Discussions on a bus Smolensk-Minsk und in Kiev
On a bus ride of German peace activists from Smolensk to Minsk on 17 August I attempted to clarify the longings of Ukrainian Protestants. Without wanting to applaud their fundamental political positions, I tried to explain that very many Ukrainians simply hope to achieve a higher standard of living – which Russians also desire. They want a better life and a more democratic, transparent state. And if the West comes to them, they will no longer need to emigrate to it – which is of course much more convenient.
But I was quickly cut short: „Those guys in Kiev are a pack of criminals”, the German-Russian bus driver insisted. (He lives in Germany and has passes from both states.) “We are one people, we are all sisters and brothers. We are all Russians. White Russian and Ukrainian are nothing more than Russian dialects.” Except for Belarus, the European Union and USA have destroyed the economies in the lands of the former Soviet Union. It’s the USA that has – divide and conquer – incited us to hate each other. “But the time will come, once the USA and its lackeys have passed off the scene, that we will again come together.”
Soon after that, our German charter bus drove through the east of Minsk heading in a south-westerly direction on “Independence Prospect”. The buildings and parks were incredibly attractive; the German guests and I were aghast and amazed.
Things sounded differently during a conversation between a joint delegation from the „European Baptist Federation“ and the „Baptist World Alliance“ and the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko in Kiev on 25 August. According to the EBF, Poroshenko suggested that “Protestant religious organizations could become an important component of both spiritual and social support not only for our military on the front, but also providing care for the wounded and families of the victims”.
In his response, Paul Msiza, the South African president of the World Alliance, assured that “we are here today to show solidarity with the Ukrainians”. During their Kiev stay, the top-level Baptist delegation had visited a military parade, etc.
An addendum to the conversation on the bus: The detachment of “Western Ukrainians” – or Galicians – from the remainder of East European “Slavonia” is no invention of the US-Americans. It reaches back to the medieval period and became highly-apparent with the founding of the Greek-Catholic church in 1593. Today, as in the past, foreign powers use this old divide as an instrument for their own purposes. But can one even speak of a clearly-definable “Ukraine” prior to 1920? Is it not historically more correct to speak of “Poland”, “Galicia”, “Minor”, “Great” and “White Russia”? Where no clearly definable and discernible nation is present, it also cannot be divided.
My intimation on the bus that East Europeans will decide to remain at home as soon as their countries have become the West is inaccurate. The Latvian foreign minister, Edgars Rinkēvičs, is said to have described his country’s two-fold problem as follows: the westward emigration of its youth is complemented by a massive arrival of Ukrainians. In 2016, Poles replaced Indians as the largest foreign-born minority within the United Kingdom: more than 800.000.
Yuri Sipko once again
In his Facebook article of 6 September, composed during his most recent visit to Ukraine, Yuri Sipko called on the „separatists“ ruling in Donbass to unilaterally lay down their arms. (Sipko, who resides in Moscow, was president of Russia's Baptist Union 2002-2010.) All – he apparently meant foreign – troops are to be withdrawn, road blocks removed and the border controls placed in the hands of international authorities. He also described the separatists as „hooligans“ and assured that they had „attacked“ Donbass. One quote: „I was able once again to reassure myself that attempts to force Ukraine into a Russian world (Russkii Mir“) are not only a mistake, but also a crime.“
On Facebook, there were more than 200 responses to his commentary, the majority of them from Ukraine and highly positive; Sipko was praised as a peacemaker. The well-wishers included Serhii Moroz from Baptist headquarters in Kiev as well as two of Protestantism's most emphatic supporters of the (West)Ukrainian cause: the Baptist Mikhail Cherenkov (spellings vary) and the Pentecostal Gennady Mokhnenko. Most of the detractors were residents of Russia: Vadim Drozdov from Kemerovo/Siberia claimed for ex., that the former Baptist president splits the Baptist movement: „Very few brethren in Russia share his opinion on Ukraine.“
My commentary: An attempted peace statement like the Minsk II accords of February 2015 struggles to address and take seriously the interests of both sides, which is precisely what Yuri Sipko does not do. Only the interests of one of the warring parties are legitimate. By Sipko and other adherents of the (West)Ukrainian cause, the geo-strategic concerns of Russia are ignored.
Many assessments remain one-dimensional and narrow. One participant of this Facebook discussion claimed the Yarovaya legislation would prove that God stands on the side of Kiev. Such criteria whitewash those dictatorships who proved lenient on the matter of evangelism – the Nazis, for ex.
It's positive that as part of this Facebook discussion, detractors are called upon to pay the churches of Ukraine a visit. But Vadim Drozdov responded: „Christians in Ukraine have informed me that I would not be returning home again if I dared pay them a visit.“ I unfortunately need to take that response seriously, for their are also other cases in which persons „doubting Kiev's cause“ have been threatened with physical violence or arrest if they visit. But there is on the other hand an active and friendly exchange between Baptists in Donbass and the neighbouring regions of Russia.
During July and August, a Ukrainian music group toured Germany for the first time. When we met, several group members gave me a big hug. That felt good! The group's leader, an old acquaintance, told me: „Politics are a dirty business. We retain as much distance as possible from it.“ One contributes to the cause of peace by detouring around the topic – which might be the best we can do. The understanding of the Gospel we profess is evidently too weak to confront hatred. We are not better equipped than secular persons to tackle the matter at hand.
But as long as Russians are also involved in the Protestant discussion on Ukraine, I do not desire to chuck the hope that this confusion might still result in greater appreciation for the complexity of political issues. Drozdov, a retired lay preacher with considerable knowledge on political topics who spent time in the Gulag, responds somewhat emotionally. Technical lecturer Mikhail Nevolin of St. Petersburg is highly cautious and concerned about accuracy. He criticised Sipko in the Facebook discussion for limited knowledge of the facts and generalizations such as “nowhere in the world” or “no one in the world”.
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Does it make sense to keep listing the sins of the “other side”? Ukrainians insist I should skip the negative remarks; I do not have the right to comment on that which transpires there. Should I therefore make a unilateral step forward and decide to only mention the positive?
The Ukrainian side lists the negative again and again – so do I. Is it our goal that at some point the party with the longer register of sins is declared winner? But there is no way to determine the greater relative virtue of competing global systems. We lack objective criteria. It needs to suffice that we are a blessing and work for the common good there where we live.
Bad news is good news
How far would the West’s arms build-up have gotten during the Cold War without reports on the persecution of Christians in communist-run states? That’s how the bad is turned into “good”. For those wanting to attack the Russian Federation, the Yarovaya legislation is a highly-welcome development. These laws help feed the propaganda mills.
But the friends of Russia and all other alternative systems do not do otherwise. That’s general human practice: One uses the sins of the other side to further one’s own cause. And one increases the “positive” effect of this practice by exaggerating the sins of the other side.
Perhaps we could agree on the following: Our criticism does not intend to destroy, it is instead a query. Serious, thought-through responses to queries are always possible and welcome. That’s how we could make progress.
I often have the impression, much would remain uncovered in the Protestant, Russian-speaking world if there were not at least a few observers willing to describe affairs in English. The churches of the West need larger sources of information. Information must be the foundation of our decisions; we’re otherwise groping in the dark. Both Russian and Ukrainian shortcomings need to be covered. But it is in all cases important that a fair and honourable style be preserved.
I suppose the nearly indestructible conviction of our own superior virtue impedes the work of the Holy Spirit in a major way. In this context, the USA is repeatedly criticised for the belief in its own “exceptionalism”. Since the end of the Korean War in 1953, the USA has become guilty of millions of war dead. Despite losses in its Afghanistan war broken off in 1989, the USSR was responsible for many fewer war dead during this time period.
The terrible suffering of Christians – and many Marxists - in Stalin’s USSR was unfortunately no highly-unusual, one-time occurrence. The native peoples for ex. of North and South America were subjected to a genocide carried about by white, European Christians. We must not forget the millions of dead caused by wars and sanctions in the Near and Far East (Iraq and Vietnam for ex.).
Most states of the West of course enjoy a high standard of living without bitter poverty. Capitalism doesn’t sleep: Slavery and starvation wages have been exported to the sweat shops of Asia and Africa. That raises the question regarding the extent to which Western wealth has been achieved through exploitation of the South.
The selective moral indignation we Western Christians practice guarantees us charges of hypocrisy and makes us the recipients of sneering rejection. Our credibility has been destroyed to an extent that not even multitudes of missionaries could correct. And precisely this Western tradition is the one the peoples of Central Europe are joining. One can only once again appeal to Romans 3:23: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 27 September 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 #16-11b.