Summer 2009

Vol. 17, No. 3


Russia and Its National Minorities: Christian Ministry in a

Racially Charged Atmosphere

Peter Johnson

In Russia one frequent use of the word nationalist relates to the country’s small, indigenous ethnic groups. Specifically, many Russians are  alarmed by the thought of “nationalist” aspirations among their minority populations, seeing such sentiments as a serious threat that must be vigorously resisted. In the years in which I have worked with indigenous ethnic nations in Russia, I have come to understand that Russians disapprove of groups which stress their national identity through the use of their native language or culture. From the Russian perspective, it is problematic for national minorities to separate themselves from the larger majority culture. Like their attitude towards religious minorities, which they label “sects” or schismatics, many Russians fear the country’s smaller ethnic groups setting themselves apart and creating divisions, in contrast to the traditional Russian world view which values unity.

If Christian mission in Russia’s ethnic regions is to succeed, and if Russia as a federation is to be stable, it is essential that good relations prevail among ethnic groups. The goal of this essay is to highlight difficulties faced by Russia’s smaller nationalities and to encourage reflection on how Western missionaries may best serve among them.

“Harmonious” Relations between Russia and Its Ethnic Minorities…

Russia’s smaller, indigenous, ethnic nationalities constitute just over 13 percent of the country’s population, some 19 million in number ( Whereas the Russian Empire was referred to as the “prison of nations,” Soviet ideology proclaimed the glorious coming together of all nations in what was supposed to be a union of equals. Stalin’s Exhibition of Economic Achievement in Moscow embodied the party line on nationalities by means of a prominent ensemble of golden statues, each in the traditional dress of a different ethnic group, coming together in proclamation of a beautiful union of peoples. 

According to current official reports, the situation of the indigenous minorities in the Russian Federation appears fairly positive. For example, in May 2007 the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe noted the existence in Russia of thousands of minority associations, as well as many newspapers and radio and television programs produced in local languages. Officially, more than 6,000 schools in Russia provide teaching in a total of 38 minority languages ( monitoring/minorities/3_fcnmdocs/PDF_2nd_CM_ Res_Russianfederation_en.pdf).

…And Less Than Harmonious Relations

Yet as with so much in Russia, a gap exists between the official position and reality. For example, a number of the national republics which make up the Russian Federation have had large celebrations recently to mark the anniversary of their “voluntary union” with Russia. Huge banners and carefully staged events have celebrated these mergers. But if one asks a member of one of these minority nations, the comment one often hears is, “We keep very quiet about this.” In one instance, as a celebration of a “voluntary union” approached, local state intelligence officers called ethnic community leaders in for questioning out of fear of unrest.

Beneath the surface of the bright posters and official statistics, there exists a situation far more complicated and far more tense. While unrest is to be expected in the volatile Caucasus region, the ethnic groups with whom I work and who are the focus of this article live thousands of miles away in a totally different cultural and religious context. They are mostly animistic, not Islamic, and they are certainly not aggressive. In fact, in the face of opposition they are more likely to fall into depression than anger. Nonetheless, I have seen how Moscow keeps a very tight reign on its ethnic minorities. Many indigenous, non-Slavic peoples can testify to incidents that show negative attitudes towards them. For example, it is not unusual for indigenous peoples visiting Moscow, walking the streets of the capital, speaking to each other in their native language, to be interrupted by strangers who tell them to “speak like a human” (govori po chelovecheski), which means, speak Russian.

Ethnic Tensions in Churches

Very often, churches in Russia’s many indigenous regions also have a difficult relationship with non-Slavic peoples. Very few pastors are from the indigenous communities, and it is rare to find churches that tolerate ministry which uses indigenous languages and cultures. Native Christian activists who try to start indigenous work are often met with open hostility from church leaders. Even within churches that have permitted these ministries, it usually remains very controversial. Those who oppose indigenous Christian ministry commonly argue that small, ethnic minorities still practice ancient, pagan, animistic religions. The conclusion drawn is that all aspects of their languages and cultures are too permeated with paganism to render them compatible with Christian faith.

While it is true that traditional animism and paganism still flourish among many of these nations, it does not automatically mean that the only way minority peoples may find salvation is by totally abandoning their indigenous culture. When Christianity reached the Slavic people a millennia ago, they also were pagans who worshipped Chernobog and Belobog, and yet their pagan word, Bog, was accepted by Christians and today is the common Russian word for the God of the Christian faith. But modern Bible translations that use non- Slavic words for God are controversial.

But is it really fear of paganism that drives resistance to indigenous Christian ministry? One incident I recently witnessed suggests that another dynamic is at work. At a service in a church in one of Russia’s ethnic regions, a visiting pastor preached a sermon in support of indigenous ministry. The message stressed God’s call to believers to accept those who are different, just as Abraham accepted Melchizedek. When the sermon ended, the senior pastor came forward and, as multiple sermons are typical in Russia, began another sermon. The pastor sincerely thanked the guest preacher and enthusiastically continued the same theme. But as he preached, a subtle shift occurred, apparently without his recognizing it. Later, a third preacher followed, again enthusiastically endorsing the first speaker but, step-by-step, without realizing it, the message continued to change.

Whereas the first sermon had said, “I need to accept those who are different from me,” the second sermon’s message was, “Those who are different have to accept me.” By the time the third preacher spoke, the message was a specific application of the senior pastor’s sermon: the indigenous minority has to accept the dominant Russian culture. Their indigenous language and culture separates believers from the Russian majority and therefore is an unloving and unacceptable division of the body of Christ. What happened during this service is sad confirmation that the issue is not fear of syncretism with paganism, but a desire for uniformity and a lack of toleration of different cultures.

Who is a Nationalist?

As previously mentioned, Russians typically use the term nationalist to refer to members of small ethnic groups who insist upon using their own language and practicing their own culture. In contrast to the common Western understanding which equates Russian nationalism with exaggerated national pride, Russians themselves identify members of ethnic minorities who resist assimilation  as nationalists. But as an indigenous Christian leader recently said with tears in her eyes, “I do not understand what this word means. I live in my own land, and I want to speak my own language. How does that make me a nationalist? How does that make me bad?”

A Double Standard at Work

I would argue that a very clear double standard is at work. Even during the Soviet period, singing Russian folk songs was considered patriotic. But if indigenous minorities sang their folk songs, that was viewed negatively as nationalistic because it was seen as members of a minority separating themselves from the larger Russian society. Celebrating one’s cultural traditions and language is not wrong. In fact it is a necessary part of social cohesion, and beyond that, it is good to celebrate the beauty of culture which God has given to all peoples.

Today in Russia nationalism is associated with something evil. And it has at times become negative, for example, when the term has been used to disparage another nation or people. When celebrating one’s culture includes denigrating another, then that brand of nationalism does become something evil. The indigenous nations I work with, however, simply want the right to use their language and culture. They do not wish to force themselves on others. Nor do they have any thought of separating from Russia. Typically, in Siberia and northernRussia, indigenous ethnic nations comprise between 5 and 35 percent of the population, even in their home territories. They recognize the importance of speaking good Russian. They simply want to be able to practice and celebrate their own culture and language. Unfortunately, in the Russian Federation, nationalism, as a negative phenomenon whichdemeans other cultures, is found primarily among Russians themselves when they refuse to tolerate indigenous, minority cultures. F

Editor’s note: The concluding portion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report.

Peter Johnson, a pseudonym, has worked as a missionary for many years among numerous ethnic groups in Siberia and northern Russia.