“Dear Brothers and Sisters”
Dedication of the Russian-American Institute’s new Moscow building increases hopes for inter-confessional understanding
M o s c o w -- After nine years of major toil and stress, the new building of Moscow’s “Russian-American Institute” (RAI) was dedicated on 27 May. The modernistic, four-story, glass and light-flooded structure at 40 Menzhinskogo Street in the north of the city also sports an attractive location: It is located on the edge of a park near the “Babushkinskaya” metro station. The Moscow news service “Protestant” is calling it the most beautiful and representative building in all of Russian Protestantism. In a short speech at the dedication, Vladimir Platonov, the Chair of Moscow’s City Council and a long-time supporter of RAI, compared it to Moscow’s much-larger, rebuilt Christ-the-Saviour-Cathedral. The resurrected cathedral in the centre of the city has become the flagship and primary drawing card of Russian Orthodoxy. RAI’s new centre is also one of the few buildings in the Russian capital totally accessible to the handicapped.
RAI’s President, the Wheaton/Maryland- and Moscow-based Dr. John Bernbaum, insisted at the dedication that God is the true hero of this building project. If that is true, then Bernbaum runs a close second. It may not be an exaggeration to call the team headed by Bernbaum a monument to the perseverance of the human spirit. In a frequently-corrupt city with perhaps the world’s highest real-estate prices and a project victimised by soaring prices, the President attained his goal of raising sufficient funds in an America rapidly losing interest in Russia. And that without government funding. Yet the exact size of this miracle may never be known: Bernbaum is keeping the total costs under wraps. A site outside of Moscow, see for ex. the impressive Seventh-Day Adventist campus at Zaoksky southeast of the city, would have entailed lower financial – and political – costs.
Dr. David Broersma, Chair of RAI’s Faculty Council and long-time instructor at the institution, stated at the graduation ceremony on 28 May: “One thing that attracted me to the vision was that it seemed so impossible. We knew from the beginning that it would not happen unless God intervened. Looking back over the past 14 years, I see that the vision was more impossible than I had ever imagined. It has taken more endurance than any of us thought we had. We had problems with insane red tape, protestors and financial pressures that almost finished us off. God has worked miracles on our behalf.” The idea of a Christian, liberal-arts university in Moscow was born among major Russian educators during a visit to Christian universities in North America in 1990.
The roof feel in on RAI, then still known in English as the “Russian-American Christian University”, when its five-year license ran out in December 2008 and all instruction came to an abrupt halt. It was then meeting at its fourth location since 1995, a Charismatic church in Tushino in northwestern Moscow. A license to teach was re-granted in December 2009, allowing the institute to restart instruction in January. But in January, after the smoke had cleared, only a fraction of the students and part-time Russian faculty remained. Enrolment had dropped from 160 to 60.
Instruction is to begin full-steam in September. Once the enrolment goal of 400 is reached, the school will need to reclaim its third floor - the top two floors were rented out to outside firms immediately after completion of the new building. RAI has no dorms, but the administration continues to aid students in their search for affordable housing. A similar institution, Lithuania’s „LCC International University“, has 650 students. Yet it exists in a much more agreeable political setting on the other side of Europe’s new East-West divide.
When accreditation, which existed from 2003 to 2008, returns, remains anybody’s guess. Faculty members point out that accreditation can be applied retroactively. If it were granted for ex. in March of 2011, it could be extended backwards to include courses taught since September 2010. The school’s seven partners in the U.S., which include Calvin, Gordon, Taylor and Wheaton, continue to accept as credit courses and degrees completed at RAI. RAI’s present majors are Business & Economics, Social Work and Literature & Linguistics (Philology). Though having dropped the word “Christian” from its name, RAI continues to restrict acceptance to professing Christians.
Completion of its impressive building is not the sole reason for cautious optimism regarding the future of RAI. Several educators and city politicians, including Platonov, have staked their reputations on the success of RAI. At the dedication, a word of greeting from the youthful and dynamic Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), since early 2009 head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Department of External Church Relations, was read. It began with the greeting that has endeared him to the Protestants of Russia: “Dear Brothers and Sisters”. His successor in this position, the present Patriarch Kirill, was less enamoured with RAI. Bernbaum reported that, thanks to an invitation from Hilarion, US-academics will be coming short-term to teach leading Orthodox theological students. They will likely also be teaching at RAI. RAI’s administration is going to some lengths to extend the hand of friendship to its detractors in the immediate neighbourhood. Playground equipment has been set up; RAI’s large, still-uncompleted gym will also be open for neighbourhood use.
In her address at the dedication, Irina Raber, the Prefect of Moscow’s Northeastern District, reported that she lives only five minutes on foot from the new edifice. She promised: “If any problems arise, rest assured that it will be easy for me to get involved.” Even closer, about 40 meters from the new building, is a monument with an Orthodox cross and an icon of St. George, the protector of Russia. It was placed there in 2007. The plaque states that the memorial is dedicated to “protection from the enemies of the Russian soil”. Ironically, Vladimir Platonov presented the very same icon to Bernbaum at the school’s dedication. Roughly 15 public protests were held at the site in the years following the begin of construction in 2006.
RAI is dedicated to serving Russian Christians from all three Christian – including the Catholic - traditions. That makes it a square peg in a round hole and helps explain its mild support within all three of these traditions. RAI remains a foreign entity and a local sense of ownership still needs to grow. The Protestant church most evident at the dedication and graduation was the Charismatic “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE), the Protestant church umbrella least-popular among Orthodox circles. Its representatives spoke at both events; a Vice-President of the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” spoke briefly at graduation.
Russia has other church entities targeting all three confessional traditions: These include the “Russian Bible Society” and the “Christian Inter-Confessional Advisory Committee for the CIS-Countries and Baltics” (CIAC). The difference is that the Russian Orthodox Church is “first among equals” within CIAC. North American Protestants have taken on that role within RAI. Four of the 16 members of RAI’s Board of Directors are Russians; only one of them, the Moscow lawyer Katya Smyslova, is Orthodox. But RAI does not intend to proselytise and supports the concept of believers growing in faith within their own respective Christian traditions. Bernbaum stated: “One of our goals is religious freedom and respect for one another’s religious tradition.”
RAI is tied to the top end of public life: the business and political elite. In contrast, a school such as “St. Petersburg Christian University” has few top-level contacts and significantly less funding. The two institutions tend to orbit in different circles; but St. Petersburg has a stronger, local Protestant church base. Perhaps that makes St. Petersburg better-suited to weather the political storms between East and West.
RAI is one over 70 learning institutions in 24 countries affiliated with the Washington D.C.-based, mainstream-evangelical “Council for Christian Colleges and Universities” (CCCU). The same is true for a semester-long Russian study programme for North American students at Nizhny Novgorod State Technical University. Due to a drop in demand, this programme is scheduled to close its doors at the end of 2010. It has been lead since its inception in 1994 by the Kansan Mennonite Harley Wagler. But John Bernbaum, a Reformed believer, intends to bring North American students to RAI for interim periods to study alongside Russians. This should help fill the holes left by the closing of the associated programme in Nizny.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 03 June 2010
Press service of the Russian Evangelical Alliance
Release #10-15, 1.382 words, 8.870 keystrokes and spaces.