Welcome to Russia: In Response to Vladimir Solodovnikov
Russians and Americans are very different, but this is good. Differences attract each other. This is why, for example, Russians read articles and watch television programs about Americans with great interest. Unfortunately, the media often give a distorted and biased impression of foreign countries. It would be naive to believe that we can understand each other's culture and traditions only from observation from afar. Because of our different environments we need to be immersed into the society of the other if we are to gain real understanding.
I remember when Gorbachev opened Russia's doors to foreign Christians in 1989-1992, for many Westerners it was their first introduction to Russian culture, history, and traditions. At that point Christians were coming together to celebrate our unity in Jesus, regardless of our differences. Many from the West were surprised when Russian brothers and sisters in Christ embraced them with genuine love and opened their hearts to them in unconditional acceptance. Russian people frequently worked hard--and still work hard--to ensure the comfort and safety of Americans in the uncertain environment of a transitional society.
East-West Cultural Distinctives
So why do we now face a certain coolness between many Russian and American Christians? Where does the disappointment come from? Why, since we tried to offer each other our best, do we now sometimes face mutual misunderstandings? The problem may stem from the very different bases for our civilizations: Western and Eastern Christianity. American society defends the rights and freedoms of every individual as a sacred responsibility. Americans consider the words "private" and "privacy" to be very important. They greatly value their privacy and often seem reluctant to share serious problems for fear of being perceived as unsuccessful or not in control. For Americans, material welfare appears to be the measure of value.
In contrast, Russians for centuries have had the greatest respect for those willing to suffer humiliation and face sacrifice for the benefit of the community. Profit seeking has been considered one of the most abominable human qualities. Russians believe the person intent on material gain is capable of any crime. This is why common Russians treat wealthy people with great suspicion and disrespect. In addition, Russians see the wealthy as unrestrained by any moral or legal limitations.
To be respected in Russia one should live in an average apartment, be satisfied with a modest income, dispense with ambitious plans for material accumulation, work honestly, never cheat, and be hospitable and friendly. Russians typically are not driven to seek success in the Western, economic sense of the word. Whereas most Americans are pragmatic and reserved, Russians follow their heart and their mood. Relationships are more important for them than results. Russians never plan life far ahead because of the instability of the social, political, and legal environment and the absence of any realistic means of protecting oneself from harm's way. An old Russian proverb that people still affirm says, "Do not swear off begging and imprisonment."
Those who live in a country that values the rule of the law or in a traditional, tribal society can set a strategy and a daily schedule for their lives. But Russians must trust God for every minute of life because nothing is certain. Russians must know their reason for living and must adapt their behavior, strategy, and methods to the reality of each new day. Russian believers in particular must be able to face disparagement, losses, and unjust accusations with deep trust in God, seeking ways to turn everything to His glory. This is the only way to be successful in the missionary field in Russia and the only way to enjoy life in Russia.
The Soviet Assault on Faith
It was sad for me to read the article, "Made in America," written by Dr. Vladimir Solodovnikov. Being an intellectual and acting as a voice for the historic Russian Protestant community, he shares his pain with his readers. The lack of cultural sensitivity of foreign missionaries, sad to say, has damaged the reputation of the Protestant church in Russia in general and that is a pity. But I cannot agree with Dr. Solodovnikov's statement that Russia is a Christian country. Russia is not godless, but Soviet Russia was. Ninety-nine percent of current adults did not hear about Jesus Christ in their childhood. For years and years the Communist Party worked to destroy any hint of Christianity in people's traditions, culture, and literature, replacing it with a so-called Proletarian culture. Three generations of Russians were raised in a godless society. Comparing Russian immigrants in the U.S. who arrived there in the first part of the twentieth century with those who arrived in the 1990s, one discovers they are people from two different civilizations: Christian and godless.
Russian Christians remember that martyrs died for Jesus in Soviet times and that others quietly cherished seeds of faith, unknown to the public. All sources of information on Christianity, such as Russian religious philosophy, were hidden from the public in Soviet times. The authorities suppressed the spiritual content of articles, poems, and novels by famous Russian writers such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Nikolai Gogol, Apollon Maikov, and others. Only after 1989 did Russian people gain access to the sources of native Christian spirituality. Only in the 1990s was the Evangelical community free to bring the news about Jesus to the wider public.
Positive East-West Collaboration
The Russian Evangelical community is the product of historic Russian Christian culture. Evangelicals use music, poems, and art produced by Russian Orthodox Christians and folk songs in their outreach to other Russians. Evangelicals are the bridge between the simplest and the highest levels of Russian Christian spirituality. Working in partnership with American brothers and sisters, Russian Evangelicals can be extremely productive. My Baptist church has been visited by many groups of American Christians who came to teach us and to take part in our projects. Each time was heartwarming and heart melting for our guests. They returned home spiritually renewed because they discovered a very new level of relationship with God. I saw many tears in their eyes as they shared that their life would never be the same after their time in Russia. They brought us methods, but we taught them the art of enjoying God's love. Yes, we are different, but we can serve each other.
Working as a lawyer for many American missions and churches, I have been fortunate to see many positive examples of the highly productive work of foreign Christian organizations in Russia. In 1999 I was invited to speak at a conference in Texas at Abeline Christian University for Church of Christ missionaries in Russia. I was greatly amazed by the Abilene professors' depth of comprehension of the roots of Russian culture and traditions. They were able to encourage missionaries "to plant healthy pines in Siberia instead of banana trees." Even banana trees can bear fruit in Siberia if they are kept in expensive hothouses, but they will perish without intensive care and large investments. I am not sure about other universities, but I can recommend to any mission planning to work in Russia to go to ACU to discover the secrets of the Russian soul. With such an appreciation for the Russian soul, one will then understand why such a pamphlet as the "Four Spiritual Laws" is so offensive.
I believe we can and will serve each other. And we should and can learn from each other. I know how difficult it is for East and West to be mutually sensitive, but we should try for Jesus' sake, who can be greatly glorified through our lives. My favorite Christian saying is: "God never calls the equipped, but He always equips the Called." If one has been called by the Lord to the mission field, ample sources of information are available that will equip one for a fruitful ministry. But one has to search for them. An amazing blessing awaits missionaries to Russia who not only teach, but learn from, those to whom they minister. Enjoying one's life with Jesus in any environment will be a rich reward.
Ekaterina Smyslova is president of Esther Legal Center, Moscow, and teaches at the Russian-American Christian University, Moscow.
Ekaterina Smyslova, "Welcome to Russia: In Response to Vladimir Solodovnikov," East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Summer 2003), 13-15.
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