Long article: New attack on evangelicals in historical context


Interview with historian of religion Elena Glavatska

Politsovet, 19 January 2018


In July 2016, the so-called "Yarovaya Law" was adopted in Russia, which is an "anti-terrorism" package of laws that establishes new prohibitions in various spheres of the life of society. The restrictions also affect religious life: there appeared administrative accountability for violation of the procedure for missionary activity (article 5.26 of the Code of Administrative Violations of Law of the RF).


The authors of the law explained that this point was aimed against preachers of radical Islam. However, in the past year and a half, it is mostly protestants who have been brought to justice on the basis of article 5.26, from among evangelical movements (Baptists, Adventists, Pentecostals, Methodists). In particular, three times in 2017 the congregation of Pentecostals in Nizhny Tagil received fines on the basis of this article.


How the Yarovaya Law impacted protestant congregations was explained for Politsovet by Doctor of Historical Sciences Elena Glavatskaia, a specialist in the history of religions in the Urals and a professor of the Urals Federal University.


--Sergei Belyaev: For a start, I would like to understand what are evangelical movements on the whole?


--E.G.: When we speak about religion, whether it be protestants or any other religious group, as a representative of the academic community I prefer to use the term "religious denomination."


--S.B.: What does that mean?


--Under this term are subsumed historically developing religious movements, societies, or groups. That is, all the great diversity that it is difficult to classify strictly. In and of itself, the term "religious denomination" is neutral; it does not carry a prior negative sense and it doesn't offend anybody. Regardless of whether one or another form is a religion of a majority or a minority, they all are denominations, which satisfy the spiritual needs of a certain part of the population in a certain historical period. On this level all religious movements are absolutely equal.


--Do there exist substantive differences among such movements of protestants as Lutherans and, for example, Baptists or Pentecostals?


--The sources of all the diversity of protestant churches lie in the 16th century and have the same root—the Sacred Scripture of all Christians, the Bible and New Testament. Many profoundly believing people understood the necessity for reformation in the Catholic Church. They were not satisfied with the organization of the church, its leadership, and the answers to the most important questions, which were offered in the name of the whole church. Preachers from among a number of the most active and educated priests, who sought and found in the text of Sacred Scripture different answers, which were accepted by society, became the leaders of new religious communities. The difference among them was in the time of their creation (between the significant theses of Martin Luther and the appearance of Pentecostals, almost 400 years passed), details of the interpretation of Sacred Scripture, and historical destinies. Many protestant movements disappeared by the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, inasmuch as their adherents were physically destroyed by the authorities. Others were able to become the state religions (Lutheranism is the state religion in Scandinavian countries). Inasmuch as the foundation of protestant churches is the New Testament [the Evangel—hence, incidentally, their common name—evangelicals] differences in the details of specific practices are not always easy to distinguish. For this reason, for example, it is practically impossible to distinguish Baptists and Evangelical Christians, who appeared in the Urals in the early 20th century. People followed their leader and often moved out of one group into another.


Appearance of evangelicals in Ekaterinburg


--How long have evangelical societies existed in the Urals, and how did their first representatives show up here?


--Originally there were not many of them. Mostly representatives of evangelical movements appeared in the Urals as the result of exile. According to the census of 1897, in Perm province, which included the Ekaterinburg district, Baptists numbered about a dozen—ten women and two men. Evangelical societies were concentrated in the western provinces of the Russian empire, but the events of the early 20th century affected their number and distribution. The catalyst was the manifesto of 1905, which declared freedom of religious confession and freedom of conscience, and then the February revolution of 1917, which removed all restrictions on the basis of religious identity.


An important factor that affected the development of evangelical societies was World War I. While in the western territories, Russian soldiers became acquainted with protestant churches. This especially affected prisoners of war, to whom representatives of evangelical churches gave support, since social work was one of the fundamental traits of these denominations. In particular, a great role was played by the Salvation Army movement, especially in 1917, when support of Russian prisoners of war on the part of the state was reduced to a minimum. As a result, the Salvation Army facilitated the return home to Russia of our soldiers from German captivity.


--And through prisoners of war, the evangelical movement was spread in the Urals?


--Among other things. In addition, the war and revolution gave an impetus to active migration of the population. As a result there appeared in Ekaterinburg a great number of people who were able to explain in detail about new religious movements. Particularly attractive in these new movements for people of the Urals, who were weary of war, was the idea of pacifism—complete rejection of violence and refusal to participate in military actions and service in the army. And the affirmation of complete equality and brotherhood, hard work, charity, and self-improvement. And, well, not the least was the strict rejection of the use of alcohol and tobacco. These ideas and clear preaching were especially attractive for youth and women. Many call the 20s of the 20th century the "golden age" of protestantism in Russia. However this did not last long. In 1928 there began harsh persecution of the evangelical movement on the part of the state. There was noj place for alternative ideology in the U.S.S.R.


--How large was the number of members of societies of evangelical movements in this "golden age."?


--In the city itself, up to several hundreds. In any case, this was a drop in the bucket, considering that the population of Sverdlovsk in 1926 was 140,000, more than 80% of which professed Orthodoxy. In the soviet period, protestants continued to exist in the Urals as the result of exile of dekulakization during collectivization and the mass deportation from western Ukraine and the Baltic republics after the annexation to the U.S.S.R. of western territories in 1939. Then in the years of the Great Patriotic War, there was the forced resettlement of Germans from the Volga to Serdlovsk oblast, among whom were Lutherans, Baptists, Mennonites, and Evangelical Christians.


In conditions of isolation from home, heavy physical labor, and division of families, religious feelings were activated in people. This affected even those who previously were far from faith. There appeared so-called barracks communities, whose members celebrated Christmas, Easter, and other Christian holidays. All they could do in these conditions was to support one another, encourage, and sing religious hymns.


--As is known, in 1943 religious organizations were granted relief. Did this affect protestants?


--No, as far as I know, the changes in policy affected only the religions of the majority of the population of the country. And in the postwar period there began a new attack on protestants. At that time Baptist and Pentecostal preachers fell under repression, who were absolutely law-abiding citizens. For conducting preaching activity or on the basis of fabricated accusations of espionage, they were sent to the camps for terms of 5 to 10 years, and more.


--When did the revival of evangelical movements begin in the Urals?


--In Sverdlovsk oblast, as throughout the country, religious revival in all its forms, including in the format of evangelical churches, began in the 1980s. A great role in the development of the evangelical movement was played by ethnic Germans from among the persons resettled who landed in the Urals, and their descendents. For them the rebirth of religion meant the rebirth and maintenance of ethnic self-awareness, which was extremely important in conditions of the fall of the Soviet Union. After the fall of the iron curtain and the opening of the borders, local congregations were able to establish contacts with foreign protestants. In their turn, these sent missionaries and pastors to the Urals and helped to build churches and to regenerate religious life.


Attitude toward religious minorities worsens


--Today how many members of evangelical movements are there in Sverdlovsk oblast?


--Unfortunately it is impossible to establish an exact number. First, many congregations have arisen and fallen. In addition, they are not all registered. Some were not able to achieve this and others do not see any need, supposing that this is their personal affair. Second, in 2016-2017, a substantial blow was delivered to evangelical movements on the part of local authorities, which complicated the process of academic research on the activity of these societies, their makeup, and their numbers.


With a very great approximation I am able to suggest that there are in Sverdlovsk oblast up to several hundred societies and groups of various protestant denominations, which comprise up to several tens of thousands of believers. But again, it’s a drop in the bucket, considering the population of the oblast is more than four million.


--How have the relationships of evangelical societies with other confessions and the local population evolved?


--In my view, predictably. Here everything depends on the leadership of the diocese and the position of local authorities. According to our research and observations, the attitude toward representatives of religious minorities, with the exception of Lutherans and Catholics, has been systematically worsening, beginning in 2004. This situation was especially aggravated in 2016. By the way, sociologists conducted a study in 2004 of how active coverage of a court case against a religious organization in the news media affects the attitude to the population toward it. It turned out that regardless of the final decision of the court, even if no evidence of a crime was found, a negative attitude toward the religious group covered in the news media rose sharply. Thus, the more often protestants are brought to justice, the more intense is the situation related to their activity, even if the court fully vindicates them.


The law beats up on the defenseless


--When the Yarovaya Law was adopted, its authors said that it was aimed against Islam of a radical type. In your view, why in such a case do protestants often fall under its effect?


--In my view, this law has become a kind of trap: state agencies have a great desire to enforce it, but with respect to radical Islam this becomes very complicated for a number of reasons. For example, it is necessary to know the language in which sermons and printed literature are conducted. But in evangelical denominations all activity is conducted in the Russian language. As a result, because of the zeal of the administrative apparatus, instead of a real search for the threat, an imitation of work occurs. This, in its turn, leads to a division of society. Searches conducted among protestants, seizures of books, arrests, and so forth disturb the law-abiding citizens and divert attention from those groups whose activity the law was intended to stop. Well, the image of the country is suffering seriously.


--Is it possible that evangelical communities have been selected for scrutiny because of their small number and defenselessness?


--I am absolutely sure that it is for this reason that they have fallen under this attack. After all, in the whole history of their existence, not one of these religious denominations has been found to be extremist, to say nothing of terrorism activity. On the contrary, they strive to cooperate with the state and try to work in places where the state still has not managed to get established. All these inspections and trials are a blow to the charitable activity organized by Baptists, Pentecostals, and other societies.


--How do the protestants themselves think? Is the reason for their prosecution on the basis of article 5.26 of the Code of Administrative Violations of Law a prejudiced attitude toward them on the part of state agencies? How reasonable is this opinion?


--It seems to me that prosecution of evangelicals should not be viewed as a part of contemporary state policy. It is more likely the personal initiative of local authorities. A part of the administrative apparatus actively demonstrates its adherence to Orthodoxy, although officially religion is separate from the state. Therefore the personal convictions of a representative of an agency of government and a one-sided formulation of a view of the history and activity of specific religious denominations can profoundly affect his prejudicial attitude toward it.


--What can the religious understandings of representatives of the government be based on?


--As a rule, the basis for their ideas consists, alas, of publications that have been produced outside of the academic community.


--Might this relate to the private opinion of a priest from the dominant religion, which has been expressed publicly?


--Yes, including that this may affect the personal convictions of the law enforcer. As a result, the law itself, which regulates the religious sphere of life, may be applied wrongly. Thus there arise situations where the Bible and other Christian literature are seized, and religious denominations are mistakenly accused of extremism.


--However, personal convictions are insufficient for a court to punish a religious organization. After all, expert analyses are conducted.


--That's true, but unfortunately the principle of choosing specialists for conducting religious studies expert analysis on order from the bodies of government leaves much to be desired. For this there should be recruited not simply "religious studies scholars" but specialists, recognized by the academic community, professionals who have publications in refereed academic journals on new religious movements. We also have such experts in the oblast and in the district (Urals Federal District), but they have not once been summoned for cases connected with protestants.


--In November of last year Senator Elena Mizulina announced the preparation of a so-called antisectarian law. She said that more than 500 religious organizations would fall under its purview. In light of the history of the application of articles about missionary activity, could denominations such as Evangelical Christians suffer?


--I would begin with the fact that such a draft law, alas, would bring harm to all of society, regardless of religious affiliation. Such initiatives violate the process of the creation of civil society and unity in the country and case harm to its international image. Such a law will inevitably cause harm to the numerically dominant religions in Russia (just like was the case with articles about hurting believers' feelings). Representatives of the smaller religious denominations, such as Evangelical Christians, of course also will suffer, alas. And here the question arises, why do we, Russians, suffer? Again I repeat: the number of evangelical denominations in the country is a drop in the bucket, and history does not know of a single example of involvement in terrorist activity. (tr. by PDS, posted 23 January 2018)

Russian original posted on, 23 January 2018 website.

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