Which Way for the Church in Russia?

A Voice from the Wilderness and a Voice from the Kremlin?


On the debate between the Evangelical Christian-Baptists Yuri Sipko und Alexander Semchenko


M o s c o w – The businessman Alexander Semchenko and the leadership of the „Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists“ parted ways in February 2008. The RUECB is still coming to terms with that development. After Semchenko mobilised the security forces of his “Teplotechnik” construction firm to disperse an impromptu camp put up by “greens” protesting the destruction of a forest (see our release from 18.8.2010), the personal dispute between him and Yuri Sipko, until March 2010 President of the RUECB, became public. On 8 October 2010 in the dissident-Orthodox news service “Portal-Credo”, the Ex-President labelled it “nonsense” that an industrialist could serve simultaneously as bishop. (Semchenko has served as bishop of the small “Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians” since 2008.) Regarding Semchenko’s church staff Sipko stated at that time: “Dozens of sanctified teachers of the Gospel are feeding from his hand. The rattle of money drowns out conscience. This black stain burdens the proclaimers of the Gospel.“ Sipko followed up with two interviews in Portal-Credo on 16 and 28 September 2011; Semchenko responded critically in print for the first time in an interview with this news agency on 6 October 2011.


Many of Russia’s dissatisfied regard Yuri Sipko as a fearless and prophetic voice. Portal-Credo stated in its interview with Semchenko on 6 October: “Russian society is still awaiting statements of truth, morality and political maturity from its religious leaders. Pastor Sipko is expressing himself in precisely such a prophetic manner.” Yet Semchenko, who may be Russia’s only Protestant oligarch, retorted: “All of his speeches reveal only one thing: resentment.” He regards himself to be “the great leader of a great Protestant union”, yet government authorities have “refrained from seeking contact with him”. Sipko himself admitted to being no confidant of the mighty and stated in one of his interviews: “I observe political developments a bit from home.”


The position of fundamental opposition, which Sipko represents, is evident in his interview from 28 September four days after Vladimir Putin had made public his intention to candidate anew for the position of State President.´ He slammed the competition between Putin and Dmitry Medvedev as pre-arranged collusion and “theatre” and concluded: “For Putin and Medvedev, untruth is a fundamental means of state governance.” He continued: “A person without values has no right to lead a state. Both of these guys in tandem have forfeited all rightful claims to power.”


In the interview a year ago Sipko had maintained: “Those who are wealthy in Russia are also thieves. Russia’s wealthy are dishonest; they are fraudsters and liars. One thief fights another thief; one criminal protects himself from other criminals. This is true for all of Russia’s wealthy – also for those who claim to represent the nation’s spirit, honour and conscience.” Regarding the disenfranchised he claimed a year later: “Those who don’t die, emigrate.” But the former president also appeals to the spiritual as a solution for the national crisis: “All of us are in need of conversion. I believe in God’s mercy.”


Semchenko’s response

Semchenko’s rejoinder on 6 October sounded statesmanlike. The entrepreneur claimed to be incapable of responding to accusations such as „political theatre“. He also saw charges of “lying” as an unacceptable generalisation. After all, politicians of consequence can only more-or-less express the naked truth. Accusing a politician of lying is usually a “very, very subjective” claim.


Sipko listed in his statements the respected opposition politicians who have been neutralised by Putin’s ruling party. But Semchenko responded by claiming the Duma hosts no opposition party palatable to Protestants, describing the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and communist party boss Gennady Zyuganov as “horrible”. Semchenko saw Boris Yeltsin as a sympathetic person, “who nevertheless proved weak as a politician” and nearly cost the Russians their country. Semchenko added one more point in his interview of 6 October: “I view Putin as a great blessing for Russia. He is a symbol of stability and progress.”


This church philanthropist expects little good from the current opposition forces: “The opposition is united above all by its rejection and hatred of government structures.” Protestants are themselves co-responsible for their poor relationship with state offices. In contrast to the Orthodox, they have „failed to formulate their relationship to the state“. The industrialist added that one could “hardly accuse me inactivity, for I above all others have engaged the state the most frequently and most concretely”. He often supports his claim to not being an opportunist by pointing out the fact that he had been imprisoned – in contrast to Sipko – during the Soviet period (1982).


He and the Charismatic Sergey Ryakhovsky, Bishop of the 2.000-congregation-strong “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evange­lical-Pentecostal Faith”, see it as their task to woo state circles for the benefit for the country’s small and barely-visible Protestant movement. “We are leading a great movement for unification among Russian Protestants.” Protestant churches should become attractive and constructive partners for government circles. “But that does not mean that we simply succumb to state authority and fulfil all of its quirks and demands.”


The businessman concluded: „Our government does not intend to liquidate Protestantism.” The primary problem are fresh, overly-eager converts to Orthodoxy who believe they can best serve the church by “roughing up the physiology of a Protestant pastor”. They seem incapable of more complex approaches. On the differences within Protestant circles and their relationship to society he stated: “Unfortunately, in Russia the culture of dialogue is still strongly underdeveloped. We must therefore begin to listen to and comprehend one another.”


The current RUECB-leadership, which is headed by Alexey Smirnov, operates more tactfully than either of these two rivals. Senior Vice-President Evegeny Bakhmutsky has called repeatedly for abstinence on political statements. Vitaly Vlasenko, its Director for External Church Relations, states: “We desire to continue our efforts to build bridges to government and Orthodox circles.


Semchenko´s most recent projects

Months ago, the Moscow Patriarchate announced its plan to construct 600 new churches in Moscow region. Following vehement local protests and government misgivings, the number was reduced to 200. At present, the hammers are resounding at 18 new building sites. On 4 October, the Orthodox Patriarch Kirill thanked the “Teplotechnik” firm for “being not only the primary building contractor, but also the primary sponsor of the new church building in Veshnyaki”. The entrepreneur Semchenko is undoubtedly attempting to construct new bridges in ways which only he can muster.


Despite financial squeezes among his own church staff, Semchenko has also made a substantial contribution to Portal-Credo. Until now, this news agency has been allied much more closely with the political position of Ex-President Sipko.


William Yoder, Ph.D.

Moscow, 31 October 2011

Press service of the Russian Evangelical Alliance


A release of the Russian Evangelical Alliance. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of Alliance leadership. Release #11-22, 1.092 words, 7.184 keystrokes and spaces.


A further note


The “Euro-Asian Federation of Unions of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” (EAF) voted at its annual conference in Kiev on 18-19 October to accept a new Baptist union from Georgia as member. It consists of 24 congregations; its official, founding convention is to take place on Georgian soil in November 2012. Georgia already has the long-time “Evangelical Baptist Church of Georgia”, which is headed by Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili and consists of 75 congregations. This new union intends to be more traditional and Slavic than its counterpart. For now, it appears that one Georgian union will be belonging to the EAF, the other, the church of Songulashvili, is a part of the Prague-based “European Baptist Federation”. (The primary Baptist unions of Ukraine and Russia belong to both.)