Diversity is the Word
Protestantism in Contemporary Russia
L a d u s h k i n – The biological reaper has not yet completed his task: At Moscow’s Central Baptist Church, which is located only a few kilometres from the Kremlin, one can still experience Soviet-era worship live. Male preachers in white shirts and black suits celebrate the pious and industrious life; the women rule the roost when it comes to spontaneous, public prayer. The rows are packed and the choir in the loft displays more than average talent. This is the Soviet-era church culture still most evident in Germany’s Russian-emigré churches.
The next scene: Thanks to the marvels of modern electronics, it’s gotten loud in the majority of Russia’s Protestant congregations. The first half hour is spent standing. The song texts, most of which bestow God with monarchic characteristics, appear on a large screen up front. Only women above the age of 50 wear dresses. Head coverings, if any at all, are also worn by male participants comfortable with wearing a baseball cap in church. The congregation could be Pentecostal, Methodist, Baptist, Evangelical-Christian or any combination of the above. Except for the language, one could think one is in Munich.
Variety is the order of the day. Similar to the state of Yugoslavia, Russian Protestantism has shattered into a hundred pieces since 1990. After 1943, Evangelical-Christians, Pentecostals, Mennonites, Reformed, even Adventists had regained legality by slipping under the broad umbrella of the “All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists”. After 1990, confessions again branched out on their own. But this implosion also had geopolitical causes: Many congregations once belonging to the AUCEB suddenly found themselves in a foreign country such as Ukraine, Latvia, Kazakhastan or Armenia.
Today’s Russian Federation features two large Pentecostal unions as well as at least three multi-confessional ones. The latter unions can furnish congregations and groups outside of the major denominations with legal status. This results for ex. in independent Methodist congregations being scattered over several interconfessional unions. Reformed and Nazarenes are also located in more than one union. This is hardly surprising among the Reformed and Methodist circles of Korean origin. South Korea itself has four Evangelical Alliances and roughly 120 independent denominations calling themselves “Presbyterian Church of Korea” – with a hyphen and an additional name on the end. Not even Russia’s „Presbyterian Assembly“, which sees itself as an umbrella for all congregations regarding themselves as Presbyterian, has a precise overview. Russia has four larger Lutheran denominations.
One also must not forget the unregistered Baptists, now known, in part because of their tendency to emigrate, as the "International Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists". They split off from the official Baptist Union in August 1961. Even Mennonite congregations in Western Siberia have been joining this union during the past quarter century. That gives Mennonites access to additional contacts and resources within Russia – it of course does not provide them with legal status.
Sergey Ryakhovsky, Bishop of Russia’s largest denominational umbrella, the “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE), hails from an equally unregistered union of Pentecostals. But it no longer exists and the registered, highly-public ROSKhVE is regarded to be its successor.
The All-Union Council’s stalwart remnant is known today as the “Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists” (RUECB). A significant break occurred in 2008 when the Moscow businessman and publicist Alexander Semchenko took his leave. That turned this Baptist into an Evangelical Christian; he was one of the founders of the „All-Russian Fellowship of Evangelical-Christians”, known as “VSEKh” in Russian. One could say that Evangelical-Christians, which exist not solely within VSEKh, possess a theology and style filling the gap between Pentecostals and Baptists. They tend to have more reserve regarding fundamentalist Calvinism and are more open to the Charismatic gifts than their Baptist counterparts.
Theological diversity also occurs within denominations. ROSKhVE for ex. covers the gamut from non-charismatic to radically charismatic. Riga’s “New Generation” (Novoe Pokolenie) movement belongs to the latter category; only a portion of its Russian congregations have gotten under ROSKhVE’s umbrella. New Generation’s best-known congregation is located in Blagoveshchensk in the Russian Far East and is headed by the Armenien Mikhail Darbinyan.
In many Baptist and Pentecostal congregations one will spot a row of silent men without any apparent family. These are the residents of rehab centres. During the past several decades, both of these denominations have developed a remarkable work among alcohol and drug addicts. The frequently volunteer helpers compensate for their lack of specialised training with large amounts of commitment and care. Even a complete Charismatic church has come into being which consists almost strictly of former substance abusers and their families. It’s called “Izkhod”, meaning exodus.
Protestants have indeed had a much more difficult time, winning members of the intelligentsia for the Gospel. This is not surprising, for Baptists and Pentecostals rarely hail from educated or academic circles. Its few intellectual can be found on a émigré website such as Toronto’s Russian-language “Christian Megapolis”. Within Russia one also has the St. Petersburg-based magazine “Mirt” (myrtle).
Many Charismatic congregations consist primarily of persons who have come to the faith since 1990 and many of their pastors are retired army officers. Such persons obviously have little access to the customs and mores of the Protestant, Soviet-era subculture. That also makes them receptive to the cultural offerings emanating from the West. Most resistant to the Christian culture of the past three decades are groups such as the non-registered Baptists – also those who have forsaken Russia for the West.
The new faces on the Baptist scene are frequently a result of the recent Calvinist import. This involves a very specific type of Calvinism pushed by the Californian John F. MacArthur and his „Master’s Seminary“. Traditionalist Baptists are attracted to its Biblicist and anti-charismatic teachings. MacArthur propagates the black and the white: He has for ex. labelled the Pope and the Roman church “satanic”. Creationism, patriarchal structures and an anti-homosexual orientation are a part of the package. Hard to stomach for the historically Arminian Baptists are Calvinism’s usual five points: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints. One Baptist pastor asked a decade ago: “How can I enforce good behaviour if we were to teach once-saved-always-saved?” New congregations planted by these Calvinists are usually called “Bible churches” – not Baptist ones.
Despite new government restrictions, MacArthur’s Bible school at Samara on the Volga, founded in 2000, remains very much in business. It operates parallel to the RUECB’s regular seminary programme and recruits its students almost strictly in Baptist circles. Yet Ukraine’s primary Baptist union has chosen to put a halt to practices such as grazing on other people’s meadows. In May 2019, it broke its institutional ties with MacArthur and removed his teachers from the Baptist seminary in Irpen near Kiev. Most Evangelical-Christians find the teachings of MacArthur too conservative; for non-registered Baptists, they are simply too liberal or unusual.
The Grand Exit from Russia
The presence of many new faces in Russia is due of course to the lack of older ones. It is claimed that the majority of younger persons raised in the Baptist faith have left the country since 1990. As a consequence, many younger Baptists are no longer familiar with the church culture of the Soviet era.
Up to 95% of Russia’s Mennonites have departed; the numbers are a bit lower among Lutherans. The exodus has brought the death of more than a few entire congregations. The Lutheran house church in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk has roughly eight members; the Baptists in the same city can offer eight congregations, each with its own church building.
In great contrast to Soviet times, today virtually every Russian Protestant has relatives or friends in Western countries. A silver lining in this cloud is the fact that the departed contribute to the financial survival of the shrunken churches back home. Music instructors and theologians visiting from Russia receive a significant portion of their annual income from the classes they hold in the Russian-speaking congregations of Washington, California and Florida.
Congregations in foreign countries are developing in various and even opposite directions. In North America, integration into the
majority culture is often only a question of time. Many young persons in these congregations no longer know Russian; Russians have already mutated into US-Americans. That integration will very
likely take longer in Germany, for the émigré-congregations there have a stronger sub-culture and are more vehemently opposed to majority society.
Foreign congregations will tend to be more conservative than those back home embedded within the original culture – precisely this tendency is magnified by the Internet. After Yuri Sipko, the former president of the Russian Baptist Union, visited the afore-mentioned Pentecostal congregation in Blagoveshchensk on the Chinese border in October 2011, protests emanating from California were almost immediate. That was evident even before Sipko’s flight had landed back home in Moscow.
Older denominations are heavily determined by custom and tradition, and becoming contemporary in form is never easy. Moscow’s “Second Baptist Church” is attempting a middle road by combining the old with the new. The wonderful choir music of yore can still be heard; other segments of the worship service are more contemporary. Nevertheless, some young persons have chosen to move elsewhere – one can easily find congregations which are louder, groovier and younger than Second Baptist. In contrast to smaller cities, a metropolis such as Moscow can offer Protestant congregations for every possible taste.
In the 1980’s, the All-Union Council could still claim to speak for more than a million adult believers. Today, its official successor, the RUECB, has approximately 70.000 members. The remainder has left for other denominations, or has chosen to live in the West or one of the former Soviet republics. Russia today does not have more than a million evangelicals.
In view of all break-ups, revivals and contortions, Russian Protestantism currently does not have any single, common voice. ROSKhVE’s bishop Sergey Ryakhovsky, the unofficial head of the country’s “Advisory Council for the Heads of the Protestant Churches of Russia”, would be happy to have this top-down organisation take on this kind of function. Yet the Baptist Union and several Pentecostal denominations are currently not a part of the Advisory Council. Vitaly Vlasenko from the “Russian Evangelical Alliance”, which is structured inversely from bottom to top, sees the forming of a common Protestant voice vis à vis general society as a primary task for the immediate future.
An additional factor involves the appearance of a type of alternative ecumenism in Eastern Europe. (The world “ecumenism” is rejected in Russia.) In 2014 the medical doctor Levan Akhalmosulishvili played a leading role in the founding of an “Evangelical Baptist Association of Georgia”. John MacArthur and an ally, the US’ “Slavic Gospel Association”, were then very much present as this new splinter group quickly joined the „Euro-Asian Federation of Unions of Evangelical Christians-Baptists“. This Eurasian federation, in which all Baptist unions in the former Soviet republics outside of the Baltics are represented, is a conservative, Russian-speaking alternative to the Western-oriented, English-speaking “European Baptist Federation” (EBF).
The “Russian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate“ has since the 1990’s been pushing – with fluctuating amounts of energy - a „Christian Inter-Confessional Advisory Committee for the CIS-Countries and Baltics“. Since the patriarchate is no longer active within the Geneva-based “World Council of Churches”, the ROC sees its body as an inter-confessional alternative to the WCC.
There are conservative circles which regard Moscow to be a „Third Rome“(after Rome and Constantinople) and the last remaining bastion of a once-Christian West. They see the relatively-liberal, historical churches of the West as having succumbed to arbitrariness, hedonism and individualism. For the ROC remains therefore the task of defending the traditional Western values of family and Christian culture. Its US allies include anti-gay Protestant activists such as Paul Cameron, Scott Lively and Franklin Graham. Yet some Russian experts on religion such as Roman Lunkin claim the Orthodoxy hierarchy is no longer pushing this view.
It is assumed that ROC circles are very much behind the „Yarovaya Laws“ passed in August 2016. They have made public mission work more difficult and led to well over a thousand monetary fines. But among the Christian sects, it been largely the Jehovah’s Witnesses who have been brought behind bars.
Yet there continue to be examples of fruitful cooperation between Orthodox and Protestant circles. Generally, a community will not cry “hurra!” when a Pentecostal preacher decides to set up camp in their midst. Yet in the Far Eastern city of Bielogard, the ethnic German Alexander Kaiser has during the past 15 years established a remarkable rehabilitation project with 100 beds. The police bring him needy cases; an Orthodox priest and a cloister contribute strongly to keeping the effort afloat. Even the office of President Putin sent along a major financial contribution in an hour of need. In Russia too, society responds with appreciation to loyalty, perseverance and integrity. As capable handymen and mechanics, the unregistered Baptists of western Siberia continue to enjoy toleration by regional authorities.
Pastor Vlasenko assures that attempts at legal defence through Strasbourg’s “European Court of Justice” will do little to resolve the
grievances caused by the Yarovaya Laws. “Our issues are political, not legal, in nature”, he insists. He sees no alternative to confidence-building, to becoming personally acquainted. That very
often is a crux of the problem: Orthodox and Protestant clergy are often not acquainted with each other.
Ukraine – a commentary
It is no exaggeration to describe the splitting of the eastern Slavic world after Maidan in February 2014 as a stab into the heart of Protestantism. Spiritual and literal brothers and sisters suddenly re-discovered themselves in hostile camps; a world was shattered. Incredibly, the heads of Ukraine’s Protestant denominations made a distancing from the Kremlin’s position on Ukraine a prior condition for the initiation of talks with their Russian sisters and brothers. Primarily for this reason, there has been virtual silence between the Protestant church leaderships in these two states since 2014.
Ukraine’s Protestant denominations have traditionally been larger, more flexible and intellectual than those in Russia proper. After 1990, the Ukrainians hoped to evolve in a “modern“ church, participating in matters of the state and striving for the common and public good. The current state minister for security, Oleksandr Turtschynow, formerly a communist and now a Baptist, is a primary example of this transition.
The old-fashioned Baptists or Russia have instead retained their traditional aversion to participation in the political realm and have kept Luther’s two kingdoms separate. This has spared them from the clutches of a rabid, political nationalism - as has occurred in Ukraine. This has led in Ukraine to expressions of solidarity even for pro-fascist politicians: Andriy Parubiy, a leading politician, spoke at Kiev’s “National Prayer Breakfast” in 2017 and 2019.
In Crimea, the congregations are divided by their loyalty to Kiev or Moscow. In the separatist-controlled Donbass, the Kiev church leaderships essentially expect the hard-pressed congregations to “hold the fort” until Western reinforcements arrive. Kiev’s churches tend to view Moscow attempts at negotiation and church aid in both Crimea and Donbass as foreign meddling on Ukrainian terrain.
Hopes from the Russian end rose slightly after the outsider Volodymyr Zelensky became president in May 2019. He initially spoke of a diplomatic solution to the war in Donbass. Pentecostals responded in kind by confirming their readiness in principle to end the years of church silence. Yet since then, Zelensky has proven too weak to act counter to the wishes of the radical, pro-fascist right. That modestly-sized but powerful faction also has its Protestant, Orthodox and - above-all - Greek-Catholic adherents.
The parliament in Moldova continues to oscillate between changing pro-Western and pro-Russian majorities, much as was the case in Ukraine until 2014. May it yet be spared the fate of neighbouring Ukraine. Finland, Switzerland and Austria are examples of states which have played a positive role as bridges between East and West. May Ukraine yet attain a similar stance.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Ladushkin, 3 April 2020
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 #20-07, 2.648 words.