catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 20 :: 2008.11.07 — 2008.11.21


A glimpse overseas

Do you remember the church picnics of childhood? Open green lawns, picnic tables overflowing with food, children in line for watermelon. The minister is playing horseshoes; a Sunday school teacher calls out the winners of the three-legged race. Now imagine, if you can, twenty men bursting out of the bushes to viciously punch and kick church members. The men have shaved heads, knives, broken beer bottles. A deacon collapses on the sidewalk, face bloody. Nobody resists, and nobody calls for help. Instead, the picnic-goers flee. Those who are able help the injured to escape. The shaved-head men climb on tables in victory, stepping in meat pies. One helps himself to the leftover drinks.

In 2002, a small church in downtown Moscow had five funeral services. Each person was a victim of a hate-motivated beating, most dying in the hospital from injuries. That summer, the entire congregation was attacked during a church picnic. The pastor of Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy (MPC) will tell you that fully two-thirds of his congregation has been subject to acts of violence, but this is not religious persecution. Most MPC members are English-speaking; they are foreigners; worst of all, they are black.

Russia’s constitution states, in Article 36, that “citizens of different races and nations have equal rights. There is no race discrimination.” The former Union of Soviet Socialists Republic was proud of how its borders encompassed such diverse peoples, moulding them all into Russians. My friend Vera Pomelova, however, grew up under the communist regime, and she admits that this equality is-and always has been-an illusion. The constitution reflects Lenin’s ideals, which were never fully realized. When Stalin transplanted hundreds of ethnic groups, the enmity only grew worse.

Today, even excluding countries that were formerly part of the USSR (many of the southern states have dark-skinned residents), there are thousands of Africans living in Russia. They are either refugees or students, attracted by the low cost of public universities-a remnant of the Soviet Union’s attempt to convert poorer countries to socialism. Now that Russia is essentially a Third World country itself, the extreme nationalists are convinced that ethnic cleansing will solve their economic problems. President Putin has stated more than once that racism is unacceptable in a country shared by so many ethnic groups. It is unfortunate that this statement is as far from the truth as the ideals in his constitution.

I will never forget how I felt when Pastor John Calhoun read an announcement during church in early April of 2002. It was not about the Lada with its lights on, or a call for babysitting help. It was a message from the United States Embassy, warning us that a group of skinheads had promised to kill any foreigner they saw outside on April 21, the anniversary of Hitler’s birth. I started to scratch at my woollen coat, suddenly hot. I felt my legs get heavier, as though from the strain of straddling the distance between Canada and that pew. We decided to call the Canadian consulate. He had once invited us to his datcha-cottage-for  beer; he seemed, therefore, like a friendly guy who might put a positive spin on things, even death threats.

Over the phone, however, the consulate had lost his joviality. “It would be prudent,” he said, “to exercise caution and avoid speaking English in public.” This was unwelcome news. In other words, our pale skin would help us pass as natives, but our badly spoken Russian would mark us as foreigners. Those with fluent Russian skills but darker skin were not so lucky. “I feel danger all day, every day,” said a male refugee from Angola. Or, as an economic migrant from Cameroon said, “Russia is a sort of prison for people with colored skin.” I remember taking the metro on April 21, having left-like a coward-my English book at home. I remember mumbling, “if those skinheads could just get to know me!” It was something new to be hated for my nationality, something I hadn’t even picked; the unfairness of it all stung the most.

Unfortunately, race-related violence in Russia has gotten worse over the past six years. Because the police don’t record (or, in many cases, respond to) the attacks, it’s difficult to obtain statistics. This past summer, finally, the McClatchy board in Washington published this information: 63 racially-motivated killings in Russia in 2006; 83 in 2007; and, in the first half of 2008, 59. Others believe the numbers are much higher. In February, the New York Times reported that “50 coffins of those killed in Russia at the hands of nationalists have come home to Azerbaijan.”

Learning Russian and teaching English at the same time was like glancing at a store-front window: half of the time, I found myself looking with amazement down the long corridor of Russia’s rich history. Other times, I’d catch my own reflection in the glass, every characteristic I’d taken for granted now thrown into sharp contrast. Language was also an instrument of discovery. Krasnyj, for example, means “red” and sounds just like the word krasivyj in Russian, meaning “beautiful.” In a white, wintry landscape, red does become beautiful. Curiously, Red Square’s name pre-dates Communism. It’s simply a beautiful public square.

Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy is on Prospekt Mira, which means World Peace Street. Sadly, the members of this inter-denominational, inter-national church experience very little peace. On its website, Amnesty International states that “the police do nothing to stop the heinous acts, nor does the government oppose them.” The swastika, and all it stands for, cannot be allowed a reincarnation. The danger that faces ethnic minorities living in Russia must be made public, even if it has to begin on an international level. Pray for the safety of MPC, so that its members can worship God without fear in their church, embodying both their street address and Christ’s mandate as they work towards global unity on Prospekt Mira.   

Information in this article was taken from Moscow Protestant Chaplaincy’s Survey on Racial Attacks (with permission); the New York Times online; and “Hate Crime Killings in Russia on the Rise” in McClatchy online. This article was published in 2003 in The Christian Courier but has been greatly revised here.  

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