Republics of the dismantled Soviet Union need ethics as well as hard currency to build a new economy.

First in a series examining how Western Christians are helping reshape society in what was once the Soviet Union. Future reports will look at church development, education, legal services, medical care, and other social systems.

The scene was a conference on entrepreneurship in the Soviet Union, held last fall in Moscow, The gathering featured several U.S. professionals who presented papers on business ethics, but as the conference was winding down, a businessman from Moscow rose to speak. He told the group he appreciated all the thought that had gone into the presentations, but added, “In my country, we have neither business nor ethics.”

Though the comment was greeted with laughter, it captured the essence of what many believe to be the fundamental problem facing what was once the USSR: a moral bankruptcy too deep for most Westerners to envision.

The pace of the change in the former Soviet Union has taken the world by surprise. No one could have predicted the dramatic chain of events that has led to the formation of a new commonwealth of republics. But the movement in the direction of a freer society was something many inside and outside the country deemed inevitable.

Forward-thinking economic leaders in the Soviet Union realized for some time that their society was, to say the least, ill prepared educationally, socially, and ethically to make the transition to a free-market economy. U.S. Christian business professionals and organizations recognized the ministry potential (and in some cases, the investment potential) and wasted little time rushing in to fill the vacuum, in some instances, years ahead of the recent, radical reforms of Boris Yeltsin.

Mark Elliott, director of the Wheaton College-based Institute for East-West Christian Studies, says that last year his organization tried to compile a list of all the projects going on in the Soviet Union, but found the task overwhelming. Says Elliott, “The business initiatives among Christians in Eastern Europe and Soviet Asia are so legion, it’s impossible to keep track of them all.” (See “Building Bridges,” p. 44.)

A Thirst For Values

What the new East-West relationships have revealed is that much of the business advice emanating from the West presumes a level of moral development that does not exist in Soviet society.

“The majority of Soviet people feel morally adrift,” says Elliott. “Though I support all these efforts aimed at economic development, I must say that in my more detached moments, I’m quite pessimistic. Even folks who have an inclination to be decent about their activities face all kinds of pressures. Some say it’s just about impossible to start a business without bribery, graft, and corruption.”

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The Soviet Union Network (SUN), an interdenominational association of Christian business professionals based in Winnipeg, was born some three years ago when senior Soviet diplomats asked Western business leaders to help them rebuild the moral foundation of their society. “They realized quite correctly that without a moral and ethical base you cannot have a market economy. A market economy is based on trust and moral behavior,” says SUN executive director Christopher Shore.

Beyond the problem of the moral climate, various practical issues make developing a market economy a tough climb. For example, notes Donn Ziebell, acting president of the Slavic Gospel Association, “There’s no such thing as a competitive quotation over there. People say that they have to take whatever goods or services they can get, despite the quality.”

In addition, Ziebell notes, social constraints prevent cross-fertilization of business ideas and practices. To go from one company to another, for example, is virtually unheard of, especially if it entails a move. Ziebell explains, “A family might be put on a waiting list of ten years just to get an apartment.”

In some cases, Westerners have discovered that the Soviets are much more knowledgeable about a market economy than they expected. Says Mark Halsey, graduate business professor at Eastern College and one of the founders of the Kazakh American International Business Institute in Kazakhstan, “We wrote the curriculum knowing it would be the first of several editions. We found these people to be far more aware of basic economic theories, such as the relationship between the demand for something and its price, than we had presumed. What they want are concrete instructions in the how-to’s of business, so we’ve moved in the direction of case studies.”

Elliott maintains that such former Soviet republics as the Baltic States and Moldavia will make the transition to a market economy more smoothly than will Russia. The main reason, he says, is that they did not spend as many years under Communist domination and thus have some memory of how a market economy works. Noting the theory of sociologist Max Weber, Elliott also points to a correlation between Protestant values and a market economy. While Russia is predominantly Orthodox, several of the other republics have been influenced by Protestant values.

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A Reformer’S Free-Market Faith

In 1980, Alexander Zaichenko became a senior research fellow at one of the Soviet Union’s top economic research organizations, the Arbatov Institute. His work included studies comparing the standard of living in the U.S. and the USSR. Zaichenko’s conclusions, however, remained unpublished throughout most of the 1980s because they were at odds with conclusions that undergirded official Soviet policy. In 1988, however, one of his articles was released and published widely in the West, including in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. In it, Zaichenko maintained that the standard of living in the U.S. was five times higher than that in his country.

This and other articles led to government rebukes of the Arbatov Institute, but it also increased Zaichenko’s reputation among the reform-minded in the Soviet Union. In 1989 he became the first non-Communist member of the Council of Ministers. The highest-ranking evangelical in government service, Zaichenko in 1991 became president of the Association of Christians in Business in the USSR.

The following comments and perspectives were gleaned from a CT interview with Zaichenko and from his book Christianity as a Means of Economic Renewal of the U.S.S.R.

On the U.S.: In his analysis, Zaichenko cites only the positive contributions of free enterprise, making no mention of its shortcomings, a view his friends in the West say reflects a lifetime starved for freedom.

Any current malaise in the U.S. is caused by its “becoming a welfare state with a group mentality and a dependent psychology.” He adds that the U.S. is “losing the grounds that made it prosperous.”

On the relationship between religion and a successful economic system: Zaichenko grounds the economic success of the Western world squarely in the Protestant Reformation and the moral framework it provided. This includes such fundamental principles as individual responsibility and the equality of all people before God.

In contrast, he asserts, Russia has been in a “state of incessant moral and ethical decay, wherein each new generation got even less from its predecessors in the way of ethical strength.”

On the Russian Orthodox Church: The Orthodox Church historically, viewed its “sense of serving God as increasing the power of the state rather than struggling for the improvement and development of the individual,” Zaichenko says. Yet he believes it is unfair to criticize anyone who was part of the registered church from the 1917 revolution until glasnost.“People had no alternative; they were told they could either die immediately or die gradually. It is easy for people to condemn when they are not the ones suffering.”

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Zaichenko maintains that “nearly everything positive that has remained intact in the moral and ethical baggage of Russian citizens was preserved by the Russian Orthodox Church.” He is optimistic about the prospects for renewal among the Orthodox and for cooperation with other believers.

On what his country needs:“All of history’s known cases of mutual strengthening of economic and political freedoms” were preceded by “ideological conditioning,” Zaichenko says. “To lead the Russian people out of the deadlock of complicated political, economic, and moral-ethical problems and crises, we need to establish the reign of Christian truth and reverse the trend of the alienation of man from God’s Word, the gospel.”

Zaichenko calls for democratization and privatization, undergirded by the establishment of an equitable legal system. He disagrees with the view that radical changes would produce short-term suffering. “This could not get much worse. I am not saying we would experience a sudden rise in the standard of living, but there would be no decline. We are moving inevitably toward a free market, but certain political forces are still not giving up their views.”

Means To An End

For many Christian organizations, the primary goal for work in the former Soviet Union is evangelism. For instance, Campus Crusade for Christ has no formal economic-development program, but representatives acting on their own have sought to link Soviet business professionals with their counterparts in the West. “These people have not turned on communism as much as they’ve grown tired of being poor. Their real need is to know God, but their perceived need is to increase their standard of living,” says Crusade’s Carl Combs. He adds that a second reason for working in the area of economic development is to increase the financial resources necessary to build the Soviet church.

SUN’s Shore emphasizes that ministry in Soviet Asia need not entail such overt outreach activities as Bible distribution and open-air evangelism. “We need more Western professionals to get involved,” he says, “and they need to realize that merely conducting business according to ethical standards is ministry in and of itself.”

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Amid all the positive activity, some observers have cautioned that Western involvement can unwittingly have a negative impact on economic development.

“There is success only when the initiative comes from the Soviet people,” says Mary Raber, who works with the Mennonite Church’s ministry in Soviet Asia. “There is prestige that comes with being associated with a Western organization. We’re concerned that governments will be reluctant to give to their own people opportunities they give to those from the outside.”

Others emphasize the importance of recognizing the pitfalls of Western economic systems, including materialism. “Our business ethics courses go beyond obvious ethical issues such as thievery and cheating. The Kazakh culture is very family oriented. Our courses acknowledge the importance of family in an effort to avoid a drive for the almighty ruble,” Halsey says.

Elliott urges caution against what he regards as triumphalism in some Westerners’ portrayal of capitalism’s superiority over socialism. “Capitalism can be as evil as any other economic system,” he says. “It can be ruthless. If it is to be human, it must have the moral underpinnings Christianity provides.”

By Randy Frame.

Building Bridges

The following is a partial list of Christian organizations contributing to the economic restructuring of the former Soviet Union:

The Soviet Union Network (SUN) is an interdenominational and international association of Christian business professionals and entrepreneurs from the U.S., Canada, and Europe. SUN works closely with its sister organization, the Association of Christians in Business, based in Russia. Using the organizational base of Mennonite Economic Development Associates, SUN promotes entrepreneurship through networking, conferences, publications, management training, and microenterprise development.

The Slavic Gospel Association has put together a series of seminars in the cities of Gorky and Vladimir. The weeklong seminars, designed for Russian business leaders, address practical concerns such as marketing, advertising, quality control, and management. The Bible serves as one of the texts.

The Institute for East-West Christian Studies is nearing completion of the project it calls “Building Ethical Foundations for a Market Economy in the USSR.” A series of conferences in which U.S. and Russian business professionals participated will result in a handbook of guidelines for Russian entrepreneurs.

Business Institutes International (BII) has established the Kazakh-American International Business Institute (KAIBI) in Kazakhstan. The school is a joint venture of BII and the Institute for the Upgrading of Qualifications. Students are working professionals who take eight business courses over a two-month period, spending an average of 24 hours per week in class. Classes convene in a facility once used to train Communist party officials. The Navigators, the Southern Baptists, and the Presbyterian Church in America help supply KAIBI with resources, including personnel.

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The Seattle-based organization Issachar is active in linking U.S. churches and church consortiums with people groups, primarily in the Islamic republics of Soviet Central Asia. Much of Issachar’s work entails linking business professionals in the U.S. with their Soviet counterparts, something that has led to the establishment of joint business ventures and trade offices.

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