Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Politics, Propriety, and "Proselytism" in Russia

Lawrence A. Uzzell

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In one of the classics of Russian literature, Anton Chekhov's "The Lady with the Pet Dog," the title character is asked if her husband is German. Her reply: "No..he is Orthodox."

The assumptions crystallized in that episode are neither as absurd nor as alien to Western Christianity as most Americans would like to think. It was not so long ago that Protestantism was thought to be so intrinsic to American national identity that no Roman Catholic could ever be president. Though Americans now like to boast of national commitment to "tolerance," deep down we know that politics and culture are not so easy to separate, and that culture inevitably involves religion. If Catholics rather than Protestants had founded the United States, American society would be different in many ways, including ways not overtly connected to theological doctrines.

Rightly or wrongly, today's Russians who denounce Protestant and Roman Catholic "spiritual invasions" see themselves as defending an entire way of life, not just a religion. The minority of Russians who speak out in favor of Western Christians paradoxically reinforce this view: They tend to be those who are attracted to Western political, cultural, and economic institutions in general. Like the Russian nationalists, the Russian liberals tend to see Billy Graham or John Paul II as a spiritual counterpart of McDonald's--except that for the nationalists all these symbols of the West come with a minus sign, for the liberals with a plus. Both ends of the Russian political spectrum are attracted to Samuel Huntington's theories of civilizational identity[1]; I have heard him quoted more often in Russia than America.

The most important recent theorist of the Russian counterattack against so-called proselytism is the late professor Nikolai Trofimchuk, whose book Expansiya (“Expansion”), coauthored with his junior colleague M.P. Svishchev and published in Moscow five years ago, has been widely used in training seminars and conferences for federal and provincial bureaucrats specializing in church-state relations. Ironically, the nationalist Trofimchuk in some ways has more in common with Western liberal postmodernists than with the Protestant and Catholic missionaries whom he denounces; he seems to deny even the possibility of objective, universal truths about God and eternity. For Trofimchuk, missionaries from outside Russia are not servants of a “kingdom not of this world,” but of the geopolitical interests of the countries from which they came. A missionary from the Bible belt preaching the Baptist faith in Siberia is thus as much an American agent as a CIA officer working at the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

That may sound like a primitive conspiracy theory, but it is not. Trofimchuk’s and Svishchev’s book does not argue that American missionaries are all liars, pretending to pursue other-worldly goals while secretly receiving their orders from the U.S. government. Their thesis is more subtle and more interesting: by the very nature of who they are and where they come from, missionaries are the servants of social forces which they have not freely chosen and do not consciously understand. The authors’ deterministic model reminds one of Marxism—the analytical templates of which are still deeply embedded in Russian academia—with the difference that for them the key forces are cultural and political, not economic. As they put it, “the consequences of their [the missionaries’] multi-faceted activities are largely unforeseeable even by the missionaries themselves.”[2] Those activities directly threaten Russia’s national interests, tempting the country to adopt what Trofimchuk and Svishchev consider to be America’s grotesquely exaggerated emphasis on individual freedom in politics, consumerism, and popular culture.

Such arguments recall the mental atmosphere in Western Europe about a century ago, on the eve of World War I. Relying not only on Max Weber but on geopolitical theorists of that period, Trofimchuk and Svishchev boldly apply strategic concepts such as “sphere of influence” directly to religious life. They also provide undeniable evidence from 19th-century colonialism showing how French and British missionaries in places like Africa allowed themselves to be used as tools for the imperial interests of their home countries. Their historical quotations and anecdotes are bound to resonate with Russian officials who fear that their own country will become an impoverished economic colony, a mere source of raw materials for America and other wealthy nations. One can see how a Russian bureaucrat steeped in such writings would think it his patriotic duty to do whatever he can to curb the influence of American missionaries.

The Trofimchuk model has obvious weaknesses. For example, it tends to treat the United States as a cultural and ideological monolith, failing to give due heed to the enormous differences between the average American diplomat and the average American missionary. But it also includes some genuine insights, of precisely the sort that many Americans are inclined to neglect. Two years ago an American missionary told me in an e-mail from Russia that he had “seen much evidence that Trofimchuk’s thesis is valid. Much, much more than many people realize, churches are a reflection of the culture in which they are rooted. C.S. Lewis once said that when a church feels it has made its place in the world (= the local culture), it often finds that what has actually happened is that the world (= the local culture) has made its place in the church.”

This missionary cited examples from the lifestyles of his fellow missionaries: “I have been in several missionary flats where large expenditures had been made to import all-American appliances and furnishings to their homes here in Russia, reproducing almost exactly all the conveniences of an American home. I have listened to Americans ‘evangelizing’ Russian guests with a whole evening of jokes about how backward the Russians are and how advanced Americans are.” He recalled how he had “sat in sessions where evangelical missionaries made it clear that their main goal was to capture existing Russian churches to change their theology to fit the American model, which I would characterize as extreme ‘easy-believism’.”

On the other hand, Trofimchuk’s implicit cultural relativism should be problematic for theologically serious Orthodox who consider themselves Christians first and Russians second. In 2001 a Russian reader wrote to the Moscow daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta to complain that Trofimchuk was “not concerned that foreign missionaries distort the truth about God or lead people astray from the path to salvation, but with how their activity is not in the interests of our state.” This reader insisted that “we must hold to the divinely revealed truth independently of whether or not the state approves it.”

But such theologically literate Russian Orthodox are in the minority, as are Russia’s secular human rights advocates who resist state control over religious life. The impulses for such control are embedded deep within the country’s Soviet and even pre-Soviet customs, extending back at least as far as Czar Peter I’s effective transformation of the Russian Orthodox Church into a state agency in the 18th century. Today’s Moscow Patriarchate, still dominated by bishops who rose to power by serving as KGB agents, has been increasingly successful since the mid-1990s in orchestrating state restrictions on Western missionaries through its alliances with the country’s authoritarian and nationalist forces.

A key rhetorical tactic in this campaign has been the label of “proselytism”—one of the most overused terms in current religious discourse, in both Russia and the West. This label enables statists to find common cause with secular relativists in denying full freedom of speech to minority religious believers. In practice the Moscow Patriarchate uses it to cover virtually any activity by any religion other than the four officially considered the “traditional” faiths of Russia: Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. (It is not coincidental that the last three of these, at least within Russia, are for the most part ethnic faiths which pose no serious competitive threat to the Orthodox Church.) From the Patriarchate’s standpoint, the Protestant missionaries who are evangelizing atheist Uzbeks of Muslim ancestry are as guilty of “proselytism” as they would be if they were trying to convert Russian Orthodox parishioners who receive the Eucharist every Sunday. Also guilty are the Roman Catholics who are now reviving 19th-century Catholic parishes that historically served pockets of ethnic Poles or Lithuanians in the Russian hinterland.

It is interesting to note that this policy against conversions across ethnic boundaries works in both directions. The bishops of today’s Moscow Patriarchate have effectively renounced any effort to preach the gospel among Muslims. They have thus abandoned their own rich heritage of missionary service among the Islamic peoples of the southern Volga and Central Asia. Their denunciations of so-called proselytism look like a loser’s tactic of the sort adopted by those without the vigor and self-confidence needed to preach their message to the whole world.

Unfortunately, even defenders of religious liberty sometimes unwittingly cooperate with the Orwellian tactic of inflating and demonizing proselytism. For example, the U.S. State Department’s country-by-country reports on religious freedom routinely use the term to include almost any attempts by religious believers to win converts from other religions or from irreligion. The State Department is of course committed to the principle—explicitly set forth in human-rights treaties signed by both Russia and the United States—that an individual has the right to change his religion and that others have the right to try peacefully to persuade him to do so. But by joining the widespread overuse of the unsavory term “proselytism,” the State Department is unintentionally helping the enemies of freedom taint all missionary activities with the whiff of fanatical sectarianism.

Another rhetorical tactic is the deliberate misrepresentation of minority religions as “foreign.” The Lutherans have been in St. Petersburg since it was founded, and the Baptists have been in Russia’s heartland since the mid-19th century. But Russian chauvinists sometimes try to create the impression that various Protestant denominations are novelties introduced by American missionaries within the last two decades. In 1998 an adviser on church-state relations to a provincial governor in Siberia declared in a radio broadcast that Protestantism was invented in America.

The Kremlin portrayed its landmark 1997 law on religion—the first wide-ranging legislation explicitly rolling back human rights won during the Gorbachev and early Yeltsin years—as a necessary defense against “spiritual aggression” from abroad. Not just its rhetorical packaging, but the law’s specific provisions were tilted against foreigners, mandating extra regulatory burdens on foreign missions and missionaries. But in practice the statute was at first applied more leniently against foreigners than against purely indigenous Protestant congregations. In a traditionally Russian paradox, its formal provisions turned out to be less important than the country’s age-old custom of welcoming visitors while trampling on its own subjects. Since the dawn of the new century, however, concrete practice has become more xenophobic—with clergy from abroad suffering various forms of harassment including outright cancellation of their visas. Domestic and foreign Protestants have now become more equal, not because the state has granted more rights to the former but because it has taken rights away from the latter. For example, both often experience difficulties in renting or buying public halls for worship services, even if such meeting places are freely available to secular tenants.

The last two years have seen new threats, such as arson attacks on indigenous Protestant churches—sometimes under highly suspicious circumstances that suggest the active connivance of state officials. Other ominous signs include demands from the authorities that Protestant pastors provide lists naming every member of their congregations, including home addresses and other details. It does not take much imagination to see how this tactic could be combined with another old Soviet practice that has recently been revived: firing known adherents of unpopular faiths from their jobs.

Sadly, the behavior of foreign Protestant missionaries in Russia has at times fueled Russia’s most chauvinistic and authoritarian tendencies. American missionaries have too often acted as if their assignment were to preach not the gospel but the American way of life, reinforcing Trofimchuk-style fears of cultural and political imperialism. Too often they have displayed indifference, even contempt, for Russia’s millennium-old Christian culture—for example by failing to study the theology or history of the Russian Orthodox Church, or even to learn more than the bare rudiments of the Russian language. Too often they have behaved like the spiritual equivalent of post-Soviet Russia’s fraudulent businessmen, seeming to ignore any ethical restraints that might weaken their “bottom line” of claiming the largest possible numbers of church-plantings and conversions.

Consider the following vignettes; the first three are drawn from my personal experience as a Moscow resident in the 1990s.

  • American missionaries in Moscow hosted a conference on evangelism, at which most of the attendees were Russian pastors and lay leaders. The proceedings were conducted entirely in English, in effect conveying the message that even within their own country the Russians should adapt to the Westerners rather than vice versa.
  • Russian preacher negotiated with the American sponsors of his Protestant radio broadcasts. He sought funding to produce programs written and performed by Russians for Russians, with Russian literary and historical references. The sponsors pressured him simply to translate the broadcasts of American celebrity preachers, who could then boast to their listeners in America that they now have Russian audiences as well.
  • A luxurious Moscow hotel was the setting for an American-style “prayer breakfast” with guests from a broad range of Russian Christian leaders, both Protestants and Orthodox. In introducing what was then a quite novel form of communal worship in Russia, the American organizers made no effort to incorporate the particular traditions of Russian Christianity. (For example most Russian Protestants, like Russian Orthodox, stand rather than sit to say grace.) Down to the smallest touches, they duplicated the style and substance of prayer breakfasts in places like Atlanta.
  • 2003 an American missionary told me of American arrogance in church music, an area where Russians have excellent reason to consider their culture superior to ours. He noted that, “Some Americans really believe that music in a minor key is sinful, as one popular American gospel song actually implies. I remember one occasion when in a mixed assembly, Americans tried to fit the Russian words to the Lord's Prayer to the tune used in many American churches. Thankfully, that hideous misfit didn’t fly, and now someone has composed a real Russian tune that fits the Russian words. There have been many musical efforts to impose American tunes on Russian believers.”
  • Mark Elliott of Southern Wesleyan University, editor of the East West Church and Ministry Report, wrote of observing a Protestant worship service in 2000 linked to “manipulative charity”: Impoverished old-age pensioners in Moscow were “provided tickets for a free meal in exchange for their presence in worship.”
  • In his 2002 book The Quest for Russia’s Soul, Perry Glanzer of Baylor University recounted how a consortium of American Protestant organizations called “the CoMission” manipulated the Russian Ministry of Education in the early 1990s into granting it special privileges unavailable to the Orthodox Church—including access to captive audiences of Russian schoolchildren.[3] Although the CoMission said, in Glanzer’s words, that it would “teach those Christian beliefs common to all Christian groups, the reality was that their curriculum represented a distinctly Protestant approach.” The effect was to reinforce Russian officialdom’s distrust of Protestant missionaries in general—and of American rhetoric about religious freedom.

Troubled by the slippery, even dishonest techniques used by some (by no means all) Protestant missionaries, several observers have proposed various versions of a voluntary code of ethics. Probably the best-known of these suggested good-conduct codes is that of the Adventist scholar Bert Beach, available via the website of the International Religious Liberty Association (www.irla.org). It largely but not entirely overlaps with my own “Guidelines for American Missionaries in Russia” published in the 1999 anthology Proselytism and Orthodoxy in Russia, one of a series of books on religion and human rights edited by John Witte and Abdullah Ahmed An-Na’im of Emory University.

Beach’s list of things that a missionary should not do:

Not exploit or take advantage of poor, vulnerable segments of the population. Not knowingly make false or questionable claims of miraculous healings or interventions. Not pressure people unduly to abandon the religion of their fathers, risking injury to their religious feelings. Not offer financial or other material inducements or educational benefits in order to ‘convert’ people. Not knowingly spread false information regarding the teachings of other religions or ridiculing their beliefs and practices. Avoid using pejorative terminology (such as ‘image worshipers,’ ‘the harlot of Babylon,’ ‘apostate religion’). Not accuse large majority churches of having no spiritual or missionary life. Not incite hatred, internecine strife, and antagonistic competition. Not use coercive or manipulative methods of evangelism to get church members, including certain advertising that preys on human gullibility. Not use socio-economic and political power to gain members. Not discredit art used in churches as a transgression of the first or second commandments of the Decalogue.

In mid-2005 I asked John Graz, head of the International Religious Liberty Association, whether any religious organization had actually signed Beach’s six-year-old code of good conduct or any reasonably similar text. He replied that the IRLA had proposed Beach’s document to the leaders of various Christian bodies including the Russian and Greek Orthodox, the World Council of Churches, and the Roman Catholic Church; and that “all were interested but not at the level to sign anything.”

Nevertheless, the most egregious forms of misbehavior by American missionaries in Russia are less common now than in the 1990s. The number of such missionaries has shrunk as that country’s “trendiness” among Americans has faded and as growing repression has made it less hospitable. (Some of these missionaries have shifted operations to less authoritarian neighboring countries such as Ukraine.) Also, as I was told in July 2005 by a missionary from the U.S. who has served in Russia since the early 1990s, “Various missionaries say it is ‘too hard’ to continue living in Russia. Some of the reasons given are the fall of the U.S. dollar, the difficulty of learning the Russian language (not to mention other languages in the provinces), providing adequate education for their children, and family health problems in the U.S.”

Several well-informed observers agree that this shrinkage in quantity has led to an improvement in quality: American missionaries in Russia are now far more likely to have a long-term commitment to living and serving there, which usually (but not always) means a commitment at least to mastering the language. Some have married Russians, integrating themselves still further into Russian society. A veteran American missionary told me of a recent meeting of his fellow missionaries in Russia at which one of them “stated that her mission, the Navigators, is down from 150 serving in Russia during the 1990s to 20 serving there today. She, a Wisconsin farm girl, has married a Russian nuclear physicist, they live in Akademgorodok near Novosibirsk, and have two children.” (Akademgorodok is an elite university town in Siberia, roughly equivalent to Boulder or Madison in the U.S.) On the other hand, short-term visits by American preachers who know virtually no Russian and must depend on interpreters are still not unusual; sometimes they provoke more resentment than they realize. That same veteran missionary quoted an indigenous Protestant: “Russian Christians are not stupid. We can do the arithmetic, and we realize that the amount of the Lord’s money spent on a two-week trip for a group of six or seven Christians from the U.S. to Russia could support the same number of Russian Christian workers for a full year.”

A further continuing problem is the role American church and para-church organizations play in exacerbating the “brain drain” from Russia to America. Another American missionary recently told me about a Russian student at a Protestant seminary in the U.S. who “managed, over a period of several years, to bring his parents and a number of his brothers and sisters over to live in America, while he was studying on a student visa.” The decentralized nature of the Protestant world makes it impossible to learn precise numbers, but according to the same missionary “I have heard it said that there are more Russian evangelists in America who have migrated to the U.S. permanently than there are in Russia. There is a shortage of ministerial workers in Russia, but there are many Russian evangelical churches in America that have a surplus of former pastors, teachers, and evangelists.”

If such estimates are even partly true, American Protestants working with Russians have a lot for which to answer. It is one thing to promote a brain drain of, say, physicists who arguably could use America’s superior research facilities to produce inventions benefiting all mankind. It is quite another to encourage pastors and seminarians to migrate en masse, unless one thinks it more important to save souls in America than in Russia.

The “brain drain” is related to the problem of cultural and stylistic arrogance. The missionary who told me about the seminarian also observed that “Some evangelical churches make no effort to adapt to Russian culture, but the songs they sing, the books they read and the messages they preach are all very much ‘made in America.’ Since there are quite a few Russians who would love to migrate to America, churches like these attract Russians whose main life goal to emigrate out of Russia. However, the evangelical churches that are successfully reaching Russians are those that are pastored by Russians and operate more and more along Russian lines.”

A fascinating, under-reported phenomenon is the upsurge of Protestant missionaries in rural Russia from the newly “foreign” country of Ukraine. The latter is in some ways the “Bible belt” of the former Soviet Union. Even before independence it had more congregations and more clergy per capita than the Russian republic. (In part this was because the far west of Ukraine did not come under Soviet rule until the most vicious wave of anti-religious persecution under Stalin was over.) Ukraine is now sending Protestant missionaries to remote corners of Russia in somewhat the same way that Poland is sending Roman Catholic missionaries. Though Russians are less likely to perceive Ukrainians than Poles or Americans as “foreigners,” Geraldine Fagan of the Forum 18 News Service has told me that “there is quite a cultural contrast if they [the missionaries] are from a big city, say, and are in a tiny, still very Soviet place, often working with a different ethnicity. In some cases these ‘city types’ aspire to Western values and lifestyle, and attract other people (normally youth or young families) interested in the same.” Thus it is not only American missionaries who face the opportunity, or rather temptation, to win converts by appealing to their aspirations for Western-style prosperity.

Mark Elliott cautioned me recently that the lower visibility of Western missionaries in today’s Russia “does not necessarily mean there are fewer…. It is prudent to keep a low profile with the increased criticism and visa actions against them.” But I would suggest that the result is largely the same: a greater leadership role for indigenous Russian Protestants, which makes their congregations more attractive to a broad range of Russians and more likely to win converts. Thus it would seem that one effect of Russia’s crackdown on American Protestant missionaries is to enhance the Protestant cause’s marketability in Russia. In the future this may be remembered as a classic instance of the law of unintended consequences.

Trofimchuk’s intentions, however, are not identical to those of the Orthodox Church. One can imagine Russian Protestantism evolving in ways that his disciples in the Russian government would find quite acceptable. The key would be for the major Protestant bodies to function as echo chambers for the Kremlin—to subordinate their own teachings to the state’s agenda in matters where morality and politics intersect, as some of them are already doing on issues such as Chechnya. To use Huntington’s formulation, Russia’s Protestants would join the Moscow Patriarchate in accepting that “God is Caesar’s junior partner.” From the Kremlin’s standpoint, the cultivation of such docile Protestant bodies might well be more advantageous than the restoration of an Orthodox monopoly: The more “spheres of influence” the state has, the better. If that should happen, foreign missionaries would probably be less welcome than ever.

  • Recommended:
  • Regularly inform yourself about threats to the religious freedom of some denomination other than your own. On Fridays read the weekly summaries provided by the Forum 18 News Service, www.forum18.org.
  • Stay informed about religious events in the former Soviet Union. For “one-stop shopping” at a single website with links to religion news and commentary from a wide variety of Russian-language sources, visit the Moscow website www.portal-credo.ru. If you don’t read Russian, sample the translations from the Russian religious media provided by Professor Paul Steeves of Stetson University via his website www.stetson.edu/~psteeves/relnews/.
  • Make a special effort to inform yourself about indigenous religious minorities such as Russia’s Old Believers and unregistered Baptists—minorities that do not have powerful lobbies in places like Washington.
  • If you are a member of or donor to a missionary organization, ask its leaders to support a voluntary code of ethics for missionaries.


[1] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1996.

[2] N. Trofimchuk and M. P. Svishchev, Ekspansiya [Expansion], Moscow, Akademiya Gosudarstvennoi Sluzhby, 2000, p.50.

[3] See Perry Glanzer, The Quest for Russia’s Soul: Evangelicals and Moral Education in Post-Communist Russia (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2002), especially the appendix (pages 211-212) listing organizations guilty of sponsoring unwise forms of evangelism.

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Posted: 22-Oct-05

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