I wrote my final blog from Russia a couple of days ago, but haven’t been able to post it until now:
I’m at Moscow’s Domedodovo International Airport, preparing for departure for Tel Aviv. I’ve painted a pretty bright picture of life in Moscow, but of course visitors to any city usually get to taste the best. One of the students in my class gave me a glimpse of real life here, particularly for the Messianic Jewish community.
Until 20-25 years ago, Jewish life was being choked out throughout the Soviet Union, he said. The days of harsh repression ended even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but only a few synagogues and a handful of worshipers remained active in the whole nation of then-300 million souls. There were 2-2.5 million identified Jews in the Soviet Union, and about half of them made aliyah when they were able to. But very few of the Jewish people, whether they stayed or left, had knowledge of Jewish life and customs. Many Jews became followers of Yeshua in the 90s, the decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, and they had to figure out how to remain Jewish as followers of Yeshua, in many cases when they hadn’t had much of a Jewish identity before become Yeshua-followers. That’s one reason the UMJC has been involved in providing leadership classes, including mine, in Russia.
Messianic Jewish congregations aren’t free to operate as we do in the USA. A group of less than 50 is unrestricted, but if it grows beyond that number, or if the group wants to rent space or acquire property, it needs to be connected with a recognized group, which in practical terms means some sort of Christian group. But Christian groups that might be friendly to Messianics have their own challenges, because they don’t have the recognition and standing of the established Orthodox Church. Just as Messianic Jews are a tiny minority within a minority Jewish community in Russia, so we’re a tiny minority connected to a tiny minority of friendly Evangelicals within the Yeshua-professing community.
To complicate matters, my friend told me, operating in any kind of corporate way in Russia entails all kinds of delays and complications—often solved only with a bribe, as distasteful as that might be. He said that he had worked for a humanitarian mission as a young believer. Once he helped unload a truckload of margarine for a food bank. The truck driver asked if he could have one little tub of margarine and my friend gave it to him as a thank-you for making the delivery. The director of the mission saw him do it, gently rebuked my friend, and made him replace the tub with his own money. My friend accepted his correction, but not long afterwards, the director called him to come help him after he’d gotten into a minor fender-bender. The police came, wrote a report, and towed his car away. They said they’d have to investigate and keep his car for a couple of months while they processed the accident, and the director would be responsible for the towing and storage fees, of course. Or, he could slip the right person a few hundred rubles and get the matter settled on the spot. Bribery is wrong, of course, but it’s often part of the cost of staying in business, or ministry, in Russia, and before long the director of the humanitarian mission was practicing it regularly.
The next day I learned about a much harsher challenge that some of our congregations are facing here, along with the general population. When I had told friends that I was going to Moscow, people said, “be careful,” or wondered if I should be going at all. They were thinking, of course, of the fighting in Ukraine, which has taken on the dimensions of civil war in some areas. When I was in Moscow it seemed a million miles away, and we could even joke about the effect of the sanctions imposed on Russia because of its actions in eastern Ukraine. At the end of one class, Boris asked a Messianic leader from a major city in eastern Ukraine to tell his story. Dima (not his real name) said that his whole city of about one-half million was a war zone, with bombed-out buildings, rubble everywhere, and people fleeing from artillery fire. Messianic congregations in two other eastern Ukrainian cities had disbanded under the pressure of the fighting. Throughout the whole region people were in desperate need of food, clean water, and basic supplies. From Dima’s perspective, the Ukrainian government was the aggressor in this region, and many Ukrainian troops had fascist and neo-Nazi sympathies. His sympathies were with the separatists, and he said he hadn’t seen any evidence of Russian troops in the area at all.
Of course, there are different perspectives and opinions on this conflict, and I’m not advocating for either side. My point is just to share the view that I gained of on-the-ground struggles in Russia and Ukraine, especially for Jewish people, and the Messianic Jewish remnant in particular. As I wrote earlier, Jewish life in Moscow is currently thriving, and Messianic Jewish life is at least becoming more established and continuing to touch lives. Let’s pray that this is the beginning of a new era and not just a lull in the storm.