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

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 Spring 2010

 Vol. 18, No. 2

 

 Moscow’s Russian-American Institute: Instilling “Character, Competence, and Christian Worldview”

 An Interview with President John Bernbaum

 Editor: When was the Russian-American Institute founded and what circumstances led to its formation?

The original vision for a Russian-American Institute in Moscow was first articulated in 1988 by Peter and Anita Deyneka and their colleague, Professor Ivan Fahs, from Wheaton College. When the Deynekas cultivated a friendship with Dr. Evgeny Kazantsev, Minister of Science and Education in the U.S.S.R., and encouraged him to send a delegation of Soviet educators to the States to learn about Christian liberal arts colleges and universities in September 1990, the seed was planted.

My wife Marge and I, as representatives of the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities (CCCU), were asked to host this delegation for ten days. We took our guests to three Christian colleges (Messiah College, Eastern Mennonite College, and Eastern College) and organized seminars for them on private liberal arts education.

The following month, October 1990, I led a delegation of 12 Christian educators from CCCU member schools to the USSR on a reciprocal visit. After visiting Russian universities in various cities, we all came back to Moscow before departing for the U.S. On October 26, 1990 – a date I will not forget – I was instructed to meet with the newly appointed Minister of Education, Vladimir Kinelev, who described all of the radical reforms he was going to implement in higher education on behalf of Boris Yeltsin. Then as our meeting came to a conclusion, he said, “Dr. Bernbaum, will you come here and establish a Christian college in Moscow like those Christian colleges in the States?” For me, this was a “Macedonian call” – it changed my life!

Editor: Why did the Institute choose business and social work as its first two majors?

During the first meetings of the newly-formed Board of Trustees in 1994-95, we asked the Russian trustees and Russian members of the Board of Advisors what academic programs they would like to see developed during the early stages of the Institute. They offered persuasive arguments for two “very pragmatic” programs – business, so graduates could create businesses and hire employees who would bring their financial know-how to their churches and communities; and social work, because there were so many pressing social needs that were not being addressed, even by seminary graduates.

Editor: The Institute utilizes Protestant and Orthodox faculty. How has this worked?

 The Institute’s uniqueness is its multi-confessional character. Our faculty, staff, and students come from Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic backgrounds and they have learned to enjoy and appreciate these diverse backgrounds and worship traditions. Because the Christian community in Russia, as defined in large part by weekly church attendance, is about two percent of the population, cooperation among Christians is essential. Every day we are demonstrating the power of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion – important building blocks in civil society.

Editor: The Institute appears to be a unique institution within the Russian Federation. What are the similarities and differences between the Institute and Zaoksky Adventist University and Lithuanian Christian College?

When the Institute opened its doors in September 1996, it was the first private, faith-based, liberal arts college in Russia, as far as we knew. There were approximately 125 Bible colleges and Bible institutes that had been formed since the late 1980s preparing young Russians for church leadership roles, but there were no schools educating the laity to be the “presence of Christ” in the marketplace. That was the niche we were trying to fill.

Unlike Zaoksky Adventist University, which is a quality educational institution, the Russian-American Institute trains students from various Christian traditions. We had three offers from American denominations to build a campus for our school if we would become their denominational institution – and these were tempting offers because we had a very small support base – but we chose not to do this. We have learned a great deal from the Adventists, but we view our mission differently.

Lithuania Christian College (LCC) is another quality school and we have also learned from it, since this institution had a five-year head-start. But again, our mission is different. Our Institute is a bi-national school with instruction in both Russian and English, and the undergraduate students must be people of faith. In contrast, LCC offers an all English-language curriculum and admits non-Christian students. Rather than offer a Western education, as in the case of LCC, the Russian-American Institute seeks to combine the strengths of both Russian and American educational systems.

Editor: The Russian-American Institute has now moved to its own new building near Babushkinskaya Metro. What advantages will this location bring to the Institute?

The beauty of the new campus facility, its size, and its capacity to handle diverse programming requirements will enable the Institute to offer a wide range of courses and seminars at various times. Before, in our rented facilities, these possibilities were only a dream. In addition, the rental income previously paid out is no longer a financial drain. In a relational, Slavic culture, putting concrete into the ground and constructing a building of this quality makes a very strong statement to Russians that we are committed to partner with them in education and we are here to stay. The new building also allows the Institute to grow over the next few years and to gradually fill the entire facility with up to 500 students, if the Board decides to pursue this strategy.

Editor: What part has your personal faith played in your leadership of the Institute?

My sense of calling has been absolutely central to my leadership role at the Institute. For years I have had a passion to educate Christian young people, to challenge them to be “salt and light” in their society. God gave me a desire to be a teacher, an educator, even when I was in junior high school. Of course, I had no idea then that I would become a college president in the Russian Federation. I love what I do, even though my work has been difficult and challenging, and I do not know what I would rather do.

For me, God is the hero of the Institute’s amazing story, and I have had the privilege of being used by Him to see this work develop in a tough context. I have seen so many miracles, so many extraordinary events, that I cannot imagine a more exciting job! Pressure-filled, yes. Stress-filled, yes. But relying on the Lord on a daily basis has gotten me through all the challenges and I am thankful for this opportunity for service.

Editor: What work experiences have contributed the most to your present leadership of the Institute?

I look back over my life and see how the Lord used various experiences to prepare me for this role – which is not a role I aspired to or even imagined! My Ph.D. in European and Russian history gave me the academic credentials and exposure to Russian society. Four years at the Department of State gave me additional credentials and diplomatic experience. Then my 20 years at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, during which I gained experience working in non-traditional, off-campus program creation in various parts of the world, was another piece in this puzzle. I am an educational entrepreneur and this is how I am wired. Yet the Institute is not my creation, but rather a great effort of many people working together as a team – Russians and Americans in partnership. That’s what has been so encouraging during these last 20 years.

During my last few years at the CCCU, I had a number of opportunities to apply for various college presidencies, but I turned them down because I felt a calling to work internationally. I never imagined that I would be offered the job as president of a new college in Russia, with no students, no faculty, no buildings, and no resources. As one of my daughters has said, “That’s what we expected from you, Dad! That’s the way you have chosen to live – on the edge.”

Editor: What other key factors contributed to the development of the Institute over the last 13 years?

The Russian-American Institute would not exist today were it not for the Board of Trustees who have helped to shape its development and have generously funded it over the years. I have worked in higher education for over 30 years and I have never seen a Board of Trustees like this. The members have played a major role in fund-raising and have recruited numerous volunteers to partner with us. The Board has helped me to identify key supporters who have become dear friends, faithfully contributing monies for scholarships and for construction costs.

In addition, we have a great staff of mostly young Russian Christians, who are carrying major responsibilities despite their youth. This outstanding staff, together with our gifted faculty, has helped to shape the quality of our Institute. Then we have to add the full-time American faculty who serve at the Institute and the more than 100 American faculty who have taught at our school during the summer modules or for a semester or a year on sabbatical leave. We are truly engaged in a team effort!

Editor: With the beginning of a new decade, do you have a new “Five-Year Plan” for the Institute?

While the Board and staff have spent much time over the years discussing various scenarios for the future, we have learned that in the Russian context long-term planning has limited value. The post-Communist transition has been difficult, much more difficult than most analysts in the West expected, and the dynamics in Russian society have proved hard to predict. As a result, we have had to be flexible. We are committed to be a constructive factor in this context, whatever that means over time.

The political context does affect the Institute, so as relationships between the two countries warm up or turn cold, government officials from top to bottom take their signs from the Kremlin and we are treated accordingly. While there was a great openness to Western educators in the early 1990s, for example, this spirit of cooperation has largely disappeared. The same is true in the States. For many U. S. government officials, Russia is no longer of interest.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that Russia and the United States will once again become good friends and that there is much that brings us together. Today our relationships are normal in so many areas (arts and culture, scientific exploration, technology, education, etc.)—all except the political and military spheres. When these political and military obstacles are overcome over time, the Institute will be well-positioned to be a bridge between these two great nations. F

Editor’s note: For additional information on the Russian-American Institute consult its website: http://www.racu.org.