Thoughts on a recent book by John Bernbaum. Commentary
William Yoder, Ph.D.
L a d u s h k I n — I’m still struck with sadness when recalling the makeshift monument erected in 2007 about 40 metres from the entrance to Moscow’s “Russian-American-Institute”. Its plaque stated that the monument was dedicated to “protection from the enemies of the Russian soil”. At least 15 demonstrations took place at the site in the four years prior to completion of the building in 2010. In the end, Russian taxes and US-debt killed the project and led to the building’s purchase by a secular Russian firm in March 2014. Founded in 1995, the institution was known as the “Russian-American Christian University” (RACU) until November 2007.
What caused such a negative reaction within the Russian nation? After all, in October 1990 upper echelons of the Gorbachev-government had invited evangelical educators to start a liberal arts university on Russian soil. It was a Russian proposal, not an American one, and it was the Russians who gradually reneged on their invitation.
A book by the project’s primary mover-and-shaker, John Bernbaum, is entitled “Opening the Red Door” and was published by InterVarsity-Press in 2019. The book is a documentary, not an intellectual enterprise, and makes no real effort to answer the above question. Allow me to try.
- Reason #1: Too big and too different
Such a project at the country’s Moscow epicentre was too big, too visible and too Western to survive a serious downturn in US-Russian relations. One could claim: In view of East-West tensions, not even St. Peter could have kept the project afloat. To believe otherwise would have meant defying the laws of gravity.
In addition: Russia’s less-than-a-million evangelicals were in no position to support, both financially and intellectually, a multi-confessional project of these dimensions. In Europe there is no tradition of privately-owned, Christian liberal-arts universities. Intellectual centres of learning are a luxury never enjoyed by Russian Protestants. Russian evangelical support for the project was very modest: its strongest supporter was the neo-Pentecostal “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith” (ROSKhVE).
In 2014, Ruslan Nadyuk (or Nadiuk), the long-term head of RACU’s social work department, insisted: “Most (Russian) Protestants do not want professional programmes. They view education strictly as an instrument for evangelism.” Yet Protestants restricting themselves to evangelism “will in time reduce themselves to little groups capable only of converting their offspring”. He added, that the anti-intellectualism in his realm is fuelled by Western fundamentalists insisting that the study of psychology is an anti-Christian endeavour (see our release from 14 July 2014).
RACU was a welcome source of capital and jobs to Russian Protestants, but a sense of ownership did not develop. As I wrote in the above release: “To Protestants, this institution appeared worthy of exploitation, but not of sustenance. The unfed cow was milked until she expired.”
The reservations of provincial, conservative church circles regarding a liberal-arts education is also par-for-the-course in North America. In the Russian context, such graduates usually end up as Charismatics or Orthodox — or as residents of the West. A vital first step would involve touting the fruits of involvement in intellectual topics among the old-time faithful.
- Not meeting Russians on equal terms
In Russia, by far the world’s largest country in territorial terms, such an international project can only succeed if local government and church authorities feel they are truly equal partners. Despite the very best of intentions, those paying the piper will also determine the tune, and Russia’s Protestants were absolutely incapable – and the government unwilling – to supply 50% of the funding. It was a Catch-22 situation: They money was not there to insure equal treatment, and without equal treatment, the project was doomed. Even RACU’s PR-work in Russia was headed by a US marketing firm (page 197).
After 1990, and perhaps even today, Russia long wanted – or still wants – positive relations with the West. But that desire is not unconditional, very much in contrast to the Baltic states, Poland and Ukraine. Smaller countries are accustomed to being junior partners and do accept orders arriving from above. The survival of Protestant university projects in Lithuania and Ukraine can be attributed in part to this readiness. The tiny minority of Russian Protestants frequently does not mind being a junior partner – but its government certainly does.
Those projects still surviving in Russia are, despite their names, essentially seminaries or Bible schools. Two of them are “St. Petersburg Christian University” and Krasnodar’s “Kuban Evangelical-Christian University”. They are more modest, less-invasive endeavours – and not located anywhere near the nation’s capital.
There are Western-sponsored Christian institutions of learning in China and even North Korea. Yet in both cases, they are geared to job and professional training, not the liberal arts or theology, and tied closely to the hosting government. See „Pyongyang University of Science and Technology“ under “pust.co”. It has a sister institution in China.
- Conflicting worldviews
Being “too Western” demands an explanation. The author is struck by the drastic gap between Bernbaum’s description of recent Russian history and the views prominent within Russia – he inverts the heroes and villains. Bernbaum does not deny the human foibles of Boris Yeltsin, but his “heroes”, Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, are viewed as villains by today’s Russians. Gorbachev, regarded as the annihilator of the USSR’s economy, has popularity ratings hovering around 1%.
Vladimir Putin is this book’s nationalist villain. No mention is made of Putin’s openness for a free trading zone reaching from Lisbon to Vladivostok or his remarkable address to Germany’s Bundestag on 25 September 2001. He had then appealed for broad German-Russian cooperation while speaking of an “all-European cooperation between equals”. Putin – not the West – spoke until recently of the other side as “partners”. In Russia, it’s the diehard nationalists who complain about Putin’s softness on the West. The book does not regard NATO’s encirclement of Russia as a major issue.
Bernbaum describes communism and the communist state essentially as highly-corrupt producers of rubble. Yet the communist state turned an agrarian power into a superpower in the half-century following 1917 – and that despite a devastating world war. The legendary Wolfowitz Doctrine of 1992 asserted that the USA should never again tolerate the existence of a second super power. That paper certainly did regard the USSR as having superpower status. Granted, the USSR never was a superpower in terms of living standard.
The book reveals several information gaps. On page 12, it is claimed that the sport-mad USSR had been without swimming pools. Yet mass access to swimming facilities has really only become a problem since 1990. Page 64 has the people demolishing statues of “Stalin, Lenin and Dzerzhinsky” in late 1990. Yet the statues of Stalin had been dumped 30 years previous.
One could claim that John Bernbaum, like very many of us, did not understand the USA either. The book assumes the US is a stalwart and mature force of stability; its seasoned evangelical educators teaching their skills to the less-endowed of Russia. Yet it was not the USSR nor China that rained death and destruction on Southeast Asia and the Middle East in the decades after WW II. (The Soviet-Afghan war of 1979-89 could be seen as an exception, but Zbygniew Brzezinski and his “Operation Cyclone“ were part of the cause in that one, too.)
North America has had an excellent chain of Christian, liberal-arts institutions and I for one once profited from that immensely. I have reason to be grateful. But today, 25 years after the founding of RACU, 85% of US evangelicals are supporting a highly-divisive, populist and rightist president. In Brazil and Bolivia, evangelicals are helping to head extreme-rightist governments. We from the USA are not nearly as stable, learned and impartial as we once thought.
Perhaps evangelical goals are way too grandiose. Philip L. Wickeri’s classic work from 1988 on the relationship between church and state in Mao’s China, “Seeking the Common Ground”, concludes that Christian circles had reconciled themselves to the fact that a church need not own hospitals and schools in order to make an impact. Christians were free as individuals to participate in the social programme of the whole. Thanks in part to this “defeatist” worldview, the Chinese church grew from 2.5 to roughly 50-70 million in the 50 years after 1949. Granted: Educational deficiencies remain a trademark of the current Chinese church.
Page 35 of Wickeri’s book: Missionaries had a “pre-packaged understanding” of the truth, which rendered them incapable of genuine encounter with those around them. “The scandal is not the cross, but the unshaken class and ideological standpoint of the message bearer.” Can missionaries be effective without being missionized themselves? Can change only occur if it is mutual? Western and Russian evangelicals could afford to study this book carefully.
Ladushkin, 15 February 2020
A journalistic release for which the author is solely responsible. It is informational in character and does not express the official position of any church organisation. This release may be reprinted free-of-charge if the source is cited. Release #20-03, 1.446 words.