Russians Yearn for Friendship with the West – But it’s Conditional

Russia: A Conditional Friendship


An Interview with Joel Forster (Valencia) from the Spanish “Evangelical Focus”


- How are the protests in support of Navalny in different cities portrayed in the media in Russia?

Have a look at the English-language RT, which you should also have in Spanish. Broad, largely neutral coverage, even videos of rough police measures. But Navalny as a person is ostracized.


- Is there a chance for a real movement of protests against Putin to become strong in the next few years? Why or why not?

No, because too many do not see the West as an alternative. The West had its chance under Yeltsin in the 1990s. Whether true or not, Russians feel they were plundered by the West during the Yeltsin years. It was a time of rampant poverty and major unrest. Russians love stability – they have that now and by no means want a return to the 1990s.


What was Navalny up to during his long stay in Germany? Looks very suspicious after five months outside the country. Now, even more than before, he is regarded as a Western entity on Russian soil. That is very detrimental to his cause. For very many he is now the Russian Juan Guaido. They see him as one more attempt by the USA to foment a colour revolution.


The real opposition for the government are conservative, patriotic Russians opposed as much as Navalny to corruption and the oligarchy. These people say they are for family values and the Christian faith. These conservatives are no friends of liberal Western ideology; they regard the Western order as anti-religious, decadent, dogmatic, unisex/feministic. The rigid, liberalistic ideology of the “Bidenites” is ridiculed in Russia. Russian Protestants and not politically active, but they support this heavily-Orthodox movement. A statement I hear on occasion when Russian Baptists speak with Russian Orthodox: “We have more in common with you than with Western Protestants.”


Social issues, oligarchy, the imbalance of wealth – these indeed are the Achilles heel for Putin. That is where he is weakest. Navalny has chosen the correct area for his general attack. (Looks like wealth imbalance will also be a huge issue in the USA.)


- Have the protests in Belarus been a "model" for citizens opposing the government in Russia? 

Yes, I think it is an encouragement for those (relatively-few) thousands who are braving the cold and taking to the streets. But as percentages of the populace, they will never reach Belarusian levels in the foreseeable future for the reasons given above.


- What is the stance of evangelicals on the issues of protests: lack of democracy, corruption, etc? Has any denomination or church leaders reacted to the protests in one direction or another (social media, preaching, statement, etc.)?

Yuri Sipko of Moscow, President of the Baptist Union from 2002-10, has frequently criticized the government. Sipko is a big exception - but one will find a few more anti-government political statements from Russian Baptists in the social networks. The Pentecostals of Perm are known for their strongly pro-government position. Sergey Ryakhovsky, head of a Pentecostal Union which is Russia’s biggest Protestant group, is seen in the same light.


Essentially, Russians still support the traditional stance of Soviet-era evangelicals. “We have no mandate for political involvement – we are a church, not a political movement.” We are multi-political. Our concern is the development of church and humanitarian work, and that requires a positive relationship with the state. Regarding Belarus, a leading Moscow pastor just told me: “How can we take sides for one political cause if our members are of differing political persuasions? Church leadership needs to speak for all of its members, so it must keep its statements general.” He adds: “How can we afford to stick our necks out on political issues?” We are an unknown, suspect, (Western-supported) entity. The majority of Russian society sees us negatively. This pastor said there are only 600.000 baptized Protestants in all of Russia. With a population of 146 million, that’s less than 0,5% of the population.


Ukraine Protestant leaderships have broken with the traditional model and allied themselves closely with their pro-US government. That causes great alienation from those who tend to support Russia, also within their own ranks. Yes, the Soviet-era Baptist Union had spoken out repeatedly in support of its government, but that was involuntary lip service. That’s different now in Ukraine.


- Does the Russian Evangelical Alliance comment on socio-political issues such as this?

No, it was founded in 2003, but is still very much in the process of formation. We have no committee responsible for public and political issues. We don’t feel that kind of mandate. Our concern is positive relations between the churches, including with the Orthodox. The REA is very concerned that we not break our ties with the Ukrainians. This requires keeping public, political statements to a minimum. 


- Does the difficulties and restrictions of religious freedom for minorities such as evangelicals make them less able to denounce socio-political injustices - for fear of backlash from the authorities?

Tough question – they are hesitant, but why? Other public groups are also hesitant. On the one hand, one is hesitant to cause troubles with the authorities, on the other hand, most do not have the theological conviction that evangelicals possess a mandate to speak out on political issues.


- Is there a misrepresentation of Putin and the Russian authorities in Western Europe?

Russians have at least thought so for the last 15 years. He is in any case not an ogre and many of us believe his foreign policy has been reasonable and cautious. See for ex. Russia’s policies regarding Syria, Israel, Turkey, Central Asia or Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia has frequently been a mediator, Russian diplomacy is active. Who can blame Putin for not giving up the bases in Crimea and allowing the Black Sea to become a pond of NATO? Crimea has been central to Russia’s defence strategy since the 18th century! NATO has advanced up to Russia’s borders and they have finally begun to push back. An understandable reaction.


The Russian desire for disarmament agreements is very clear. See the Open Skies agreement, Salt, etc.


Having said this, Russians long for friendship with the West. Notice how even state-employed Russians light up when a Westerner expresses the belief that the West must again befriend Russia. The overt, aggressive dislike is mostly Western, not mutual. But their friendship with the West, in contrast to that of small states like Ukraine or Poland, is not unconditional. Small states do not mind playing second fiddle. Yet Russia (and China) demand acceptance as an equal partner, not as a junior partner. The US cannot accept such a position – see for ex. Zbigniew Brzezinski or the Wolfowitz Doctrine of 1992. The US rejects the multilateral world, to which Russia, China, India and Iran aspire.


William Yoder, Ph.D.

Berlin, 2 February 2021


A journalistic release for which only the author is 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 #21-05, 1.126 words


This article appears only in English.