Alexander Semchenko Helped with a Whole Heart
Russian Protestant leader under house arrest
M o s c o w -- On Russian national evening news on 13 June, viewers were treated to the spectacle of Alexander Trofimovich Semchenko, one of Russia’s best-known Protestants, opening the door of his house early that morning. The ailing businessman and bishop (he recently suffered a mild stroke) was unshaven and in a housecoat. Semchenko then spent the next 48 hours in jail – sufficient time for the police to search his house, business and denominational offices. He is now under house arrest and wearing an electronic ankle bracelet.
Protestant observers have closed ranks and decried in unison the style of Semchenko’s arrest. Pastor Yuri Sipko, known in recent years for his gift of overstatement, spoke of sadism and claimed: “This is as in the days of Stalin. They (government representatives) have been humiliated and they compensate for their humiliation by humiliating others. They are a disgrace to Russia. They have performed a medieval orgy with ultra-modern means.” Semchenko’s allies are grateful for his support. One of them, Evangelical-Christian Pastor Pavel Begichev, wrote on 16 June: “In my view, Y. K. Sipko is almost totally rehabilitated.”
Sipko was president of the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptists” (RUECB) until March 2010; he and Semchenko suffered an acrimonious termination of their long-term relationship in February 2008. After the break, Semchenko became bishop of a tiny Evangelical-Christian denomination and formed the „All-Russian Fellowship of Evangelical-Christians” (VSEKh). It is a loose association of 700 congregations with some Pentecostal ties.
There has also been a chorus of evangelical support expressing appreciation for Semchenko’s character and largess. Sipko spoke for many when he called him a “renowned altruist and philanthropist, a gifted leader with great vision.” Semchenko was talented enough to realise most of his dreams. Alexey Smirnov, Sipko’s successor as president of the RUECB, wrote that the accused “has done many good things as a Christian – not only for the church, but also in general for the well-being of our country”. Vitaly Vlasenko heads an office originally created by Semchenko: the RUECB’s Department for External Church Affairs. He wrote: “I have deep respect for Alexander Trofimovich. He has helped a lot of people and he helped with a whole heart. I am very sorry this has happened.”
Pastor Leonid Kartavenko, probably Semchenko’s closest associate, pointed out in an interview that even since being forced out of business 18 months ago, Semchenko had continued to offer support on many of the unresolved conflicts involving Protestants. As a member of the relatively powerful “Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations at the Seat of the Russian President”, he was able to effectively protest the bulldozing of Pentecostal church in Moscow last year and the four-year-long-delay in the opening of a massive new Pentecostal church building in Izhevsk/Ural. Kartavenko assured: “Alexander Trofimovich tried to help and unify Protestants everywhere irregardless of their denominational affiliation.”
On the matter of corrupt business dealings, all Protestant observers plead ignorance and agree in unison that only a serious court-of-law could untangle the complicated mess. The foundation of the government’s case is an overpayment of roughly 100 million roubles ($33 million US or 25 million Euro) to Semchenko’s defunct firm “Teplotekhnik” for construction work done on Moscow’s Bolshoi and Maly Theatres between 2005 and 2007. Though Pastor Kartavenko told BBC that “this is religious repression and has nothing to do with economics”, he also concedes that he is unfamiliar with the details of the business issues involved.
Where opinions diverge
Protestant views display a wide gap though regarding the real cause behind the arrest. VSEKh and other close allies of Semchenko tend to believe that nationalist government forces – the “siloviki” – have regained the upper hand in their struggle with the pro-Western oligarchs and are unleashing a major campaign against Protestantism and religious freedom in general. Kartavenko believes Semchenko has been gathering and unifying the Protestant voice, irritating siloviki forces. “They have wanted to stuff Semchenko’s mouth and now they have achieved precisely that,” he concluded. Under house arrest, the ex-businessman is forbidden to make public statements and has access only to a limited number of personal friends.
Yet forces within the RUECB are much less excited and are instead stressing economics. Vitaly Vlasenko stated flatly in an interview with “Portal-Credo”: “I do not believe that his religious affiliation is a cause for the present legal prosecution. I think only his commercial and business dealings are at stake.” He therefore regrets that Semchenko’s allies interpret the present issue as a religious one.
Irregularities involving the case have reinforced suspicions that church politics are the source of the conflict. Why is only Semchenko accused? Why are not co-conspirators who signed documents and the subcontractors who did the actual work not sitting with him in the dock? Rev. Begichev asked: „Did (Semchenko) force others to sign documents at gunpoint?” “This is exactly as it was done back in Soviet times”, Leonid Kartavenko assured. “Believers were never persecuted for their faith. Economic transgressions or ‘anti-Soviet agitation’ were the usual causes given.”
Media have latched onto the topic that Semchenko is a religious leader and have allowed the business issues to remain a distant second. Vlasenko attributes this to the media’s love for scandal, not to a directive from government circles above. The price of the Swiss watches worn by Patriarch Kirill is another example of media preference for the sensational.
It is in any case clear that the Putin administration’s campaign against corruption must produce concrete results. In great contrast to the corruption scandal involving the Minister of Defence, Anatoly Serdyukov, last November, this case cannot damage the ruling administration. All Protestants are political outsiders and sacrificing a middle-level, maverick oligarch is a painless affair for the government. Attacking Semchenko also does little damage to government relations with Baptists and Lutherans, the “most traditional” of Russia’s so-called “untraditional” Christian faiths.
In business terms, it is claimed that Semchenko ventured too far from shore in a shark-infested pool (he made too much profit). That made him vulnerable to attack once the winds of political change came. They arrived after Yuri Lushkov was sacked as mayor of Moscow in September 2010. When ex-business partners later demanded Semchenko return a portion of excess profits, the cash had already been donated to good causes.
Semchenko repeatedly stressed his loyalty to the administration of Putin and Medvedev, which – along with the “Russian Orthodox Church - Moscow Patriarchate” - did not come to his aid in the present time of need. Though he did as a sign of good faith and Christian solidarity help fund two new Orthodox churches in Moscow, he was not regarded as a good friend of the ROC. Until the demise of his business dealings, Semchenko had been a strong supporter of the “Portal-Credo” news service. Portal-Credo, which is allied with a small, dissident Orthodox denomination, has long been a thorn in the flesh of the Moscow patriarchate.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Moscow, 20 June 2013
A journalistic release under the auspices of the Russian Evangelical Alliance. It is informational in character and does not express a sole, official position of Alliance leadership. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #13-12,
1.139 words, 7.418 keystrokes and spaces.