Special Theme Edition on the Current Ukrainian Crisis:   Volume 22, No. 3  (Summer 2014)

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 Russian Orthodox Conversions to Protestantism

Geraldine Fagan

In 1998, Aleksandr Cherepanov was so horrified when Yekaterinburg’s Russian Orthodox bishop publicly burned books by liberal-leaning Orthodox theologians Frs. Alexander Schmemann, John Meyendorff, and Aleksandr Men that he converted to Lutheranism. Previously an Orthodox parishioner for ten years, Cherepanov was ordained pastor in 1999 and now leads a small Lutheran parish in Yekaterinburg. Other cases of practicing Orthodox becoming Protestant must have occurred, but this is the only instance this author can recall in the course of numerous interviews with and study of Orthodox and Protestants across Russia over recent years.

Who Exactly is Russian Orthodox?

Crucial to this issue, however, is the question: Who exactly is Russian Orthodox? Not even the Russian Orthodox Church itself is coherent on this point. Its most extreme position, set out in a February 2002 Synodal statement in response to the establishment of Catholic dioceses in Russia, is that “the Russian [‘rossiisky’, denoting all of Russia’s citizens] people are culturally, spiritually, and historically the flock of the Russian Orthodox Church.” Usually, however, the Church’s recognition of some Russian citizens as ethnic Muslims (Tatars, Chechens), Buddhists (Buryats, Kalmyks), or even Catholics (Poles, Lithuanians), suggests that it regards only ethnic Russians and some other nationalities (such as Ossetians) as Orthodox by default.

The discrepancies do not end there. A 2006 poll conducted by Moscow State University found 50 percent claiming to be Orthodox and a further 33 percent simply Christian – but only 14 percent identified God with the Trinity. Similar polls over the past decade typically find the proportion of active churchgoers, as against those claiming Christian affiliation, to be comparable to figures for Western Europe. Unlike a nominal Catholic or Protestant in the West, however, a nominal Russian Orthodox is less likely to be wholly indifferent towards faith. Theological discussions feature prominently in both private and public discourse, making the distinction between believers and non-believers in Russia less pronounced. Symptomatic of this, a movie examining repentance in an Orthodox monastery in the harsh Russian North, The Island, has been showing to packed cinemas across the country in recent months.

Be that as it may, the fact remains that the majority of so-called conversions to Protestantism are by people who are either nominal or only very tentatively Orthodox, even by the Church’s own standards. Parish priests would normally regard church attendance of at least once a month as a serious commitment to Orthodoxy.

Like the Lutheran pastor in Yekaterinburg, some Orthodox become Protestant for theological reasons – just as anywhere else in the world. Referring specifically to Russia, however, Protestantism appears to hold a variety of attractions for nominal Orthodox. Here it is helpful to distinguish, at least loosely, among the most prevalent types of Protestant congregations in Russia.

The Western Connection . . .

Churches planted and run by Western missionaries, or so strongly influenced by them that they are still not recognizable as Russian initiatives, are becoming less common as bureaucratic barriers to foreign missions increase. A few years ago I met an Orthodox priest from southern European Russia who had previously been a pastor in an evangelical church planted and run by American missionaries. In all such churches, he claimed, “There are three groups of people – those who want to emigrate, those who want humanitarian aid, and true believers.” This sounded like familiar propaganda, until I recalled hearing a friend of a friend in southern Siberia admit that his main motivation for attending a similar church for some years was “the possibility of visiting America.” Perhaps this is what lies behind the Russian Orthodox Church’s allegations that foreign missionaries are here to buy souls. Despite their best intentions, such missionaries can still be an exotic attraction, particularly for those seeking language practice. Even living in apparently very modest circumstances, they may also be regarded mainly as a source of material assistance, especially in areas where the equivalent of $75 U.S. dollars is considered a good monthly salary.

The hundreds of charismatic congregations founded across Russia since the end of Communism are commonly the result of effective Western missions. Even if they now have little or no foreign involvement, however, their format of worship (electrified music in particular) and their acceptance of material prosperity appeals to those Russians who grew up during the 1990s and who aspire to mainstream Western youth culture. The strong emphasis in such churches upon community activities, as well as their informal atmosphere and demonstrative friendliness, are additional draws for teenagers and young families.

. . . Versus More Indigenous Protestant Expressions

By contrast, the manner and material culture (as opposed to theology) of many Russian Baptists and some Pentecostals are closer to that of ordinary Orthodox than to their Western Protestant counterparts. Insofar as they were able to function during the Soviet period, such churches developed their own indigenous culture, typically perpetuated through large families over several generations. As they do not have the unfamiliar pre-1917 appendage of Russian Orthodox tradition, the average Sovietized Russian has to make almost no cultural shift in joining such a Baptist or Pentecostal congregation. This is particularly the case in parts of Siberia, where there is little or nothing left of pre-Soviet Russia to support a connection with Orthodoxy. Such areas also typically have strong communities of Ukrainian or Belarusian Protestants, whose original forbears were exiled from their homelands. One stark example is that of the Pacific island of Sakhalin, where the Russian Orthodox Church had a negligible presence during the brief period in the nineteenth century when it was part of the Russian Empire. Today, the oldest surviving religious building on the island is a Baptist church.

This fact – that the Soviet regime largely succeeded in severing Russians from their Orthodox beliefs and culture, thus making an indigenous Soviet-era Baptist church at least as accessible to the average nominal Orthodox – is something the Russian Orthodox Church finds difficult to accept. This might account for the oversimplified “Protestant equals foreign” versus “Orthodox equals Russian” strain in its official rhetoric. The charge is in fact doubly artificial because, even though some vocal elements in the Russian Orthodox Church  might give the impression that their national identity is foremost among their allegiances, most serious Orthodox are not so because they are Russian, and some of the most revered saints – St. Nicholas and St. George – are not, and are known not to be, Russian.

The Language of Worship

Perhaps the most common reason assumed to be behind a preference for Protestant worship is the incomprehensibility of Church Slavonic. While certainly a factor, it is given undue emphasis. The texts of the major Orthodox services vary little, and although understanding New Testament readings - which differ at every service - can prove problem­atic, priests will often explain elusive points in their sermons, which are delivered in modern Russian.

A Negative Experience with Orthodoxy

More commonly, nominal Orthodox turn to Protestant churches after some negative experience in an Orthodox church, such as criticism of their dress or uninitiated behavior. Yekaterinburg’s book-burning bishop was eventually demoted and sent to a distant monastery “to repent,” but pastoral impropriety is rarely dealt with in this way. Partly as a result of Soviet influence upon its affairs, the institutional culture of the Russian Orthodox Church suffers from authoritarianism, arbitrariness, and a shortage of effective missionaries. Consequently, whether or not nominal Orthodox are discouraged from a deeper commitment to their baptismal faith depends greatly upon which priest or parish they encounter. For example, in describing to me a series of talks given to university students in a northern Russian city, a young local Baptist drew a very sharp distinction between two Orthodox presentations. While he thought the local Orthodox bishop’s address was “hopeless,” he was most enthusiastic about one delivered by Deacon Andrei Kurayev, even though this Moscow-based professor of theology is renowned for his opposition to Protestantism.

In some cases, the very presence of a dynamic Protestant church generates interest, but the flexibility of Protestant structures is often tempered in Russia by the extent to which local state officials restrict their activity. In neighboring Belarus, where the government’s anti-Protestant policy is more marked, several charismatic churches have told Forum 18 News Service of significant reductions in their congregations after state restrictions forced them to meet in less accessible premises or as house groups. Some nominal Orthodox are certainly put off by Protestantism because of fear: The ordinary Russian receives practically no information about Protestant churches other than newspaper reports, where Evangelicals are routinely branded as members of destructive, totalitarian sects. Ignorance about different doctrines may even be encountered within Protestant churches themselves. A member of a Siberian Pentecostal congregation planted by a Western missionary once asked me to explain the difference between the Russian Orthodox Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and his own church.

Of a minority Siberian, rather than Russian, ethnicity, this young Pentecostal was, however, perfectly clear in one respect: Why he attended this church. He had previously been involved in petty crime. But while his old friends had ended up in prison, members of the church had helped him straighten out his life. In the end, the reasons why people turn to Protestantism in Russia remain highly individual