Brown versus Green?
Russian Protestant leader is embroiled in a struggle over trees and ideology
M o s c o w -- On 15 July, a major Protestant-owned firm, “Teplotekhnik”, began tree clearance in Khimki Forest just outside north-central Moscow. The firm has until 1 September to cut a 43-kilometre-long, up to 100-meter-wide swath through the forest. Forty-thousand trees are to be felled; detractors claim that 90% of Khimki Forest will be destroyed. But this is no simple collection of trees: In the last five years, Khimki has become a leading Russian symbol of the ecological and ideological struggle between the state and grass-roots movements much like Gorleben in Germany or Three Mile Island in the USA. The stretch through Khimki is part of a much-needed, new toll way running between Moscow and St. Petersburg.
This struggle has pitted Greenpeace, the dissident daily “Novaya Gazeta” (the paper of the assassinated Anna Politkovskaya), the politician Garry Kasparov, the Russian “Solidarnost”, the radio station “Echo Moskvy”, the “Leftist Front”, the pro-Stalinist “National Bolshevist Party” (“Limonovtsy”) and the rock star Shevchuk against the ruling elite: the Kremlin, the Khimki city council - and Alexander Semchenko. Semchenko, sole proprietor of the “Teplotekhnik” heating and construction firm, has served as Bishop of the small, 26-congregation-strong “Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians” since 2008.
Since 15 July, “low-intensity warfare” in the Forest and in front of Khimki city hall has seen a motley array of masked anarchists, journalists and convinced Greens squaring off against football hooligans, self-proclaimed neo-Nazis and the OMON security police. A street demonstration by the Kremlin-sponsored “Young Guard” organisation sported banners describing the dissenters as “pseudo-ecologists” and “psychopaths”. A dissident-sponsored demonstration displayed placards with statements such as: “Protect the Russian forest from fascists”. On 26 July, the paper “Vremya” entitled its report: “Brown versus Green”.
Obviously, Protestant support for Goliath versus David has the makings of a PR-disaster. Media have bestowed Alexander Semchenko with titles such as “Bishop-Lumberjack”; his mixture of theology and business has resulted in a portrayal of Protestants as profit-hungry upstarts and opportunists. Without disrupting the service, a group of protestors plus media picketed Semchenko’s personal church “Na Shelepikhe” on 25 July. After disputing with an unpleasantly-surprised Bishop after the service, picketers concluded that he must be “in dire need of funding” in order to participate in such an “anti-ecological and corrupt project”. They promised to collect funds to benefit the Bishop’s financial survival. Semchenko has vehemently denied the claim that he threatened the picketers with jail during the dispute. Yet he did clearly state: “We will take you to court and win. That will cost you some real money and you will have nothing to show for this adventure.”
Public Protestant criticism of Semchenko’s actions has been very modest. Citing damage to the Protestant image as well as the scandals and corruption associated with the highly-lucrative Khimki project, a virtually-anonymous “Letter of the Young Christians of Moscow” asks Semchenko to withdraw from the project. Yet the claim by Islam-expert Roman Silyantsev that the forest conflict could lead to a “destabilisation of interconfessional relationships in the country” is very likely an overstatement. Neither Muslim nor Orthodox leadership will be defending the ecologists against the Russian government. More convincing is Silyantsev’s claim that this controversy “does not lend itself at all to the strengthening of a positive image of evangelical Christians and Protestant churches”.
In stark contrast, Semchenko’s forest contract is interpreted as a PR-success by the Charismatic Sergey Ryakhovsky, Bishop of the 2.000-congregation-strong, loosely-structured “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSChVE in Russian). “At last, a Protestant representative known for his social service and involvement in business has received a major government contract,” he stated. “For me, this indicates that Protestants have entered regular life; it’s most pleasing that society has accepted them as normal businesspeople.” Ryakhovsky stressed that matters affecting the environment need to be decided by courts and the appropriate government authorities. Alexander Semchenko argues strongly in terms of Romans 13: Christians must work honestly and diligently; ecologists must also obey and submit to the decrees of government authority, “as long as they do not conflict with our faith”.
Both Semchenko and his associate Ryakhovsky come done strongly on the side of law-and-order – the catch in this instance is the fact that the city government of Khimki is neither lawful nor orderly. In recent years, at least three journalists who reportedly negatively on developments in Khimki have been severely beaten – no suspects have yet been apprehended. The “young Moscow Christians” mentioned above also cite the case of the Khimki journalist Mikhail Bekhetov. Nearly beaten to death in November 2008, he lost a leg, three fingers, and may remain brain-damaged for the remainder of his life.
Semchenko and his supporters would reply that their allegiance is to federal authorities – not to the local politicians in Khimki. But one could ask whether it is indeed an honour to assist a government in carrying out a very dirty and compromised task. Why would the government pick precisely a Protestant firm for such a dubious job? Ryakhovsky, Semchenko and the Adventist Bishop Vassily Stolyar are the only Protestant members of the prestigious “Council for the Cooperation with Religious Organisations at the Seat of the Russian President”,
Alexander Semchenko’s claim that the protestors in Khimki do not care about ecology is undoubtedly partially correct. As is also evident in the annual anarchist youth riots of Germany, the movement’s radical fringe appears most interested in, as he stated, “noise and scandal”. Obviously, a movement most concerned about ecology would need to start at a much earlier phase by pressing for alternative transport policies. The destruction of forests cannot be stopped as long as people buy an increasing number of cars. As long as a nation’s citizens insist on individual, motorised traffic, the destruction of large segments of God’s good nature will remain unavoidable. Comparing photos of the North American countryside of 1950 with those of today will illustrate the dramatic and negative, automobile-inspired transformation of a landscape.
Alexander Semchenko (born 1948) grew up in Moscow’s historic “Central Baptist Church”. 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 and peaked with a circulation of 170.000. Though no longer a paper of the “Russian Union of Evangelical-Christians Baptists” (RUECB), it remains with its circulation of 12.000 Russia’s highest-quality Protestant journal. It was Semchenko’s metamorphosis from dissident publisher and youth leader to multi-millionaire businessman and philanthropist which has made most of his church work possible.
Since breaking with the RUECB in February 2008 and becoming an “Evangelical-Christian”, Semchenko has placed greater effort into the creation of new, parallel organisations. Attractive jobs and higher salaries have made it possible for him to woo leading members of other churches into his camp. His “Protestant” Internet news service now rivals the Charismatic, Kiev-based “Invictory” service; his ”All-Russian Union of Evangelical Christians” (VSEKh – in Russian) is a kind of second “Public Council” hoping to unite Baptist-oriented denominations under one umbrella. But VSEKh could also be seen as a second Russian Evangelical Alliance. Semchenko’s efforts remain popular among the young. His loud-and-lively Moscow Easter concerts present a happy picture of Russian Protestantism very different from the stodgy stereotypes of the Soviet era.
Since 2008, Semchenko is also present in North America: His largely English-language, Dallas-Texas-based periodical “The Protestant America” addresses the continent’s growing Russian-evangelical émigré community (see www.protestant-press.com). The Achilles’ heel of his organisation – besides his ties to the Russia state - remains the fact that the vast majority of funding stems from only one mortal and aging individual.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 18 August 2010
Press service of the Russian Evangelical Alliance
Release #10-23, 1.265 words, 8.577 keystrokes and spaces.