Evangelicals in Russia have become ardent fans of President Vladimir Putin because of Russia’s efforts to maintain its influence in Ukraine, its takeover of Crimea in 2014, and the widespread Russian belief that the West is to blame for the present economic woes on the home front.
This realization dawned on me during my November visit to Russia. The evidence is hard to ignore. Meeting in St. Petersburg back in May, the official Congress of the Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptists ended their meetings with a strong endorsement of Putin just two months after brutal conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine.
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Addressing Putin, they said, “We express to you sincere appreciation for your labor in the post of president. . . . We reaffirm our principled loyalty with respect to state authority, based on the unchanged words of the Bible, ‘Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God’ (Rom. 13:1, ASV).” The evangelical congress also directly challenged the legitimacy of Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and the February 2014 overthrow of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich.
Originally, I suspected backroom state pressure must have been at play. But after conversations with more than a dozen Protestant and Orthodox believers in Moscow, I have to admit that no outside interference was necessary to generate such high praise for Russia’s president.
Putin is genuinely popular—and admired—by Russians across the spectrum: among believers as well as the religiously indifferent, among Protestants as well as Orthodox, and among academics as well as taxi drivers.
This holds true even after the December collapse of the Russian ruble. Quite a few of the trusted Christian leaders who I interviewed in Moscow have family members in Ukraine, or are themselves originally from Ukraine. They are convinced that their anti-Russian relatives across the border have been manipulated by Ukrainian propaganda. (Several were willing to be quoted, but a first name pseudonym will be used for those seeking to remain anonymous.)
Believing in Putin
A pastor from Siberia explained to me that a Russian is more likely to believe Putin than anyone from Ukraine—even a family member.
A Russian Orthodox journalist—and a rare opponent of Putin—shared that even the tiny Russian Quaker community is deeply divided over Ukraine. The majority favors Putin’s military moves there. A Protestant educator with long-standing, firsthand knowledge of American academia put it this way: “We really thank God for Putin’s leadership. We do not want to protest as Ukrainians think we should.”
“Putin has brought stability. We have a better standard of living now and we feel more secure,” said my friend Sasha. (Under Putin, Russians have enjoyed real improvements in salaries and buying power—up until the present economic crisis brought on by a combination of the falling price of oil, Western sanctions, and drastic devaluation of the ruble.) Corruption, Sasha says, is still a problem, but much less so. “I used to be stopped by the police wanting a bribe to overlook some nonexistent traffic violation. But I have not been stopped for a bribe in four years.” Above all, Sasha is grateful to Putin for restoring the Russian sense of pride.
Sasha grew upset at references to the Russian annexation of Crimea, preferring to think of it as reunification. His response was that NATO tore Kosovo from Serbia in violation of international law and that the West only selectively champions such laws. As for Ukraine, Russians overwhelmingly believe its new Maidan regime is fascist and American-inspired.
The Two Sides of the Coin
Artyom, a longtime Orthodox friend educated in the United States, argues the West is willing to believe anything negative about Russia.
Artyom holds positions strikingly at odds with Western perceptions of the Ukraine crisis. He and many Russians believe Russian volunteers crossed the border to fight with Ukrainian separatists, but that no real evidence exists that Russian regular troops are fighting in eastern Ukraine. They believe the Soviets brought many good things to Ukraine including, at least early on, the option of Ukrainian-language schools and publications. They are convinced that everyone in Crimea is happy now that they are part of Russia. Artyom and his fellow Russians think Ukraine, not Russia, shot down Malaysian Airline Flight MH17 over Ukraine last July. (The preponderance of evidence from the Dutch investigation of the downing suggests a Russian-supplied, surface-to-air missile fired by pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists was to blame.)
But there are two sides to every coin. In contrast to their Russian counterparts, Ukrainian evangelicals defend their support for the Maidan Revolution by arguing that it was their civic duty to oppose an immoral regime. They compare their opposition to Yanukovich with theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Adolf Hitler, citing the martyred pastor’s dictum, “Obedience to tyrants is equal to disobedience towards God.” Ukrainians assert Soviet tolerance for expressions of Ukrainian cultural sentiment were short-lived before Stalin’s culpability in the death of millions of Ukrainians in the great famine of the 1930s. Some 85 years later, the evidence shows Russia again is determined to strengthen its influence inside Ukraine. Russian tanks and support vehicles have been photographed in eastern Ukraine, and Ukrainian forces have captured Russian military personnel there.
Not every citizen of Crimea is happy with Russia’s annexation: The peninsula’s Muslim Tatars, Catholics, some Protestants, and even Orthodox not affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate face increased restrictions and discrimination.