In September 2022, five days after Russian president Vladimir Putin announced the mobilization of 300,000 military reservists to continue his country’s invasion of Ukraine, Mikhail Manzurin took a bus from Russia into Kazakhstan and did not return.
The 25-year-old was scrolling through Russian social media on his phone when he saw a post from his former pastor: People fleeing Russia to avoid the draft are like “rats fleeing a sinking ship,” the pastor wrote. “They’re cowards.”
Manzurin commented on the post: “You should know you’re talking about me. I just left Russia as well.”
That pastor had been “like a father” to Manzurin and his wife, Nailia, 27. He had discipled her since she first converted to Christianity and had pastored the Manzurins for years before appointing Mikhail as the leader of their church in Moscow so he could plant a church in another city.
A few months later, in December, when Putin signed a bill making it illegal to promote, “praise,” or identify with the LGBT community, that pastor—and many other Russian evangelicals—cheered. Russia, the Manzurins’ pastor wrote on social media, was doing much better than the “dying United States,” a country that was “spreading darkness and sin.”
Mikhail commented back: “Can we really say that about an entire nation? And if you say the United States and Europe are spreading darkness and sin, what is Russia spreading right now? Truth and light?”
Soon after that comment, the pastor blocked him from all his social media accounts.
It was one of many precious relationships the Manzurins lost due to their conflicting opinion about the Ukraine war. Mikhail said they still love the pastor and miss him. “But we can’t call him our pastor anymore. We hold completely different positions.”
The split between the Manzurins and the pastor is a microcosm of the larger evangelical divide in Russia over the war in Ukraine. The Manzurins’ public criticism of the war didn’t just cost them relationships; it led them to seek political asylum in the United States with their two sons, both younger than three.
Initial counts from countries receiving Russian émigrés, including the United States, suggest that at least 500,000 Russians have left since the invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022. The actual number may be as high as a million.
Harder to quantify is the war’s spiritual cost to Russia. It ruptured a longtime, close-knit relationship between Ukrainian and Russian churches. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has sent more missionaries and church planters to Russia than any other country. More than half of the evangelical churches in Russia are founded and led by Ukrainians. Relations between the two countries’ Christians were already strained after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and backed pro-Russia separatists in the Donbas region.
After Russia’s 2022 invasion, Pavlo Tokarchuk, a Ukrainian Baptist pastor in Lviv who grew up as a missionary kid in Russia, told CT that Ukrainians feel it is nearly impossible to continue any meaningful relationship with Russian churches—many of which are either silent about or supportive of the war.
“I have never felt so much anger in my life,” he said. “I don’t see how Ukrainians can send missionaries to Russia now. It’s easier to send missionaries to China than to Russia. The relationship between Russian and Ukrainian churches is really, really damaged, and that will last for generations.”
Within Russia’s evangelical churches, differing opinions on the war—and how Christians ought to respond—have fractured congregations as well. A church called Father’s House, which has fewer than 50 members, drew more than 130,000 views on YouTube when it released a video condemning the war as “evil in a human shell” and accusing other Russian churches of being complicit in the devastation.
“I am addressing the Russian church with pain in my heart: You are responsible,” the pastor said in the video, sitting in front of the pulpit with 21 other church members. He said that, for years, he’s been calling out the country’s acts of injustice, but “you were silent, and now there are splinters (in the church). If you had stood up, there would be no dead people, there would be no tears today … millions of people in Ukraine would not be suffering today.”
Just over a year ago, the Manzurins would have criticized this church for getting “too political.” But recently, Mikhail called the pastor at Father’s House and apologized for not supporting the congregation: “I’m sorry. I was wrong. We should be Christians everywhere, not just at church, but as citizens, too.”
That’s what Mikhail tried to do, too. Now he and his family are paying the price.
Mikhail grew up in the same city where Father’s House is located, a town on the Russia-Kazakhstan border called Orsk. His mother was the sole believer in their family. When he moved to Moscow for college, Mikhail felt homesick and lost. He began reading the Bible and soon became a Christian.
Nailia also sought God as a lonely, empty-hearted college student in Moscow. Her sister, the first convert in her Muslim Tatar family, sent her sermons of a Russian-speaking Ukrainian American pastor in Seattle who was gaining popularity in post-Soviet countries. Nailia attended a three-day Christian retreat in a Moscow suburb and had what she calls a transformative experience: “I went to the retreat in a skintight dress and high heels, and I left a completely different person.”
Mikhail and Nailia met at Moscow Good News Church, one of the largest evangelical churches in Russia, at an early morning prayer service. Few young adults were willing to wake up to pray at 6 a.m., and those who did—usually fewer than a dozen, sometimes just Mikhail and Nailia—stood out.
It didn’t take long for them to notice each other—Mikhail a tall, bright-eyed blond, and Nailia a doe-eyed brunette. He asked her out for coffee. After repeated coffee dates, Mikhail dropped the big question: He had studied Mandarin in Hohhot, northern China. Even since then, he had felt called to be a missionary to China. Would she go with him?
“Why not?” Nailia said.
Mikhail was 21 when they got married, and Nailia was 23. They were young and full of dreams. Mikhail made good money as an English and Mandarin tutor, and they were both busy pastoring a Moscow congregation called Kingdom Glory Church, which they saw as a training ground for future mission work in China.
Then, on February 24, 2022, their country invaded Ukraine.
The Manzurins, like most of the world, woke up that morning and watched the news with shock. There had been signs of something brewing. The Sunday before the full-scale invasion, on their way to church, they had seen tanks sharing the road. But nobody they knew paid much heed; everyone’s attention seemed fixated on the Winter Olympics and the unfolding doping scandal around figure skater Kamila Valieva.
According to Russian state news media, the attack on Ukraine was justified: They said Ukraine had attacked Russia first, and that Russia was uprooting Nazism from Ukraine and saving ethnic-Russian citizens in Ukraine from state oppression. They said Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was a drug addict and a homosexual, and that Ukraine was the last bulwark against the West’s liberal immorality and had to be saved.
Meanwhile, the Manzurins were hearing something completely different from Ukrainian Christians, who posted tearful videos on Instagram showing what Russian missiles were doing to their neighborhoods. This is what’s happening, they said. This is evil. If you are a brother or sister in Christ, say something.
Christians in Russia quickly split into factions. Some vocally supported Putin; some did so passively or silently. Others were silently opposed. A very small minority openly condemned the war.
As more horrific stories streamed out of Ukraine, Mikhail and Nailia felt increasingly unsettled. Should they speak up? “It was a very serious question for me,” Mikhail recalled. After praying and fasting for a week, he came to a decision: “There was something in me, that I couldn’t be silent.”
At first, Mikhail wanted to join the antiwar protests in the streets. But Nailia, who was pregnant with their second child, objected. So Mikhail spoke from the pulpit instead. Every Sunday, he prayed for Ukraine but didn’t pray for Russian victory. After service, during teatime with church members, he told them that what Russia was doing to Ukraine was wrong.
Older church members, especially those who bottled warm nostalgia for the Soviet era, bristled. “Oh, you’re too young,” they told him. “You just can’t understand.”
Some members tried to debate him with Scripture. According to Mikhail, one church member told him, “Putin is like Joshua. Joshua also killed people, but that was the will of God.” Others argued, “Does not the Bible say to bless the authorities, not curse them? We need to bless and pray for our president, not criticize him.”
As a new believer, Mikhail had felt Christians shouldn’t get involved in politics but should focus on spiritual matters. His former pastor, Rick Renner, an American and the founder of Moscow Good News Church, modeled this. In an April 2022 public statement for instance, Renner wrote, “I have never allowed myself to make a political statement … . God has called me to teach people the Word of God, no matter where those people live or what language they speak. And if I use my fame for some other purpose, it means that I am moving away from fulfilling the call of God.”
In a sermon several months later, Renner preached that God is a God of order and does not tolerate disorder or disrespect. “In the New Testament, never, not once, can we find an endorsement for being disrespectful to authority,” he said. “In fact, it’s totally amazing to me that the New Testament, from beginning to end, teaches respect and submission in every sphere of life.” He urged Christians to “refrain from speaking ugly and disrespectful words” about their authorities that “do not reflect the attitude of Jesus Christ.”
From what Mikhail could see, the majority of evangelicals in Russia either openly or tacitly backed Putin. Even his mother and Nailia’s sister, whom the Manzurins credit for their conversion to Christianity, voiced support for the war. (His mother has since changed her mind.) At times, Mikhail wondered if he was mistaken to be so critical.
Putin has long portrayed himself as a defender of Christian values, castigating Western nations for embracing LGBT culture and jettisoning their religious and cultural roots. Many evangelicals who sensed a shifting global tide of cultural values, like the pastor who blocked Mikhail on social media, saw Putin as a strong leader for such a time as this.
Four days after Putin announced the draft in September 2022, Pentecostal leader Andrey Dirienko said he thanked God when he heard the announcement. He read aloud 1 Samuel 8, in which the Israelites ask Samuel for a king, and said the passage “points to the right of the king to raise an army. This is the biblical right of the king. You can’t argue with that.” Dirienko, the pastor of a megachurch north of Moscow who is also a religious advisor to the Kremlin, compared Putin to Gideon, who he said answered God’s call to raise an army.
Ilya Fedorov, pastor of the Moscow megachurch Glory of God, said at a conference, “The world lies in evil, but Russia is a blessed country … . Putin is the only one who stands against evil.”
Meanwhile, the more the Manzurins spoke out against the war, the more their congregation shrank, until on certain Sundays the only people who showed up for service were the Manzurins. When parents of Mikhail’s students saw his antiwar posts on social media, they complained to the director of the language tutoring school, who reprimanded Mikhail for being unpatriotic and unchristian. Mikhail felt forced to resign and focused instead on teaching online. But even there, at least one student’s parent found out about his views on the war with Ukraine and dropped him as a tutor.
One night in April 2022, a couple of months after Russian soldiers entered Ukraine, Mikhail had a dream. In that dream, the Ukrainian American pastor in Seattle whose sermons Nailia listened to in college wrote to the Manzurins, asking them to come serve at his church in Seattle. In the dream, he and his family were at an airport with plane tickets to the United States. They had only three hours till departure when they realized they didn’t have visas. Mikhail woke up feeling amazed. Did God want them to move to America? “Let’s pray about it,” Nailia advised.
Nailia was about eight months pregnant in May when the Manzurins decided to shut down their church and move back to Mikhail’s hometown of Orsk. They needed help from their family with childcare, but they also sensed it was time for a new season, though they weren’t sure what.
Then on September 21, 2022, Putin declared a “partial mobilization” of reservists into the Russian armed forces to support the fight in Ukraine. At the time, Russian troops in Ukraine were flagging after a fierce counterattack from Ukrainian forces who reclaimed thousands of square miles of territory. By then, Russia’s defense minister had counted more than 5,900 Russian casualties in Ukraine (though the Pentagon’s estimate at the time was 15,000 Russian casualties).
The mobilization call struck terror into many Russians. Though Putin said only reservists who had already undergone military training would be drafted, people were hearing otherwise on the ground. The Manzurins heard accounts of authorities randomly stopping drivers, dragging them out of their vehicles, and forcing them to enlist. Mikhail had to stop driving during the day. What would happen if Russian police stopped him on the street and dug into his social media accounts? He had been hearing about people being arrested or disappearing for speaking out. The draft was just one more sign that things were going to get worse for people like him.
Russians were already fleeing from Putin’s crackdown on antiwar stances and from the economic fallout from sanctions and invasion-related business losses. Within a week of the draft, more than 200,000 Russians left the country, crossing into Kazakhstan or Georgia or heading farther west into Europe.
In Orsk, the Manzurins saw miles of vehicles waiting for days to get into neighboring Kazakhstan.
As a local, Mikhail knew a faster way to cross the border. On September 26, he paid $10 for a bus ticket and was in Kazakhstan within four hours. A week later, after getting all the necessary documents ready, Nailia and the boys—toddler Mark and four-month-old Filip—joined him in Kazakhstan. Together they took a train to Uzbekistan, where for more than a month they shared a one-bedroom apartment with the family of another pastor who’d fled Russia.
The Manzurins didn’t feel safe in Uzbekistan, a post-Soviet country with deep economic and cultural ties to Moscow. They considered moving to Turkey or Georgia, both popular destinations for the burgeoning Russian diaspora.
Then some friends told the Manzurins that they were waiting at the US-Mexico border to enter the United States.
Mikhail remembered his dream about going to Seattle. He decided to lay down a fleece. To make it to North America, they would need money. He applied for a loan through his bank in Russia. He asked for $15,000, quite certain the bank would reject him; it had denied his last request for only $1,000.
To his surprise, the bank approved the loan. Mikhail took it as a sign from God. He booked plane tickets to Mexico City via Dubai. He had no idea how to get from Mexico City to the border. But he Googled Christian charities and found a ministry called Practice Mercy based in McAllen, Texas. He reached out to its founder and director, Alma Ruth, who connected him with friends in Mexico City and the border city of Reynosa. In late November, these friends greeted the Manzurins at the airport and made sure they were safe, fed, and housed.
A few weeks earlier, the Manzurins had never heard of Reynosa, and now they were one of about 150 Russian families that Ruth estimated were hoping to pass from there into the United States. Ruth told CT she started seeing Russian-speaking migrants at the border about two years ago, but since the war and Putin’s draft mobilization, their numbers have surged. New enterprises have popped up to profit from their desperation, with advertisements in Russian promising help in immigrating through Mexico.
The Manzurins spent about 40 days at an Airbnb in Reynosa, waiting for US authorities to process their application for humanitarian parole, an immigration program that allows certain foreigners to temporarily live in the United States, usually because of a humanitarian crisis. In the months since they had left Russia, their boys had only slept in a stroller and car seat.
On January 9, 2023, the Manzurins finally crossed the bridge into McAllen to begin life in America. They have applied for political asylum, an immigration status that provides a secure path to permanent residency.
People in Russia had warned the Manzurins that nobody in America would be willing to help them. Instead, thanks to Ruth’s connections, at every point from Mexico City to Seattle, local Christians welcomed them with smiles and gifts. The Rio Valley Church of the Nazarene allowed them to stay in its parish hall for three weeks. In Austin, the lead pastor of Hope Community Church, Aaron Reyes, hosted them in his home for more than a week.
By the time they reached Seattle, the Manzurins’ single piece of luggage had multiplied to three suitcases, two new strollers, two new car seats, and several sets of clothes for the boys. Transformation Center Church, the Russian-speaking church from Mikhail’s dream, let them stay at a guesthouse for several weeks until they could move into a more permanent home.
(In June, the Russian prosecutor general’s office listed this church, which is connected to a network of churches in Eastern Europe, as “undesirable.” It accused the church of collecting donations to support the Ukrainian military and reporting on “anti-Russian activities.” The department said the church is “a threat” to Russian security, and anyone in Russia found helping them could face prosecution.)
When they found a three-bedroom apartment in Kent, about 40 minutes south of Seattle, people donated a couch, a coffeemaker, two cribs, and a roomful of toys. When they ran out of money, a stranger who read their story on Practice Mercy’s social media posts paid their rent for April.
“We expected the worst,” Mikhail said. That’s what Russian propaganda had told him all his life about Americans. “But we were literally in God’s hands because of these local people.”
The Manzurins’ first court hearing for their asylum request is scheduled for July 2024. If the immigration judge does not grant them asylum, they’ll have to leave the country. Meanwhile, each month, their next rent deadline looms.
But perhaps because of their youth—or because of their faith—they are still the ardent, visionary, dream-filled couple who met at an early morning prayer service in Moscow not that many years ago.
They haven’t forgotten their original dream.
Mikhail recently considered applying for a server’s position at a local Chinese restaurant, hoping to practice his Mandarin. He also plans to enroll his sons in table tennis lessons.
“Because which country is crazy about table tennis?”
Sophia Lee is global staff writer for Christianity Today.
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A Russian Pastor Spoke Out Against Putin’s Invasion. It Cost Him His Church.