The Evangelical Press have been organising annual conferences in Russia for the past six years, and this year John Currid the professor of Old Testament in Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, and myself were invited to be the two speakers in St Petersburg . I flew there from Birmingham via Frankfurt along with John Norris, an accountant from Bristol . A boy from Pembroke in south-west Wales he had been converted through the Navigators at Bristol University many years ago. At Frankfurt airport we were joined by five friends who came off the Heathrow plane, John Currid, David Clark, John Rubens, Roger Fay and Alan Levy. The latter two were going on to Port Harcourt in Nigeria for a conference and it was more economic for them to fly via Russia (I do not know why), so the seven of us were scattered through the St Petersburg-bound plane for the three and a half hour flight from Frankfurt .
The man sitting next to Alan also turned out to be from South Wales , an Italian Welshman from Neath. “Why are you going to Russia ?” Alan asked him. It appears that he had been on holiday earlier this year in Italy and had met ‘Olga,’ was smitten and was visiting her. Olga was waiting for him at the airport. Wow. Alan told him why we were going there, and gave him the International Evangelical Times to look at. He actually read two articles on the plane and said he might come to the conference for the day, but it was held in the pine forests miles outside St Petersburg – we weren’t sure of the exact location – and we never met up.
We all had had to pay about £100 to get a visa for entry into Russia with photo, passport and a long form to be filled in giving such details as our annual income and full names of our fathers etc.. It had to be sent to the Russian embassy and kept for a week. Then if we had stayed a day longer we would have had to pay another $20 to get a stamp on our passports to show that we had been to Russia and thus allowed to leave Russia . These are legacies from earlier times when border guards subjected arrivals in Russia to minute and pointless examination. When the Marquis de Custine experienced this in his visit there in the early 19th century he surmised that these officials had been deprived of all true discretion and were deeply fearful of the power to which they were subordinate. Their conduct was the revenge of men constrained to behave like machines: a revenge not upon the author of their servitude, of course, for that was impossible at the time, but upon those who fell within their extremely limited power.
However, at the airport we were not asked a single question and we passed through immigration very quickly – faster than entering the USA – but, of course, we had already filled in a long form and paid £100. As Roger Fay’s passport and visa was examined by the lady official she fixed her eye on him and said, “Comrade . . . it is your birthday tomorrow” with a twinkle in her eye. So we all knew and that day we had birthday cake to celebrate Roger being 92 or some such age.
We were met by E.P. men in a mini bus and driven to our destination through St Petersburg for almost three hours. It is a city of 5 million people – a million more than live 200 miles away across the border in the entire country of Finland . The city has exceptionally wide streets and vast squares. The effect is to make you feel overwhelmed and insignificant. Some of those squares would hold half a dozen Trafalgar Squares; no assembly of men would constitute a crowd there unless it were scores of thousands strong, and this was the purpose of such spaces – examples of intimidating giganticism. It was to become a constant feature of all communist town planning across Eastern Europe, North Korea and China, the depersonalizing of the individual; the mass all important. The size also discourages spontaneity – the enemy of all despotism. The occasional visit of western rock bands for open air concerts is the only use for these vast squares at the present. I love the bustle of our narrow streets in Aberystwyth with their one way systems. We are always bumping into people.
We drove that first early evening through well-lit streets, full of shoppers and teenagers in their international garb, the department stores were packed with everything man could buy. This could have been any old capital city in Europe . Smartly dressed people walked along the sidewalks; there were electric signs on the intersections, and adverts for Pepsicola featuring Beckham in Roman armour hung in every café; Coca Cola is banned from St Petersburg . Then one came across the vast civic centre, the cathedrals, museums, palaces, colleges, universities, army barracks, theatres, opera houses, church headquarters, and libraries, many of these buildings lining the river and canals. This is the Venice of the north, the home of Pushkin and Dostoevsky, one of the great cities in the world.
We were meeting on the other side of the city in the pine forest at a theatre school with a riding school and indoor arena at the back. We had individual rooms with en suite. There was a ten channel TV set in each room and on Friday evening the whole of the Merthyr Tydfil versus Walsall FA Cup game was shown live across Russia from Penydarren Park – the local team I had supported when I was 9 years of age. It was certainly cheaper than showing Chelsea . Merthyr lost 2-1 incidentally. The TV channels were full of Hollywood films and Mr Bean.
There had been the first snow of the winter the previous week but its remnants were visible only in the crevices by now. It was cold but not bitingly so. This theatre school was heated to 72 degrees and everyone walked around in their shirtsleeves. There is plenty of oil to burn in Russia ; petrol is half the price we pay for it. The road and railway that went by this centre were rarely quiet; long goods trains carried freight night and day every 15 minutes while lorries thundered along the road. The country is bustling.
The food was plain, plates of pasta, boiled sausages, minced meat rolls, salami, cheese and one morning tasty donuts for breakfast. Tea was served in cups with no handles (hard to hold); I saw no milk all the time I was there. It was a welcoming dining hall with five people around each table and a cat or two looking for scraps. So few of the Russians spoke English we Brits tended to sit together. John Currid had had a bad experience with food the first time he had attended this conference. It was in the Ukraine and he had eaten the first meal and been taken violently ill and so missed the entire conference. So this time, out of a vast suitcase he produced his food for the entire week, eating alone in his room. He gave three splendid messages on Genesis 1, 2 and 3, the sort of messages that made me long to preach some sermons on the first chapters of Genesis again. I spoke on the authority, infallibility and sufficiency of Scripture and those addresses of mine had been translated from the church website and a free copy of the book in Russian was given to each of those attending the conference. I even had a book-signing session. The same man who translated the sermon was also my translator during the week, and he told me how different it was translati
ng a sermon on the spot from one written out. I at least avoided the faux pas Alan Levy made when preaching through an interpreter in Africa and speaking of a cult member trying to influence some Christians. Alan told the conference he had swiftly dismissed the cult member with, “On your way sunshine!” The translator looked blankly at Alan, “On . . . your . . . way . . . sunshine . . .?”
There were about 70 present, and though it was aimed at pastors there were many more teenagers and women present this year than in previous years. It was more a family conference and my messages were suitable for that. The questions sessions wandered from Dan to Beersheba , the rapture, the millennium, the days of Genesis 1, speaking in tongues – the old chestnuts were asked. The singing was the poorest of any conference I’ve known and the weakest of these EP conferences. Some sang on one note like rap. Lots did not sing at all, and we were singing the old songs, “I know not why God’s wondrous grace,” etc.
Some had travelled for 36 hours to get here. The EP subsidized the conference. The cost was $8 a day for the Russians and $30 a day for non-Russians for identical food and facilities. St Petersburg is not a thriving centre for evangelical free grace; Belarus is far stronger, but Belarus is a totalitarian socialist republic. The pastor from Belarus who gave the opening word had been warned on Sunday by the police about his activities. The Russian Orthodox church is stirring up the state to act against ‘sects.’ Churches must register in order to hold their meetings, but they have to be in existence for 20 years in order to register. Catch 22. Yet in that police state atmosphere the gospel is spreading.
The Baptist churches divide over the issue of church registration. During the Soviet era the non-registered churches were the courageous resisters to the state’s attempt to control Jesus Christ’s pulpit and families. The training of the young they saw as their responsibility, not Caesar’s. There is a different atmosphere in today’s Russia and the difference between registered and non-registered churches still exists but does not seem as essential as then. Both groups are confessionally Arminian; both believe that the decisive element in salvation is the free will of man making a decision for Christ. In both churches there is enormous power vested in the pastors, but the non-registered are stricter churches; women must have long dresses and hats in worship; no TV; no going to movies; no alcoholic beverages; no make-up etc. Few are sympathetic to the Bible’s teaching on the sovereignty of God.
There were two or three book tables of Russian books, magnificent volumes of Calvin’s Institutes, most of Macarthur’s books, the Bible Speaks Today series, Tedd Tripp, Wayne Grudem and so on. Heavily subsidised they were bought by all the conference people. But I did not see any Lloyd-Jones works, though it is hard to decipher the authors’ names in the Cyrillic script. 145 million people speak Russian as their first language while another 110 million have it as their second language.
On the closing Saturday morning four of us had four hours to look around St Petersburg and we spent as much time as we could in the Hermitage museum, occupying six magnificent buildings situated along the embankment of the river Neva, right in the heart of St Petersburg. The centre of it is the Winter Palace , the residence of the Russian tsars who built it from 1754-62. Put together throughout two centuries and a half, the Hermitage collections of works of art (over 3 million items) show paintings and sculpture from the Stone Age to the 21st century. The throne rooms are simply breath-taking, some have walls and ceilings covered in gold leaf. Then there are rooms full of Rembrandt and others full of Michaelangelo and so on. You can walk right up to these paintings, stop three inches away and examine the brush strokes. It is all utterly overwhelming. One felt one had to return and not be such a Philistine hurrying past such beauty.
Russia is in serious trouble. Her population has been in decline since 1992 because of poor medical care, one of the world’s least healthy diets, the national weakness for vodka and the prevalence of abortion. Up to 60% of Russian pregnancies end in abortions, and 10% of the women who have them are below the age of eighteen. There were 1.6 million registered abortions in Russia last year and 1.5 million births. Ten million Russians are sterile due to botched abortions. The population of 143 million could plummet to 77 million by the middle of this century. It dropped almost half a million in the last year alone. Life expectancy for Russian men has dropped to 58 which is 20 years below the average in Iceland . The main killer is heart disease. The number of Russian schoolchildren has dropped by one million a year since 1999. There are now over 5,000 schools in Russia with only ten pupils each. The short-term solution is to attract immigrants but there is a racist element that rejects newcomers. Politicians who encouraged abortion and promoted the myth of over-population sowed a wind and now they are reaping a whirlwind. Russia needs the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ. May this fledgling conference and the translation of these books and the free grace churches, Baptists and Presbyterians alike, know God’s great blessing on them in the century to come.