Christianity in Russia

A Brief History of Russia

Russia! Many people know of the whereabouts of the world’s largest country, but to get a glimpse of its real face, here is a brief introduction to its troubled history.

During the 3rd to 8th centuries AD, a number of Eastern-Slavic tribes began to unite in the vast, densely wooded territories to the north of the Black Sea, and by the end of the 8th century the new feudal state of Kievan Rus had been formed. Over the centuries it grew in size and importance, spreading north. The Rusi ascribed supernatural powers to nature, and as a result their pagan gods were all named after elements such as the sun, the earth, water, etc. There was a very strong bond with the land and nature, which can still be felt in the language today - there are many words to describe forests, fields, sky, water, and other natural entities.

Imperial Russian Double Eagle FlagIn the 10th century the ruler of Kievan Rus, Prince Vladimir, chose Orthodox Christianity over the other religions of that time on the basis that it permitted the Russian tradition of drinking alcohol, which was forbidden by all the other religions. In the years 988-991 AD mass Orthodox baptisms took place in Kiev; Grand Prince Vladimir made Orthodox Christianity the national religion of Rus – it remained so until 1917. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 the Orthodox Church has resumed its position as the main religion of the nation.

Orthodox Christianity is a mixture of paganism and Roman Catholicism, with some purely Slavic traditions. At the 7th Ecumenical Council, the Eastern Orthodox Church officially split from Western Catholicism (the Church of Rome); and these two religions have remained hostile towards each other ever since. By the 15th century, after the fall of Constantinople (modern Istanbul), Russia became the centre of the Orthodox creed, with its capital of Moscow becoming known as “the third Rome”.

Tsar Nikolas II with his wife and childrenEver since, Patriarchs have led the Orthodox Church with even the Tsars being obliged to obey their instructions. In the 16th century, Ivan the IV (“Ivan the Terrible”) had a considerable influence on Russian history by winning wars and making the Siberian, Caucasian, and Volga river nations part of Russia during his reign. The Romanov dynasty reigned from 1613 until 1917, when the Communists executed the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, together with his wife and children. At this point the rule of the Russian monarchy came to an end.

Religion in Russia; From Past to Present

Monks and choirboys at Kerzhensky Monastery (Photo: M. Dimitriev)Monks and choirboys at Kerzhensky Monastery (Photo: M. Dimitriev) The Orthodox Church has retained its grip on Russia, and has never allowed any signs of spiritual awakening to develop. There have been some scattered pioneer groups, but there has never been true revival. The majority of Russians are proud of their Orthodox church, yet ignorant about its roots or about real Christianity. Bibles are kissed and decorated with elaborate covers, but never studied or followed. There is an abundance of witchcraft, astrology, sorcery, spiritual blindness and confusion. There is also open propaganda against any non-Orthodox Christianity in the mass media.

There are five thousand monasteries scattered across this vast land and Russia was and still is deeply religious. Foreigners are astonished at the amount of time given over to religious ceremonial activities by ordinary Russians. Almost all keep the Great Fast of Lent, and then attend the climax of Easter Mass, with its triple kiss and echoing proclamation, ”Christ is Risen”. Choirs compete to sing the finest chants and hymns in churches.

The Russian Bible

The most accurate Russian translation of the Bible originates from the middle of the 19th century and is called the “Synod Translation”. It was originally published by The Russian Missionary Society. The language has since been modernised and several editions have been published with many of the commentaries and appendices being taken from English and German translations of the Bible. There is also an Orthodox translation (interpretation) that contains the Apocryphal books, Orthodox Church commentaries and some doctrinal statements.

“Revivals” in Russian History

Historically and geographically Russia is situated between east and west, and yet the Russian mentality is neither eastern nor western. There is a saying that “10 Russians will have 11 opinions”! The nation is still very unpredictable and spiritually oppressed. Even though much of the western way of life in culture, architecture, etc., has been widely introduced and even imposed on Russia over the centuries (commencing with the great reforming Tsar Peter the Great at the beginning of the 18th century), the religious values of the general population have remained unaffected; the Orthodox Church has always been dominant.

Over the centuries, missionaries preaching the Gospel have come from far away lands. In the 14th century for example, there were signs of revival in the northern city of Novgorod, which always had a high proportion of literate and educated people. Churches were built with plain, undecorated walls and kept free from idols and heathen images; later, however, they were “flooded” with icons and religious paintings. The Reformation in the west never reached Russia, with the exception of some German religious groups (mainly Mennonites) moving to Siberia and the Ukraine in the 18th century, where German-born Russian Empress Catherine the Great promised them religious freedom.

At the end of the 19th century Russia had a chance to change its history. Western missionaries, led by an Englishman, Lord Radstock, spread the Word of God amongst Russian aristocrats in St. Petersburg, and the wives of some high-ranking officers and generals were converted. Several Counts amongst the Russian aristocracy came to Christ. An interesting fact to note is that those missionaries did not even speak Russian; they used their knowledge of French to convert these educated French-speaking Russians. There were all the signs of a revival breaking out: however, other unconverted aristocrats were alarmed by any hint of change and reported to the Tsar Alexander II, pleading with him to stop the Word being spread. Leaders of the Orthodox Church joined the appeal, afraid of losing their power. Consequently, Alexander arrested converts, exiling some and jailing others. Lord Radstock and the other western missionaries were barred from Russia; they had to leave the country virtually overnight. Some consider this particular historical event - such a blunt rejection of God’s Word - to be the reason for a future curse on Russia. One remarkable fact is that some Russian missionaries converted Armenians, who then started a revival in their own country. 1

Even before the Bolshevik communist revolution of 1917, religious gatherings were illegal outside the Orthodox Church. Whenever evangelical Christianity spread, the Orthodox Church always used their political might to repress it.

“We have heard of small evangelical revivals in different parts of Russia and the Ukraine, some groups forming here and there. Pentecost mission in the Russian Empire began in 1911 with visits from one of the pioneers of the Pentecostal movement in Europe, Thomas Ball Barratt of Oslo, in response to invitations from Finnish and Swedish-speaking evangelical churches. Barratt also visited St. Petersburg in 1911, but there appears to have been no attempt to bring the Pentecostal message in Russian until 1913, when Barratt began publishing his magazine in Russian. In 1913 Russian Pentecostal groups began in the Evangelical Christian churches in Helsinki and Vyborg and established themselves as separate congregations. By the end of the year there was a congregation in St Petersburg too and in 1914 preachers were sent out to Baptist and Evangelical Christian congregations as far away as Tiflis.

In 1915 Andrew Urshan (the founder of the United Pentecostal Church in the USA) held Gospel meetings in St. Petersburg – by then renamed Petrograd – in their hall with attendances of up to 200. The converts were so eager to be baptized that baptisms had to be conducted in a hole in the ice on a frozen river. On one occasion the snow was about two feet deep. ‘We went there,’ recalled Urshan, and a young lady, who was a sinner, imagined we were foolish, and fanatical, so she followed us to watch the ‘fun’. When we reached the snowy spot, the brethren managed to shovel away the snow, and broke a large hole in the ice. As soon as one young lady stepped into that cold water, God’s power fell upon her, and when the young sinner woman saw God’s power on her, and others being blessed, she fell on her knees into the deep snow. Rising, she came up running into the frozen stream to be baptized.” 2

After the 1917 Communist revolution, “inakomysliashie” (people who did not accept the changes) were not exiled or put into prison any more, they simply vanished. In the best of cases they were placed in Gulags (isolated hard labour concentration camps): otherwise they were instantly executed. In the 20th century, Stalin eliminated the majority of non-Orthodox believers. Some Orthodox priests became communists, which allowed them to still keep some churches open. These priests worked closely with the KGB (State Security Service). They reported everyone who wanted to be baptized or to baptize a child: those involved could then easily lose their jobs or be taken to a labour camp without any further investigation.

The Soviets organized widespread anti-religious propaganda. They were especially against Evangelicals and Baptists (the word ‘Baptist’ still carries very strong negative connotations for many Russians). Communism severely persecuted any signs of Biblical faith. It was absolutely forbidden to speak about faith, God, or the Bible:

Vanya (Ivan Moiseyev) in Red Square“In the last letter that he wrote home, Ivan Moiseyev (a young Christian man in the Soviet army) urged his brother Vladimir, ‘Don't tell our parents everything. Just tell them, ”Vanya wrote me a letter and writes that Jesus Christ is going into battle. This is a Christian battle, and he doesn't know whether he will be back”. I desire that all of you, dear friend, young and old, remember this one verse. REVELATION 2:10 “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” The next day, July 16, 1972, twenty-year-old Vanya died in suspicious circumstances. The Soviets claimed it was an accidental drowning. His family insisted that Vanya was tortured to death.” 3

It is documented that in 1937 thousands of Christians were executed or were sent to labour camps in Siberia, or to Gulags in unapproachable areas in the far north. The country was purely atheistic, teaching people the “Moral Codex of the Communism Builders”, which was in fact very idealistic. Much teaching was also taken directly from the Bible, but without mentioning God, and making Lenin and Stalin into idols for the people to worship.

Hope for the Future

Now, after a transitional period towards democracy and away from communism (which totally forbade the existence of anything other than the Orthodox religion), the 1997 law against ‘sects’ is being gradually enforced, which in effect outlaws any Christian group except the Orthodox Church. There is no obvious persecution at present though, and Christians enjoy a period of “freedom”; they can meet together, openly speak to people about God and preach the Gospel, even though the Pentecostal / charismatic movement is placed besides Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, Buddhists, etc., on the official list of “cults”. Missionaries from the west occasionally visit and preach, sometimes to stadiums full of people. Although the majority of Russians are mostly indifferent towards spiritual matters, there is nevertheless a spiritual hunger in the land and millions of souls who need to be saved!

“The harvest truly is great, but the labourers are few: pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he would send forth labourers into his harvest” (LUKE 10:2).

  • 1. Demos Shakarian, The Happiest People on Earth
  • 2. Michael Rowe, Russian Resurrection – Strength and Suffering - A History of Russia’s Evangelical Church, 1994
  • 3. Myrna Grant, Vanya – Vanya’s letter to his family, dated 9th July, 1972