Russia's Underground Baptist Movement turns 50

13 August – A Day of Multiple Commemorations


Regarding the Russian “Initiativniki’s” anniversary




M o s c o w -- Two separations significant for World Christendom commemorated their 50th birthdays on 13 August: the construction of the Berlin Wall and the splitting up of the “All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”. On 18 August, in one of two major Russian-language commentaries on the second event, Kiev’s Mikhail Cherenkov celebrated in the news service “Protestant” the maverick and courageous spirit of the underground, “Initiativniki” Baptist movement. He described them as a “mighty spiritual” and “radical reformist” movement and exclaimed: No one could have expected that an “anti-church directive” put out by the All-Union Council could “invoke such massive resistance on the local-church level”. Who would have reckoned that “simple, uneducated, inexperienced pastors from the most remote of provinces could organise a resistance movement capable of engulfing the entire Soviet Union?” Cherenkov compares its martyrs to the early church fathers who died with “For Christ alone!” on their lips. The Initiativniki were in any case also part of the “down with Moscow” sentiment still alive in the wide expanses of Russia.


But it must be remembered that the Initiativniki movement also fought other Baptists. Andreas Patz reported in Germany’s Russian-language “International Christian Newspaper” on 11 August that the Initiativniki front began to unravel only two years after its founding. Initiativniki non-cooperation at an all-Union “synod” in 1963 and ugly scenes in congregations thereafter prompted many to leave its ranks. An autonomous Baptist movement apart from both the Baptist Union and the Initiativniki – Patz calls it an “opposition to the opposition” - appeared. Today, the Protestant scene in not a few Russian towns - Stary Oskol and Dedovsk (near Moscow) for ex. - consists primarily of such autonomous Baptist groupings.


A blogger noted that despite Gennady Kryuchkov’s warnings, lower-level “fraternisation” between registered and non-registered Baptists never ceased, especially in the realm of underground “Samizdat” printing. Kryuchkov (1926-2007) headed the Initiativniki in Russia proper from 1965 until his death 42 years later. His “underground church” was initially known as the “Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”. After massive emigration, it was renamed the "International Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists" (IUCECB). It recently reported a global membership of 78.015 – roughly 20.000 of them still residing on Russian soil. During its heyday (1966), the movement claimed as many as 155.000 members.


Patz’ commentary describes well the pain and price of division. He reports that after 1961, roughly 1.500 Baptists (these would include registered and unregistered Pentecostals and Mennonites) were sentenced to a total of 5.000 years in prison. This works out to an average sentence of 3,33 years; thirty of these persons also died in jail.


The Initiativniki are an impressive testimony to the stalwartness of the human spirit in the face of incredible odds. But wars, including religious ones, also cause collateral damage – among children, for ex. The patriarch Kryuchkov lived underground on the run from Soviet authorities from 1970 to 1990. Even IUECB-circles admit today that none of his nine children are in the Christian fold.


The anti-semite Alexander Prokhanov, perhaps Russia’s most prominent far-right writer, is chief editor of the ultra-nationalist „Zavtra“ magazine. “Wikipedia” reports that he and a colleague invited the US-Nazi Donald Duke to Russia in 1999. Alexander is the grandson of the brother of Ivan Prokhanov, a leading father of Russia’s Baptist and Evangelical-Christian communities. But Alexander’s convictions cannot be blamed on Ivan, for Grandpa died in 1935, three years prior to the grandson’s birth. But this aside is one indication of the fact that “once-Baptist-always-Baptist” does not reflect Soviet and Russian reality. More than a few of today’s Russian intellectuals and politicians have one-time Baptist connections.


Patz reports that the Great Division of 1961 turned long-time friends and relatives into „irreconcilable enemies“. Married couples suddenly found themselves on opposite sides of the fence, their children confused as to with whom they should attend church. “At home, children were subjected to the constant quarrelling of their parents. Disappointed, they went out into the world once they were grown. And how many of these families were driven into divorce and destruction?”


The current situation

Today, the IUECB’s adherents, the majority of whom now live in Germany and the US’ Pacific Northwest, appear to reflect a movement frozen in time. The demise of the aggressive, Soviet adversary has condemned them to insignificance in the public arena. Yet much like their cousins, the Russian Orthodox Old Believers, who broke with the majority church in 1666, they insist on an aged agenda of minimal interest to today’s secular societies. Yet biology will keep the movement going as long as at least of few of its many offspring continue to uphold the faith. Much like the North American Amish of Mennonite tradition, they will be of interest primarily to ethnologists and curiosity-seeking tourists. Few outsiders will consider them worthy of emulation. Non-Russian, North American missions present in Russia during the past two decades dismissed them entirely.


Resistance to authority is at the core of their belief. To accept a conciliatory position would destroy their reason to exist as a separate entity. Patz reports that the IUECB’s “Historical-Analytical Department”, now run by those too young to ever “have sat” or “been betrayed”, has retained the methods, accusations - and mistakes - of the past. Consequently, the gulf of the past half-century is on the increase.


Patz cites a speech by Gennady Kryuchkov at the IUECB’s major Tula gathering of 5-6 October 2005, in which he described the registered Baptists (today’s “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” – RUECB) as the “broad way”, and the way of his movement as the narrow one. He added: “And these two parallel paths will never cross even in eternity.” Kryuchkov was apparently claiming there would be only one kind of Russian Baptist in paradise – not, that the division of 1961 would extend into heaven.


Cherenkov, though heaping the Initiativniki with praise at the outset of his article, admits later that the movement has lost its positive passion. It has now turned to “solidifying its structures of control and its nearly canonical traditions with its own gallery of heroic fathers and an iconostasis of martyrs”. It has surrounded all of this with “a protective iron curtain”. The “absence of inter-church dialogue” has kept the movement from updating its convictions to confront the dangers of the present; the course of the Initiativniki has consequently ended in a dead-end street. “It’s an irony of history that a reforming impulse very rarely springs from the same source twice.”


Mikhail Cherenkov portrays the IUECB as a progressive movement turned reactionary. I would prefer to describe the Initiativniki of 1961 as a “conservative resurgence” akin to the movement within America’s “Southern Baptist Convention” two decades later. The Initiativniki did not uphold progressive values, but were instead intent on restoring the past. It could be argued that they did not even uphold the banner of religious freedom when it involved those not of their own particular brand of faith.


The tragedy

Even the best of intentions can lead to the saddest of outcomes – the Initiativniki movement could therefore be described as a tragic one. They believed in their love of Christ and his Word – yet their actions have been interpreted as evidence of hatred by others. One’s desire for purity and steadfastness can be understood as contempt of other positions. The Initiativniki’s witness hit a low point when a Ukrainian couple in Salem, Oregon/USA was imprisoned in late 2009 for physical abuse of its children. The IUECB chose to decry the sentence as religious persecution.


It is important to understand why Germany’s émigré-German-Russian church community is strewn across the landscape. “Idea” magazine’s Helmut Matthies has described each tiny grouping of congregations as beholden only to itself. Cooperation on a larger scale appears impossible. The Initiativniki have proven strong on remaining true to their convictions; they are much less skilled in living alongside those who think differently. They sin differently than we Westerners do, for they have been shaped by a very different past.


The Cold-War West tended to portray the Initiativniki as spiritual giants – at least until they emigrated westward. Yet they have proven to be mere mortals; it is a myth that repression automatically makes believers more angelic. Perhaps it is pride combined with fear that has forced their witness to self-destruct. In Norway a century ago, an Arctic balloonist and explorer was determined not to renege on any of his boasts. He chose instead to float northward toward a certain and frigid death. On occasion, groups are not humble enough to save their own skins. Tragically, pride may have cost the Initiativniki the fruits of their courage and suffering: “Pride cometh before the fall” (Proverbs 16,18).


Walls and divisions are a product of human sin; only a spirit of forgiveness could turn things around. A church division caused by state repression and internal sin smashed Humpty’s egg. Only forgiveness could restore that egg. Limiting sin to others, to other specific groups, places and times, is always a dead-end. The Initiativniki too are mere humans.


William Yoder, Ph.D.

Moscow, 31 August 2011


The author of this article is solely responsible for its content. He intends to inform and does not claim to speak for any specific organisation in this instance. Release #11-16, 1.495 words, 9.682 keystrokes and spaces.