Made in America: Or the Self-Evident Truth That Russians Aren't Savages
Editor's Note: The East-West Church and Ministry Report does not endorse certain opinions expressed in Dr. Solodovnikov's article and sadly regrets the anger the author appears to harbor toward missionaries in particular. Nevertheless, since his sentiments are far from unique, it behooves those from the West involved in ministry in former Soviet-Bloc states to, at the very least, be aware of such attitudes and to prayerfully consider what portion of such a critique merits a change in Western attitudes and actions. In the accompanying article, attorney Katya Smyslova provides a helpful corrective to some of the charges leveled by Professor Solodovnikov. The editor welcomes additional reader responses for future publication.
More than one laudatory article about the positive service of Americans has appeared in our Christian publications. But enthusiastic praise is not able to overshadow some negative sides of their presence in Russia. Transoceanic friends--with the very rare exception!--willingly or unwillingly, but in both cases methodically, use precisely the American model of Christian spiritual work, American thinking, and the American way of life.
It is unbelievable, but a fact, that the overwhelming majority of American workers in Russia clearly have not troubled themselves with prior deep study of the history, culture, and traditions of our country. They desperately like to use stereotypes developed in the United States regarding Russia: Stereotype 1: "Russia is a godless country"; Stereotype 2: "Russia is an Orthodox country"; and Stereotype 3: "Russia is a savage country and Russians are some kind of savages, having devoured Captain Cook."
Stereotype 1: Russia is Godless
It is absolutely clear that these stereotypes are lies. Russia is not at all "godless," but rather, a spiritually problematic country. (Try to name a country where there are no spiritual problems!) One thousand years have passed since Rus' was baptized. The Russian land gave the world millions of heroes and martyrs of the Christian faith and she bore talented theologians and Christian philosophers. Russian Christianity didn't die in the gears of the millstones of Stalin's repressions, didn't turn into dust in the labor camps, but was strengthened by the blood of the confessors and witnesses of Christ.
Stereotype 2: Russia is Orthodox
Russia is not "Orthodox," but a multiconfessional country. The Russian Middle Ages were represented by pre-
Reformation Christian movements of "Strigolniks" and Immaterialists. In a certain sense, the genesis of Russian Protestantism came both from within so-called spiritual Christianity and even from Old Believers. Three powerful streams--the "Stundists" of New Russia and South Ukraine, Baptists of the Caucasus, and "Pashkovites" of St. Petersburg--begat the Evangelical Christian-Baptist brotherhood, which extends back already more than 130 years.
Stereotype 3: Russia is Savage
Many Americans develop a stereotype about Russian savagery and supposedly undeveloped intellect on the basis that the majority of us have material problems. When someone bravely tries to disagree with overseas coworkers they smugly throw out, "If you are so smart, then why are you so poor?" Among American Christians the opinion is widespread that material problems are a sign that God has turned away from man.
The real misfortune of our brothers from America is their illusion of the superiority of everything American. Being deceived, they try to instill in us this same illusion, provoking--especially in weak souls--an inferiority complex. They impose upon Russian believers the notion that American Christianity is better, American evangelism is better, American theology is better, American religious services are better, and American Christian education is better. From this"logically" follows the "necessity" of bowing to America, which some unstable brothers and sisters are already practicing in Russia.
It is possible to doubt that American evangelism in particular is best. I have seen bewildered passersby on Moscow streets avoid American missionaries who were obtrusively offering to explain to them the "Four Spiritual Laws" on the run and at the same time. . . [inviting them] to try on sunglasses. But we in Russia don't speak about God hastily in passing "in a couple of words." Our interest in what is holy is not aroused by the distribution of sunglasses or chewing gum.
I categorically disagree that American theology is better, if only because its introduction into Russian Baptist churches brought some problems. I am talking about the American version of Calvinism and its doctrine of "eternal security" or, more exactly, eternal impunity. Such preaching occurs with the simultaneous conviction that we Russian Baptists, they say, do not have our own theology. Regretfully, some students of Russian Evangelical Christian-Baptist educational institutions believe this. But in reality we have the brilliant theology of Ivan Veniaminovich Kargel and the theological works of Vasily Gurevich Pavlov, Ivan Stepanovich Prokhanov, and others. Russian Evangelical-Baptist theology may need future development, but this in no way signifies there is none at all. Nevertheless, the shelves of our Christian stores are filled with a mass of translated American books, the theology of which, in principle, is doubtful, or even openly harmful.
Russian Critique of American Faith: Overly Simplistic and Overly Familiar
The desire of American brothers to reduce all the fullness of Christian spiritual work to a set of diagrams and a collection of little toy drawings puts any God-fearing and thoughtful Christian in Russia on guard. Their persistent urge is to topically organize the Bible. And spreading the Good News about Christ in a pair of phrases with the help of Four Spiritual Laws is announced as "the great discovery of the 20th century." Long before, our fellow countrymen had been studying the problem of turning souls to Christ clearly, deeply, and seriously. And the so-called "Four Spiritual Laws" look pale against the works of N.O. Lossky or N.A. Berdyaev.
The overly familiar attitude of some Americans toward God, particularly noticeable in their evangelistic literature, also saddens. And missionary "standards" of prayer, in which reverence is completely absent, seem utterly simplistic. For some Americans, "prayer is a conversation with God" approximately of this type: "Hello, God! It's me--Bill. Thank you for all Your good deeds. You see, I again have such-and-such problems. You know them. If it will be according to Your will, solve them, but I don't have time. By the way, You are mine. Amen." Of course this is hyperbole. But such are examples of prayers printed in evangelistic tracts.
The process of praying with reflection typically has been a Russian spiritual practice; for centuries our prayer has been called "intellectual activity." There never was even a hint of undue familiarity toward God in it. There was and is only true love and an attitude of respectful trepidation toward Christ the Savior.
American Evangelical and Russian Communist Campaigns
I have been astounded by the unbelievable similarity of the service of Americans in Russia with the functioning of the All-Union Leninist League of Young Communists (Komsomol). Do you want examples? There are plenty! First, there is a mania for planning, working out all kinds of "strategies" and "vision,"and also cheerful reports. The office of any American mission, at least in Moscow, is absolutely an exact tracing from the Komsomol of Brezhnev times.
Second, there is a rampant campaign mindset or maniacal passion toward the organization of so-called "mass activities": evangelization campaigns, conferences, rallies, and so forth. If at such activities you close your eyes and dismiss the Christian lexicon of the speaker, you will have the complete impression that you have found yourself in a Komsomol meeting or even at a party management meeting somewhere in the 1970s.
Third, consider the names of various American missionary projects. Just look, for example, at the name of the project, "By the Year 2000--2000 New Churches!" In 1976-77 the Central Committee of the Komsomol offered Soviet youth a socialistic competition under the motto, "By the 60th Year of the Great October [Revolution]--60 Over-Achieving Shifts!"
So, what can our American friends who wish to accomplish spiritual work in modern Russia do? First, make sure that good intentions are a call from God. Second, before coming to Russia, develop an authentic and not a manufactured love for the Russian people. It also wouldn't be bad to love the other numerous peoples of our country whom Americans, not troubling themselves with excessive thinking, group together as"Russians."
To Reach Russia, Study Russia
Third, before coming to Russia, seriously study her past and present and the mentality and distinctive cultural features of the population. It is important to get acquainted more deeply, and not superficially, with the history of Russian Christianity, and in particular, with Evangelical Christians-Baptists. For this, special missionary courses for Americans should be held in the United States or in Russia. In my view, offering such courses could be a new and highly effective cooperative project for believers of the two countries. Of course, this is if Russian teachers are allowed to participate. Who else should teach the fundamentals of Russian culture, traditions, and mentality? It would also be in no small measure strange if all the teachers were Americans themselves, albeit even the most famous Russian "specialists."
And still more, for truly blessed service in Russia, an American should become one of us. Is it really possible for a foreigner? Yes. And concerning this, there is a marvelous historical example: the Empress Catherine II. Being a pure-blooded German, she so immersed herself in her adopted culture that people considered her Russian.
I think this article is still mostly intended for our American friends. However, it is unlikely that they will read it through to the end. Most likely, they will limit themselves to a brief translation and, like always, in search of the "basic ideas," will dismiss the central idea, considering it "inconsequential."
Vladimir Solodovnikov holds a doctorate (candidate) degree in history and teaches at the Russian-American Christian University, Moscow.
Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Slovo very [Word of Faith], Omsk, Siberia, no. 1 (2002): 25-30. Translated by Susan Clark.
Vladimir Solodovnikov, "Made in America: Or the Self-Evident Truth That Russians Aren't Savages," East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Summer 2003), 12.
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