Christian radio station in Ukraine plans for invasion
“God is keeping everything under his control,” station manager says
Ivan Zhurakovski has a go-bag and getaway vehicle ready. He thinks he can make it out of Odessa, Ukraine, with an hour’s warning in the event of a Russian invasion.
“I’ve told my wife and kids to be prepared.” Zhurakovski said. Originally from the Komi Republic, a mountainous region in the north of Russia, he has lived in Ukraine for 10 years now. His wife is Ukrainian, and his two children have grown up there.
Zhurakovski is station manager at New Life Radio, a 24-hour, Russian-language internet and satellite station that broadcasts Christian music and teaching across the former Soviet Union and beyond. He has been part of New Life Radio’s five-person on-site team since shortly after it relocated from Moscow to Odessa in 2019.
The prospect of an imminent invasion threatens the station’s evangelistic mission and may force it to relocate yet again, taking Zhurakovski along with it. Russia has gathered more than 130,000 troops along its border with Ukraine and at the Belarusian border to Ukraine’s north. Russian and Belarusian troops are carrying out joint military exercises along the border.
Odessa’s location on Ukraine’s southern Black Sea border leaves it open to an attack by sea. Russia has relocated several amphibious assault ships into the Black Sea in recent weeks and is conducting live-fire naval exercises near Odessa. The White House has warned that an attack could come at any time.
“We do have the option of keeping a skeleton staff at our station [in Odessa]. They can at least do programming,” said Daniel Johnson, who is president of Christian Radio for Russia, a U.S.-based nonprofit that sponsors New Life Radio. “But if the Russians did go in, the first thing they would do is cut off the internet and telephone lines.” Johnson and Zhurakovski have also outlined plans to set up in an evangelical church in Moldova or in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Either way, the station plans to maintain a team in the Odessa studio, where they can at least do production even if the radio shifts broadcasting elsewhere.
“Every day we are praying for peace. But it’s not under our control,” Zhurakovski said. “We have peace in our heart that God is keeping everything under His control.”
First broadcasting as an FM station in 1996, New Life Radio was initially based in the Siberian city of Magadan.
“I picked the toughest town in the Soviet Union,” said Johnson, who founded the station with the sponsorship of the U.S.-based Evangelical Covenant Church. “When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote about the gulag, he was talking about Magadan. It’s the darkest spiritual place in that country.”
In 2000, the station branched out to Moscow and began offering radio programming to the whole of the former Soviet Union via a newly launched satellite endeavor between Lockheed Martin and Intersputnik. But the team needed to access a facility with a fiber optic link to a ground station receiving the satellite’s transmission. The only available location was an access-controlled facility located on Red Square. After an introduction to the facility’s director, Johnson requested access to the building’s fiber optic line.
“Now that was a miracle,” Johnson remembered. “He said OK, and it was like all of his defenses melted.”
New Life Radio continued to broadcast from Moscow until 2019, when Russia’s increasingly restrictive laws on freedom of speech, religion, and telecommunications prompted the ministry to shift operations to Odessa. The final straw was the 2019 Sovereign Internet Law, which gave government officials the authority to block the station’s internet presence for any reason.
“If we were going to save this radio network for not only Russia, but for all those former Soviet countries, we had to get out of Moscow,” Johnson said.
Today, about 120 million homes in Eurasia can access New Life Radio via satellite. Thanks to its 24/7 internet radio service, the station’s audience has expanded beyond the countries of the former Soviet Union to Russian speakers the world over.
A survey of the station’s channel on the messaging app Telegram shows a smattering of Russian and Ukrainian speakers sending prayer and song requests and greetings from around the world. While most participants say they are in Ukraine, Belarus, or Russia, others are further abroad: One offers “a big hello to all from the Russian-speaking brothers and sisters in New Zealand.” Another is from Germany. They all address one another as brothers and sisters.
Conspicuously absent is any direct reference to the current political situation. The station itself has chosen not to allocate airtime to commenting directly on the brewing conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
“If we will discuss it, what can we tell them?” Zhurakovski said. “In any case, we continue to teach the Bible—what Jesus wants us to do, how to trust God, and how to grow in understanding of God’s will.”
Though the station doesn’t directly address the political situation on air, Zhurakovski believes New Life Radio has a role to play in unifying believers. He especially sees this on the station’s social media chat rooms on Telegram and Viber, another messaging app popular in the former Soviet Union. He describes seeing listeners join the chat room to post hate speech toward either Russians or Ukrainians.
“But then I see God’s work on them, and I see their messages start changing from hate to saying, ‘We glorify God for our brothers and sisters from Ukraine,’” Zhurakovski said.
David Paronian is a frequent listener to New Life Radio. Born in Georgia, Paronian now resides in Moscow, where he works in construction and pastors a local church. In a Telegram message to WORLD, he framed the work of New Life Radio in the context of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:11 that His disciples be one, even as He and the Father are one.
“Those who love God can’t but say ‘amen’ to New Life Radio,” Paronian said.
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