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Remembering how it was when we were still brothers

How Russian Protestants are responding to the crisis in Ukraine

March 13, 2014

SMOLENSK, Russia

The primary reaction of Russian evangelicals to the present Russian-Ukrainian crisis has been one of silence and sadness coupled with multiple days of fasting and prayer. Their sadness and nostalgia were expressed by the prayer of a layman in a Moscow Baptist service March 2: “Remind us of how it was when we were still brothers!” 

Eduard Grabovenko, the Perm-based head bishop of the Pentecostal “Russian Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith” wrote: “We observe with anxiety and pain developments in Ukraine, where two fraternal people with a common history and destiny are on the verge of armed conflict.” 

While Ukrainians tend to stress the autonomous and distinct nature of their country and culture, Russians point to the commonalities. Indeed, many Russians question if Russia and Ukraine truly represent two distinct and different cultures. 

Late in the 9th century, Kiev ― Ukraine’s capital ― had been declared the “mother of Rus cities.” It predated Moscow as the capital and cultural cradle of the Eastern Slav nation. For most Russians, removing Kiev from the cultural equation would be akin to cutting Philadelphia out of a map of the United States. 

These two nations are in any case hopelessly intertwined. Ukraine was the Soviet Union’s Bible belt, and at least a large minority of Russia’s Protestant leaders are of Ukrainian origin. It also happens in the inverse: One of the most vehement Baptist defenders of Ukrainian sovereignty is the youthful Kiev theologian Mikhail Cherenkov, a Russian from Samara/Volga.

Generally, Ukrainian Protestant leadership has toed the line of the country’s pro-Western and pro-European Union parties. On 3 July 2012, both Vyacheslav Nesteruk and Grigory Komendant, present and past president of the “All-Ukrainian Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists,” signed a statement with the unsuccessful demand that then-president Viktor Yanukovich cancel plans for installing Russian as a secondary official language in certain parts of the country.

The letter warned that such legislation would „deepen social division, strengthen political resistance and undermine the foundations of the Ukrainian state.“ An attempt by the country’s parliament to repeal this law immediately after the fall of Yanukovich in late February now appears to have precisely that effect.

In a statement from Dec. 11, 2013, young Baptist theologians distanced themselves from Nesteruk for describing their church as “apolitical” and insisted: “We are not active on Maidan Square” (the epicentre of anit-Yanukovich protests). But a Protestant statement from Feb. 11 strongly supporting the protest movement included the signature of Nesteruk’s primary deputy: Valery Antonyuk. A major interconfessional statement from March 2 calling for Russia to “recover its senses and halt its aggression against Ukraine” again carried Nesteruk’s signature. 

Ukraine’s political disputes have generally pitted the country’s largest church, the “Russian Orthodox Church - Moscow Patriarchate,” against the remainder. Only in Russia does the ROC-MP enjoy occasional Protestant support. In an article from March 2, Mikhail Cherenkov decried Russia’s “Chekist state machine and Chekist church” and described its Orthodox church as governed by “the cross and the bayonet.” He demanded that at least Russia’s Protestants rally to the defence of Ukraine. 

But only a few days before, on Feb. 25 and 26, the Baptist Vitaly Vlasenko had presided along with the Orthodox Metropolitan Ilarion (Alfeyev), and Moscow’s Roman Catholic archbishop Pavel Pezzi over meetings held by the “Christian Inter-Confessional Advisory Committee for the CIS-Countries and Baltics” (CIAC) in St. Petersburg. 

Pastor Vlasenko, head of the Russian Baptist Union’s Office for External Church Relations, enthused afterward: “We had great fellowship and all groups present ― including numerous Lutherans ― were offered the opportunity to speak.” The CIAC, founded in 1993, is a regional, Eastern alternative to the Geneva-based “Conference of European Churches.” 

In a kind of prayer request lofted posted on the Internet on March 4, Sergey Shindryaev, reported: “We had other great news this morning. In response to a Russian invasion, the United States has sent an aircraft carrier strike group toward the Black Sea in order to respond to developments on the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine. The super-carrier USS George H.W. Bush plus 17 other ships and three submarines passed through the Aegean Sea this afternoon. We can see that people all around the world have not remained indifferent to Ukraine ― as (was the case) in Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria in 1938.” 

Shindryaev, a blogger apparently no longer resident in Russia, was applauding a lengthy statement made by Peter Kuzmic, a respected Croat-Slovenian theologian from Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Massachusetts. Kuzmic, no friend of rapprochement between East and West, writes of “amoral hesitation” and complains that the US government “has befriended Putin and his satellites for all too long. The Western countries have voiced their condemnation in unison ― unambiguous and unexpectedly severe.” 

Kuzmic also denies the legitimacy of countries such as Russia, India and China to create a power bloc apart from the West. The ROC-MP has, he charged, “uncritically supported (Putin’s) megalomaniac plans to restore Russia as a superpower through the creation of a Eurasian Union in order to compete with both the European Union and the USA.” 

The new Ukrainian government also has its supporters within Russia. Immediately, after Alexander Turchinov’s election as president on Feb. 25, BCEX ―  a loose, Moscow-based coalition of mostly Pentecostal and Evangelical-Christian denominations ― sent him a hearty greeting. BCEX called Turchinov “our brother in Christ” and assured that the new, acting president would “promote law and order in Ukraine.” 

Yuri Sipko of Moscow, an ex-president of Russia’s Baptist Union and political commentator who no longer speaks for his church, wrote on March 3: “Russia can never wash away the shame for such brazen lies and aggression against the brotherly people of Ukraine. There is never any excuse for violence. There is no justification for an armed intervention in Ukraine.” 

Bishop Sergey Ryakhovsky, perennial head of the Charismatic and Pentecostal “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE), is often accused of being pro-Putin, of being a Patriarch Kirill (head of the Russian Orthodox Church) in Protestant form. But he may once again have demonstrated his statesmanlike qualities in a March 4 statement: “Note how tensions are being pumped up ― not only between fraternal nations, but also within our churches. How important it is that political and societal changes not lead to the most horrible of diabolical provocations: that we begin to hate each other! . . . Let’s not give in to the world’s evil voices and let’s retain our unity and mutual respect.“ 

But oligarchs in Eastern Ukraine have flip-flopped their allegiances from Yanukovich to Turchinov in recent days. Developments appear to indicate that the majority of Ukrainians ― including Protestants ― may be of similar persuasion: They are in a waiting mode and will accept either form of government. Whoever can deliver stability, jobs, housing and social justice will have their support.

William Yoder is a freelance journalist living and working in Russia. He is a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.

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