Struggles between Russian and Ukrainian Baptists

Weeping with Those who Weep


Hot and Cold Showers in Ukraine and Russia


M o s c o w – Recent weeks have brought an alternate stream of hot and cold showers. After predictions that Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov would not be attending the Geneva negotiations on 17 April - he did. The ensuing East-West agreement required all occupied buildings to be evacuated and all illegally armed groups disarmed. Lavrov assured in a press conference afterwards that his country "does not want to send any troops to Ukraine”. A number of media agencies hailed the communiqué as a "breakthrough".


But after awakening on the 18th, I was confronted with the first two headlines in the English-language "Kyiv Post": "Kremlin Terrorism" and "Putin's 10-Point Plan to Destroy Ukraine". Apparently, forces exist intent on keeping tensions high. Both articles were released following the Geneva agreement.


The Protestant scene has experienced the same variety of showers. A meeting between the Russian and Baptist unions in Kiev on 8 April, which included a closing communiqué, was described as both euphoric and "fantastic". Only two days later, a much larger gathering of Russian and Ukrainian Protestant leaders on the visa-free and neutral territory of Israel resulted in a major let-down. On 15 April, Bishop Eduard Grabovenko (Perm), head of Russia's traditional-Pentecostal "Russian Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith" wrote of "pain, grief and resentment. I returned home with a heavy heart". No joint communiqué was issued. The press speaker of Sergey Ryakhovsky, leading bishop of the "Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith" (ROSKhVE), explained on 17 April: "The gathering in Israel was extremely complicated. There are cases in which one needs to remain silent." The difference might be that in Kiev both sides were confessing their sins to each other. In Israel though, both were essentially demanding repentance from the other party. It was also unusual that Ryakhovsky headed a delegation intending to mend bridges, for he is known as the most outspokenly pro-Kremlin of Russia's Protestant leaders.


Kiev's Vyacheslav Nesteruk, head of Ukraine's primary Baptist union, was the only church leader present both in Kiev and Israel. This was due to the fact that the Protestant front is fractured in Russia. Russia's Baptist union explained simply that they had "not been invited" to the Israel sessions. But Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians also did not make the trip.


Political commentary once again

Ninety-two-year-old Egon Bahr, the grand old man of German politics, told a school class last December: "Democracy and human rights are never the issue in international politics. At issue are the interests of individual states. Remember that when you hear something different in history class." It also appears to me that the driving force behind the struggle for Ukraine are economic and strategic interests. A Ukrainian-Russian Baptist such as Mikhail Cherenkov might speak of Ukraine's upcoming "integration into the civilised realm" and the struggle against corruption. But the primary reasons are more mundane. Working-class Ukrainians or Moldovans already have freedom of speech, assembly and religion. What they still lack is a Western standard-of-living.


But can the borders of Cornucopia be enlarged indefinitely? Multiple studies have shown that a world consumption standard on the level of the USA would require up to seven earth-sized globes, a consumption level akin to Western Europe, four. The world would cease to exist if Western levels of consumption were expanded globally. Squeezing one's own country into a limited horn of plenty is a very understandable - but also selfish and superficial - endeavour. Pushing oneself onto the ark and waiting for the deluge - hardly a Christian endeavour.


The churches need to support modest, sustainable models for development which allow all of God's people a chance to survive. Is poverty a greater problem than wealth? The world needs an economic growth which does not make certain peoples even poorer.


Assessments continue to gyrate wildly: Commentators describe Russia as both terribly weak and terribly aggressive. The eloquent Yale historian Timothy Snyder wrote in Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" recently: "In Ukraine, people can say in Russian whatever they feel like saying. In Russia, they cannot do so." Which makes all those having their say within Russian borders feel silly. See for ex. the virulent anti-Putin commentaries of ex-Baptist-President Yuri Sipko on Moscow's "Portal-Credo" website.


How can Westerners and Ukrainians claim that Russians lack access to alternative sources of information - do Russians have no Internet? When giving lectures in Germany now, I am frequently told that what I have to say is unknown, different and alternative. But how should my information on Ukraine be "different" and "alternative" if Westerners are already familiar with multiple sides? During the bad old days of a divided Germany, East Germans proved more than once to be better-informed than their Western counterparts.


One ambassador of political incorrectness is Maria Vladimirovna Romanova, Grand Duchess of Russia and slightly-disputed heiress to the Russian throne. (She was born in Madrid in 1953.) In an interview with "Interfax" on 20 March she stated: "The Crimea was incorporated into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954 by a totalitarian regime in a completely arbitrary way, without considering the opinion of the people of Crimea or even asking them what they wanted. But it would be just as wrong today to reincorporate Crimea into Russia in the same way. One unlawful act cannot be undone by another unlawful act or by violence. . . . I share the enthusiasm of the peoples of Russia and Crimea over the unity that they have achieved. At the same time, I understand the frustration and disappointment of the people of Ukraine, and I am distressed for them. I can express my feelings best with the words of the Holy Apostle Paul: I ‘rejoice with others when they rejoice, and I weep with those who weep’ (Rom. 12:15)."


"Ukraine is the cradle of the Russian state. No political forces can ever destroy the genetic, spiritual, and cultural kinship that binds together our peoples. . . . In any case, one cannot see the joining of Crimea to Russia as a 'victory of Russia over Ukraine'. 'Victory' over one’s own brothers and sisters always turns into defeat." (See “www.imperialhouse.ru”)

My commentary: If a Russian (even the Grand Duchess) states that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, or at least closely-interwoven, fraternal nations, that is decried as imperialistic in Ukraine. Back home in Russia, it is regarded as a friendly and self-evident truth.

By the way
Has anyone noticed that Russian Orthodoxy is soft-pedalling on Ukraine and urging Protestant churches to do the same? Patriarch Kirill was made conspicuous by his absence at festivities marking the return of Crimea to Russia. The Moscow Patriarchate remains Ukraine's largest denomination and the Patriarchate is concerned about burning bridges unnecessarily. On the Protestant end, Methodists and Adventists, Hillsong, the Charismatic denomination of Rick Renner and more than a few others have maintained cross-border structures. Their small size has kept them out of the political limelight.

Vitaly Vlasenko, the Russian Baptist Union's Director for External Affairs, reports that Crimea retains 68 congregations belonging to the large, Kiev-based Baptist union of Vyacheslav Nesteruk. Vlasenko, who was along at the Kiev meetings on 8 April, assures that the Crimean congregations have complete freedom from the Moscow union to remain within the Ukrainian one. At the same time, political constraints may force them to move their membership to the Moscow union.

William Yoder, Ph.D.
, 21 April 2014


Journalistic release #14-05, 1.220 words