For the first time ever since the days of the Tsars, a Protestant has been elected mayor of a major Russian city.

In a March 18 run-off election in the auto-making city of Tolyatti/Volga, the Evangelical Christian and political independent Sergey Andreyev defeated  “United Russia’s” candidate, Alexander Shakhov. Andreyev won nearly 57 percent of the vote. Shakhov, the candidate of Vladimir Putin’s “United Russia” party, 40 percent.

The English-language Moscow Times reported that the upset occurred despite the national government having poured billions into the city to bail out AvtoVAZ, the city’s largest employer.

“United Russia” attempted to stir up sentiment against the country’s religious minorities. In Tolyatti it portrayed itself as “the fatherland’s savior from sinister and ominous foreign powers.” Posters up around the city portrayed Tolyatti’s Orthodox cathedral awash in bright colors beside the local Baptist church in dark greys, resting below a hovering black raven.

In a statement on March 15, the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB) protested the characterizations, accusing those responsible for the placards of “religious racism” and “kindling of inter-confessional hatred.”

Similar tactics were used in February 2009, when a forged Baptist newspaper in Smolensk (near Belarus) had branded a candidate for that city mayor as a Baptist bent upon turning the city into “a hotbed of foreign Baptist activity.”  

Andreyev, a 39-year-old father of four, is not a Baptist. In a recent interview he stated: “I am neither Scientologist, Baptist nor Hare Krishna. I am an Evangelical Christian.”

The incoming mayor is a member of the tiny Association of Missionary Churches of Evangelical Christians, comprised of 12 congregations in Russia and an additional 13 in Ukraine. Andreyev was trained as a lay preacher in St. Petersburg’s Baptist “New Life” congregation before moving to Tolyatti as a 20-year-old school teacher in 1993. The youth organization “Living Word,” which he founded in Tolyatti 19 years ago, is still described as Baptist .

Though he did not campaign as a Protestant believer, he made no attempt to hide his religious connections and ran his campaign from the church offices of “Divine Fire,” a local Full-Gospel charismatic congregation. 

Andreyev has political ties to a recent presidential candidate, Mikhail Prokhorov, who lost to Putin. Both chose to leave the “Just Cause” party last September, opening the door for Andreyev to join Prokhorov’s promised future party.

Tolyatti (population 720.000) was called “Stavropol-on-Volga” until renamed in honor of the Italian communist leader Palmiro Togliatti in 1964. Tolyatti’s car manufacturer, once known as Lada, was founded in collaboration with the Italian firm Fiat.