Moscow -- On 22 March, at the national, Moscow convention of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (RUECB), Peter Valterovich Mitskevich was elected its president. He succeeds Alexey Smirnov, who served as President for two terms beginning in 2010. Peter Mitskevich (born 1959) is probably the best-educated Russian Baptist president ever. After serving as a medical doctor and part-time pastor for a decade, he entered Dallas Theological Seminary in 1992, graduating five years later with a Masters in Theology. Mitskevich has spent the vast majority of his life in Moscow region and has served as Senior Pastor of northern Moscow's Golgotha congregation since 2004. He also has extensive experience in the highest echelons of Russian Baptist leadership, serving as a vice-president or senior vice-president for the last 16 years. Rev. Mitskevich is not underemployed: At least for now, he remains rector of his denomination's flagship "Moscow Theological Seminary", a position he has held since 2007, and pastor of the Golgotha congregation.
There are few names "more Baptist" than the Mitskevich one. Both his still-living father, Valter (Walter), and his grandfather, Artur (1901-1988), held high positions in the much larger, Soviet-era Baptist Union. Artur was jailed for his faith in 1935, deported to Siberia two years later and jailed again in 1942. Released three years later, Grandpa Artur was a senior pastor in Ukraine after 1946. He served as Deputy General-Secretary of the entire Union in Moscow from 1966 to 1974.
Peter Mitskevich has proven skills as a church diplomat. He speaks excellent English and relates easily to strangers. Due to his studies and years in seminary leadership, he has long-term, extensive contacts in the Western world. If anyone can keep financial channels open and Baptist contacts with the Western world afloat in a time of international crisis, then that should be Mitskevich. A daughter, the spouse of an American doctor, is living in Tennessee/USA.
As a diplomat, the non-Calvinist Mitskevich is expected to do what he can to keep the Union's traditionalist and new (post-1990) Calvinist wings under the roof of a single union. A cautious leader, he has until now not been regarded as strongly innovative or creative. Observers have not reckoned with surprises.
But the new Senior Vice-President is somewhat of a surprise: Viktor Vladimirovich Ignatenkov, long-time Senior Pastor of a RUECB congregation in Smolensk. Smolensk is located near the border with Belarus, 420 km west of Moscow. Both the Union's President and Senior Vice-President are members of each other's extended families: Mitskevich' son is married to Ignatenkov's daughter. (But the author does not mean to imply nepotism.)
Both the outgoing Senior Vice-President, Sergey Sipko, and the one preceding him, Evgeny Bakhmutsky, remain in Moscow as the head pastors of new church plants. Outgoing president Alexey Smirnov remains pastor within the largely unregistered Baptist community in Dedovsk just west of Moscow.
Reports state that Baptist headquarters are counting on new faces and are cutting back staff in an effort to limit expenditures. A new Director of External Relations to replace the outgoing one, Sergey Belov, has yet to be named. He had been preceded by Vitaly Vlasenko, who served in this capacity from 2006 until 2017. Vlasenko is now Ambassador-at-Large for the Russian Evangelical Alliance.
A flurry of new activities - Commentary
Sadly, the Ukrainian Baptist Union was not officially represented at the Moscow congress. A letter sent to Russian leadership from Kiev had asked their Russian counterparts to apologize for a statement issued at the St. Petersburg conference four years previous. Formulated only weeks after Maidan and the dramatic fall of the Yanukovich government in Kiev, the statement from 30 May 2014 had questioned the theological justification of street-sponsored revolt. It had stated that Biblical teaching "does not permit the violent overthrow of legitimate authority, nor nationalism, nor the resolution of socio-political differences through means other than political negotiation" (see our release from 24 July 2014).
Consequently, at this year's convention, past RUECB-President Yuri Sipko, well-known for his dissident sympathies, brought forth a motion that the Union's statement from 2014 be rescinded. The motion got tabled and is to be discussed further at the next meeting of the Union's Council this fall. Instead, a statement signed by President Smirnov was issued on 21 March congratulating Vladimir Putin on his re-election as Russia's president: "God has again made you President of Russia, a unique country with a great and glorious history. Thanks to your actions and the actions of your expert team, Russia has again become a strong country with a concrete and clear position within the whole world. . . . Russia is gaining greater and true unity. I am sure you will continue to be committed to traditional spiritual and moral values. In accordance with the Word of God, the Bible, the churches of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists will support you in their prayers. As before, our brothers and sisters will make every effort to build not only the Kingdom of Heaven, but also their earthly Fatherland: Russia."
The deputy Ukrainian president Igor Bandura, rejoined the same day on Facebook that this is „one more example of unpolitical Christianity as expressed by the RUECB. How sad." Already four years previous, the Ukrainian Union had protested an RUECB statement lauding Putin for his support of traditional moral values. The Ukrainians had accused the divorced Russian President of being a hypocrite on the matter - which reminds one now of Donald Trump. According to Yuri Sipko on Facebook on 30 March, his son Sergey, the outgoing Senior Vice-President, had not supported the letter of 21 March.
But Mitskevich' coming has unleashed a flurry of good initiatives. Astounding was the fact that RUECB leadership paid a visit to Kiev on 24 and 25 April. This was the first meeting of the two union leaderships on Russian or Ukrainian soil in four years. At the Moscow conference, its delegates had decreed that RUECB leadership pay Kiev a visit.
In view of the preliminaries, that fact the two Unions even met can be described as a breakthrough. Precisely for this reason, some observers are optimistic. According to the Ukrainian release afterward, the Russians called - as usual - for a reopening of ties and broad co-operation. The Ukrainian side for its part called for "an objective and truthful covering of events in all instances". The statement's attack on "zombification", "hybridism" and "post-truth" is clearly aimed at those harbouring sympathy for the Russian government. Russia's Union - with the exception of its letters to Putin! - remains less political in orientation, stressing the need of Russian-Ukrainian cooperation on mission and humanitarian efforts. Most Ukrainian Baptists continue to regard themselves as the victims of aggression - though human beings further east see the Maidan revolt as the initial aggression.
The RUECB's press release on the Kiev gathering reports on the nostalgia present regarding happier times in the Soviet era when the two Unions were still united. Artur Mitskevich for ex. had long served as a pastor in Ukraine and spent his retirement years in Kiev, where he is also buried. The release added: "We were all united in our concern regarding the responsibility of the church to contribute to peace between the warring parties through prayer, good deeds and God's Word. . . . We appeal to all nations to reconcile themselves with God and each other." It is gratifying that the Ukrainian Union's release also appealed for a peaceful resolution to the on-going armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
On the heels of the Kiev meetings, an RUECB delegation headed by President Mitskevich visited the young "Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists in Crimea" on 14 May. The Baptist congregations on the peninsula are divided roughly 50-50 on whether they should report to the Kiev or Moscow Union. It is significant that the local union visited answers to Kiev. Other congregations have been incorporated into the RUECB.
Sadly, on 27 March, military forces stripped a chapel of the unregistered Baptists in Stakhanov within the pro-Russian "Lugansk People's Republic", taking even the plumbing with them. Such misfortune undoubtedly usually occurs because Ukrainian Baptists are perceived by the Eastern authorities as unabashedly pro-Western. Clearly, Protestant-state relations will improve in eastern Donbass only if Ukrainian Baptists can transition to a bi-partisan orientation.
(The author is a reporter from the Russian Evangelical Alliance and the article was originally published on 25 May 2018.)