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Russia’s rapid decline

As a new Iron Curtain descends, Russians leave and pastors face hard realities

The Kremlin’s Spasskaya Tower is seen through part of a lattice of the Nikolsky Gate in central Moscow after Red Square was closed to the public. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s rapid decline

Russian pastor Andre Furmanov senses a dark cloud descending upon his homeland. He says his phone is bugged and “rats” mingle with his nondenominational congregation on Sundays, ready to report anti-government rhetoric to authorities. More recently, the Kremlin has begun cracking down on anyone reporting the truth about Russian atrocities in Ukraine. “What I’m saying on social media is enough to put me in jail for 15 years,” Furmanov said.

When he was in college, Furmanov despised the Soviet Union and wanted to emigrate to the United States. But shortly before the republic dissolved in 1991, Russia didn’t have enough pastors to shepherd the growing numbers of converts to the faith. Furmanov decided to stay and join the ministry.

Three decades later, Furmanov is still pastoring his church in Vyborg and has once again decided to stay in Russia, despite increased risks and generous invitations from his friends in the West. “How can I teach these people for three decades and teach them to overcome difficulties, and then when troubles come, just say, ‘Okay, well, enjoy my teaching. Listen to the audio online. I’m going to wave my little handkerchief to you from California,’” Furmanov explained.

Furmanov’s decision to stay comes as thousands of Russians are getting out. Western sanctions, draconian speech laws, and fears that Russia will close its borders have created the largest exodus since the 1917 Russian Revolution. Some analysts say hundreds of thousands have fled and expect that number to reach a million by the end of the year.

When foreign airlines stopped flights in and out of Russia shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, many Russians panicked and began purchasing seats on whatever flights they could find, some at 10 times their usual cost. Journalists, artists, and celebrities were some of the first to pack their bags and quietly exit the country, and thousands of tech workers followed. The high-speed train line between Russia and Finland was another escape route for Russians until Finland shut it down a month after the war began as part of increased sanctions.

But the exodus is more than a panicked reaction to severed exit routes; it’s the culmination of more than two decades of rule by Russian President Vladimir Putin that have led to a precipitous decline in quality of life—so much so that Russia is now one of the least happy countries in the world (alongside several war-torn countries in the Middle East) according to a 2019 Gallup International poll.

Living standards in Russia have deteriorated since the 2014 invasion of Ukraine when Western sanctions hit a Russian economy already struggling with widespread corruption. Adding to the crisis, Russians aren’t having enough kids to replace the population, and life expectancy is remarkably low: 25 percent of Russian men die before the age of 55, with alcoholism the primary cause.

Nearly 22 percent of Russians want to leave for good, according to a poll conducted by the independent Russian polling group Levada Center a week before the war began. The percentage is much higher for young adults. Many of the people polled cited economic reasons for their discontent, and the latest round of Western sanctions is likely magnifying that sentiment.

Russia is now the most sanctioned country in the world, and Furmanov says he sees the negative impact at local stores where the price of office paper and other supplies has skyrocketed.

He compares what he sees in St. Petersburg—where many Western companies and restaurants have suspended their businesses—to a chalk painting on a sidewalk that slowly fades away. Toilet paper and toothpaste are hard to find, and food is disappearing from the shelves.

Shortages will likely fuel an exodus that was already climbing prior to the latest round of sanctions and causing serious concern. “This is the No. 1 threat to a Russian Federation that seeks to gain its foothold in the world again,” Russia expert Alina Polyakova said during a 2017 Atlantic Council panel discussion. She said nearly 1.8 million Russians emigrated between 2000 and 2014.

Passengers at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport.

Passengers at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport. AFP via Getty Images

Deteriorating human rights is another reason Russians are leaving the country. Bishop Albert Ratkin says his evangelical church in Kaluga faced 12 lawsuits in 2020 alone, and police have arrested his son David multiple times. (See “Russian politics spark division among Christians,” April 27, 2021.) The situation worsened after the February invasion of Ukraine, and Ratkin said many people with democratic values, including his son and some of his professors and classmates, left the country in March to avoid imprisonment.

Russia has been in a state of declining freedoms since Putin came to power 22 years ago, and David Satter was one of the first Western journalists in Russia to sound the alarm. He wrote repeatedly about the apartment bombings in 1999 that were blamed on the Chechens but were likely carried out by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Putin’s carefully crafted false narrative about the bombings helped usher him into power at a time when few Russians knew who he was.

Satter points out that Russia began to improve economically during the turn of the century which boosted Putin’s popularity, but the improvement was largely the result of higher prices charged for oil and gas, Russia’s principal export items.

Satter said the 2013 Maidan protests in Kyiv sparked a new wave of Kremlin crackdowns. When Ukrainians ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian puppet, the Kremlin started to worry about similar ideas taking root in Russia.

“They decided that some of the liberalization that they had tolerated in the past, they weren’t going to tolerate in the future,” Satter said.

The government expelled Satter at the end of 2013. “Under Putin, whatever freedoms were allowed under [former President Boris] Yeltsin were slowly shut down,” said Satter, who spent three decades reporting from Russia. “The situation really went from bad to worse in terms of atrocities, including atrocities against Russia’s people.”

Russians who challenge the Kremlin narrative often meet a worse fate than expulsion. In 2004, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was poisoned while on her way to the Russian city of Beslan. She survived, but FSB operatives killed her two years later.

In 2006, a former Russian intelligence officer died from poisoning while on British soil. Twelve years later, a second poisoning in England nearly ended the life of Sergei Skripal, another Russian officer turned critic. More recently, Kremlin opposition leader Alexey Navalny barely survived poisoning only to be arrested upon his return to Russia early last year.

Many Russians are losing hope in opposition movements, protests, and other efforts to push back against the Kremlin and its unpredictable repercussions. Russian Pastor Andrew Berdishev says Russians feel like their options are increasingly limited.

“Simple rallies end 30 seconds after they start. Therefore, in my opinion, this risk is unjustified, since it is not capable of leading to anything significant,” Berdishev said. “The simple example of Alexey Navalny showed that his stay outside of Russia was more effective than his return.” The political opposition leader was recently sentenced to nine additional years in prison on top of the two he was already serving for trumped-up fraud charges.

Since the February invasion of Ukraine, Moscow passed an amendment establishing up to 15 years in prison for anyone who spreads “misinformation” about the invasion. It requires Russians to use the term “special military operation” instead of “war.” Police in Russia have arrested more than 15,000 anti-war protesters since the invasion began, and Moscow blocked many social media sites in March, although many Russians have ways around the ban.

Moscow controls most major media outlets and has muzzled the rest since the invasion began. Unable to print the truth about the war, most independent media outlets have shut their doors and journalists have fled the country.

“Any information from sources other than the official source of the Russian ministry of defense about military operations in Ukraine has been declared fake, and you can also get a criminal sentence for it,” Berdishev said. That includes information about Russian soldier fatalities in Ukraine. Moscow claims less than 1,400 have died, but NATO estimates as many as 15,000 Russian casualties in the first month alone.

As the list of Russian atrocities and war crimes in Ukraine continues to climb, some Russians are still attempting to publicize the truth. Despite surviving two prior suspected poisonings, Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza called the Russian government a “regime of murderers” during an April 11 interview with CNN and emphasized the importance of saying the truth “out loud.” Police arrested him just hours after the interview.

Russian police officers detain a woman during an unsanctioned protest in Moscow.

Russian police officers detain a woman during an unsanctioned protest in Moscow. Contributor/Getty Images

ACCORDING TO RECENT POLLS, more than half of ­Russians believe a dramatically different narrative about the Kremlin than that of Kara-Murza’s. They claim the military operation in Ukraine is designed to rid the country of Nazis and protect ethnic Russians from genocide, and they are willing to endure hardships for the sake of Russia’s “noble mission” and a return to its former greatness. (Satter shared a story that underscores this long-held mentality: “I was standing in line in the Soviet Union, and someone in the queue began shouting, ‘How long can we stand in these lines? How long can this go on?’” And a woman turned to him and said, “Never mind, the whole world is afraid of us.”)

The propaganda crisis isn’t just affecting those affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church (which has developed close ties to the Kremlin over the past two decades). According to Russian pastors WORLD spoke to, Protestant Christians are also falling into the quagmire of Kremlin lies.

Berdishev, who has been a pastor for more than 20 years, recently returned to Russia after a four-week trip to Armenia and said it was as though he no longer knew the people in his church. “Unfortunately, the current propaganda mouthpiece is stronger than our preaching,” he said. “People believe the information of the authorities more than the sermons of the pastors.”

He said a pastoral crisis is brewing in Russia and described a new type of iron curtain descending upon the country. “It is built more on the rejection of the Western way of life,” he said, adding that Russian propaganda paints the West as retreating from Christian and universal values because of its more liberal views on the family, abortion, and LGBTQ communities. “Therefore, the average Russian sees the war with Ukraine as a war against all evil directed at mankind.”

Putin has presented himself as the protector of faith and family values and Russia as a bulwark against the sinful decadence of the West. He has used religious terms to unite Russians around the notions of spiritual and geographical greatness, and Ukraine is central to those claims. Russian Orthodox leaders proclaim Kyiv as their Jerusalem, or birthplace of their faith.

During a March rally in Moscow, Putin claimed the “special military operation in Ukraine” was designed to “save people from genocide,” and he paraphrased Jesus’ words in John 15:13: “There is no greater love than giving up one’s soul for one’s friends.”

Russian Baptist Pastor Yury Sipko echoes Berdishev’s concerns: “Christians believe that the destruction of cities is carried out by Ukrainian nationalists. All these vile lies are being imposed on them by the president, ministers, generals, and a host of all sorts of ‘experts.’ Terrible!” All four of the pastors WORLD interviewed signed open letters denouncing “the senseless bloodshed” in Ukraine.

Opposition activist Alexei Navalny attends Moscow’s Preobrazhensky District Court via video link.

Opposition activist Alexei Navalny attends Moscow’s Preobrazhensky District Court via video link. ITAR-TASS News Agency/Alamy

Furmanov says it’s not just Russians embracing the propaganda. An American acquaintance once bombarded him with messages about Putin’s Christian leadership and the blessings of living in Russia. He responded, “Well, come and live here and enjoy the so-called ‘blessings.’ Then we’ll talk.”

His church has been kicked out of every building it has rented, and Orthodox extremists destroyed one of the buildings it purchased. Bishop Ratkin said his church has been under constant pressure from government authorities for 22 years, and the slander against him has skyrocketed. A recent Russian film falsely accused him of drugs and arms trafficking, and a media personality labeled him a traitor, calling for revenge and publicizing the family’s home address.

Furmanov says the pastors he knows in his town of Vyborg are against the war in Ukraine but are wisely choosing their battles. “When we want to do something that will last and will be effective, we have to always not only count the cost, but sort of like the Count of Monte Cristo sitting in the prison, we need to figure out ways to do things that are less obvious,” Furmanov said. At the same time, Furmanov wants the world to know they feel “utterly disgusted with Russia and its creepy, sadistic actions toward the Ukrainian people.”

He regularly invites people into his home to discuss Kremlin propaganda, and as a result, few in his congregation support the official state position. And he helped write a letter for a young man drafted into the Russian military, explaining that he could not fight in Ukraine because of his Christian values.

Still, Furmanov is worried about the future of the church in Russia. He says many pastors are joining the exodus of people leaving the country, and that will negatively affect their congregations. “When you pray for pastors, please pray for their solid decisions to be with their sheep,” Furmanov said.

Ratkin said his calling is to be a pastor and bishop to his people, and that requires him to stay in the country: “This does not allow me to leave my ministry and the people whom the Lord has entrusted to me in Russia, although I’m fully aware of the challenges and threats for me and my country.”

Jill Nelson

Jill is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas at Austin. Jill lives in Orange County, Calif., with her husband, two sons, and three daughters.



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