Evangelicals in Russia have become ardent fans of President Vladimir Putin because of Russia’s efforts to maintain its influence in Ukraine, its takeover of Crimea in 2014, and the widespread Russian belief that the West is to blame for the present economic woes on the home front.
This realization dawned on me during my November visit to Russia. The evidence is hard to ignore. Meeting in St. Petersburg back in May, the official Congress of the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists ended their meetings with a strong endorsement of Putin just two months after brutal conflict broke out in eastern Ukraine.
Addressing Putin, they said, “We express to you sincere appreciation for your labor in the post of president. . . . We reaffirm our principled loyalty with respect to state authority, based on the unchanged words of the Bible, ‘Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God’ (Rom. 13:1, ASV).” The evangelical congress also directly challenged the legitimacy of Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and the February 2014 overthrow of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich.
Originally, I suspected backroom state pressure must have been at play. But after conversations with more than a dozen Protestant and Orthodox believers in Moscow, I have to admit that no outside interference was necessary to generate such high praise for Russia’s president.
Putin is genuinely popular—and admired—by Russians across the spectrum: among believers as well as the religiously indifferent, among Protestants as well as Orthodox, and among academics as well as taxi drivers.
This holds true even after the December collapse of the Russian ruble. Quite a few of the trusted Christian leaders who I interviewed in Moscow have family members in Ukraine, or are themselves originally from Ukraine. They are convinced that their anti-Russian relatives across the border have been manipulated by Ukrainian propaganda. (Several were willing to be quoted, but a first name pseudonym will be used for those seeking to remain anonymous.)
Believing in Putin
A pastor from Siberia explained to me that a Russian is more likely to believe Putin than anyone from Ukraine—even a family member.
A Russian Orthodox journalist—and a rare opponent of Putin—shared that even the tiny Russian Quaker community is deeply divided over Ukraine. The majority favors Putin’s military moves there. A Protestant educator with long-standing, firsthand knowledge of American academia put it this way: “We really thank God for Putin’s leadership. We do not want to protest as Ukrainians think we should.”
“Putin has brought stability. We have a better standard of living now and we feel more secure,” said my friend Sasha. (Under Putin, Russians have enjoyed real improvements in salaries and buying power—up until the present economic crisis brought on by a combination of the falling price of oil, Western sanctions, and drastic devaluation of the ruble.) Corruption, Sasha says, is still a problem, but much less so. “I used to be stopped by the police wanting a bribe to overlook some nonexistent traffic violation. But I have not been stopped for a bribe in four years.” Above all, Sasha is grateful to Putin for restoring the Russian sense of pride.
Sasha grew upset at references to the Russian annexation of Crimea, preferring to think of it as reunification. His response was that NATO tore Kosovo from Serbia in violation of international law and that the West only selectively champions such laws. As for Ukraine, Russians overwhelmingly believe its new Maidan regime is fascist and American-inspired.