Why do the Disabled (and Help for Them) Receive So

Little Attention in Russia?

Robert D. Hosken with the assistance of Mark R. Elliott

In Russia in the twentieth century the disabled had to contend with ingrained social indifference and political bias. And in the twenty-first century the disabled still lack adequate assistance and still generate minimal attention in the Russian media.

Several reasons help explain the largely blind eye of Russian society towards the presence of the disabled in its midst. First, Communists labored under the myth of the “new Soviet man” who would be intelligent, educated, strong, healthy, and godless. Since evolution dictated the survival of the fittest, the ideal Soviet world had no room for the disabled. As a result, they were kept out of sight. That is why even today they frequently are to be found banished to the upper stories of apartment buildings. Their immobility means they still are relatively rare sights in public. And out of sight, most often, is out of mind.

Second, Soviet socialism dictated that every aspect of society had to be under the control of the Communist Party. Churches were forbidden to have any form of social ministry; they could only perform “cultic rituals” within the four walls of church buildings (which were regularly being closed during the Communist era). The result was that those who remained Christians often conformed their theology to state requirements under pressure, rationalizing their lack of involvement in society. Because of a lingering Soviet mentality, many Christians continue to see the needs in their midst as the government’s business, even 15 years after the fall of Communism.

Third, the Russian Orthodox Church is now the unofficial, state-sanctioned Christian religion. While Orthodox Christians can publicly advertise their outreach to the disabled, Evangelicals seem to be more cautious about publicizing such ministry. The latter may fear that drawing attention to their outreach will lead to Orthodox pressure on local authorities to block it. This may help explain why it has been much easier to gather data on Orthodox ministries to the disabled than comparable Evangelical efforts.

Examples of Orthodox and state interference abound. For example, after several years of serving patients and holding worship services in Moscow Hospital No. 79, our Agape Rehabilitation Society was told to cease work with patients and to halt worship services, while the Orthodox continue to minister there. Agape has been denied access to various other hospitals and institutions because “You’re not Orthodox.”

A more recent example comes from Penza where the Living Faith (“Zhivaya Vera”) Church for years conducted several active social ministries and enjoyed good relations with state officials. But on 27 February 2006 the director of a homeless shelter abruptly terminated a written agreement with the church to feed and minister to those seeking help at the facility. The pretext was an appeal supposedly initiated jointly by the staff and the homeless: “We, the coworkers and those being cared for by the state institution ‘Penzenskii DNP’ appeal to you [Director A.I. Starostin] in relation to our agreement to have at our institution an Orthodox prayer room . . . . In conjunction with this, we ask you to permit us to be fed only by the Russian Orthodox Church and to completely terminate the activities of the religious organization ‘Zhivaya Vera’.” The appeal originated from a computer printer, which homeless people naturally could not have accessed on their own. 