In a story out of Russia, a Soviet Athiest, Arkady Polishchuk, has now dedicated himself to helping Evangelical Protestants in Russia:
How did a Soviet Jewish dissident, raised an atheist communist, come to be a powerful voice on behalf of Russian evangelical Christians? No, this isn’t one of those “walked into a bar” jokes. It’s a true story of Cold War bravery and danger told in Dancing on Thin Ice: Travails of a Russian Dissenter (Doppelhouse Press, July) by Arkady Polishchuk.
Polishchuk was a prominent Soviet journalist in the 1960s, yet as a Jew he did not fool himself about his ability to progress in Soviet society. And, as best he could, he tried not to participate in writing what we would now call “fake news.” In secret, he began writing about the brutal Soviet regime.
In the early ’70s, Polishchuk had a chance to emigrate. But he knew there would be fewer opportunities for him as a journalist outside the Soviet Union. Instead, he sabotaged his own application to leave, and began writing about anti-Semitic trials. Then in 1974 he did something very unusual for a Soviet Jewish dissident. He went south from Moscow to Starotitarovskaya, the westernmost point of Russia, to an underground Pentecostal church, and began documenting human rights abuses against Christians.
“They looked very Jewish to me,” said Polishchuk, now 88 years old, while speaking to PW from St. Petersburg, where he lives temporarily to care for a family member. “There were a lot of big lies about them. They were persecuted not only by the government, but by Orthodox Church authorities.”
Polishchuk documented horrific abuse against the children of evangelical Christians, most of whom could not finish school because of the violence. “They were beaten up at school. They were beaten with stones. One time I counted the scars on the head of a boy. Nine scars. He was beaten by stones when he was five or six years old.”
To understand what brought Polishchuk to that church, it’s important to look at his history. He was born in Moscow and was among the first generation of Jews to be allowed to live there. His father was not religious and supported the communist revolution. “The sky was blue and everybody was anticipating a great country and new freedoms,” Polishchuk said. “As you know, it didn’t happen.”
Polishchuk’s disillusionment with the Soviet state began in 1948, after the founding of Israel. Stalin thought the USSR’s vote to create Israel would place the Jewish State firmly into the Soviets’ communist sphere. After all, the early Zionists were socialists who dreamed of a communist utopia. But Israel disappointed Stalin and that’s when a new anti-Semitic campaign began. This was an important lesson for Polishchuk. It turned out, it didn’t matter if he was a religious Jew or not. The Soviets considered Jewishness to be an ethnicity, something that cannot be washed off by lack of religious belief.
This was a shock for “a good Soviet boy” like Polishchuk, he said, and his career in journalism shocked him further, revealing how his country treated those at the margins of society.
To Carrie Paterson, publisher of Doppelhouse Press, it is Polishchuk’s ability to empathize with the plight of others that attracted her to this author and memoir. “I think one aspect of the book that struck me is the tension that comes when the author meets the persecuted Evangelicals and hears their stories,” Paterson said. “His commitment to Evangelicals does not have to do necessarily with belief in Christ, but in his belief that people should be able to continue their ethnic and family traditions.”
As for today, Polishchuk said, things are slightly better for evangelical Christians in the Russia of Vladimir Putin, but the Orthodox Church is given primacy above all religions. The hierarchy “still comes from the same source, from those who served the previous rulers.”
Other denominations are still afraid, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is banned in Russia, their members harassed, and their property confiscated. It’s a systemic persecution that Polishchuk knows all too well.
Though he is now based in Washington, D.C., Polishchuk continues to meet with evangelicals in Russia and advocates on their behalf. But he is often asked why he’s spending so much time helping Christians, when Jewish persecution still exists.
“My response is very simple,” he said. “It is much easier to help your own. Try to help those who are not with you. Try to help those who are different from you. Try to understand them.” (source)
It would seem to be a nice story. After all, in a world of much division between peoples, it is good to see a bit of care for one’s fellow man.
Except I don’t believe this is true in this story. Not if one understand American evangelicalism in Russia.
In Russia, there are three sects of Christianity that are accepted. The first is the Orthodox Church, which functions as a state church and historically functions as a national church as with much of the orthodox world. This is also a bane of the eastern churches, because the overlapping closeness of the church with the government in a way that did not exist for the Catholic world- even at the height of Christendom- moves dangerously close to the errors of Protestantism in terms of nationalism. As a result of this, the Orthodox Church has been given primacy in Russia and ones “Russianness” for some is measured by one’s acceptance or denial of orthodoxy.
The other two groups of Christians in Russia are Catholics and Lutherans. Catholics are generally associated with people from Ukraine and other lands under the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth of the 17th century, but owing to the atrocities of the Soviets, mass depopulations and deportations, Catholic minority communities are found all throughout Russia, from the major cities west of the Urals to the most remote ends of the Far East and all of the lands in between the fast swaths of the frozen Siberian tundra. The Lutherans are for the most part concentrated in the areas around the Baltic states owing to their possession by Germany (then Prussia) in the Hanseatic League, and in the southern areas of Russia around the Volga and the Caucasus. There are also some Lutheran communities in Central Asia and Siberia owing to the deportations at the hands of the Soviets.
Other religious groups in Russia which are accepted because of their historical presence include Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and the Shamanistic religions of the Siberian and Central Asian peoples.
The first non-Lutheran Protestant communities in Russia were the Baptists and the Calvinists, appearing in areas with Lutheran German populations. However, they never were able to establish strong roots in the nation. The Pentecostal movement later came to Russia owing to work from American and German missionaries.
While there have been historical tensions withe Catholics and Lutherans, who were seen as “foreign” invaders and orthodoxy was used as a rallying point for Russian identity, the issue is even more complicated with Baptists and Pentecostals, for owing to their strong presence in the USA and backing by American churches, they are viewed as political agents of advancing American geopolitical ends.
There is also the issue of subversion by the spread of heresy as a means of undermining the society. It is seldom discussed in America, but it is a known fact that American Protestant missionaries are as much vectors of American sociocultural ideas as well as means for spying on other nations while at the same time undermining the faith of the local persons in order to make them more acceptable to American financial and business interests. This has historically been directed against the Catholic peoples of Central and South America owing to the geographic proximity of the USA to those regions, but it really does not matter what the religion is or who the people are. The American Protestant missionaries are are much as tool of policy as is the military in that they can be use to justify economic or military action against another nation or people, and all of it made for selfish gain.
All of this animosity precedes communism and is far greater than the 20th century between the USA and USSR. It is centuries old, and has been aggravated by America’s tendency to use subversive groups of all types to fracture social cohesion in order to advance her particular national ends. At a time when Russia is under attack on many fronts and is potentially facing a war with Japan in the East, Germany in the West, Turkey in the south, upheaval in the Central Asia republics, internal fracturing, financial problems, population decline, a tuberculosis epidemic, increased HIV rates, high abortion rates, and a crisis of national identity, the last thing which Russia needs is what they view as a foreign presence funded by a group from a nation what has expressed open hostility to her and has a history of using groups such as those in order to destabilize already unstable nations.
Is Arkady Polishschuk helping the evangelicals of Russia because he genuinely cares?
It is possible.
However, his case is highly curious, and given the American history of the evangelicals in Russia and the destabilization that America is trying to bring to Russia as a part of her war against her and both American and Israeli involvement in Russian affairs, one must not rule out the prospect that this “help” is just one more of many ways to advance a greater geopolitical agenda.