After a stressful construction period lasting nearly a decade, the Russian-American Institute’s (RAI) new edifice in northeastern Moscow is up for sale. A buyer has been found and President John Bernbaum predicted Oct. 5 that the sale would be finalized “in two or three months.”
At its dedication in May 2010, the magnificent glass-and-brick structure — a Christian liberal-arts university in Russia’s capital — had been described as the most beautiful and representative building in all of Russian Protestantism.
The Baptist Union of Russia, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s main partner in Russia, is a sponsor of the RAI.
The impending sale awakened the concern of Alexander Semchenko, Russia’s wealthiest Protestant businessman and bishop of the small Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians (STsEC). On July 26, he stated: “We are afraid this sale will mean the liquidation of RAI as we know it.”
Bernbaum has assured that the RAI’s classes will be guaranteed at another location if the building is sold. But Semchenko, who was imprisoned in the early 1980s for engaging in illegal Christian printing, fears the roughly $4 million (USD)-profit from the sale would only cover the costs of instruction for a limited time. According to him, the RAI — born of a heady dream in 1990 — would suffer its final demise. RAI opened in 1995 and began its journey through four different rental locations in Moscow before ending at its current address.
The debt on the building is $7.8 million USD. On May 11, Semchenko offered to take over this debt if the building were officially given to STsEC. The businessman places its current, unconfirmed selling price at $17 million. After taxes, he estimates that only $4 million of that profit would remain if sold at this price. Because Semchenko only offered 46 percent of the actual market value, it is obviously more profitable to sell to a well-endowed, outside party. The entrepreneur had planned to pay off the $7.8 million debt with loans from three Russian banks.
As part of the sale, Semchenko’s STsEC intended to guarantee continued Christian instruction in a portion of the existing building. The businessman would also restore its original name: “Russian-American Christian University (called “Institute” in Russia). Russian observers were mystified when the original RACU name was dropped in 2009.
The impending sale has ruffled only a few feathers within Russia. The tepid, long-term response among Russia’s Protestants can be attributed in part to their lack of interest in liberal-arts Christian education. One Russian Protestant leader also observes: “We have tended to view RAI as a free-floating, foreign entity located somewhere between the Orthodox and Protestant worlds.” Semchenko stresses that he would be very concerned about remaking the institute into a clearly Russian Protestant one.
All RAI-board members are tight-lipped; they are, according to one of its members, “sworn to secrecy.” Yet one serious, non-board source claims the buyer is the 15-million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. When confronted with this information, President Bernbaum did not refute it. Only after the sale will it be possible to confirm details.
William Yoder writes for the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, a partner church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He is a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.