M o s c o w – On 18 March, Moscow’s Sergey Vasilevich Ryakhovsky, Senior Bishop of ROSKhVE, the “Associated Russian Union of Christians of Evangelical-Pentecostal Faith”, turned 60. Despite his many detractors in Ukraine and the West, Russian evangelicals have reason enough to thank Ryakhovsky for his efforts in the public and political realm. Russian nationalists have long wanted to prove that evangelicals are foreign, pro-Western half-spies, the lengthened arms of Western governments reaching over and beyond the political divide. The Bishop and his cohorts are doing what they can to keep the nationalists from winning the day. He’s the Dutch boy plugging the dike with his finger, keeping the onslaught from turning into a deluge. He is attempting to keep the public presence of Russia’s Protestants afloat by proving that Protestants are loyal servants of their societies even when they find themselves beyond the reach of NATO and the European Union. Left to their own devices, the West’s pro-Maidan evangelicals would in my view virtually prove the claims of Russia’s nationalist movement.
In an interview published by “Moskovsky Komsomolits” on 21 March, the birthday kid claimed: “I will not hide the fact that the members of our denomination are active in all branches of government.” Yet he also admits in the article that not all of these feel free to express their religious allegiances openly. Publicly, the Bishop tries hard to be up-beat and constructive; he likes to claim that accusations of sectarianism are becoming a thing of the past. In the interview he states: “Let me remind you that I have been a member of the ‘Presidential Council for Cooperation with Religious Organisations’ since 2002 and a member of the ‘Public Chamber’ since 2005. My membership would be cancelled within seconds if the federal government changed its attitude towards Protestants.”
After Ryakhovsky famously posed with President Putin and the heads of Russia’s largest religious faiths in Red Square on 4 November 2014, an “Itar-Tass” press release listed his Pentecostal denomination among the “leading traditional Russian confessions”. “Fortunately”, the Bishop’s location on the right edge of the photo allowed him to be cropped off by some agencies, but the press release itself was sufficient cause for heart attacks on the part of Russia’s nationalist faithful.
Ryakhovsky uses his own career as an example for the claim that Protestants are making progress. As bishop, the son of a defamed and imprisoned Pentecostal preacher now has access to the Kremlin’s highest circles. But he concedes that too many regional authorities still equate Russian with being Orthodox. When that occurs, “we visit the region, meet with the governor, his deputies and the heads of law enforcement. We attempt to change their attitudes.”
Sergey Ryakhovsky has indeed made a career of changing attitudes. In the interview, he reports that after starting to work in a psychiatric hospital in 1985, news got around quickly regarding his religious convictions. Within 24 hours, the hospital’s chief doctor tried to dismiss his new orderly. Yet Ryakhovsky was able to get the doctor to reconsider. “I put a lot of effort into changing the attitude of the medical staff and patients, and I believe I largely succeeded.” Achieving liveable conditions for Protestants remains his calling today.
Things had begun otherwise for the young Ryakhovsky. His impoverished father, preacher in an unregistered Pentecostal congregation in the environs of Moscow and eventually the father of 10, was sentenced to prison in 1949 and 1960. At the age of six, a vengeful neighbour sucked a vicious dog on the totally frightened Sergey. As a result, the boy lost his speech or stuttered for the next six years.
Sergey recalls: “I wanted to be like Dad and suffer for Christ.” But he was also strongly impressed by the Orthodox martyr Alexander Men, and his life ended up taking a different course. Ryakhovsky denomination, ROSKhVE, broke off from the more traditional Pentecostal “Russian Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith” in 1997. (That sister denomination is now headed by Eduard Grabovenko of Perm.)
The Bishop obviously does not view people through ideologically-shaded glasses. The 150 friends at his rather opulent hotel birthday party on 19 March included “Protestants and Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews, agnostics and atheists”. He insists: “I have great respect for the representatives of other faiths.”
In the interview he notes that as a young boy, the next-door neighbours, the family of the renowned Soviet actor and two-time Stalin Prize winner Sergey Gruzo (1926-1974) had supplied his family with groceries during times of need. Ryakhovsky befriended the Liberal Party’s nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky – Russia’s version of Donald Trump – in 1991. While distancing himself from Zhirinovsky’s “shocking style of speech”, the Bishop adds that the politician is a very different person in private: He is then “charming, clever and witty”. Zhirinovsky’s grandmother was an evangelical. The politician knows the Scriptures well and once even held a sermon in Ryakhovsky’s church.
Ryakhovsky says he broke off contact with the Baptist Oleksandr Turchynov, formerly Ukraine’s president and presently its national secretary for security and defence, a decade ago. “I cannot stomach a spirit of nationalism,” he explains, “be it Russian, Ukrainian or any other. For me this is a spirit from the underworld.” He describes Turchynov’s function as national security secretary as incompatible with his present or past role as a lay minister.
On the other hand, Ryakhovsky’s Ukrainian and Western detractors fault him for allowing himself to be photographed with Vladimir Putin, or for shaking his hand. Yet these two activities hardly have the same gravity as holding political office.
All is Not Well
Sergey Ryakhovsky apparently has strong elbows. The Bishop is a leader, not a team player. In reality, he probably is “primus inter pares” among the Protestant leaders of Russia, yet Baptists are unwilling to concede to him that role. Russia’s Protestant voice is no longer united: On 23 September of last year, the Baptist Union broke with the 2002-founded “Advisory Council for the Heads of the Protestant Churches of Russia“. (See our release from 7 October 2015.) Its departure makes the Advisory Council’s tilt towards the Pentecostal faction more prominent than ever. During Soviet times, it had been the Baptist Union which was the “first among equals” – they are unwilling to line up now behind the leadership of Ryakhovsky. And there are more than a few Orthodox circles who prefer the Baptist Union over the Pentecostal ones.
Much is at stake for the Protestants of Russia at present. Legislation trying to define the identity of a “sect” is in the works. Such legislation would separate the Protestant sheep from the Protestant goats. Now defined as “foreign agents”, Russia’s Protestant churches will very likely be subject to thorough bureaucratic perusal of their activities and finances. It is assumed that Protestant churches will be needing to list foreign funding on their official websites. The severity of such measures will depend on the East-West political climate as well as the skills and connections of church diplomats such as Ryakhovsky. We wish them God’s blessing.
William Yoder, Ph.D.
Smolensk, 3 April 2016