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Ukrainian Refugees Find Christian Welcome—in Russia

Offering food and shelter, Russian evangelicals are caring for the Donbas’s displaced. But in the face of Ukrainian frustration, dare they offer pastors for its empty pulpits?
Ukrainian Refugees Find Christian Welcome—in Russia
Image: Anadolu Agency / Contributor / Getty
A temporary accommodation centre for Ukrainian evacuees in Taganrog, Russia.

Disoriented and disheveled, the elderly Ukrainian woman stayed put in her seat. After several hours in a Temporary Accommodation Center (TAC) in Taganrog, Russia, 70 miles east of her month-long basement shelter in Mariupol, Ukraine, officials encouraged her to get on the bus—to somewhere else.

Earlier that day, she had been discovered by Russian soldiers and ushered through a humanitarian corridor to the first processing location east of Mariupol. From there she was dispatched to one of 800 such sites established throughout Russia, which are located anywhere from nearby Rostov to Moscow to Vladivostok on the Pacific coast.

Official papers registered her for temporary residency in Russia and access to its medical system. She was given a warm meal, new clothes, $142 in rubles, and a SIM card—though not a mobile phone. She could apply for citizenship if she desired.

All she wanted was to die.

Grandma, where are you going? Is someone coming to meet you?

No one is coming. Nobody wants me.

You have to go to a shelter. You can’t stay here.

I don’t want to live any longer. I wish I had died in the shelling.

Where are your children, or grandchildren?

I don’t know. They left. I can’t find them.

Government employees had done their duty. But after this exchange, a Russian evangelical volunteer sprang into action. After a few phone calls, she placed the woman with a local church family. The next day, she located the granddaughter.

“When we are genuinely involved in their lives, they see the love of Christ,” said Tanya Ivanenko. “They hug us, kiss us, and remember our names. Against the backdrop of war, we give them a little hope.”

Ivanenko did not provide the care, but she shared the grandmother’s story last year on a Russian evangelical church’s refugee coordination channel on Telegram, the region’s popular messaging app. The communication was verified by Pavel Kolesnikov, former co-chair of the advisory council for the heads of Protestant churches in Russia.

The council oversees relief, including over $3 million donated by affiliated unions, he said, impacting 200,000 Ukrainian refugees.

“The church in the West needs to know we are helping also,” he said. “The effort in Eastern Europe is more visible, but we are doing what we can.”

Since the war began, over 14 million Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes, with 8.2 million escaping abroad. The great majority of them have fled west, with Poland recording 1.6 million refugees and Germany 1 million. Through February, the United States has accepted more than 270,000.

But nearly 2.8 million have gone to Russia. Why would they flee into the arms of their enemy?

It may not have been their choice.

Some simply took the first route to safety, with an estimated 11 million Russians having Ukrainian relatives. But Ukraine has accused Russia of forcibly displacing residents of the Donbas, the eastern region subject to a Moscow-backed separatist conflict since 2014. This includes children, with Kyiv officials saying nearly 8,000 have been deported. A Russian spokesperson said 1,000 Ukrainian minors are receiving care, and that some had been adopted and given citizenship.

“There is certainly a group of people that have been moved out of Mariupol who will not mind being in Russia,” Maria Ivanova from the Helping to Leave Fund, a Russian group created to assist the reluctant, toldThe Guardian. “But we know of hundreds who were moved against their will. That is extremely worrying.”

Some evangelical pastors, however, have spoken of the mixed feelings of congregants who fled the Donbas before the invasion. Yet many are nonetheless thankful for their lives in Russia, compared to continued life in the embattled region.

Prior to the war, Russia had already established 270 TACs to process similar cases. And prior to 2014, 1.6 million Ukrainians were already living in Russia, primarily as migrant laborers. Within a year of the Donbas conflict, there were a million more. Overall, 800,000 from the region were given Russian passports.

Beyond family and employment, some have an ethnic connection.

A 2021 national survey identified 22 percent of Ukraine’s population as native Russian speakers and 36 percent speaking the language primarily at home. In the western and central regions, 90 percent said they were “Ukrainian,” but only 70 percent said the same in the east and south.

A more limited survey that same year of the capital Kyiv, the Donbas city of Luhansk, Odessa on the Black Sea, and Simferopol in Crimea yielded an array of responses. “Ukrainian citizen” was selected by 37 percent of respondents, while “Russian-speaking citizen of Ukraine” was selected by 34 percent. Nearly 1 in 5 (18%) simply said “Russian.”

Donbas residents may have been disproportionately inclined to flee east.

Ukraine’s 1991 referendum on independence from the Soviet Union tallied an overall 92 percent yes vote. But even as then-president Boris Yeltsin did not oppose Ukrainian separation, support dropped to 84 percent in the Donbas oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk. Counting the local electorate to measure apathy or boycott, regional support for independence fell further to 68 and 64 percent, respectively.

Donbas is a shortened phrase for “Donets Coal Basin” and served as an industrial center throughout the USSR. Its major cities were founded by a Scot and a Welshman in the 19th century. Official policy relocated Russians to the ethnic republics, while others came specifically to work in the steel factories.

After independence, the local economy shrank as Ukraine struggled to build a national political identity inclusive of its Russians, Tatars, Jews, Bulgarians, and Romanians.

“We were not insistent enough in promoting a national culture back then,” said Nadiyka Gerbish, a celebrated Ukrainian author. “There were economic and spiritual initiatives, but when the war broke out, I wished we had done more.”

After 2014, a sense of urgency pushed Gerbish and many others to address root issues within the Russian-backed separatist conflict. Living in Ternopil, 265 miles west of Kyiv, she reached out to local libraries in the Donbas. The government-backed Ukrainian Book Institute sponsored initiatives in its non-occupied areas. And celebrities, artists, and businesses launched cultural festivals in the border regions.

Her own writing turned toward refugees—comprehensively. My Name is Miriam tells of an Iraqi Kurdish family in Europe, who at Christmas learns of another refugee child named Isa, the Muslim name for Jesus.

Her book is now incorporated into the national curriculum, and a percentage of royalties are donated to buy books for the internally displaced in Donetsk and Luhansk. And since the Russian invasion, 10,000 copies are being printed for free distribution to Ukrainian refugee children in Eastern Europe.

“I deliberately chose a ‘far-away’ perspective to help Ukrainians welcome their Donbas countrymen,” Gerbish said. “Now it applies to all of us.”

Moscow, however, painted the Ukrainian efforts to preserve and enhance the unity of the Donbas as suppression of its Russian minorities. Agreements in 2014 and 2015 that were coordinated with the European Union and signed in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, created space for self-governance once fighting ceased—but it never did.

Each side blamed the other, while observers blamed both.

But it was the promotion of the Ukrainian language that drew the ire of some in the Donbas.

A 2012 law gave regional status to minority languages for use in courts, schools, and other government institutions, in places where minority populations reached a 10 percent threshold.

The law was replaced in 2019, however, to require the use of Ukrainian in nearly all aspects of public life, while media outlets were made to include Ukrainian versions alongside minority languages. Exceptions were allowed for several ethnic communities, English, and other European languages.

Russian was excluded.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, a native Russian speaker, has warned that the war will further undermine the language, associating it forever with “explosions, murders, and crimes.”

But in Russia, many refugees have a different association.

“These children had their childhood stolen from them, but they have an amazing ability to recover and forgive,” said Vera Izotova, director of the Wheat Grain Fund (WGF), serving the Donbas since 2014. “The mothers, though, have bitterness.”

Inspired by Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John, the organization opened in 1993 and has since shared the Good News with over 300,000 children throughout Russia. Izotova was born in Ukraine, and as a 19-year-old college student was sent to a mental hospital by Soviet authorities for her faith. Eventually released, as an adult, she chose to stay in Russia as a witness while most of her family emigrated to the US.

Dedicated particularly to disadvantaged people and special needs children, WGF has worked in 11 former Soviet republics and Mongolia. Previous outreach to contested areas include the 1991–1994 Georgia civil war and the two Chechnya conflicts between 1994 and 2003.

Izotova supports the Minsk Agreements, and a federal solution for Ukraine is reasonable, she believes.

But it is spiritual salve that WGF says it brings into areas of political dispute. In each, it preaches reconciliation, bringing the same message to the TAC in Taganrog. Amid aid distributed to refugees in need, its workers put on a Good Samaritan puppet show for children and mothers.

Due to Ukraine’s “anti-terrorism operation” in the Donbas, Izotova heard many stories about children spending months in their basement shelters—long before Russia’s 2022 “special military operation.” WGF gave them a chance to play, while marionettes asked the biblical question: Who is your neighbor?

“The Ukrainian is your neighbor,” Izotova said, conveying the puppets’ answer. “It is a very hard message, but in need of peace and healing, this is the first step in burying the hatred.”

The Russian Baptist Union spoke similarly in an address to Vladimir Putin at its quadrennial congress last year in May, themed “The World Needs Christ.” Assuring the Russian president of their prayers, they also petitioned God for the “early establishment of peace” in Ukraine.

“Lack of brotherly love and disregard for God's commandments leads people to mutual hatred and enmity,” delegates said. “The recipe for healing the evil that corrodes the human soul … is reflected in [our congress’s] motto.”

The speech noted Baptist efforts in international peacemaking, the upholding of family values, and the provision of assistance to “refugees from Ukraine, and all those affected by military action.”

Gerbish appreciates the help given the needy. But she rejects overtures of reconciliation, crafting a critical metaphor to call instead for repentance.

“If a church wants to help orphans, it shouldn’t kill the parents,” she said. “If Russian evangelicals want to help, they should do what is possible—however small or discreet—to stop the war that creates these refugees.”

Indeed, beyond Christian charity, Russia sees its humanitarian outreach as an extension of its “special military operation.”

“Every day we see reports from the war front,” said Olga Timofeeva, parliament chair for the Development of Civil Society, Public, and Religious Associations. “But I want to say that … helping refugees, many of whom are children, is the spiritual front, and just as important today.”

Sergei Ryakhovsky, head of Russia’s largest Pentecostal union, echoed her remarks.

“We have a clear Christian mission for our peoples in Russia and Ukraine,” he stated. “Serving those going through pain and suffering, and giving them hope.”

His denominational church in Penza, 700 miles northeast of Taganrog, is ministering to 1,600 refugees from the Donbas. Essential aid is provided, but also entertainment.

The medium and message, however, were different than Izotova’s scriptural focus. Children watched the film My Terrible Sister, in which two siblings overcome mutual dislike and eventually realize they cannot live without the other.

“To some extent, this embodies what is happening today between the peoples of Russia and Ukraine,” said Sergey Kireev, the Pentecostal pastor in Penza. “But the children hardly drew that line. They just drank lemonade, ate popcorn, and were happy—which means we accomplished our mission.”

This is a mission some Russian Pentecostals extend to the front lines, praying for soldiers and distributing New Testaments. And recently, it includes consideration of placing new pastors in empty churches. Ryakhovsky estimates that up to 25 percent of the occupied Donbas is evangelical, but as pastors fled, their congregations—especially women and children—were left behind.

“We are not your enemy, trying to cause you more pain,” Kolesnikov said of evangelical colleagues in the area. “Whatever the situation is now, we will listen first and then provide any spiritual support we can.”

Located in Zelenograd, a Moscow suburb, as general secretary of the All-Union Commonwealth of Evangelical Christians, he is taking stock of pastorless fellowships in the Donbas region. Should it become necessary, he will explore how to link them with sister denominations in Russia.

He sees a developing similarity to the re-registration required of houses of worship after the annexation of Crimea. But however Russians and Ukrainians differently consider the territory, its churches needed new licensing or they would have been lost, he said. Donbas may or may not require the same, pending the outcome of the war. But pastoral care is needed now.

“They are God’s churches,” Kolesnikov said. “Godly pastors can serve them selflessly, and then give them back.”

Kolesnikov knows this will not satisfy Ukrainians, who want clear denunciation of the war. As the Lausanne codirector in Eurasia, he tells them that only God can stop it, even if all Russian evangelicals rallied against it. But consistent with their heritage, most keep separate from the state and politics.

He hopes for reconciliation, viewing the war as a test for the global church.

“We have to pray for each other,” Kolesnikov said, “and keep our unity.”

And continue to help the vulnerable. The Catholic charity Caritas is assisting refugees sent onward from Taganrog, including to Novosibirsk, 2,300 miles away. Among foreign-linked Protestants, Rick Renner Ministries works through the Good News church in Moscow.

These contributions by evangelicals have drawn recognition in Russia, including favorable reports on local television. Inside the TAC, volunteers limit their witness to loving service and answering questions. But alone, while facilitating refugees’ safe arrival to relatives, they share the gospel and offer to connect them to local churches.

Many have told them: We weren’t expecting this treatment. You treat us differently. You must be Christians.

And sometimes, a believer will bless them back.

As church volunteers escorted a 76-year-old Ukrainian woman to their congregation in southern Russia, she shared her faith in Jesus as they sang hymns together. Exhibiting no bitterness, she told of her basement shelter, severe shortages of food and water, and painful blisters on her feet.

From there, the team purchased train tickets for her to meet her sons in Sochi. Tears of joy flowed as the family connected by telephone after a month with no news or contact. And as they parted, the grandmother urged the volunteers to memorize the Psalms, which sustained her throughout her ordeal.

“God alone saved me, but look how much he loves me,” she said. “After all, he sent me you.”

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