Yuri Sipko is the first to fall.
The 71-year-old former president of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists has been one of the few Russian religious leaders to publicly denounce the war in Ukraine. Although secular activists and a few Orthodox priests have been imprisoned for similar opposition, until last month no evangelicals had been targeted.
But on August 8, authorities filed charges against Sipko for publicly disseminating “knowingly false information” against the Russian military. They raided his home and temporarily detained his son. One week later, he was placed on the wanted list.
Tipped off by independent legal monitors, he fled the country on August 5.
“The sun is shining, and I have been provided for,” Sipko told CT in an interview from his refuge in Germany. “Praise the Lord there have been no problems, and policemen are far away from me.”
Waxing poetic, he hoped that the aspiration of Aleksandr Pushkin, the 19th-century Russian bard, might one day be fulfilled:
The heavy-hanging chains will fall,
The walls will crumble at a word;
And Freedom greet you in the light,
And brothers give you back the sword.
Sipko attributes his courage to God. His anti-war activism is inspired by Matthew 10:28, which says to not fear those who can only kill the body. As both a minister of the Word and a citizen of Russia, he feels it was his duty to reveal criminality.
But having long anticipated his arrest, he insists he is not guilty.
“This is a lawless law imposed by a lawless regime, against lawful people,” said Sipko. “The crime is the destruction of Ukraine. Silence, also, is a crime.”
With these words, he impugns nearly all of his evangelical colleagues. In Sipko’s view, they have not only betrayed their Ukrainian brothers and sisters, but in submitting to the Russian authorities, they have betrayed the kingdom of God. Their silence, he said, is shameful.
Upon news of the charges against Sipko, Russian Baptist leadership kept its distance.
Baptist Union president Peter Mitskevich stated that information was “scant” and urged prayer for Sipko. But in encouraging “peace among the nations” and the continued proclamation of the gospel, he reminded that it was under Nero’s persecution that the Apostle Peter wrote: Honor the king (1 Peter 2:17).
Baptists in St. Petersburg were more direct. Addressing the fear that has pervaded the community since Sipko’s arrest, their statement clarified that Sipko spoke only in his personal capacity, not representing their “agreed position.” They also asked for prayer, but emphasized that “the authorities do not hinder us in the main thing for which we are called by the Lord.”
But evangelical fear in Russia was legitimate. Accompanying the charges against Sipko was an official media campaign against the broader Protestant community, alleging their status as foreign agents. According to the SOVA Center, Sipko’s sermons were called “outright enemy propaganda” that was developed by “American curators.”
CT spoke with six leaders inside Russia for their reactions. Two requested anonymity.
“It made me think full-fledged persecution of Christians will now begin,” said one ministry leader. “The government is trying to silence all the voices that do not sing along with it, so Yuri has shown tremendous courage.”
Though Sipko is more “radical” than herself, she said that she generally agrees with what he says. Relieved he is safe, she was surprised it took so long for the authorities to press charges.
Russian sources confirmed to CT that the media campaign has since died down, with no wider repression. But one leader expressed his displeasure.
“These journalists should be held accountable for their reporting,” said Vitaly Vlasenko, general secretary of the Russian Evangelical Alliance. “Those who don’t know us will be astonished, and the law prohibits incitement against religions.”
Vlasenko expressed his solidarity with Sipko as a Baptist coworker, and believed justice would uphold his cause. Freedom of speech is enshrined in Russian law, he said, and he hopes that evangelical lawyers will come to Sipko’s defense. It is lamentable in times of war that a polarized society promotes an us-against-them mentality, he said, and asks who you are with.
In March 2022—one month after the war began—Vlasenko had issued his own statement expressing “bitterness and regret” over the “military invasion” and apologizing to Ukraine. Under the criminal code used to now charge his former leader, the word “war” has been officially banned.
But he feels that Sipko possesses a similar fault to Russian society overall.
“We call Yuri a Russian prophet,” he said. “But prophets think in black-and-white and sometimes don’t see other colors.”
As Christian citizens, evangelicals need to express “critical solidarity” with their nation, Vlasenko said. He subtly critiqued Sipko’s departure, stating that it is better for church leaders to stay in their own country, working to unite brethren with different opinions. Yet he commended his former president as “always straight” and as someone even his enemies respected.
Not that this would save Sipko.
“He is very brave,” Vlasenko said. “But like John the Baptist, he might lose his head.”
One analyst differed in Sipko’s positive assessment.
“Stated crudely, he has been a loose cannon,” said Bill Yoder, a retired church journalist. “I think he is better off in the West.”
Though respected by many in the pews, Sipko has been controversial among Baptist leadership over the past decade, according to the American-born reporter. Having lived the last 21 years in Russia, Yoder became a citizen in 2021. He says Sipko is being honest and acting according to his convictions, but also said the charges are no surprise.
“It is not our task to wish victory for the other side, but Yuri went beyond this, pushing the Ukrainian cause,” said Yoder. “And theologically, he is dancing on the edge of being loyal to the authorities.”
Every day, Yoder prays for peace and reconciliation with Ukrainian believers, conceding that the Russian-led war is “against international law.” But the United States is worse, he said, in his estimation pushing eastward through NATO and complicit in dozens of armed struggles around the world. The conflict is complicated, and Ukraine is far from guiltless, said Yoder. Both sides will have to forgive each other.
“I wish Yuri and his family well,” said Yoder. “I don’t see him as a non-brother, but he has forsaken his church.”
Sipko is one of 12 children, and as a child, he witnessed the Soviet Union imprison his Baptist pastor father for five years. First elected as a deputy leader of the Russian Baptist Union in 1993, he served as its president from 2002 to 2010. He cited the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia as the beginning of Russia’s suppression of dissent, but also said that a “doom mentality” has characterized his people for generations.
Literary figures like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Pushkin were among the few to speak out. But despite a century of prayer for Russia, when freedom came in 1991 local believers turned out to be “helpless,” according to Sipko. Amid a propaganda push that portrayed the West as a land with empty churches and homosexual clergy, even the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses was accepted by many Russians as a defense of the true faith.
“This message found fertile ground with evangelicals,” said Sipko. “And then in humble obedience to the authorities, they turned against their brothers, and became villains.”
Roman Lunkin, head of the Center for Religious Studies at the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute of Europe, thinks Sipko has veered too far to the West. He contrasted the Baptist leader with Sergey Ryakhovsky, president of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Pentecostals. Both pastors are democratic, Lunkin said, but the latter voiced patriotism and leaned consistently toward the state—much like Republicans in America.
And he suspects there is a larger power play involved.
According to Lunkin, Sipko has aligned himself with Albert Ratkin, a former Pentecostal Union vice president who was expelled from the denomination for criticizing Ryakhovsky’s support for the war. Ratkin was called in to testify against the Baptist minister, with Sipko’s messages on his social media channels used as evidence. But Lunkin believes the larger target may well be Ratkin, whose foreign support is concerning to the Kremlin, he said, and fits in with its tarnishing of evangelicals in general.
For now, he said Ratkin has been told to stay silent.
“Russian authorities don’t care about Sipko,” Lunkin said. “That’s why he was allowed to go abroad.”
But the charges against Sipko are serious. Andrey Shirin noted that, since the Baptist Union’s inception in 1944, Sipko is the first head to be indicted. While Russia likely delayed charges so as not to provoke the wider ecumenical world, whatever popularity Sipko had in the pews remained at the level of admiration, according to Shirin.
“Baptists tend to see their prophetic responsibility as limited to morality and the freedom to practice their faith,” said the Russian associate professor of divinity at Leland Seminary, a Baptist institution in Virginia. “Brother Sipko broadened this to include public policy, but few evangelical leaders are willing to follow him.”
However democratic the Pentecostal Union’s Ryakhovsky may have once been, Shirin said he now gives the impression of an opportunist looking to stay close to power. And while Sipko’s Ukraine stance resonates with the West, in many ways his cultural views would be perceived as overly traditional.
But not to Vera Izotova, who served as head of women’s ministry in the Baptist Union until 2018.
“Yuri welcomed the training and ministry of women,” she said. “He was a passionate, dedicated, and humble servant of God.”
A graduate of the International Bible Institute for Extension Education when Sipko was Baptist Union president, Izotova fondly remembered an address he gave in which he celebrated women’s escape from “the kitchen” to ministry. He loved to pray with his “Russian sisters,” she added, and supported her in her current work as director of the Wheat Grain Fund, which assists disadvantaged people and special needs children. Sipko believed the church should influence society, and preached the gospel all over Russia.
But she declined to comment about the charges against him.
“In recent years I have not communicated with him on this subject,” Izotova said. “But before writing [this reply], I prayed and fasted for God to guide me.”
Some leaders, Sipko said, have “pragmatic calculations” for not speaking out on his behalf. Others have sent him private encouragement. But in either case, he takes no offense.
“I didn’t have expectations that anyone would support me publicly,” Sipko said. “I take full responsibility for my actions.”
But one evangelical leader did support him, though through an alias.
“Sipko provides an honest and straightforward evaluation of the situation in both Ukraine and Russia,” said Ivan Pastukhov, who requested anonymity to protect his ongoing ministry. “His case serves as a stark warning of the steep price for not aligning with the government.”
From his vantage point, an estimated 40 percent of Russian evangelicals oppose the war. Pastukhov notes that the timing of the charges falls not long after the June rebellion of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner group and not long before the upcoming presidential vote in March 2024. The ground is being prepared for a seamless reelection of Vladimir Putin, while in Pastukhov’s view Sipko and evangelicals in general are being prepared as scapegoats for any potential societal unrest.
In this context, he has a plea for Western Christians.
“Move beyond prayers, and initiate a meaningful dialogue with Russian church leaders,” said Pastukhov, noting their isolation. “Numerous longstanding connections between the East and the West have worn out, requiring urgent restoration.”
Sipko agreed wholeheartedly.
“Conflicting parties cannot restore relations without a mediator,” he said in response. “Inter-church communication is vital, and patience is necessary.”
It will certainly be needed during Sipko’s self-imposed sojourn in Germany. He is at peace, and his daughter, one of ten children, is near him. But from Pushkin he turned to the Desert Fathers, paraphrasing Abba Isaiah of Scetis: Work without prayer is servitude, and prayer without work is begging. He remains active in advocacy, posting frequently on Facebook.
But will he ever return to Russia?
“Our home is above the clouds, and we are strangers and exiles here,” said Sipko, referencing 1 Peter 2:11. “I am willing to die outside my homeland.”