Russia and Ukraine Confront the Same Problems
An interview with Roman Lunkin
S m o l e n s k – According to Moscow's Roman Lunkin, a research fellow for Britain's “Keston College”, legislation directed at Russia’s religious communities was significantly sharpened during the summer of 2015. This refers above all to the law on “undesirable organisations” of 23 May 2015. In an interview with the author on 18 May, Lunkin reported that this legislation is vague and offers space for a wide range of interpretations. Already, according to him, “foreign missionaries attempting to plant new congregations quickly raise suspicions in government circles”. Foreign income being funnelled to Protestant denominations is scrutinized closely; Russian pastors still receiving funding attempt to route their support through social organisations and foundations. “Only a church eager to suffer is still open to significant funding from the West.” Lunkin reported that leading churches such as the “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE) had in the last two decades formed a wide variety of secular and humanitarian branches involved in youth work, orphanages, drug rehabilitation and sport. “All of these organisations are now under close government scrutiny.” According to him, only the Moscow Patriarchate is free of such inspection; it also is not required to make its financial figures public.
In early June 2016, Vladimir Putin signed legislation defining more specifically the nature of an NGO. It does not specifically mention churches, stating only that humanitarian, heath, cultural and athletic activities are not to be defined as political. Organizations – including church-aligned NGOs – would essentially be regarded as “foreign agents” only if they repeatedly make political statements. The author’s assessment: The interpretation of recent legislation will depend not least of all on the general political climate between East and West.
Nevertheless, Roman Lunkin remains optimistic. He labelled nationalist thinkers such as Alexander Dugin and Alexander Prokhanov “freaks” and insisted that the Russian people “continue to develop in the direction of greater democracy. I know of no one here who would like to live in China or in a theocracy such as Iran – democracy remains our goal. No one wants an authoritarian despot.” When Patriarch Kirill decried in an homily on 20 March human rights contradicting the Bible as heresy, the Patriarchy hurried to elaborate, assuring that the church was against humanistic philosophies, not against human rights per se. “The Patriarchy was still resolutely opposed to democracy ten or twenty years ago”, Lunkin claimed. “But now they are discussing the matter thoroughly.
On the issue of Ukraine, this Orthodox believer sees Russia and Ukraine “confronting the very same kind of problems”. Deficits in democracy, a weak civil society, corruption and social disparity are equally present in both societies.
Lunkin sees most of Russia’s Protestant leaders as opportunists committed to preserving the status quo. In this regard he points a finger at Russia’s best-known Protestant: Sergey Ryakhovsky, ROSKhVE’s head bishop. Though Ryakhovsky is closely allied with the Adventist leader Oleg Goncharov within the “Advisory Council of the Heads of Protestant Churches in Russia”, Lunkin does not regard Goncharov as an opportunist. “Goncharov makes clear that he is not in agreement with all government measures. Ryakhovsky also addresses problems, but in the end he always acquiesces to the state. Of course, his position helps evangelicals to maintain their good standing within the so-called ‘Public Chamber’ and the ‘Council at the Seat of the Russian President’.”
May 9: Never are the Differences More Apparent
Never are the ideological differences between the Protestants of Ukraine and Russia more apparent than when it comes to celebrating the liberation of Europe from Nazism. That occurs very year in Russia on 9 May. Roman Lunkin reports that Russians define World War II as a struggle between communism and fascism. The nationalists of Ukraine, the Baltics and southeastern Europe though interpret their involvement in the war as a struggle for sovereignty. They were willing to align themselves with questionable partners – the fascists – for the sake of a greater good.
Today, in hindsight, pro-Kiev Ukrainians describe communism and fascism as equal evils, between whom one does not need to differentiate. Pentecostal pastor Sergey Demidovich from Slaviansk wrote on 8 May for ex.: “Fascism and communism are blood brethren!” Which means in the end that celebrating the victory of the USSR is no different than celebrating a victory of Nazi Germany
The Ukrainian Baptist academic Mykhailo Cherenkov (Irpen) claimed this year that the USSR was one of the aggressors in WW II: “Do not forget that the Soviet Union began the war as an aggressor on 17 September 1939. That’s when (the aggressor) stabbed Poland in the back by invading (what is now-wy) western Ukraine and western Belarus.” Referring to the festivities on May 9, Cherenkov described hell as “being condemned to repeat again and again one’s past sin”. Over in Moscow, Baptist Pastor Yuri Sipko quoted Proverbs 26:11: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.”
Pro-Kiev Protestants express revulsion for the Soviet-era (and earlier) St. George’s ribbon. It is known as “Colorado” because its orange and brown stripes remind one of the Colorado beetle. Sergey Demidovich asked: “Why have the cross and the St. George’s ribbon fallen in love with each other? How could that happen?” Both sides accuse each other of nationalism and having fallen prey to propaganda.
On Facebook, Cherenkov contrasts the scarlet poppy – used in the British Commonwealth to honour the war dead – with the Colorado ribbon. A graphic interprets the poppy as meaning “never again”, the St. George's ribbon though is assigned the term “we can repeat”. In Ukraine, the British poppy is to become the symbol for May 9.
Roman Lunkin describes Yuri Sipko, president of Russia's Baptist Union until 2010, as a singular voice of courage within a mass of opportunists. On 26 May, for ex., Sipko reported that Ukraine had given the freed pilot Nadia Savchenko a hero's welcome after two years in a Russian jail. In contrast, the two Russian soldiers exchanged for Savchenko had been met with embarrassed silence upon their return to Russia. He concluded: “Lies bring shame to liars and disgrace to their country. . . We need the truth. We need repentance.” Sipko described Russia's military involvement in Syria as a war against the people of Syria
In an interview in Sumy/Ukraine during May, the Russian Baptist attacked Russian propaganda and assured that the controversial Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera (1900-1959) “had simply fought for the independence of his country”. Bandera, in ideological terms a fascist, was for a time allied with Nazi Germany and co-responsible for the murder of at least 40.000 Poles in what is now western Ukraine in early 1943. (See Wikipedia.) Sipko shares the Ukrainian rejection of Orthodoxy's Moscow Patriarchate - the largest denomination also in Ukraine. In the above interview, he claimed that the Moscow Patriarchate „bears full responsibility for the lies and slander directed at Ukraine; it has not become a protector of the people.“
Yuri Sipko is courageous, but not particularly creative. I am not aware of any difference between his political assessments and those of pro-Kiev Ukrainian Protestants. He would attack Ukrainian corruption and oligarchism, which Ukrainian Protestants also do. Sipko indeed can be defined as a „courageous“ voice in Russia – but he would need to tell a very different story if he wanted to qualify as „courageous“ when on Ukrainian soil.
How creative am I? Not terribly, but as economic socialist I am at odds with the social policies of the present Russian government. Incidentally, I feel uncomfortable writing so much on a topic as divisive as politics. Nearly all Russian Protestant leaders respond to Ukrainian claims with silence. But my training is in political science and I feel that I, even if I am not a Russian, should respond.
On Facebook, Pastor Sipko applauded the claim that the Russian government consists of „Chekists and bandits“. Yet Vladimir Putin is a pragmatic and moderate voice located between the extremes on the Russian political scene.
I do not well understand the Ukrainian self-description as the party of peace. Leaders such as the Baptist politician Oleksandr Turchinov and the Pentecostal bishop Mykhailo Panochko have spoken out in favour of prolonging the war until eastern Ukraine – and even Crimea – are back under the Ukrainian flag. In an article from 20 November 2015, Cherenkov reported that the religions had been a strong factor for peace during the Maidan struggles. Afterward, following the outbreak of hostilities in eastern Ukraine, „religion played a mobilizing role“. He wrote approvingly that this was also true for Turchinov, Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk.
My assessment: The annexation of Crimea was a painful and highly-controversial move contrary to international law. But it was democratic – roughly 80% of its citizens were in favour of the transition, and it spared the peninsula a horrible war.
Ukrainians frequently point a finger at the morally questionable „Hitler-Stalin-Pact“ of 17 September 1939. But they fail to mention the Polish-Soviet „Pilsudski-Stalin“ non-aggression pact in force between 1934 and 1939. The Hitler-Chamberlain pact of September 1938 – by which Poland and Hungary helped dismember Czechoslovakia – was decried by the USSR as crass Western appeasement. It is clearly verifiable that the USSR struggled mightily for a pact with the Western powers to confront the Nazi danger in 1939. The pact of 17 September 1939 came about because the USSR felt it had no other options left. Nick Holdsworth quoted a Russian in London’s “Telegraph” on 18 October 2008: The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact “would never have happened if Stalin's offer of a western alliance had been accepted”. Of course, there were good reasons for Western reticence – see the Soviet terror of 1937-38. But that too was caused to a significant extent by the deathly Soviet fear of Nazi Germany.
Nadia Savchenko is closely allied with Aidar, one of Ukraine's fascist battalions. We should not forget that her obscene behaviour in Russian court insulted more than just the Russian judge – the Russian people understood it as directed against them.
Yes, Christians must feel free to „speak truth to power“, which is not the same as „speaking untruth to power“. There is no blessing in „bearing false witness“ against politicians. I plead with Yuri Sipko and others to reconsider
But I too am not a prophet – I am open to serious criticism and dialogue. I agree with Sipko that military involvement in Syria is problematic. The French journalist and one-time ISIS-prisoner Nicolas Hénin wrote recently that „terror cannot be conquered militarily“. But I could not defend ISIS at Russia's expense.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Berlin, 20 June 2016
A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #16-08.