This guest post is by Dr. Perry Glanzer, Professor of Educational Foundations at Baylor University. Dr. Glanzer is the author of books including The Quest for Russia’s Soul: Evangelicals and Moral Education in Post-Communist Russia.
As someone who lived for two years in Russia and spent extended periods doing research in Ukraine, my heart breaks for these countries, but for different reasons. Certain far-left or far right political commentators do not seem to understand essential differences between the two nations. In my study of Christian education in both countries (K-12 and higher education), I found one important difference.
Russian political leaders continually exalt corruption, dysfunction, and the pursuit of power. This leads them to undermine burgeoning efforts to rebuild civil society, improve religious liberty, or expand religious education. Unfortunately, the dominant Russian Orthodox Church makes things worse. Former communists largely control the Russian Orthodox Church, and they use this power to support a Russian version of Christian nationalism—making the church an instrument of the state.
In Ukraine I have found hope and courage among educators and Christians trying to build civil society in the context of religious freedom in ways that some political leaders supported. Indeed, I researched one Christian university that even one of Ukraine’s former prime ministers praised for its lack of corruption and its courage. To understand this difference is to understand why the current conflict is a clash between two different types of countries.
Russian Moral Degradation and Death
Accomplishing anything in Russia without resorting to bribery or other forms of moral corruption takes tremendous effort, time, and courage. In the social philosophy faculty at People’s Friendship University in Moscow (RUDN) where I taught social philosophy in 2001, the brother of one of the economic ministers also taught. He told me that he constantly received calls from people asking for favors and gifts (assuming that he could obtain such things through his brother). That’s just the common moral expectation of how life works in Russia. That’s why I had to add a class on bribery when I taught Christian ethics at Russian American Christian University (RACU).
RACU was a beacon of light in this politically and morally corrupt culture. I mention in my recent book The Dismantling of Moral Education how the chair of social philosophy department told me, “we are looking for moral answers right now because we do not have any.” Russia was considered the Wild Wild East when I lived there, due to rampant crime. I have a picture with a black eye and a scar from the razor cut to my neck during a mugging to confirm it. I remember meeting a gentleman for lunch in St. Petersburg in 1994 who was running a Christian press. He gave me such hope. Then, I read a few years later how he was murdered on the street outside his home.
RACU sought to change Russia from the bottom up. Yet Russian politicians hated this kind of positive moral influence from the West. It’s why they have outlawed evangelism, and they persecute Protestants as well as Russian Orthodox who press for moral reform. In fact, Russian politicians have made it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for Russian Christians to build institutions to further Christianity.
One simply merely has to read of John Bernbaum’s courageous story of his effort to sustain RACU to understand the level of work, integrity, and courage it takes to start and try to sustain such an institution in the midst of political and moral degradation. In the end, the Russian politicians refused to let it live, since RACU was such a beacon of light, and they killed it in 2011.
They did the same thing to Donetsk Theological Seminary. Donestk was a beautiful town and the seminary had a beautiful building and was thriving until Russian mercenaries marched into Ukraine in 2017 and set up their headquarters in the building to expand Putin’s maniacal and deadly dreams.
Killing people and institutions has been a norm throughout the last century of Russian history. I encourage anyone to read Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history Gulag: A History. 100 million deaths were attributed to communist leaders alone. Putin is just continuing this long history. Russian political leaders specialize in spreading moral degradation, death, and a culture that promotes it.
In contrast to Russian political leadership, prior to Russian interference Christian institutions had been thriving in Ukraine, a land that promoted religious freedom. [See Vasyl Ostryi’s TGC column on Kyiv Theological Seminary and Irpin’ Bible Church.] In addition to Donetsk Theological Seminary, there were robust Protestant churches, other seminaries, and even Ukraine’s first Christian university, Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU). As one leader told me in my case study of the institution, “by putting that name in the university you have put your line in the sand.” In fact, my visit to L’viv, Ukraine, in 2007 to the Ukrainian Catholic University, was one of the most inspiring visits to a university campus I had ever had. The whole university and its graduates were engaged in rebuilding civil society.
To understand UCU, one must remember that the Catholic Church was outlawed in the Soviet Union. Yet, even by 2007 some students were already forgetting that history. The president at the time told me that some students did not really know who Lenin or Stalin were. Thus, to help students remember, they required all the students to participate in an oral history project and interview an older adult who had been part of the underground Catholic Church during that time. The interviews were part of their Christian discipleship. As a result of the project, the Institute of Church History already housed over 2,000 interviews and over 80,000 pages of transcriptions from clergy and lay leaders (both men and women) involved with the underground church.
Perhaps one of its most profound influences pertains to the counter-cultural example they demonstrated when it comes to the basic practices of university integrity, particularly in the arena of corruption. They made it their aim to provide students with an academic life free from concerns about bribery. The rector of a different private university in Ukraine actually remarked around that time, “if an American university, with [an] exclusively Nobel prize-winning staff, decided to transfer its base of operations to Ukraine, it would fail to get a license (without a bribe, of course) and could only dream of accreditation.”
UCU, however, successfully achieved this goal. In fact, their efforts received the notice of Ukraine’s prime minister at the time who declared it to be one of only two higher education institutions in the country without corruption. These efforts also reportedly made it attractive to serious professors. Olena Dzhedzhora, Director of the Department of International Academic Relations at the time, shared how when the university began they had trouble finding Christian humanities professors. As a result, they hired a number of non-Christian professors. Interestingly, when these professors began to be treated with dignity, did not have to deal with bribes, found clean classrooms and were paid decently, a number progressed on a faith journey, since “these values were soon seen as Christian.”
In addition, the President noted that one of the first things he requested that be implemented in order to recognize human dignity involved the establishment of clean toilets. The grounds are UCU are meticulous and they even have the symbol of the university printed into the yard’s landscaping. When the mayor saw this example, he asked if the groundskeeper for the university could do the same thing for the city.
It also performed worship meant to serve as a witness. UCU helped give institutional support to The Emmaus Center, the Ukrainian Branch of L’Arche that ministers to the mentally handicapped with various students often volunteering (Henri Nouwen had recently taught at the university before I visited). The first Monday of every month they had a liturgy with the mentally handicapped which involved 30 to 40 mentally handicapped people as well as the same number of parents or supporters.
The creative and redemptive influence of these universities extended beyond the campus to the wider social life. Before Ukrainians’ successful 2001 effort to overthrow a rigged election in favor of Russia’s favored candidate, dubbed the “Orange Revolution,” UCU students were active in protesting corruption. This resulted in the Ukrainian secret police visiting the president at the time, Borys Gudziak. As The Economist noted, “shortly afterwards, television news reported that ‘rectors who are American nationals are being directly threatened with deportation.’ That could only mean Father Gudziak.” When the Orange Revolution took place in Ukraine, the university cancelled classes for three weeks as students traveled to Kiev to protest election fraud.
The influence of UCU also extended to civil society. One faculty member observed of the church under communism, “Orthodox Churches became sacrament factories. They weren’t running soup kitchens, because as you know there were no social problems during the communist period. If there ever was a social problem it would be addressed by the government, thank you.” When I visited UCU, graduates had started a military chaplaincy, a student chaplaincy, a prison chaplaincy, orphanages, and a pro-life group on campus.
Although Ukraine still bore all the scars of leadership under morally corrupt communists, civil society was beginning again. Now, Russians are on the hunt to kill signs of civil society and hope beyond their border. Let’s pray for Ukraine and its fragile efforts to rebuild a Christian civil society.