised. Smirnov, who is quieter and more cautious in style, is reputed to be an excellent manager and strategist. Sipko’s future church role has not yet been announced - he turned 57 in February.
Among the more than 250 guests at the congress were prominent representatives from the Russian Baptist diaspora in the USA’s Pacific Northwest including Yuri Sipko’s oldest brother, Alexander. Russian-Germans from Germany were barely evident. The largest West European delegation was a six-member group from Germany’s “Federation of Evangelical Free Churches” headed by Union President Hartmut Riemenschneider. The Didcot-based Baptist World Alliance President David Coffey and the European Baptist Federation’s Prague-based General-Secretary Tony Peck also attended.
The RUECB, Russia's largest, unified Protestant church, represents approximately 78.000 adult members in 1.750 congregations and groups.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 28 March 2010
Press service of the Russian Evangelical Alliance
Release #10-08, 1.203 words, 8.089 keystrokes and spaces.