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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Baptist Truth Through the Eyes of a Perestroika Kid
Natalia Shuvalova

I was surprised to hear that many expats are very indignant towards the Western Christian religious groups in Russia. “Why don’t they stay away from this country?!”, they say.

Well…I am not a religious fanatic, but I am very grateful to the missionaries.

I was in the sixth form when I first met them. At last we had our chance to meet real Americans! At that time, Russians still treated foreigners as gods descended from Olympus. This was especially so in a sleepy, little Moscow region town, especially if the gods come right into your school and you have a chance to practice your beginner’s English with them and even have tea with them.

We were told about the American group’s visit a couple weeks in advance, so that we would have time to prepare an entertaining program for them. Our choice fell on the song by the Eagles – ‘Hotel California’. I can hardly remember why this song was chosen, maybe because one of our girls could play it on the guitar. We rehearsed a lot and we were eager to make a good impression. We paid particular attention to what we would wear that day, how we would decorate the school hall, and what kind of desserts our moms would prepare. It was beyond simple hospitality – people would probably feel the way we did only if they were greeting a friendly UFO spaceship in their backyard.

The ‘spacemen’ must have felt like they landed on another planet as well, because our behavior could not but leave a deep impression on them.. Imagine……

On the appointed day, we were asked to be polite, quiet — in a word behave ourselves. It worked, at first. We schoolkids performed first and we sang our “we are all prisoners here”, standing in a line, stiff and still, keeping the Soviet-style label of a gloomy expression. In exchange for that, the ‘UFO aliens’ showed us a little play. It was about love and Jesus. By the way, even at this point I don’t think we classified them as a religious group. We were impressed to see that capitalists were so much influenced by Christianity. Then we recalled that “In God We Trust” was on their banknotes and there were no doubts left that it was the national tendency. We could hardly understand a word of the play. The only thing I remember is a guy imitating a heart beating in his hand and someone backstage making the sound of a heart beating. I got really puzzled why they would tear someone’s heart out?! And what did Jesus have to do with that? Then they sang us some songs, again about love and Jesus. I was really impressed how relaxed and easygoing they were on the stage! I was part of a dancing group at that time and we were taught again and again that the moment you were on a stage — never adjust your hair, clothes…not to mention the nose – yes, one of the girls finished a line of “Jesus loves me” with a juicy sound of blowing her nose!

Even now I can hardly realize how she managed not to feel embarrassed. The funniest thing is that I still felt critical and grateful at the same time. I guess it was the first real chance to let some easygoing behavior into our lives, letting it out on a school stage and perhaps in the Orthodox church.

After we exchanged performances, it was time for presents! The guests were handing them out from the stage. Teachers managed to put us in a line to come to the stage to get our stickers, pens, block-notes…They were pretty cheap and frankly, useless; but the excitement of getting something from beyond the ocean, even the stuff you would never need, or already had, was so intense! The excitement was growing really fast and finally got almost devastating. The line broke into an unorganized crowd of 100 teenagers. The crowd was reaching out its hundreds of hands, shouting, whistling through its hundred mouths. The gods were frightened but – maybe with the help of Jesus – continued their holy mission of generosity. Soon the presents were flying out into the crowd from the stage. Along with flower stickers, pens, there were even shoes! I remember a pair of second hand rosy shoes passing over my head right into the hands of my friend. She never wore them afterwards, and we hardly put those stickers anywhere but at that moment it felt as if Fate was at stake! My teacher was very much ashamed of us. We were not – not at the climax of the excitement. Thank God nobody was injured.

I am not sure if that was culture shock for our visitors. Maybe they expected it would be worse in the country where they thought bears would wander in Red Square. But the missionaries did shake some of our cultural dogmas. One of them was about clothes. Evidently they did not spend hours thinking about what they should wear to perform in front of those Russians.

After that momentous afternoon, I realized a couple of very important things. First, it is OK to smile when you perform, or just in meeting people every day. Second, religion can be different from black clothing, and stern looks cast upon you by the icons and babuskas if you enter the cathedral not wearing a scarf, or once inside, place a candle in a wrong place, or making the sign of the cross at the wrong time….in all those respects, the missionaries were like a gulp of fresh air!

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