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Alexey Vassilevich Smirnov, President of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, speaks out on the past and present

Alexey Vassilevich Smirnov, the new President of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christian-Baptists (RUECB), grew up in a house in which the rooms kept getting bigger and bigger. Smirnov was born in 1955, the same year his father, Vassily Yakovlevich Smirnov, built a dwelling for his wife and their seven surviving children in the industrial town of Dedovsk, 38 kilometers (about 24 miles) north-west of Moscow.

Alexey Vassilevich Smirnov at his desk

The evolving floor plan was due to the fact that the building was also used as a church. As early as 1956, the house had room for as many as 100 worshippers.

“My childhood was happy,” reports Rev. Smirnov, “for I was born into a Christian family. The problems only began when my father and his older brothers became very active in the evangelical movement.”

When Stalin permitted the re-opening of Moscow’s Central Baptist Church in 1943, his communist government intended that it remain the sole Protestant church anywhere near the vicinity of Moscow. But the believers had other intentions, and as early as 1947 Smirnov’s father began to hold prayer meetings in near-by Dedovsk.

Inside of Moscow Central Baptist Church

Tensions with the state came to a head in 1961 when five leading brethren, including Smirnov’s father, were sentenced to prison terms in Siberia. A gathering so near to Moscow had been a painful thorn in the flesh of the KGB. The state made the court proceedings as public as possible by holding them in Dedovsk’s biggest House of Culture.

Alexey Smirnov reports: “Serious anti-Baptist propaganda was about – Baptists were said to be American spies, they ate children, etc. So the entire square in front of the House of Culture was packed with people prior to the proceedings. When our leaders were led through the crowd to the House, it was only the protection of the militia which kept them from getting lynched.” In 1964, the government suddenly discovered that the jailings were unconstitutional and released all five. Yet none of the confiscated church property was returned. Nearly half a century later, this congregation was permitted to hold a Christmas service in the very same room in which its leaders had once been sentenced.

Two years after the release of its leaders, the Dedovsk congregation split. A part remained with the state-registered All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists; the other group, to which Smirnov’s parents belonged, joined the 1961-founded, unregistered and underground Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists.

“The split went right through the middle of our families,” he recounts. “We were all related and we children continued to play with each other.” One of his uncles remained a superintendent (Starshy Presbyter) in the registered union. He concludes: “From the time of the split in 1966 until 1987, our Dedovsk congregation was in a state of continual persecution.”

In April 1987, just after Mikhail Gorbachev dropped a bombshell announcing the freeing of all prisoners of conscience, Smirnov and a small group began to evangelize on the Arbat — Moscow’s primary pedestrian zone. By 1991, the group had developed a strategy for planting congregations along the east-west rail line heading through Dedovsk in the direction of Riga/Latvia. Believers were soon meeting in 11 locations. The community has always stressed work among children: Today, it has the Rucheyok children’s camp further out on the rail line near Rumyantsevo as well as children’s and youth work in a Dedovsk House of Culture.

Strangely, the unregistered Council of Churches, to which this Dedovsk community belonged, demanded they stop evangelizing immediately. Smirnov explains: The Council “felt that true freedom hat not arrived, that our actions were only pouring water onto the mill wheels of the communist authorities and thereby helping to deceive the world community”. But the group refused to stop evangelizing and was consequently expelled. In 1993, the group chose the name Association of Brethren Churches (ABC), under which it registered with the state four years later. Today, it consists of nearly 20 congregations. Despite its name, the ABC is a church within the Baptist tradition, not the Brethren one.

Winter scene in Dedovsk

Now, not unlike some other Russian cities, Dedovsk sports four “flavors” of Baptist – with none of them belonging to the largest and best-known RUECB. Yet Alexey Smirnov calls Dedovsk a “centre of Baptist life”. The unregistered congregation stemming from the split of 1966 still has 150 mostly elderly members; the more dynamic congregation of Alexey Smirnov and Peter Rumachik has roughly 250 in attendance. The congregation which had remained with the registered All-Union Council in 1966 also joined the ABC. A fourth congregation, founded in 1995, also belongs to the ABC. Smirnov explains: “We all have different styles, but we have a single theology. We do have various approaches to worship.

The Public Council

Alexey Smirnov, who headed the ABC and its predecessor community for three consecutive three-year terms beginning in 1991, was a leading spokesman of the movement for cordial relations with the RUECB and other Baptist groups. “Our position began to develop gradually after 1990,” he recalls. “There was nothing sudden or spontaneous about it.” During the 1990s, six of its pastors were educated at the RUECB’s theological school in Moscow.

When Moscow’s “Public Council” was formed in 2006, Alexey Smirnov and Yuri Sipko, then President of the RUECB, were two of the leaders who pushed most for its founding. Today, approximately 10 Baptist-style denominations as well as mission societies and organisations gather under its wide umbrella.

“We have not attempted to form a kind of super union,” Smirnov assures. “The basis of our unity is a common theology and Baptist principles,” and the Public Council’s role is to reflect and support that unity. Institutional unity is not one of its objectives. Yet Alexey Smirnov does not want to exclude the possibility that the ABC might yet officially join the ranks of the RUECB.

“I am no longer a member of the ABC’s leadership team,” he explains. “I’m only pastor in a congregation belonging to the ABC. But I see no insurmountable problems which would keep us from joining.”

Undoubtedly, Yuri Sipko was appreciative of Alexey Smirnov’s attempts to foster greater unity, to gather together the different “pieces of Baptist”. This was one reason why Sipko asked him to join the RUECB-team. In 2006, Smirnov moved into the RUECB’s Moscow headquarters to head up its new department for the care of pastors.

Smirnov does not limit the call for Baptist unity to the Russian world. He stresses that the movement in Russia is “part of the world evangelical movement of Baptists. We do not separate ourselves from the basic theological positions of all Baptists. We may differ on practical issues when interpreting Scripture, but as Baptists we remain part of a single whole. When we appreciate each other’s dignity and qualities, then we are also able to begin addressing each other’s mistakes. If that can occur, then it will indeed be a precious form of cooperation.”

He continues: Russian Baptists “must though on the other hand remember after 70 years of captivity that Christianity consists of much more than just Russian Christianity. Some developments elsewhere do not please us, but they help us to understand that God is truly sovereign. It is he who determines who his children are “not we. That realization helps us to view the Christian world more broadly.”

After many decades of mere survival in a hostile world, of being alien and not belonging, Alexey Smirnov believes Baptists no longer regard themselves as “second-class citizens”. Their attributes, gathered during the many years of suffering, can now serve as a positive light to Russian society and the world in general. Being forced to live apart from society has allowed Russian Baptists to remain true to their principles, to retain a “purity of faith which remains the special feature of Russian Baptism up to the present”. In a free society, church and society are forced to relate, and the church feels obliged to make compromises in order to achieve common understandings.

“But the Russian church can through its example prove the need to stand up for one’s convictions and faith.” Smirnov believes Baptists consequently represent “the best segment of Russian society in every respect: personal life, morality, work, family and in its relations with the state”. He describes Evangelical Christians-Baptists as “patriots”; if the government obeys its own constitution, “then we indeed are the nation’s best citizens”.

Pastor Smirnov believes evangelicals must honor the Orthodox for their role in bringing Christianity to Russia. In the last century, all Christians suffered jointly: “They too sat in prison for their beliefs.” But he regrets that the state decided after 1990 to determine which Christian faith was the proper one. On the issue of moral values he sees complete agreement between Baptists and Orthodox. When there are theological differences, the two sides should sit down, “take the Bible into their hands and dialogue in a brotherly spirit”. He attributes past antagonism to “ignorance on both sides” and concludes by stating: “It is my desire that all who call themselves Christian might truly become believers.”

Personal matters

Alexey Smirnov has a modest, calm and low-key style. He stresses that he never actively sought a position in church leadership. “I never even planned to be a pastor,” he insists. “I only wished to serve the Lord and fulfill his will. I never tried to get myself elected into leadership positions, but others kept voting me in.”

Dr. William Yoder

As the RUECB’s head since last March 24, Smirnov is proving to be a very busy man. But the pastor is no stranger to “busyness”. When his first wife died in March 1998 after a six-year illness, he was left with six sons born between 1979 and 1992, a secular job and his church tasks. A year-and-a-half later he married Inna Nikolayevna (Smirnova). She’s obviously a courageous woman with trust in God — through her marriage she became not only a wife, but also a mother to many. She also serves as her husband’s most avid prayer supporter and aid.

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