For years, Protestant preachers were allowed to visit prisoners in Russia. Then everything changed.
In the 1990s, preachers and pastors started meeting with prisoners in Russia, but three years ago the authorities shut down most of these visits. Protestant religious figures and experts attribute the policy shift to pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church and recent “anti-terrorism” legislation, as well as the fact that the Russian authorities associate evangelical churches with the West. Representatives from the Russian Orthodox Church, meanwhile, don’t see a problem, insisting that Protestants abused their visiting privileges at prisons. The issue isn't just about fighting prisoners' loneliness, however, and Protestants say the crackdown is hurting their work to rehabilitate ex-convicts — work that neither the Russian Orthodox Church nor the Federal Penitentiary Service bothers to do. Meduza special correspondent Sasha Sulim learned more about this quiet religious conflict.
Back in the day
Ten years ago, Vitaly Mokrushin became the pastor of a Mennonite church in the town of Sol-Iletsk, in Russia’s Orenburg region, leading a small congregation of 20-25 people. The 42-year-old former locomotive mechanic found God in 1996, following in his relatives’ footsteps (everyone on his mother’s side of the family were Mennonites).
In the mid-2000s, before Mokrushin was ordained as a presbyter elder, he regularly visited the “Black Dolphin” prison colony for inmates serving life sentences, which is located just a few blocks from the Mennonite church in Sol-Iletsk. To make these trips, Mokrushin had special permission from regional officials in the Federal Penitentiary Service. In those days, he says he never ran into any problems. He visited prisoners on a weekly basis for several years, holding services, singing religious hymns, reading sermons, and using the prison’s PA system to communicate with inmates who weren’t allowed to gather in the same room.
Mokrushin belongs to one of the many Protestant churches that spent years visiting inmates at Russian federal penitentiaries. Roman Lunkin, a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Philosophy, told Meduza that Protestants have actively developed their missions to Russian prisons since the early 1990s, building on ties that emerged in the Soviet era with parishioners from semi-underground churches. (In the 1940s and 1950s, Baptists, Pentecostals, Adventists, and others started cropping up in the USSR, and they regularly ended up behind bars.) “The percentage of Protestants who have weathered prison, exile, fines, or brushes with the police is very high, which is why sympathy for prisoners is quite vivid in the Protestant world,” Lunkin explained, adding that social work to save people’s souls is one of Protestants’ central teachings.
In addition to his weekly sermons over the prison’s PA system, Mokrushin also had the chance to meet face-to-face with individual inmates, when they requested it. “We arranged a baptism for one of them, and with some others we spent several months learning the Eucharist [...]. I carried on long correspondences with some of the inmates,” the pastor recalls. Most often, according to Mokrushin, prisoners serving life sentences wrote about experiencing repentance after his visits, saying they now “wanted to live right, at least for the remainder of their lives.” He says the prison’s staff was happy with his trips, apparently telling him that the born-again inmates “were eager to work and didn’t break the rules.”
In 2015, the Federal Penitentiary Service decided not to renew its agreement on prison visits with Russia’s Protestant groups, and Mokrushin’s trips suddenly stopped. The same thing happened to fellow pastors in other regions across the country. Only four religious denominations managed to maintain these permits: Russian Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews. Mokrushin says the letters from inmates stopped coming, as well. “When someone goes a long time without hearing the word of God,“ he warns, “that man gradually grows disappointed and his faith begins to cool.” Meduza spoke to another three pastors and two members of public monitoring commissions in different regions in Russia, and they all confirmed that Protestants are no longer allowed at penitentiaries.
Containing those pesky Protestants
Sergey Ryakhovsky, the president of the Russian Association of Evangelical Christians, says he got a letter in 2015 from Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service that stated, in so many words: “Your congregation doesn’t exist in our prisons and jails. The people in these facilities were baptized in Orthodoxy.”
“We didn’t expect such rudeness with regard to the Russian Orthodox Church,” Ryakhovsky says. “After all, [the Federal Penitentiary Service] insulted the Orthodox Church, impugning its work with the Russian people and implying that it fails to cultivate Christian values and lets people commit crimes. But that’s not the greatest untruth here. When we served in the prisons, a large number of inmates became Protestant Evangelicals.”
In 2012, the “Religions and Nationalities Atlas” project reported that Russia was then home to 10,000 Protestant churches and roughly three million Protestants. Roman Lunkin says these numbers are still growing: “There are usually foundations attached to [Protestant] churches — public organizations that recruit young people and involve them in social work. More [Protestants] are concentrated around these communities than Orthodox Christians,” Lunkin says.
Ryakhovsky says different Protestant denominations used to reach agreements with prison officials locally, but in 2015 federal officials demanded that all Protestants create a centralized organization. The Russian Association of Evangelical Christians tried to perform this role, but the authorities constantly returned its applications for revisions. Ryakhovsky says it’s as if the Federal Penitentiary Service is “waiting for some political directive.”
Anna Kargapoltseva serves as the deputy chairperson of the Perm Territory’s public monitoring commission and works as the president of the “Vybor” organization, which helps ex-convicts adjust to life after prison. In 2007, Kargapoltseva started personally organizing visits by clergymen from several different religious groups to prisons throughout the region. She told Meduza that the only way for pastors to gain access to Russian inmates today is by special written request from individual prisoners. “The letter goes to an Orthodox priest, to an assistant for the official in charge of communications with the congregation, and he then somehow contacts a Protestant pastor and informs him about it,” Kargapoltseva explained.
This state of affairs troubles Ryakhovsky, who says it’s “unclear” why an Orthodox priest should be the gatekeeper “when an evangelical Christian wants to see an evangelical pastor.” He points out that priests usually pocket these requests, as well, and then “bully” the prisoner into believing that Russians shouldn’t follow “pro-Western doctrines.” (Other sources from a local public monitoring commission told Meduza the same thing.)
In other words, Russian officials have effectively banned Protestant religious figures from visiting prisoners. Ryakhovsky thinks it’s because these Christians are “inconvenient for the Federal Penitentiary Service’s corrupt system,” and it’s also because the authorities conflate Protestants with the West and Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution, where the representatives of local churches “prayed, handed out food, preached the word of God, and exhorted demonstrators.” (Ryakhovsky emphasizes that “no Russian Protestants were there.”) Other sources told Meduza that the crackdown is a consequence of recent anti-terrorism legislation that tightened laws on missionary activity, and others attributed the new pressure to a jealous Russian Orthodox Church.
The Russian Orthodox Church says it's protecting atheists and others
In the past 10 years, Anna Kargapoltseva says she’s seen Russian Orthodox priests visit a penitentiary only twice. “Compared to the Protestants, [the Orthodox priests] come roughly ‘never,’” she told Meduza, adding that one of these trips came before the arrival of an archbishop, when the church wanted prisoners to make him a special wood-carved seat. Protestants themselves acknowledge the Orthodox priests’ apparent reluctance to meet with inmates. One source told Meduza that he used to read sermons over a prison’s PA system. Today, however, the prison plays the same recording of an Orthodox sermon every morning. “They’re driving people to swear [at the speakers],” the pastor laments. “You can’t listen to the same thing every single day.”
Representatives from the Russian Orthodox Church dispute these claims. The Moscow Patriarchate has a special branch for cooperation with Russia’s armed forces and law enforcement agencies. The department was once led by Dmitry Smirnov, the archpriest who currently chairs the church’s Family Affairs Commission. Smirnov is notorious for railing against the rights of women and the LGBT community (as well as denying the existence of HIV). The church has published materials designed to help Orthodox priests serve in prisons. In 2013, the Russian Synod adopted a special document dedicated to the church’s “prison service mission.”
Konstantin Kobelev, the senior priest at the Butyrka prison’s Church of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin, told Meduza that he tries to visit the prison once a week, if his schedule allows it. Kobelev serves as the chief specialist for the Federal Penitentiary Service’s Central Regulatory and Technical Laboratory, where he supervises cooperation between prison officials and religious inmates. He says his main job is protecting the religious rights of all prisoners, including atheists, insisting that “no one has the right to use prison confinement to expand their circle of believers at the inmates’ expense.”
Kobelev doesn’t see anything discriminatory about Protestant figures effectively losing the opportunity to meet with prisoners, and he notes that inmates can still submit written requests to meet with pastors, and prisons are required to fulfill these requests. Ultimately, he says, there just aren’t that many Russian prisoners who want visits from Protestants. “What was it like before? There were two Protestants in the whole penitentiary, a preacher would come, and they’d force the whole prison population into attending — Orthodox Christians, Muslims, everybody had to listen and attend,” Kobelev says. “It was a violation of their freedom of conscience. Even the Butyrka choir’s performances are only for people who want to come, but they forced everyone to show up for [the Protestant] concerts, where they sang religious hymns.”
A pastor who didn’t wish to reveal his name admitted to Meduza that he still finds ways to make quick visits to prisoners. He says some regional branches of Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service kept their agreements with local Protestants (the pastor refused to say which regions, in order not to “rock the boat”). Sergey Ryakhovsky confirmed this information, saying that these regional officials “have accepted this responsibility because they see how successful Protestants are with rehabilitating ex-convicts.” “The recidivism rate among this group is minimal,” he says.
The fight against recidivism
In 2009, Oleg Starikov launched a charity foundation to provide people with social assistance and legal help. A former convict who converted to Protestantism after his release, Starikov says he’s contacted every month by another 40 people who have fallen on hard times, ten of whom have been in prison. The charity operates a halfway house, employs several lawyers and psychologists, and offers “spiritual and moral lessons and conversations,” including with Protestant pastors.
Starikov says his group wasn’t designed to convert people to Protestantism, seeking instead to break the vicious cycles that land people in prison. According to his records, the results have been impressive: nine out of 10 people who go through his organization avoid repeat offenses, and the foundation has helped roughly 7,000 people since it opened its doors.
Religion scholar Roman Lunkin agrees that Protestant groups are dedicated to rehabilitating ex-convicts. (Russian officials are inactive in this area, and it was only on August 16, 2018, that the Federal Penitentiary Service even proposed creating a government agency to support former prisoners.) As an example, Lunkin highlights the “Angel Christmas Tree” charity program, where parishioners donate gifts to inmates’ children, which are delivered with letters and postcards written by the prisoners. Lunkin says many in Russia’s Penitentiary Service welcome this exchange “because it facilitates a normal psychological environment,” and the program continues to this day.
“There are plenty of ex-convicts in Protestant congregations who know exactly how to work with people just out of prison,” Lunkin explains. “This is again tied to the fact that many Protestants in the Soviet era spent time in the prisons. It would be a lot harder to create such a group in a Russian Orthodox church — other parishioners would disapprove.” Lunkin warns that cutting off preachers from Russia’s penitentiaries could lead to more recidivism, which he says will be felt nationwide, but the effects might be especially bad in regions with large numbers of prisons, like Komi or Mordovia.
“[In the early 1990s] we had to convince our congregations to change their thinking about people who committed crimes in the past or were drug addicts,” Sergey Ryakhovsky says. The appeals helped, and Russian Protestants no longer ask if their congregations “need the dregs,” he says. Ryakhovsky argues that Russia’s crime rate would be much higher, were it not for the work of roughly 700 rehabilitation centers run by Protestant groups. He also says several thousand people currently imprisoned across Russia have been born again as Evangelicals.