East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 2003, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

Book Review

Trofimchuk, Nikolai and M. P. Svishchev. Ekspansiya [Expansionism]. Moscow: Akademiya Gosudarstvennoi Sluzhby, 2000. Reviewed by Lawrence A. Uzzell.

Are American missionaries in Russia mere agents of American political and economic interests? The question sounds both insulting and absurd. Those who have chosen to preach the Gospel in a cold, poor, and sometimes violent country believe they are serving a kingdom not of this world. They probably feel, rightly, that they have less in common with the typical American diplomat or businessman than any generation of missionaries since the republic was founded. But many Russians would disagree with them. The late Nikolai Trofimchuk was one of the most articulate.

Trofimchuk's book Ekspansiya, coauthored with his junior colleague M. P. Svishchev, is perverse, but not stupid. Its authors are not simple-minded bureaucrats obsessed by fantasies that every American missionary is on the CIA payroll. Their position is more subtle and therefore more dangerous and increasingly influential. The average Russian official who wants to know what makes foreign missionaries tick has probably read this book, or at least has attended briefings shaped by it. After all, Trofimchuk was head of the religion department at the Academy of State Service (Akademiya Gosudarstvennoi Sluzhby), the most important institution in today's Russia for training the growing ranks of officials who specialize in advising mayors and governors about church-state relations. The book's full text remains on the Academy's Web site (www.state-religion.ru).

What Trofimchuk and Svishchev offer is a deterministic model, like Marxism, in which social forces dictate what the individual missionary imagines to be his free choices. In their model the decisive forces are not economic, but cultural and political. It is no accident, they insist, that the activities of missionaries nearly always fit well with the geopolitical strategies of the countries from which they came. The authors are skillful at finding evidence from the age of European colonialism, such as quotations from missionaries who consciously saw themselves as advancing the interests of their particular countries. (They ignore cases such as the Jesuits who resisted the conquistadors' exploitation of South American Indians.)

According to this model, today's American missionaries have no greater claim than their European predecessors to see themselves as servants of a world religion. Indeed, Trofimchuk and Svishchev seem to deny there can even be such a thing as a "world religion" not decisively shaped by a specific national culture. They depict American religious, political, and economic models simply as different facets of an integrated whole--with an agenda of pushing Russia (in the authors' view) to adopt America's grotesquely exaggerated emphasis on individual freedom in politics, consumerism, and popular culture.

They anticipate obvious objections. They concede that most Western missionaries are consciously devoted to the salvation of souls, not to their own governments' foreign-policy agendas. But they insist that this does not matter, since "the consequences of their multi-faceted activities are largely unforeseeable even by the missionaries themselves, sometimes, as Max Weber observed, directly opposed to their intentions." Trofimchuk and Svishchev are much indebted to Weber and also to Western geopolitical theorists of the World War One era--applying geopolitical concepts such as "sphere of influence" directly to religious life.

The authors show strong traces of Soviet mentality. They obviously regret the demise of the Soviet Union and assume that anyone who was anti-Soviet must also be anti-Russian. They perform stunning acts of guilt-by-association, for example, linking Radio Liberty to the Moonies without providing one shred of evidence beyond the fact that both set up offices in Russia at the end of the Cold War.

It would be a mistake to dismiss Trofimchuk's and Svishchev's ideas altogether. They include some real insights: For example, many American missionaries do indeed fail to see when they are acting as propagandists not just for the Gospel but for "the American way of life," with both its strengths and its weaknesses. In my own experience, some (by no means all) of the most provincial expatriates in Russia have been the missionaries who pour huge budgets into flashy, American-style prayer breakfasts and broadcasts while shoving aside the unique traditions of Russian Protestants. For their own sake, American Protestants interested in Russia should try to understand Nikolai Trofimchuk and his school more clearly than he understood them.

Lawrence A. Uzzell is a free-lance writer who has specialized since 1989 in the study of religious freedom in the former Soviet Union. Former director of Keston Institute, Oxford, England, he now resides in Waxahachie, TX.

Lawrence Uzzell, Review of Ekspansiya, by Nikolai Trofimchuk and M.P. Svishchev, East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Winter 2003), 12.

Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

2003 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

EWC&M Report | Contents | Search Back Issues | From Our Readers | Subscribe