Scholar of Pentecostalism loses university position


Meduza, 3 December 2018


The administration of the St. Petersburg State University (S.P.G.U.) dismissed a professor of the faculty of liberal arts and sciences, Alexander Panchenko, without an explanation of the reasons. The teacher reported this on Facebook.


Panchenko described how he was deleted from the list of teachers in August 2018. This happened several months after he prepared an expert conclusion for a case of one Pentecostal church. Panchenko described how the prosecutor's office asked him to find the texts of an American preacher to be extremist. The professor said that his expert conclusion "substantially challenged the position of the prosecution."


Alexander Panchenko declared that in the time he worked on the faculty, he did not receive complaints from other teachers and students and so he thinks that it was because of the expert conclusion that he was fired. "Several colleagues also spoke about this with me, who have their own sources of information in the leadership of the university," he said.


Panchenko had worked eight years as a professor and the director of the "Sociology and Anthropology" program at S.P.G.U. (tr. by PDS, posted 4 December 2018)




A professor of the faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences of S.P.G.U. and director of the program of "Sociology and Anthropology," Alexander Panchenko, lost his job because of his expert conclusion in a case of extremism "of one Pentecostal church." The scholar wrote about this on his page on Facebook.


"The prosecutor's office demanded that texts of books and sermons of an American preacher, who died back in the middle 1960s, be found to be extremist. The case, as usual, was initiated by the Center for Combating Extremism of the Ministry of Internal Affairs," Panchenko reported.


The author of the post wrote the religious studies part of a complex expert analysis, which was the second in the course of the investigation and, in contrast with the first, did not find extremism in the texts that were submitted. According to the former professor, this "substantially challenged the position of the prosecution."


Panchenko identified himself as one of the few specialists who intentionally studied the movement of Pentecostals in Russia as the head of a major international project.


The author of the post did not present details of the case, since the trial is still not completed. However he noted that the expert analysis underlying the charge contained gross mistakes and was prejudiced and tendentious. "One may assume, although I am not in a position to prove this, that the expert simply followed orders of the personnel of the anti-extremism center," the former professor concluded.


Pentecostals are evangelical Christians adhering to Pentecostalism, one of the rational mystical movements of protestantism. They stand in opposition not only to Orthodox and Catholic churches but also to all protestant denominations. Pentecostalism began to penetrate into Russia from Europe in the early 20th century. (tr. by PDS, posted 4 December 2018)



Otkrytye Media, 3 December 2018


It was demanded of Alexander Panchenko that he find texts of one of the Pentecostal churches to be extremist.


St. Petersburg State University [S.P.G.U.] fired a professor of the faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Alexander Panchenko, without an explanation of the reasons. The dismissal was connected with the refusal to sign an expert analysis finding one of the Pentecostal churches to be an extremist organization, he wrote on his Facebook page.


The teacher described how last winter he was asked to write the religious studies part of an expert analysis for a court case with respect to a Pentecostal church. He said the prosecutor's office demanded he find their texts and sermons to be extremist.


Panchenko maintains that before him the texts had already been studied by the Center of Expert Analysis of S.P.G.U., but their "expert conclusion contained gross mistakes and, without doubt, was prejudiced and tendentious," because "the expert simply followed instructions of 'Eshniki' [i.e., personnel of the Center for Combating Extremism]." Panchenko wrote a counter-conclusion in which he refused to find the Pentecostal church to be extremist. After this, in August, his contract was not extended and he was removed from the list of teachers.


Pentecostalism is one of the most numerous denominations of protestantism, which arose in the early 20th century in the U.S.A. It comprises several hundred independent churches and denominations throughout the world and there are almost 300 million followers of this movement. Among other things, Pentecostals support the right of people to refuse to serve in the army.


Not a single one of the Pentecostal churches was included among organizations that are prohibited in Russia at the start of December 2018. However, in mid-November the leader of one of the Pentecostal churches in Omsk, Pastor Nikolai Kuznetsov, was accused of creating a non-commercial organization that infringes the personality and rights of citizens. This was the first such case opened against the Pentecostals. Its basis was an expert conclusion prepared by local experts.


In Russia attempts have already been made to prohibit religious associations. Since 2008 the prosecutor's office has tried to prevent the work in Russia of the Church of Scientology. Its members were accused originally of creating a fraud and then of extremism. Then the prosecution of the sect of Jehovah's Witnesses also began; it finally was ruled to be an extremist organization in 2017.


Alexander Panchenko has headed the program of sociology and anthropology in S.P.G.U. He studies religious movements and to his credit are several works on Pentecostal churches. He has still not decided whether he will fight for his restoration to the university. "First, I do not quite understand whether I have any legal basis for this; second, it is not very clear to me whether it is worth working in an educational institution where such things can happen," he wrote on his Facebook. (tr. by PDS, posted 4 December 2018)



On how he was fired from S.P.G.U. and why Russia fears sects

Meduza, 3 December 2018


On 3 December, folklorist and anthropologist doctor of philology Alexander Panchenko described in Facebook his dismissal from St. Petersburg State University. He said that in August 2018 the administration removed him from the list of teachers, without an explanation of the reasons. Panchenko himself links the dismissal with an expert analysis he wrote for a trial against representatives of one of the churches of Pentecostals, which "substantially challenged the position of the prosecution" (Panchenko is one of the chief specialists in Russia who study folk Orthodox and Russian mystical sects). Meduza spoke with Panchenko about the circumstances of his dismissal and about why the Russian government fights with religious movements.


--Were there many reactions to your post?


--Many people wrote to me on Facebook, and they expressed support.


--And the leadership of the university?


--No, the leadership did not speak out. They sent to all news media a response: supposedly in the fall semester I did not have an academic load and so they intended to issue a contract with me for the spring semester. But this all is untrue. In the fall semester I also had an academic load. In addition, I was on the academic council of the faculty [of Liberal Arts and Sciences] and I was the director of the program of sociology and anthropology. This requires my presence in the university. So they are simply trying to save face.


--What do the students lose from your departure?


--There is a course that I give on themes of my research. I do not know how successfully I fulfill my duties, but many students wrote on Facebook that they need me. I have tried to follow their independent research work-- even voluntarily in the capacity of a research supervisor.


--You wrote that you should have talked about this long ago, but you have done it only now. Why?


--I have been rather busy. One should not think that I work only there and they drove me into the street. My basic place of work is the Institute of Russian Literature of the Russian Academy of Sciences, I run the Center of Anthropology and Religion in European University, and I also give lectures there and I have several grant projects. It is simply the truth that I haven't gotten around to it. Many have asked me—both colleagues and students—[to write the post], because they do not understand anything and nobody has explained it to them. In this case I am not trying to defend my rights but I want such situations to be made public.


--Before September were there no signals that they intended to fire you?


--No, it was, as I understand, completely unexpected for the faculty. My immediate superiors, apparently, completely did not expect this and there were no prior conversations. It only was known back in the spring that all of this situation (with the expert analysis) provoked some kind of irritation in the administration. I did not give it any attention especially. This is all generally ridiculous from the point of view of a reasonable person.


--Can you describe something about the case for which you prepared an expert analysis?


--On these questions I ask you to turn to the lawyers from Team 29, which is conducting this case. When it is all over probably the information will be made public. (Team 29 stated that it will not comment on the substance of the case until another expert analysis that has been ordered is complete—Meduza note).


--Have you conducted such expert analysis previously?


--I am rarely involved in such expert analyses—more in academic work. I participated in several, but since these cases also are not closed I do not want to talk about them.


--These cases, on which you did expert analyses—did they appear after the adoption of the Yarovaya Package? After all they in particular placed restrictions on missionary activity.


--Here it is not just the Yarovaya Package that is significant. The anti-extremism legislation existed before it. And there the possibility for abuse was already sufficient. I generally think that it is necessary [to abolish] the antiextremist legislation.


It seems to me that the key point was the ban of the Jehovah's Witnesses. This was the first complete prohibition of a completely respectable religious organization on the territory of the RF in the post-soviet period. It is serious. It caused problems for hundreds of thousands of people. And I have the feeling that actually there exists some developed list of "harmful sects" or "harmful movements," which they simply will try to force out of Russia completely. The Jehovah's Witnesses were the first.


--Why do you think that?


--I base myself on various indirect signs, but of course I have no precise knowledge.


--And why are religious organizations that might be on this list disliked?


--In our country there exists an antisectarian mythology that in some sense is inherited from the Khrushchev antireligious campaigns at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s.To this was were added relics of the western anti-cult movement that was active in the 1970s and 1980s, but has now come to naught nearly completely, plus there is some kind of work [appearing] in the 1990s.


In our country there exists a myth about totalitarian sects, which has nothing to do with reality, but it is rather popular in society. There is no doubt that this mythology infects many government figures and plays some role for intelligence services. In addition, in our country there exists an Orthodox, let's call it a lobby, which has an interest in the elimination of competitors in the religion market. And third, there are more primitive things—both the F.S.B. and the Center for Combating Extremism in the MVD need to check off that they have done their work. We see that now wherever they look for extremism people earn awards; everybody knows this, I think. So here various factors play a role, but that there are some ideas about the existence of especially harmful sects. . . . It seems to me there is some list somewhere nevertheless.


--Who could be the initiator of the appearance of such a list? The Russian Orthodox Church? The presidential administration?


--Oh, I do not presume to judge. But all this began back in the second half of the 1990s, although of course it did not take such a form.


--Can you describe it in more detail?


--The turn of the 1980s-1990s in Russia was the time of a religious boom. It seemed to everybody that all religions are good and the vacuum in the religious market began to be quickly filled while the Orthodox church was completely unprepared for this so it was filled by western missionaries—protestants, Jehovah's Witnesses, Scientology, many. All were fixed on preaching and multiplying their members. And then a certain reaction set in, in society, because [the missionaries] actually offered some different lifestyle—people were accustomed to alcoholic beverages and they say: "you don't have to drink."


For the movement that focuses on preaching, the idea of conversion is very important, where a person lived an improper life and then he crosses a border and becomes a genuine person. There this form of conversion leads to salvation, spiritual rebirth, and so forth. This forms some kind of new identity. But it is clear that if such an idea is important for a person, he sets up a barrier between himself, his new religious identity, and the whole surrounding world. So a wife is converted and the husband isn’t and then problems begin for them. And this can be seen on wider social scales.


The social rejection [of new religious movements] was apparently connected with such a situation. In addition, at some point the [Russian] Orthodox Church also took heart—and besides they began to get support on the governmental level. As a result of all this in the middle of the 1990s there arose an antisectarian movement and an antisectarian mythology was actively developed. In some sense we see the evolution of this today.


--You speak about an antisectarian mythology. The concepts of totalitarian and destructive sects are rather often used. Are they unscientific?


--Both "totalitarian sect" and "destructive sect" are, of course, completely unscientific concepts. It is another matter that any religious organization may acquire totalitarian tendencies, but how and why they appear is a very interesting question and it should be discussed. Very often they appear because of some external pressure: let's recall the self-immolation of Russian Old Believers. It is undoubtedly a destructive thing, but apparently it is related to the fact that the government tried to treat them rather harshly. But no such, let's say, type of religious organization, which could be called destructive or totalitarian, existed and cannot exist.


Both of these phrases arose in the post-soviet context. They were connected with the fact that in general there appears a concept of totalitarianism as a state structure, as a government, as the Soviet Union styled itself. But to a great extent this is our domestic post-soviet invention. In a western context the word "sect" is much less negative; rather the word "cult" appears negative. I practically never use the term "sect," and it does not work very well in contemporary science.


--Should we expect a growth of the struggle with, as you say, "harmful sects" or "harmful religious movements"?


--I do not rule it out, although it is difficult to judge such plans, since it is not known whose. The government's policy [in Russia] is very chaotic and contradictory. Imagine that the administration of the president coordinated action with the F.S.B. and some other structure and they had a clear perception of the future and they fulfilled it. Speaking frankly, I do not believe it.


But we are seeing that pressure is now being put on the Church of Scientology. I have a suspicion that it is next on this list. And then, I do not know, perhaps the issue will go to some Pentecostal churches. But we are still talking about a hypothetical list. (tr. by PDS, posted 4 December 2018)

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