Unlike the rest of our global partners, for Dr. Peter Mitskevich and the Moscow Theological Seminary (MTS), now called the Theological Seminary of Moscow (TSM), coping with COVID-19 is not the greatest challenge they face. Rather, the greatest challenges are the growing restrictions to Christians’ ability to freely and effectively practice evangelical Christianity in Russia. Driven by an increasing nationalism in Russia, there has been great skepticism and often outright persecution of all religious groups other than those with ties to the historic Russian Orthodox church. New laws and growing government pressure, including new regulations, forced inspections and fines, are threatening to close the door on churches.
This movement has affected evangelical Christianity in Russia in two major ways:
1. New Restrictions on Many Religious Groups
There is now a renewed movement for Russians to adopt the Russian Orthodox church as almost the de facto official religion of Russians. All other religions are viewed with skepticism and increasing distrust. In 2016 laws were passed which imposed harsh new restrictions on religious groups, and especially on evangelical churches. It outlaws any public evangelistic efforts outside of those in officially registered church buildings, including proselytizing in public spaces, handing out literature, certain overt missionary activities, or even conducting religious worship in private homes or unauthorized spaces.
Currently, additional restrictions are being proposed, which may forbid prayer meetings except for in officially recognized religious buildings, even including homes of church members. The law also increases security agencies’ access to private communications, including emails, websites, social media, and internet use, to monitor religious groups’ rhetoric and activities.
Some tactics are reminiscent of Soviet times, including repeat harassment and expensive fines. Recently, the seminary in Moscow has experienced three major regulatory inspections, forcing a 60-day temporary closure in one case and suspending the official license. These decisions of the Ministry of Education required multiple appeals and court appearances, as well as costly required changes to the building and programs of the seminary. Most recently, the local government required comprehensive and very costly changes to fire control systems throughout the seminary to comply with “fire codes”. Compliance cost a hefty $50,000.
Although the government revoked MTS’s official status as a nationally licensed graduate school, the seminary leadership quickly pivoted to re-registering as a training institution of the Russian Baptist Church, under the new name of Theological Seminary of Moscow, allowing the faculty to continue training leaders with the same curriculum and plan, but under the umbrella of the church.
2. Limitations on Foreign Involvement in Russian Churches
Foreigners’ involvement in Russian religious organizations are viewed with increasing suspicion, and new proposed laws would even prevent them from participating in worship services. It is unclear if attendance is an issue, but leading, speaking, and preaching are likely to be disallowed. Also, Russian teachers who have earned degrees at foreign institutions will no longer have their degrees recognized, under these proposed new regulations. This may even include Dr. Mitskevich’s own degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.
Dr. Mitskevich’s Response to Persecution
Dr. Mitskevich is an extremely accomplished, yet humble and jovial man with a medical degree, a seminary degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, and decades of experience as a preacher, teacher, academic dean, and ordained pastor. He is also bilingual in Russian and English. In addition to being the president of the MTS (and now TSM) and senior pastor of Golgotha Baptist Church in Moscow, he also serves as President of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians/Baptists, the oldest and largest group of evangelical churches across all of Russia.
Dr. Mitskevich views the many obstacles the government throws his way with creativity and pragmatism and tries to determine not only the immediate workaround solutions, but also multiple other contingencies for the future.
Dr. Mitskevich has friends and family in America. He enjoyed his time at the Dallas Theological Seminary and two of his five children are living permanently in the United States. A third, his son Paul, is attending seminary in Texas with his wife and children but plans on returning to Russia upon completion. Years ago, Dr. Mitskevich had the opportunity to stay in the U.S. after graduating from DTS, yet Peter fully believes that it is God’s will for him to stay in his country as one of the key leaders of the church, building up Russian believers to share the gospel and training up a new generation for as long as he possibly can. In this sense, Dr. Mitskevich reminds us at Fellowship Bible Church of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other faithful, selfless Christian leaders who have remained in hard places to serve through the centuries.
TSM has responded to lockdowns from CoOVID-19 by conducting many of its classes online. Unlike our experience in the U.S., however, high-speed internet is not universally available in smaller villages. Many people in these villages still rely on internet cafes for connection to school, work, and the world. To meet this challenge the seminary views this as an opportunity to enhance their technology, refine their online courses, and increase enrollment for students who cannot travel to the seminary or one of its regional locations.
In spite of the substantial challenges facing Dr. Mitskevich, TSM, and other evangelical institutions in Russia, the gospel is still moving forward and changing lives! It may be harder to evangelize openly, but our God is not thwarted and always provides a way! Although Christian religious activities are now mostly confined to churches, it is still common to hear how the Lord sometimes leads one brave family member, perhaps even a child, to venture to the church for an event or a service. After engaging with believers and hearing the truth about Christ, they often bring along their spouse and family. In some cases, children have been known to attend a church activity or event first and then convince his mother or father to come, and the whole family ends up coming to saving faith in Jesus.
While the door is still ajar, it is a great opportunity for us to be all in for Dr. Mitskevich and TSM with our prayers and financial support. This may be the last chance for a long time for pastors to receive good theological training to support an entire nation of about 146 million people where less than 1% of the people are evangelical Christians.