Why Russia’s Evangelicals Thank God for Putin

by Mark R. Elliot, Christianity Today

Evangelicals in Russia have become ardent fans of President Vladimir Putin because of Russia’s efforts to maintain its influence in Ukraine, its takeover of Crimea in 2014, and the widespread Russian belief that the West is to blame for the present economic woes on the home front.

This realization dawned on me during my November visit to Russia. The evidence is hard to ignore. Meeting in St. Petersburg back in May, the official Congress of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists ended their meetings with a strong endorsement of Putin just two months after brutal conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine.

Addressing Putin, they said, “We express to you sincere appreciation for your labor in the post of president. . . . We reaffirm our principled loyalty with respect to state authority, based on the unchanged words of the Bible, ‘Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God’ (Rom. 13:1, ASV).” The evangelical congress also directly challenged the legitimacy of Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and the February 2014 overthrow of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich.

Originally, I suspected backroom state pressure must have been at play. But after conversations with more than a dozen Protestant and Orthodox believers in Moscow, I have to admit that no outside interference was necessary to generate such high praise for Russia’s president.

Putin is genuinely popular—and admired—by Russians across the spectrum: among believers as well as the religiously indifferent, among Protestants as well as Orthodox, and among academics as well as taxi drivers.

This holds true even after the December collapse of the Russian ruble. Quite a few of the trusted Christian leaders who I interviewed in Moscow have family members in Ukraine, or are themselves originally from Ukraine. They are convinced that their anti-Russian relatives across the border have been manipulated by Ukrainian propaganda. (Several were willing to be quoted, but a first name pseudonym will be used for those seeking to remain anonymous.)

Believing in Putin

A pastor from Siberia explained to me that a Russian is more likely to believe Putin than anyone from Ukraine—even a family member.

A Russian Orthodox journalist—and a rare opponent of Putin—shared that even the tiny Russian Quaker community is deeply divided over Ukraine. The majority favors Putin’s military moves there. A Protestant educator with long-standing, firsthand knowledge of American academia put it this way: “We really thank God for Putin’s leadership. We do not want to protest as Ukrainians think we should.”

“Putin has brought stability. We have a better standard of living now and we feel more secure,” said my friend Sasha. (Under Putin, Russians have enjoyed real improvements in salaries and buying power—up until the present economic crisis brought on by a combination of the falling price of oil, Western sanctions, and drastic devaluation of the ruble.) Corruption, Sasha says, is still a problem, but much less so. “I used to be stopped by the police wanting a bribe to overlook some nonexistent traffic violation. But I have not been stopped for a bribe in four years.” Above all, Sasha is grateful to Putin for restoring the Russian sense of pride.

Sasha grew upset at references to the Russian annexation of Crimea, preferring to think of it as reunification. His response was that NATO tore Kosovo from Serbia in violation of international law and that the West only selectively champions such laws. As for Ukraine, Russians overwhelmingly believe its new Maidan regime is fascist and American-inspired.

The Two Sides of the Coin

Artyom, a longtime Orthodox friend educated in the United States, argues the West is willing to believe anything negative about Russia.

Artyom holds positions strikingly at odds with Western perceptions of the Ukraine crisis. He and many Russians believe Russian volunteers crossed the border to fight with Ukrainian separatists, but that no real evidence exists that Russian regular troops are fighting in eastern Ukraine. They believe the Soviets brought many good things to Ukraine including, at least early on, the option of Ukrainian-language schools and publications. They are convinced that everyone in Crimea is happy now that they are part of Russia. Artyom and his fellow Russians think Ukraine, not Russia, shot down Malaysian Airline Flight MH17 over Ukraine last July. (The preponderance of evidence from the Dutch investigation of the downing suggests a Russian-supplied, surface-to-air missile fired by pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists was to blame.)

But there are two sides to every coin. In contrast to their Russian counterparts, Ukrainian evangelicals defend their support for the Maidan Revolution by arguing that it was their civic duty to oppose an immoral regime. They compare their opposition to Yanukovich with theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Adolf Hitler, citing the martyred pastor’s dictum, “Obedience to tyrants is equal to disobedience towards God.” Ukrainians assert Soviet tolerance for expressions of Ukrainian cultural sentiment were short-lived before Stalin’s culpability in the death of millions of Ukrainians in the great famine of the 1930s. Some 85 years later, the evidence shows Russia again is determined to strengthen its influence inside Ukraine. Russian tanks and support vehicles have been photographed in eastern Ukraine, and Ukrainian forces have captured Russian military personnel there.

Not every citizen of Crimea is happy with Russia’s annexation: The peninsula’s Muslim Tatars, Catholics, some Protestants, and even Orthodox not affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate face increased restrictions and discrimination.

Healing Will Be Difficult

More evidence of the fervent patriotism of my Russian friends comes via an email from a missionary couple serving in Russia: “The thing is Putin is wildly popular in Russia—beloved by Christians and non-Christians alike. There have been some prophecies about a great revival coming out of Russia, and many believe that Putin is paving the way for Russia to rise as a spiritual giant.” A Ukrainian missionary to Russia believes Putin is “God’s man for Russia in this hour.”

Two Russian Christian responses to the summer 2014 Ukraine crisis theme issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report (which I edit) show the chasm between Russian perceptions and Ukrainian and Western perceptions of the conflict.

“We Russian evangelicals find it offensive when our Ukrainian brothers rebuke us, demanding that we should oppose our Russian authorities and make our own ‘Maidan,’” Andrei, an Evangelical Christian-Baptist pastor from southern Russia, wrote. “From our side, we take strong exception to Ukrainian evangelical support for Ukrainian ultranationalist and radical groups. One should put aside one’s loyalties and preconceptions in order to be objective. For most of us, this is difficult because of our inability to be fully independent of our national, cultural, and spiritual allegiances. The way towards healing will be difficult, but we can take steps toward that end.”

Another Christian leader believes that Russia’s media are responsible for the Russian public’s misunderstanding of the conflict. Ekaterina Smyslova, a Russian Christian attorney who has assisted dozens of Western ministries in securing legal registration, wrote, “Russian state-controlled mass media advance the idea that a fascist junta seized power in Ukraine. This junta, bribed with Western money, callously butchers peaceful people. Every day, all Russian TV channels show bloody pictures illustrating the malfeasance of the junta. It motivates Russians to go to eastern Ukraine as volunteers to rescue local people dying because of the fascists.”

People are suffering in eastern Ukraine at the hands of both Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian army units, and Western media often overlook the dual cause of suffering. A pastor friend in Moscow has a new member in his congregation, a recently widowed pastor and tent evangelist from Lugansk, eastern Ukraine. A Ukrainian artillery shell took his wife’s life as she was standing on their apartment balcony. This grieving father of two shared, “After that, we almost immediately moved to Moscow. There are difficulties with citizenship. By God’s mercy there will be a job for me.”

To date, fighting in eastern Ukraine has claimed over 4,700 lives and wounded more than 9,900. Refugees displaced by the fighting number nearly one million. Separatists in eastern Ukraine who see Russian Orthodoxy as the only legitimate faith have closed dozens of Protestant and Catholic churches and the Protestant Donetsk Christian University.

Rogue pro-separatist units have kidnapped, tortured, and killed evangelical pastors. At the same time, in central and western Ukraine, some Orthodox parishes and priests loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate have been harassed and pressured to switch their allegiance to one of the two Ukraine-based Orthodox jurisdictions. Piecing together a balanced picture of the Ukraine tragedy can only be achieved with a careful, inclusive reading of Russian, Ukrainian, and Western sources.

Loss of Collaboration

Another casualty of the fighting is the loss of Christian community and collaboration in kingdom work. Smyslova writes, “Sadly, the Christian NGO Russia Without Orphans no longer cooperates with its counterpart, Ukraine Without Orphans, because Russian and Ukrainian leaders of these two charities disagree about the situation in Ukraine.”

Two other conversations with Russian believers bear noting. The first I conducted with a convert to Putinism. The second was with a pastor who defends his homeland, but also reflects with sorrow on what is being lost spiritually in the current crisis.

Valentin is now as anti-American as he ever was a supporter of westernization. “From the age of 17, I was strongly anti-Soviet. I was happy to see the fall of communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union,” he said. “Then, as Yeltsin made so many mistakes, I was neutral politically. But now since radical Ukrainian nationalists have taken power in Kyiv, I am proud to be a Russian patriot.”

Pastor Daniel is more thoughtful than Valentin. He holds multiple degrees from American seminaries, yet he supports Russian moves in Ukraine and considers Western support for the new government in Kyiv ill-considered. “The idea to play a ‘nationalistic card’ and make Russians the villains makes me sick. It seems to be the only way that Ukraine under the pretext of independence can slip from Russia’s influence.”

Still, Daniel is more nuanced than most Muscovites I encountered, believing as he does that mass media, whether Russian, Ukrainian, or Western, distort the facts. He also assumes that the Russian—and Western—public may not be hearing the whole story of what is happening in eastern Ukraine.

Pained by the new divisions the Ukraine crisis has sown between Russian and Ukrainian Christians, Daniel asks sadly, “There is national blood, and there is the blood of Christ. Which is thicker?”

Elevating loyalty to a fatherland over loyalty to God the Father is a temptation that knows no borders.

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