Russia and Its National Minorities: Conducting Christian Ministry in a Racially Charged Atmosphere

Peter Johnson

Editor’s note: The first portion of this article appeared in the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 17 (Summer 2009), 1-2.

The Origins of Russian Nationalism

A phrase that is often used in the study of the world’s largest country is “Russian cultural exceptionalism.” It refers to the very deeply held assumption that Russia is on a higher cultural level than other nations. Russian writers refer to Russia’s originality (samobytnost) and her special path (osobyi put).1

While other nations, including the United States, have experienced similar attitudes, the Russian case goes deeper than most. It is common to trace this Russian attitude back to the years immediately after the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. A letter written by the Russian monk Philoteus (Filofey) in 1511 to Grand Duke Vasili III proclaimed, “Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth. No one shall replace your Christian Tsardom!” For centuries since, this concept of the Third Rome has underpinned Russian “exceptionalism.” Rome was the center of the Christian empire; Constantinople, the Second Rome, took its place; and Moscow, the Third Rome, justified its dominion over surrounding nations using this theological formulation.

With the fall of Byzantium, Russia declared itself the defender and champion of the true Christian faith. Russia, as the Third Rome, came to see itself as the light of the world, and so the advancement of Russian dominion equalled the advancement of true Christian faith, giving theological foundation to a belief in Russian cultural exceptionalism. By the 19th century Russian writers were widely referring to “Russian Messianism,” the concept of Russia as the savior of the world.

While today most Russians would be uncomfortable with such expansive claims, it is not hard to see how this attitude continues to influence Russia’s view of the world and her treatment of minority nationalities. Thus, a particular brand of chauvinism emerged with the birth of the Russian Empire which continued in a Marxist form after the Bolshevik Revolution, and still exists in Russia today.

Russia is not just one of the nations, on a par with Germany, Turkey, or the United States, much less Ukraine or Georgia. Russia exists on a higher cultural plane. This attitude was illustrated in a recent television documentary on a cult in Siberia led by a self-proclaimed messiah. A pair of the “messiah’s” followers, who were in fact Latvian, were interviewed and asked why they did not speak Latvian with their children. The couple replied, “The Master teaches that in the new reality there will be no culture,” and so Latvian was irrelevant. Yet the documentary filmed them speaking Russian with a balalaika on the wall, listening to traditional Russian music, drinking tea from a samovar in a village of traditional Russian architectural style.

It is, of course, common for large nations to assume that their traditions are normative. Russia is no exception. Russia’s relations with its indigenous peoples, as well as with neighboring nations, start with the subconscious assumption that the Russian language has a supra-cultural status, and that Russia as the Third Rome has a divine obligation to rule.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, these cultural assumptions find their way into Russian Protestant as well as Orthodox churches. I work with a number of Russian pastors who are exceptional in their work in indigenous ethnic regions and their support for indigenous language ministry. One of these pastors has grown a large church which includes a very large number of non-Slavic members. Yet, still, he is fond of saying from the pulpit, “We are all Slavic people.” This is a man who believes he has a ministry to Russia’s non-Slavic minorities, but he cannot help trying to fit them all into a Slavic mold.

One Christian parachurch organization with the word Eurasia in its name started in Russia with the expressed purpose of assisting Christian ministries in Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and across Central Asia. Yet it used the slogan, “supporting Russian language” ministries. In fairness, it should be noted that this organization seems to have dropped this slogan. But the fact that it used it at all illustrates a serious problem deriving from a majority Russian mindset.

The strong value Russians place on the collective also factors into this complex equation. Russian culture has a very deep fear of schism, with an aversion to individuals who separate themselves from the group. The Russian ideal is collective uniformity. Whether this world view derives from Orthodoxy as the One True Church, or whether it reflects a deeper pre-Orthodox value, a connection certainly exists between the majority Russian attitude toward religious minorities and ethnic minorities.

Just as religious minorities are seen as a threat to the stability of the nation, so too, ethnic minorities, although officially celebrated, are also viewed as a danger. The Russian Federation officially celebrates and promotes ethnic diversity, but the actual discrimination and violence suffered by ethnic minorities coping with a Russian majority culture tell another story.

In September 2006, race riots broke out in the northwestern Russian town of Kondopoga between ethnic Russians and people from the Caucasus.2 A group calling itself “The Movement Against Illegal Immigration” gleefully reported the riots, hailing them as “an awakening of the Russian people.”3 The slogan, “Russia for Russians,” is often championed by such groups, but what makes the events in Kondopoga especially noteworthy is that, as the town’s name indicates, this is not ethnic Russian territory. Kondopoga is in the Republic of Karelia, which, while part of the Russian Federation, is not Slavic territory. The indigenous Karelians and Veps are Finno-Ugric, very close in language and culture to Finns. A “Russia for Russians” riot in Kondopoga is equivalent to an “England for English” protest being held in Scotland. It is a direct denial of the legitimacy of a nationality’s existence.

“Racist Attacks Become More Frequent in Moscow”: Such was the headline on the site on what should have been a beautiful spring day in April 2009. The article quoted the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights stating that 122 people were killed and at least 380 injured in 2008 in racially motivated attacks across Russia. Russian skinhead assaults on foreigners and ethnic minorities are now “a regular occurrence in Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as other Russian cities.”4 In July 2008, Russian prosecutors charged a skinhead gang with the murder of 20 people during a series of brutal attacks against minorities in Moscow. The case followed repeated accusations from human rights groups that authorities in Russia were failing to investigate racial killings, often simply labelling xenophobic attacks as hooliganism.5 For example, in August 2006, Russia’s Supreme Court upheld a verdict in which killers of a nine-year-old Tajik girl were found guilty of simple “hooliganism,” rather than a hate crime.

Nevertheless, of late the continuing increase in racial violence has forced the government to take more notice. In February 2009, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported Russian President Medvedev’s acknowledgment that racist attacks in Russia grew by 30 percent in 2008 and had become a threat to national security. UNHCR also quoted Deputy Interior Minister Yevgeny Shkolov stating that the destructive threat of extremist racial attacks “is equal or in some aspects stronger than that of the terrorist threat.”6

The root problem is not simply racism. It has to do with an ingrained belief about Russia’s place among the nations. Russia first must come to peace with itself. Russia, just like all other nations, must learn that in the eyes of God all ethnic and national groups are of equal value. The bearer of light to the gentiles is Jesus Christ, not any ethnic or political nation. As a result, no nation can act as if it has a God-given right to control the destinies of others. Size and power should not confer special value, but they should oblige citizens to use size and power to do good.

The Russian Capacity for Love and Generosity

Having lived and worked for many years among both Russians and Russia’s indigenous minorities, I have learned the immense capacity Russians have for love and generosity. I do not know if I have ever met a warmer and more open-hearted people. Yet when it comes to minorities, be they ethnic or religious, all too often this great warmth is eclipsed by anxious, chauvinistic attitudes.

Both Orthodox and Protestant theology stress preaching and reading the Bible in the indigenous, vernacular language, giving Christianity the possibility of replacing negative nationalism with a positive view of all nations. The Church, which from the days of the Apostle Paul, has been a multi-ethnic body accepting all nationalities, should take a conscious and active role as an example of love and tolerance. The Russian Federation is a multi-ethnic society and its cultural diversity is a source of beauty and potentially a source of strength. The question, however, remains: Can Russian society learn to live in harmony with non-threatening minorities in its midst?

How Should Missionaries Respond?

It is the Russian people themselves who have to come to terms with their often-subconscious racial attitudes and assumptions. Nevertheless, Western missionaries have a responsibility to model charitable attitudes toward minority populations. First, missionaries should be an example by showing love and respect toward indigenous groups and by not following the subtle patterns of exclusion that alienate ethnic minorities. Second, missionaries should demonstrate through their actions and words that human worth does not depend upon numbers, power, or a particular culture, but rather in everyone’s sharing equally in the image of God. Missionaries should show due respect for indigenous languages and cultures. This means taking the time to learn indigenous languages and cultures. Third, missionaries should lovingly but clearly question negative attitudes and actions directed against non-Slavic peoples. If possible, confrontation and condemnation should be avoided in favor of speaking the truth in love. Finally, missionaries should encourage indigenous peoples to watch their own attitudes and to pray for those in authority over them, both in government and in the churches. A degree of responsibility does lie on both sides


1 It is, of course, also true that hand-in-hand belief in Russian cultural exceptionalism is an equally deeply felt sense of insecurity in the Russian psyche. The tension, clearly seen in Russian writers, between feeling strong and feeling weak, feeling proud and feeling ashamed, is very important for fully understanding the Russian mindset.

2, 4 September 2006.

3, 25 October 2006.

4, 23 April 2009.

5, 1 July 2008.

6, REFERENCE,,,RUS,49904c6d28,0.html, 6 February 2009.

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