In 1995, I taught a non-credit night course in Russian church history for what would become the Russian-American Christian University (RACU). It was a memorable experience on multiple counts.
The class was held in rented space on the old campus of the Patrice Lumumba People’s Friendship University, where a larger-than-life bust of the school’s namesake Congolese communist martyr was on display in the lobby. Outside my classroom windows were the walls of the Donskoi Monastery, where the Bolsheviks imprisoned Russian Orthodox Patriarch Tikhon until his death in 1925. I team-taught in a stimulating partnership with a friend, Orthodox journalist and future priest Yakov Krotov. And I was teaching unusually attentive students as eager to learn as any I have ever encountered.
For a few short years, less than two decades (1996-2011), an American-style Christian liberal arts university sought to plant seeds in Moscow, where the soil would grow increasingly rocky and thorny. Explanations for RACU’s demise are easy to come by. They include an evangelical constituency limited in size and financial wherewithal, economic instability (including the 1998 ruble crisis and the 2008-09 recession), a political order devolving from pseudo-democracy to authoritarianism, deteriorating Russian-American relations, growing xenophobic nationalism, and a declining pool of college-age youth.
Above all, RACU could not overcome increasingly crippling state restrictions on private higher education and the lack of an established rule of law, which fueled (and was fueled by) pervasive corruption. Though the school was predominantly evangelical, it made earnest efforts to develop positive relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, efforts that were successful with some hierarchs but less so in the immediate neighborhood of its new building, which barely opened before pressures on all sides forced its closure and sale.
Fighting to Survive
Taking into account the overwhelming odds against RACU, a key question comes to mind: How did the school manage to survive as long as 17 years and produce ten graduating classes? Part of the explanation for its endurance lies in the enthusiastic support it received from elements of the U.S. Christian college network, as well as generous contributions from evangelical donors on and off its board. (Full disclosure: I was a member of that board.) But the chief reason for RACU’s resilience was the competence and character of its founding president, John Bernbaum, who writes about his experience in Opening the Red Door: The Inside Story of Russia’s First Christian Liberal Arts University.
Bernbaum’s preparation for the post included a Ph.D. in European history, work in the U.S. State Department, decades of teaching and administrative experience with the Washington-based Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and a gift for networking and donor development. Just as critical to the enterprise were Bernbaum’s abiding sense of God’s leading and a seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of energy, optimism, fortitude, and perseverance.
In the context of global Christianity, RACU was part of a rapid, multi-continent expansion of faith-based higher education over the past half-century—a phenomenon ably documented in the 2014 volume Christian Higher Education: A Global Reconnaissance. Compared to Asian and African newcomers, RACU’s imprint was quite modest, at least quantitatively. With a student body that never exceeded 200, it was dwarfed, for example, by the 3,500 students of South Korea’s Handong Global University (founded one year before RACU) or the 10,000 students of Nigeria’s Bowen University (founded in 2002).
So why write an entire book on a school with such a limited lifespan and a quite modest enrollment? For one, the saga of RACU’s hard-fought, short-lived existence bears telling because it played out in Russia, a nation that rightly commands the world’s attention, for good or ill. In addition, RACU’s promise and plight serves as a cautionary tale demonstrating the obstacles confronting any institution struggling to prevail in an environment of widespread corruption, economic uncertainty, and the arbitrary exercise of power.
Bernbaum’s account features constant combat with corruption and bribery. Refusing to grease palms meant protracted, energy-sapping delays in obtaining an educational license, accreditation, and construction permits, to mention just the most obvious hurdles in Moscow’s bureaucratic mazes. RACU gave witness to its ethical integrity through a persistent refusal to engage in the commonplace bribery that marked Russian higher education. The school never traded precious admission spots for favors. It never doctored test scores, final grades, or transcripts. And it never sold diplomas, although one enterprising fraudster did advertise a bogus RACU diploma for the equivalent of $500.
To date, it appears that RACU is one of only two Protestant higher education programs to have obtained Russian state accreditation (along with Zaokski Adventist University), a remarkable achievement given the partiality the state affords the Orthodox Church. Unfortunately, in 2009 the Ministry of Education abruptly changed a critical requirement for accreditation, ruling that doctorates issued by American universities were no longer valid in calculating the number of RACU faculty with higher degrees. This left the school with an albatross it could never shake.
Risk and Reward
Throughout its history, Russia has exhibited a love-hate relationship with the West, repeatedly alternating between periods of slavish imitation of Western ways and xenophobic rejection of all things foreign. The clash of Westernizers and Slavophiles in the 19th century is but one of many examples of this phenomenon.
RACU was born during the fleeting ascendency of pro-Western, reform-minded, Yeltsin-era higher-education administrators. They were soon eclipsed by officials unsympathetic to private institutions, Protestants, and liberal-arts education. As a result, RACU’s higher-education model—which stressed faith-based character formation and the creative stimulus of the liberal arts—has little purchase in Russia today. But that could well change if the country, in a post-Putin era, tamps down on nationalistic fervor and once again welcomes the influence of educational models from abroad. In its short existence, RACU’s students came to appreciate the marketability of their new English-language and computer-science skills, but they also valued the school’s spiritual stress on personal integrity, cross-cultural sensitivity, and lives lived for others. At some future date, the success of RACU’s graduates could build momentum for a renewed experiment in a Christian liberal-arts education.
RACU’s unsuccessful fight for long-term survival also serves as a case study for any institution determined to pursue a Christian mission in an unpredictable environment. To what extent should risk management inform decision-making? Was it prudent to invest so much time, effort, and money in a Christian university planted where the rule of law is lacking? Was it hopelessly naïve on the part of Bernbaum, his board, and his donors to paddle against the current? Certainly in rational, practical terms the odds against RACU were daunting. So to what extent are Christians to base their kingdom work upon rational, practical calculations?
For over a decade, I held a joint faculty-administrative appointment at a Christian college whose chief financial officer advised against short-term support for RACU, even as other Christian colleges with far smaller endowments proved willing to pitch in. I was told that the idea of a Christian college in Russia was too risky a venture. The irony is that this same American college never would have come into existence had its founder exercised a similar measure of caution and risk-aversion. To be sure, any Christian giving of consequence should involve the head and the heart alike, as Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert argued so eloquently in their book When Helping Hurts. And it’s no surprise that a financial officer, looking at all the relevant factors, would advise against investing in something as improbable as RACU. On the other hand, should the school’s stakeholders be faulted for taking risks to fund a Christian liberal-arts university in such a strategic location?
God willing, the day may come when forces of hope, liberty, and freedom of conscience regain ascendance in Russia. And in that day, something like the Russian-American Christian University, which performed so ably in its brief life, might flourish the way its founders intended.
Mark R. Elliott is editor emeritus of the East-West Church and Ministry Report, www.eastwestreport.org.