Understanding (Post) Soviet Baptists

I’m especially grateful for your explanations of «selectivity» and «connectivity» and how they relate to Protestants in Russia and Ukraine. It seems to me this has significant relevance to Baptists and others here in the West as well. While the social and historical context is entirely different, it is interesting to me how both aspects are reflected in some of the tensions these denominations have in the US and Canada

Richard Schermann

If I read Michael’s paper correctly, he thinks Baptists have largely not yet begun to free themselves from the Soviet atmosphere and the choices the Church made under its pressure. Perhaps he is correct, but it is disturbing to me that this paper is needed 20 years after the end of the Soviet Union

Ellis Potter

Understanding (Post)Soviet Baptists

During the years of religious freedom in the former USSR discourse on and evaluation of Soviet Baptists have gone through a series of stages. While at first the Baptists were praised as religious dissidents and conquerors of Soviet atheism, as the years went by they came to be criticized for those very same things—for a purposeful distancing from society, their idiosyncratic church subculture, and their critical approach to the surrounding world. Such radical changes in public opinion are not surprising to religious scholars, church historians, and sociologists. The Church sought to remain itself while society sought to impose its expectations on it, and while these expectations might approach a realistic picture of the Church, they will never fully align.

Right now I’d like to discuss not the transformation of views of Baptists in the popular consciousness, but two methodological principles which are important when studying the actual object in its evolution and modern forms—selectivity and completeness.

Selectivity, in this case, means a conscious rejection of ontological typification and idealization. Holding to this principle, you can always see a partial realization of the “Baptist project,” whereas you will never see a complete unity of model and reality. No historical period can be called a golden age of Christianity. No church or movement can be called a full realization of pure doctrine and evangelical ideals. No generation or church leader can be looked up to as an ideal.

In the Soviet and post-Soviet Baptist Church we should see victories and defeats, achievements and mistakes, fulfillment of and failure to fulfill Baptist teaching and Church doctrine.

Memory’s function is not only to save information, but also to pick out what memories are most important for long-term keeping, and to erase things of temporary importance and replace them with fresher information. We do not need to carry the burden of the past in its entire mass; instead we need to take it apart, look through it, and evaluate it.

The negative image and unimportant details of the Soviet Baptist Church are, with time, fading. In its pure form it looks like a persecuted Church, a movement of nonconformists, and spiritual reformation. However the task of historians and serious researchers is to reconstruct a more complicated, but accurate image. It is the duty of those who seek to be objective to avoid idealization, ideologization, simplification, and schematics.

However very few seek objectivity—instead there is much talk of how the victors are not judged, and that what is most important to the Church is to survive, to stand, to preserve the purity of its doctrine. Unfortunately, it is based on this, and not actual facts, that heroic tales and iconic portraits of spiritual leaders are formed.

It is difficult to say how accurate and widely-accepted the traditional picture of Soviet Baptists as closed, underground, and defensive is. At first glance, the rift between the spiritual needs of modern society and the answers offered by the church is obvious. The traditional Church protected itself, isolating itself from the temptations of a new era, closing its doors to the surrounding world. In this there is an element of betrayal of those outside the church, but there is also evidence of a passionate desire to protect the purity of faith and their principled position. In this sense the words of Vasilii Rozanov about old believers can be applied to post-Soviet Evangelical churches as well: “Maybe they will yet save the world with the treasure of faith they keep hidden; and so much the better that they are ‘unpolished’: the rest spent so much energy throughout history on polishing themselves, that there is nothing left; they have polished away the very core of their being.”

Those are nice words, but one must be careful with them. Being unpolished can’t be considered an accomplishment. We shouldn’t knowingly hide problems and hypocritically turn weaknesses and problems into strengths and accomplishments.

A refusal to compromise, survival skills, strength of conviction, readiness to suffer for one’s principles—these are selective characteristics of Soviet Baptists, which must be completed by systematic characteristics, as part of a complete picture of church life and ministry, which is stripped of extremes and fanaticism and full of positive, life-affirming, and life-altering power.

The domination of selectivity led to decades of church battles against registration, the strict mandate of head coverings for women and a belief in the indisputable authority of canonized church leaders. But this is all but a part of the whole picture. These kinds of changes go a long way towards explaining the immense crisis of post-Soviet Baptists, who still lack their own identity—a theological foundation, a well-developed culture, and a social position. And this yawning empty space cannot be filled by quotes from the Bible, stories of the “soviet of churches,” or criticism of everyone who’s not “one of us.”

Completeness appeals not to the local, epochal, personal, or specific, but to the Christian, Evangelical, historical, and systemic.

Completeness demands a reevaluation of radical psychological provisions. Yes, we must fight, but we must also build. We must be prepared to suffer for our faith, but we should also enjoy life. We must be able to die, but we must also be able to live. We must be able to be in the opposition, but we must also learn responsibility.

A complete view requires historical humility. Soviet Baptists are a part of world Christianity, which can only be strong and rich in connection with its other parts. It is naïve to seriously believe that the fate of world Christianity depended on Baptist churches resisting atheistic ideology, and that Soviet churches were the last guardians of Evangelical truths, and they have nothing to learn from “liberal” and “ecumenical” Western Christianity. Being closed off from the worldwide Christian family, canonization of the Soviet Church, and pretensions to exclusivity are not the best applications of selectivity.

A complete view of the Soviet-era Baptist Church will reveal the special nature of the place and role of Soviet Baptists in the history of the Church. The road of the Christian Church travels through the Soviet Baptist Church, but it doesn’t stop there. The task facing Church historians is to put together a big history of the world Church and a small history of “our” Baptist church, to trace both the advantages and challenges in it; to honestly say that it was not able to do anywhere near everything it set out to, and that its victory over a “godless regime,” was a gift from God, which the church could not take full advantage of. And the pastors and theologians of modern churches are faced with an even more complex task—to free themselves of the weight which ties them to their Soviet past; to pick out and keep that which can serve the Church, which can be emptied of nostalgia, and which can be an investment in the future of Christianity. The Soviet era should not close out the future—it is just a bridge from the depths of history to Church unity, the completeness of its history.