Occasional Paper: Mikeshin, “Russian Evangelicalism Glocalized”

Russian Evangelicalism Glocalized
Igor Mikeshin (University of Helsinki)

This paper echoes the idea of glocalization of Evangelical Christianity, suggested by Joel Robbins (2004). Robbins marks two simultaneous processes in Pentecostalism and Charismatic (P/C) Christianity as Westernizing homogenization and indigenizing differentiation. I suggest that Russian Evangelicalism’s relation to the Russian culture is glocal in a similar way: “a relationship of both rejection and preservation.” (Robbins 2004: 137) Russian Evangelical congregations, as well as P/C, are also to a great extent autonomous, egalitarian, and focused on evangelism.

Although I place Russian Evangelicalism in the Robbins’ model, there are remarkable differences between those two phenomena, constructing a distinct narrative of glocalization. These differences go beyond denominational features, or even explicit display of the Holy Spirit by P/C, and they rise from the dogmatics. Firstly, the emphasis on the direct interaction with God was spread through the vast activity of P/C missionaries. Initially it took form of planting and growing churches by the Western ministers, which can be also seen in Russia after 1991. However, Russian Evangelical groups, even Pentecostals, originated from the spiritual endeavors of certain Russian intellectuals, most remarkably Ivan Voronaev (Pentecostal) and Ivan Prokhanov (Evangelical Christian). They brought Western teachings to Russia, interpreted and transformed them on the basis of the Russian Bible, and constructed the narrative of response to the Orthodox spiritual monopoly and Russian sociocultural context.

Naturally, Russian Pentecostals put strong emphasis on glossolalia and prophecy. Yet, Russian Evangelicalism (excluding recently formed Charismatic groups) tends to recognize direct communication with God through scriptures and prayer. Rejecting the P/C notion of overwhelming and immediate spiritual experience as a starting point for evangelism (Robbins 2004: 124-125), Russian Evangelical stress the importance of Bible study and education in general, though throughout the history of persecution their educational ventures were restricted.

My analysis is based on a number of sources on Russian Evangelicalism (Caldwell 2004; Coleman 2005; Mitrokhin 1997; Nikolskaia 2009; Panchenko 2013; Pelkmans 2009; Sawatsky 1981; Vallikivi 2014; Wanner 2007; and others) and my own ethnographic study of the Baptist Church in Russia (Mikeshin 2014). It is crucial to note that Russian (russkii) here corresponds to the linguistic community, rather than nationality or ethnicity, thus also embraces a significant part of Evangelicals in the ex-Soviet republics and worldwide. Russian Baptism (russkii baptizm), for instance, is a concept used by both believers and researchers (for instance, Mitrokhin 1997).

The idea of glocal Russian Evangelicalism is to be illustrated in the comparative analysis of its global and local features. I start with its specificities and peculiarities, not merely represented in particular take on the Protestant dogmatics, but rather shaped by the historical, sociocultural, and linguistic context of late imperial, Soviet, and Post-Soviet Russia. Its global attributes are manifested in the dogmatics, referring to the Martin Luther’s five tenets of Protestant faith (five solae).

The historiography of Russian Evangelicalism commonly starts from the mid 1860s, when first Russian citizens started small Evangelical groups (Coleman 2005: 2-3; Nikolskaia 2009: 22-23; Sawatsky 1981: 11). There was a number of Protestants present in Russia since the 18th century, but all congregations belonged to the foreign diasporas. Historians also acknowledge the crucial role of Russian heretical sects (Molokane, Khlysty, Dykhobory, Skoptcy, and others), who rejected clergy, icons, and complicated liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), and prepared the ground for Evangelicalism as a response to the traditional Russian idea of God-seeking (bogoiskatel’stvo) (Batalden 1993: 3-12). Eventually, large portions of these movements joined the newly emerged Protestant Churches.

Stunda or shtundisty traditionally considered to be the first Russian Evangelical movement. It is formed on the basis of thorough Bible study, (German Stunde—time for the Bible-study) influenced by German-speaking Protestants. After the preaching of the British missionary Lord Radstock, promoted by the rich nobleman Vasily Pashkov, a new movement emerged, mostly in aristocratic circles . Firstly, these groups were called pashkovtcy (after Pashkov), but later their activities led to the foundation of the Baptist Church and Church of Evangelical Christians. First Seventh-Day Adventists and Pentecostals appeared somewhat later, in 1880s and 1910s, respectively (Nikolskaia 2009: 23), and together with the Baptist groups they defined Evangelicalism in Russia up until the early 90s.

The conversion of Russians to the Protestant faith was not welcome by the authorities and ROC, and formally was prohibited. Facing persecutions at first, Evangelicals yet enjoyed some religious freedom, starting with the liberalization act of 1905 till the Stalin’s era. After the 1917 revolution, the Protestants were even shortly considered allies of the young Soviet Republic, since their biblical views on equality and brotherhood resembled the communist utopia (Coleman 2005: 154-179). But this freedom ended shortly. Stalin is responsible for repressions of various groups of people, but hardly focused on Evangelicals specifically. There was a trend of persecuting religion, as an imperialist or counter-revolutionist propaganda, and most likely the Protestants, also representing foreign traditions, were treated as spies and revisionists. Moreover, the anti-militarism of Evangelicals, though not universally shared, forced them to reject a mandatory military service, which was a serious criminal offense (Nikolskaia 2009: 86-87, 89-90, 103).

During the World War II, Stalin’s government significantly liberalized its policy towards religions, calling for the patriotic feelings of believers, and allying with the clergy and religious leaders. ROC was reestablished as Patriarchate, and in 1944 Baptist communities were allowed to register, though under umbrella of the governing union[1]. In 1945, some Pentecostal groups also joined a union, but most of them remained outlawed. The possibility to register only one Evangelical union catalyzed the merging of dogmatically close Baptist Church and Church of Evangelical Christians under the later adopted name of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (ECB). The name and unification mostly remains nowadays, but soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union and liberalization of religion some of the Evangelical Christian congregations have left the union and formed their own.

The dogmatic differences between two groups were mostly in their views on predestination. Baptists adhered to the Calvinist soteriology, proclaiming salvation for the elect by God’s grace. Evangelical Christians were Arminians—followers of the 17-century Remonstrant movement and Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius. This doctrine allows salvation for all repentant, and ability to reject or lose grace. Liturgically, these views led to a specific take on membership, manifested, for instance, in closed (distributed among baptized members of the Church) or universal (all believers) communion. Today’s ECB somehow combine strict rules on membership and closed communion with Arminian soteriology.

The unification under the governing body, with bureaucratic and hierarchic structure, exposed another significant problem. The majority was ready to give up some freedoms in return for being acknowledged and officially registered by the state. However, the union went further, and adjusted the liturgy and membership rules to then current Soviet legislature. In the Instructive Letter and Regulation (polozhenie) of 1959, the All-Soviet Council of ECB prescribed the local congregations, for instance, ban on baptism of the youth, church attendance of children, missionary activities, and so on. The tension grew up, and eventually the so-called Initiative Group formed. This group attempted to organize a special meeting of the Union, but did not succeed.

After several attempts of overthrowing the leaders of the Union and canceling the Regulation, the Initiative Group formed its own Union (The Council of Churches of ECB) and symbolically excommunicated the leaders of the registered union. The reformed community was never registered, even until now, and faced immediate persecutions. Reformed leaders and activists were often arrested, given long prison sentences, their children were taken away, houses hosting church services destroyed (both private and Church owned). The unregistered Baptists, in turn, established a vast network of underground activity: printed journals, distribution of the Bibles and Christian literature, mutual support, writing and mass-signing of petitions to the State officials, public demonstrations, issued regular bulletins of locked-up brothers and sisters, and contacted foreign Christian foundations (See more on reformed Baptists in Sawatsky 1981).

The persecutions of unregistered groups were the part of Khrushchev’s Anti-Religious Campaign. While Stalin’s government executed, incarcerated, and exiled much more Evangelicals in numerical terms, Khrushchev’s policy directly harassed the marginal Christian movements. All religions were attacked in press, literature, and other public domains, but most oppressions were directed toward Pentecostals, the unregistered pervert sect (izuverskaia sekta), and already mentioned reformed Baptists. These two groups were outlawed and accused of hypnotizing their members, maltreatment of children, and direct influence and support from the West. The believers were represented in the media as poorly educated (access to higher education was restricted for believers), delusional and miserable people, controlled by greedy and corrupted charismatic leaders. The sects were claimed rejecting scientific progress and joy of life.

Persecutions of the unregistered Evangelicals remained until the mid 80s, when Perestroika and liberalization of the society led to religious uprising and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, huge flow of neophytes and diverse religious movements from abroad. The previously outlawed groups, most still refusing to register, started intense evangelizing of the previously unaccessible areas, especially on the North (See analysis in Vallikivi 2014).

The place of Evangelicals in the contemporary Russia is ambiguous. Besides the emerging Charismatic movements, deserving an independent study, Evangelicals are commonly marginal in press and public opinion, though very numerous. Most of their activities are focused on missions and evangelism. But from the societal point of view, Evangelicals occupy an important niche of free social support for the miserable (Caldwell 2004; Koosa and Leete 2014; Mikeshin 2014). Evangelicals are particularly active in prisons, hospitals, orphanages, retirement homes, working with the inmates and recently released, homeless, drug and alcohol addicts, ill, poor, lonely, and abandoned. Despite the 150-year history, a significant number of Evangelicals are converts, mostly in above-mentioned ministries, and thus particularly active and devoted.

This outline of Evangelical History in Russia exposes three main interrelated features: alienation, persecution, and isolation. Since the time of the first Stundist groups, Russian Evangelicals were perceived as something alien, foreign to the Russian culture and traditionally Orthodox people. After Orthodoxy as a state ideology was rejected and substituted, the role of the Protestants remained yet marginal. The persecutions of Evangelicals led to the 3-level isolation: isolation from the Orthodox majority in religious sphere, isolation from the secular society as a religious group, and the Iron Curtain isolation from the outside world, precisely from the brothers [and sisters] in Christ abroad. The isolation of this kind more or less lasted for more than 100 years, leading to the construction of specific dogmatic, liturgic, and everyday-life narratives of Russian Evangelicals, yet influenced by the tenets of Protestant faith. The inevitable need for self-definition or self-distinction, under pressure of such isolationism, forced the construction of denominational and doctrinal frames.

Another important peculiarity of the Russian Evangelicalism is its biblical literalism. Biblicism is one of the defining features for Evangelical Christians, even often self-defined as Bible-believing Christians. Luther’s Sola Scriptura principle is nowadays defined as “Bible is the only authority for faith and practice,” implying that the Scripture is inerrant, God-inspired, and everlasting truth. It has supreme authority over any piece of literature, art, or human thought. Commonly, Evangelicals acknowledge that there could be mistakes and inaccuracies in translations, but the originals in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are the absolute precise word of God.

Russian Evangelical Biblicism, though echoing this principle, is based on a very specific translation of the Bible, used by the vast majority of Russian-speaking Christians worldwide. Russian Synodal Bible was translated in the 19th century, with support from the ROC and state authorities, thus influenced by Orthodox doctrine. The translation is poetic and rhythmic, but for the sake of poeticism and due to significantly less sources and original languages than we possess today[2], it is considerably far from being accurate. Russian Evangelicals admire this translation, acknowledging some possible minor misinterpretations of the original.

Besides the biblical scholars and seminary graduates, most of believers, even ministers and pastors, do not read other translations. Some of the recent converts, like addicts or inmates, only have access to one basic Biblical version, and also interpret it in the context of their life-experience and everyday situation. The Baptists, for instance, dedicate much time and effort to the Bible-study, learning the basics of exegetics and historical context, but these basics are superficial, and this kind of hermeneutics, rather than thorough seminary study, constructs the everyday biblical narrative of Russian Evangelicalism.

Sola Scriptura is not the only tenet largely applied by Russian Evangelicals. The application of all Luther’s five solae in the dogmatics and everyday practice by the Baptists is remarkable. Sola Fide—justification by faith alone—one of the core principles of the Protestantism, proclaims salvation by faith, not good works. Good works are regarded as a consequence of repentance. When one surrenders to Christ and becomes born-again, one inevitably starts following God’s will, and thus performing good works. They may also be seen as a sign, evidence for true repentance. In the Russian context, Sola Fide is the major objection to the Orthodox doctrine, requiring good works along with faith. The brightest example of the application of both doctrines could be found in comparison of two rehabilitation centers: an Orthodox rehab attempts to construct a new Moral Self, teaching addicts how to live a normal life, which eventually should make them Christians (Zigon 2011: 148-158), while the Baptist rehab takes them to Christ first, rather constructing a Christian Self, performing God’s will (Mikeshin 2014).

Sola Gratia—salvation by grace alone—is an apple of discord between Arminians and Calvinists. Sola Gratia proclaims that salvation can be only given by God, and nothing can be done by humans themselves to obtain it. Calvinists deduct their salvation of the elect principle out of this sola, but Arminians insist that God already did everything needed for every human to be saved, namely sacrificed his son as an atonement for our sins. Hence the only thing humans should do is to accept this sacrifice, and they are also free to reject it. Russian Baptists, predominantly Arminians, usually portray humans as weak and miserable sinners, who can only do things worse, trying to live a life on their own. Thus, the only way is to let God control your life totally. Recent converts in their testimonies also brightly illustrate what happens when one lives on one’s own wisdom and experience, using the examples from their old (vetkhaia[3]) life: addictions, crimes, prison terms, abandoned families, terrible illnesses, and so on.

Soli Deo Gloria principle states that only God should be glorified. In the classical Protestant tradition, and in the anti-Orthodox context as well, this means a rejection of worshiping patron saints, Virgin Mary, or icons. Russian Baptist profane hermeneutics also stress that worldly sinners worship fame, money, and their own self. Repentance, in this case, is a sort of rejection of self, acceptance of one’s own helplessness and worthlessness, and surrender to God and his will.

Lastly, Solus Christus or Solo Christo, translated as “Christ only” or “through Christ only”, is a twofold principle of the headship of Christ. Firstly, Christ is the only head of the Church, hence any priest or bishop is just a delegate of God’s will, and has no authority to teach, but merely to deliver God’s word. Secondly, through Christ only we can obtain salvation. Resonating Sola Fide, this principle marks the only way to salvation—acceptance of Christ’s substitutionary atonement of Christ dying for our sins, so we do not have to die for them ourselves. The application of this principle also reflects on the Orthodox doctrine of good works and patron saints, and especially on hierarchical apparatus of clergy.

This paper is a focused review of Russian Evangelicalism, mostly observed by the Russian-speaking majority in the politically central regions. The analysis of homogenizations and differentiations of Evangelicalism in the context of religious diversity and pluralism in Ukraine (Naumescu 2007; Wanner 2007), strong Muslim identity and religious monopoly in Central Asia (Pelkmans 2009), or social cost of conversion in Far North (Vallikivi 2009), to name just a few, deserve an independent comparative study.

The globalization of Russian Evangelicalism has a glocalizing turning point: when common Protestant dogmatics adapt to the contemporary sociocultural challenges, historical and linguistic context in Russia. One can regard, for instance, the Russian Baptist Church as just one more Evangelical congregation, with precise dogmatics, rather strict in membership rules, and conservative liturgically. But these formal criteria alone fail to produce any valuable ethnographic description of its specificities.

Summarizing, Russian Evangelicals share common tenets of Evangelicalism, roughly summarized in five solae. Particular churches also adhere to some particular doctrines, like the Baptists to Arminian soteriology. What makes them specific, and, most remarkably, glocal, is that the application of all these dogmatics and doctrines constructs a peculiar narrative of Russian Evangelicalism, response to the dominant Orthodox Christianity of good works, Mother of God, saints, clergy, and complicated liturgy; and reflection on everyday challenges of contemporary Russia: drug and alcohol abuse, crime, prison culture, instability, pessimism about the future, poor economic situation, to name just a few. This response was articulated under a constant pressure of isolationism and rejection of Western sects throughout the 150-year history of their presence in Russia. And lastly, all this narrative is framed by the linguistic context of the Russian Synodal Bible, quite poetic and beautiful, though very much specific and stand-alone.

I am grateful to the anonymous reviewer for the valuable suggestions, which substantially add to my paper. All possible inaccuracies, though, remain my full responsibility.

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Cite as: Mikeshin, Igor. 2015. “Russian Evangelicalism Glocalized.” AnthroCyBib.

[1]    The very idea of the governing body is hardly compatible to one of the distinctive principles of Baptism—autonomy of the local congregation. The main features of such autonomy are the right to elect a Pastor and control the Church’s own budget. Under the Soviet legislature these two functions were given to the Union, contributing to the growing tension inside the community.

[2]    The Old Testament, for instance, was translated from the Masoretic Hebrew Bible, a very much disputed and problematic version.

[3]    The adjective vetkhii is also used for the translation of “old” in Old Testament.