East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 8, No. 3, Summer 2000, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Perceptions of a Great Country: Hunches and Pointers in Understanding Russia

Peter Lowman

Editor's note:  See the East-West Church & Ministry Report 8 (Spring 2000), 1-3, for the first half of this article.

Logic, But More Than Logic
What did Communism do to truth in Russia?  On the one hand, Russians must be one of the most consciously "cultured" races in the world.  It is deeply important to many Russians whether something is of a "high" or "low level" culturally.  On the other hand, Russia's roots lie in a tradition that has not especially valued verbalized truth and, related to this fact, its culture has a high level of emotionality.  (This is a nation that has become passionately devoted to Latin American soap operas such as "The Rich Also Cry.")  So stir into this combination the profound post-Communist distrust of anything resembling propaganda, and the result is a cultural situation bearing some resemblance to the postmodern Western disinterest in verbal truth.  Russia, in some ways a society that has bypassed "modernity," is coming out at a similar point to the West, though by a different route.

What are the resulting implications for ministry?  It is good for outsiders to watch how the Russian intellectual argues a case. Often arguments may seem to lack the "systematic clarity" of Western presentations. For Russians, it seems to me, belief or disbelief often flow from the guts, from the passions.  Note the plus and the minus here, as is usually the case when cultures differ. Western clarity can lead to efficiency and accessibility, no doubt owing something to Protestant belief in the comprehensibility of Scripture.  But we must be cautious about importing Western rationalism in our methodology and materials. Sometimes I have watched Western presentations carried out in wonderfully tidy and sequential sections and subsections, and thought how alien, untransferrable, and passionless it all seemed. Such presentations may appear impressive and win applause, like a skilled juggling-act; but one suspects that, ultimately, they may only go deep with the more Westernized hearers.

One of the most intelligent groups of non-Christian students I encountered in Russia was in an astronomical society meeting in St. Petersburg.  In my first presentation to this group I employed the full battery of apologetics arguments one would use in the West: if this, then that.  Afterwards some students said to me, "You English think much more logically than we do."  Then they added that such a rational approach was "totalitarian logic.  We have had it for too long."  It really set me thinking. How does one communicate in a context suspicious of logical arguments?  By sharing more about our experience of the supernatural or about the symbolic in Scripture?  On my next visit I preached the symbolic aspects of the story of Jesus turning the water into wine in John 2; it seemed to open windows my earlier presentation could not.  This was not ideal; without the rational we cannot tell the true from the fake in the mystical realm, and Russia has enough counterfeit occultism and off-color holy men. But I needed to broaden my approach if I wanted to communicate.

Grand Reflections and Building Friendships
Likewise, newcomers need to listen to what Russians are actually interested in, rather than what we feel they ought to be interested in.  It is true that times are changing and we now see the rise of a coolly realist Russian variant of Generation X, oriented primarily to Western-style ambitions of success and careers.  But the average Russian still revels in discussions on the grand scale, explorations of profound themes Westerners are usually too afraid or too cynical to tackle.  What is love? What is beauty? What is friendship? What is the Russian soul?  (We can sense the difference between Russia and the West by reflecting why we would never discuss the nature of the British or American soul.)  So many of these issues are germane to the gospel, and we are seeing discussion clubs becoming useful bridges towards the gospel in different parts of Russia.

There are other such lessons we can learn.  We may perhaps say that Russians often are drawn to the apocalyptic (the French mystic Nostradamus, UFOs), so the book of Revelation is of real interest; and the tragic, so Ecclesiastes clearly strikes a chord.  Such parts of the Bible often seem to convey a sense of depth that themes more germane to Westerners will not.  Perhaps Westerners need to cast aside the delicate hermeneutical caution they were taught in seminary and learn to revel in expounding the passionate, lurid colors of Revelation.  It may be what their hearers are waiting for.  The rational, sequential, and doctrinal are all indispensable; but we may well communicate better initially with story-telling and testimonies, with the symbolic, the intuitive, and the supernatural. Even more important, what is said needs to be clothed in relationships, clothed in time spent together, hence the value of anything that can resemble an evangelistic weekend away.  And most of all, of course, we transcend our limited Western backgrounds by presenting the one whose revelation touches every human level, Jesus.

The Gospel's Relevance in a Post-Communist World
Finally, in what respects might the gospel be especially relevant to the post-Communist world?  Let me focus on four: identity and self-worth; purpose and hope; ethics; and love and friendship.  (I happen to believe these are four key areas in which the West too is discovering life to be unworkable without God; but the symptoms are different there.)

It seems to me that self-worth and identity are major issues in the post-Communist situation. Orthodoxy has not been strong on the place of the individual, and Communism served to negate it.  In addition, it may well seem that Communism has done incredible damage to the Russian psyche, in good measure because of the havoc it wreaked upon the Russian family. One of my colleagues remarked that what was needed in her region was 20,000 psychiatrists working for 50 years! Almost any student she knew, she added, lived in a single-parent family, a family with a violent father, a family with an alcoholic father, one with very serious financial problems, or some combination of these.  The prevalence of alcoholism exacerbates these trends.  In consequence, many Russians carry deep emotional hurts; they have had to grow up with pain to a degree few outsiders may understand.  I noticed in the early 1990s that presentations on issues of identity, self-worth, and self-image seemed to strike a powerful chord. The meaning of being a unique creation of an unreservedly loving Father, the unbelievable value that the cross shows the Son setting upon us, and the Spirit's unique giftings to us, are enormously life-giving truths in a context so scarred.

Another major issue, it seems to me, is that of meaning and purpose in life, of destiny and hope.  As was suggested above, the Russian vision of the greatness of God is enormously positive; but where it loses the sense of the Father coming near to us, the result can be fatalism. Communism for a while supplied a purpose for life, for history, and for sacrifice that justified living meaningfully, living consistently on a "war footing."  But now that whole Marxist drama has been shown to be a monstrous fake.  What is left is a sense of hopelessness, deepened further by Russia's low rates of life expectancy, desperately low by global standards.  Indeed, we may even feel an expectation of tragedy-it sometimes seems to me that the catastrophic has a fatal attractiveness for the Russian mind.

In such a universe meaning is sought most often in the private sphere, from art and beauty (music, cinema), or from romance, or from the esoteric-just as in the post-God West, one might add.  All these offer opportunities for discussion of what is most significant to our friends.  There are other possibilities, too. Fatalism, with the notion of a distant, almost incomprehensible God, gives no basis for thinking about personal growth; nor for coming to grips with fear, suffering, aging, or death.  But all of these are issues to which the gospel specifically speaks.

Ethics is another major issue for Russia. The failure of Communism was followed by the equally evident failure of Western capitalism. To start with it looked so good; but the hopes were dashed by the unworkable remedies of the International Monetary Fund, and by the vast sums of "aid" that went straight into the pockets of consultants who spent far too little time learning to understand Russia.  Now, with Communist morality dead and capitalist morality in Russia non-existent, what basis for ethics is left?  Without credible foundations for ethics, either personally or in the legal, business, or police systems ("legal is meaningless here," a friend told me recently), it is not surprising that Russia shows little sign of "catching up" with the West. Indeed, the real question may be the opposite: how long will it be, as the postmodern West's own ethical basis continues to dissolve, before the West "catches up" with Russia's present ethical jungle?  Christian faith can explain both the nature of the ethical crisis, in terms of the collapse of the false gods, and also its cure-the reality of the law of God's kingdom based on revelation, the radical example of Jesus, the power of the Spirit for righteousness.

Finally, it seems to me that love and friendship remain topics of compelling interest in Russia today.  The meaning of friendship has far more intensity for Russians than for Westerners.  I have watched Westerners get into deep trouble through failing to grasp the serious expectations contained here in "being a friend."  Russians frequently perceive Westerners as practicing a shallow notion of friendship.  Yet many Russians also live with a deep sense of inadequacy and failure at being unable to find or be "friends."  The same is true of the whole meaning of "love" in relationships. To these vital issues the gospel has, again, so much to say.

Russia:  Unpredictable, Untamed, Unforgettable
So many challenges; such genuine answers available in the gospel.  I have come to love Russia; and when, soon, I have said goodbye to this vast land, I know I shall miss it enormously.  Russia is huge, as are its needs and its glories; it is wild, it is unpredictable, it is passionate, and it is wonderful.  For every newcomer, the stories to remember for grandchildren seem to occur on a weekly basis; the West can seem tame and pygmy-scale by comparison.  As with any adopted country, something enters the soul in Russia that can never be found in one's homeland. The West seldom quite matches the greatness or grandeur of Russia; nor, one must sometimes add, the horror.  It is a challenge to serve in Russia; it is also an enormous privilege.  I pray the above remarks will help a few readers relate more easily and fruitfully to this majestic land. 

Peter Lowman holds a Ph.D. in English literature from University College, Cardiff, Wales.  He has worked and lectured in Russia extensively since 1990.

Peter Lowman, "Perceptions of a Great Country: Hunches and Pointers in Understanding Russia," East-West Church & Ministry Report 8 (Summer  2000), 11-12.

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© 2000 East-West Church and Ministry Report
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