- Glen, could you just introduce yourself to us and give us some sense of your background and life prior to your move last July to be curate of St Andrew’s, Moscow?
Thank you very much for welcoming me, it’s strange to think that this time last week I was in Egypt and two days before that in Moscow.
I am from Lincoln, 800 years ago, a rival to London. I studied International Relations and managed to get a job in a political campaign, working in Westminster. Then I headed to Moscow to try teaching, learn Russian, and have an adventure. One year turned into two, two into three, and I kept going back! I got a job with KPMG, a large consulting firm, and also got more involved with St Andrew’s Anglican Church in Moscow. One thing led to another, and I was asked if I had considered ministry. I said yes, I had considered it, and I began the discernment process. I left Russia in 2018, spent two years in Cambridge, then we had the Covid year, and finally I got back to Moscow in 2021.
- Could you tell us about St Andrew’s, Moscow, its regular worshipping community, its history and its life in normal times before recent events?
St Andrew’s is in many ways both a church and a cultural meeting centre. The English have lived and worked in Moscow since Ivan the Terrible, 500 years ago. Our sailors went across with a letter from Queen Elizabeth I, and they were granted exclusive trading rights. The English and Scots prospered there and started many of Moscow’s great businesses. These British settlers were allowed to build their own church and worship in their own style, showing how good relations were.
The Communist Revolution put an end to all that, and St Andrew’s, purpose built for the worshipping community, was requisitioned and turned initially into the Finnish embassy before becoming a recording studio, due to its excellent acoustics. Some of the best music of the Soviet era was recorded in St Andrew’s!
The British who had lived in Russia were scattered abroad, not welcomed by the Communists. Their goods were taken, and many of them, having been born in Russia with no knowledge of English, found themselves living in poverty in England.
When Communism fell, St Andrew’s was handed back to the Anglican church, and a thriving community re-established. On a normal Sunday, there is a 9am Book of Common Prayer Communion, then a 11am service which was getting well over a 100 people, and we had just launched a Third Service to ease pressure on numbers in the morning. There is a Communion service on Wednesdays as well.
The church building is rented by musical groups putting on classical music concerts almost every day of the week, which is an important revenue stream. AA and 12-step groups use many of the rooms in the crypt, and some private businesses rent other office space. This helps the church remain financially viable.
Being a brick-building in a climate that goes from months of minus 20 to months of plus 30 Celsius, the building is a headache in terms of being repaired. As an architectural monument, we have to preserve it, but we can’t do anything without official permission, and so vast sums of money are constantly being raised to pay for architects and builders to keep the roof up!
- Could you tell us something about the context of St Andrew’s ministry – what is it like to be guests in a country rediscovering its Orthodox roots for example and what is the significance of the role of the Orthodox Church in contemporary Russia?
St Andrew’s is allowed to operate in English, because if we were to preach in Russian, it would be seen as pursuing the Orthodox. If a Russian person chooses to come to St Andrew’s and worship in English, that is fine; but if we were seen to be trying to evangelise Russians in Russian, then that would be severely frowned on, and could jeopardise our status as guests of the Orthodox.
The Orthodox are often seen as one group from the outside, but in reality they are just like the Anglicans – a diverse group of competing ideas. There are churches that are very evangelistic; churches that are much more conservative; churches that revel in liturgy and beauty; and churches that preach a political message supporting the government. I remember visiting a holy place in 2008 and a monk handing me a sheet of paper with information on how NATO was Satan’s work.
Putin very much sees Orthodoxy as part of Russia’s identity, and thus it is important in the process of nation building, creating a sense of ‘us’ against ‘them’. I would suggest that he does hold a belief, but it is in the Slavophile tradition that looks to our eyes much like nationalism.
It should be noted that attendance at Orthodox services is very low, and while they are effectively a department of government, their influence over society seems fairly low, though people do respect the priests. It’s like the UK in the 1950s – people are Orthodox because their passport is Russian, though they don’t necessarily know what Orthodox means.
My personal experiences of Orthodoxy are quite minimal – but sadly I do associate with walking into churches to be shouted at by old ladies for not crossing myself properly! Orthodoxy in Russia, on home territory, is perhaps more rigid and lazy than Orthodoxy abroad.
- Might you tell us something about the build up to the current crisis in Ukraine, as you see it, and have observed it since you first started to live in Russia over 10 years ago? Do tell us something about the different perceptions and narratives both in Russia and here and in different places in the world – I gather you have an academic background in International Relations.
I want to say at the start that the following in no way justifies the invasion, pillaging, murder of children, and brutality of what is happening. My tendency is to be rather academic and this can sometimes appear as ‘too’ balanced!
Russia has always had two movements within: the Slavophiles, promoting the uniqueness of Russian identity; and the Westernisers, looking to the West and to integration. Peter the Great was the leading example of the latter, enforcing great change and opening the inward-looking Russia to Western innovation.
Those forces remain, though in the USSR, they were mixed with a communist ideology. That ideology morphed from revolutionary exportation of ideas abroad to a conservative entrenching to preserve stability within, and so once again, Russia became a conservative, inward-looking state.
With the collapse of the USSR, Russia was quite naïve and vulnerable, and the 1990s were extremely formative. Government officials believed the West, they trusted the West, and many people got rich. But they also saw the West promote things that were clearly in Western interests and designed to weaken Russia. The excessive inflation of 1992 wiped out the savings of many people, and then the crash of 1998 wiped out the savings again. People don’t forget that.
This is where it can be argued Russia lost faith with the West. Boris Yeltsin was clearly incompetent, but the honeymoon period with the West was also over.
Putin came to power with a background in espionage, and thus with a particular worldview and particular insights. He certainly tried to make Russia a place of prosperity, I can testify to the reforms that have taken place for the benefit of all. But Putin’s frustration and anger at being snubbed by Western leaders, and observing how often the West ignored Russian interests, has been mounting. There is an interesting clip of Putin talking to the cameras in the early 2000s, stating that his intelligence agencies had reported to him that the ‘friendly’ West were seeking to break up Russia. It’s one of those clips you are unlikely to ever see on our televisions, but I think it shows our own involvement goes deeper than we pretend.
Putin’s grievances mounted up. Russian interests in Iraq? Ignored. Russian warnings about Afghanistan? Ignored. Russian dislike of NATO moving to its borders: ignored. Russian frustration at how ethnic Russian groups living abroad have sometimes been treated badly: ignored. And then the 2013 Maidan Revolution happened in Ukraine.
It’s worth understanding that Kyiv is the heart of Kyivan Rus, the historic birthplace of Russia. Putin wants to bring together the historic lands of Russia into one united state – part of the Slavophile nation. Yet in 2008, NATO agreed Ukraine could eventually join it. This was concerning for Russia. In 2010, Victor Yanukovich won power in Ukraine, and he was seen as a pro-Kremlin puppet. But actually he was seeking to chart a middle way. He sought to make Ukraine a bridge between the EU and Russia, and polls show the country was pretty much divided 50-50 in 2013 about its choices. However, as one US ambassador stated, Russia cared far more for Ukraine than the EU did, and so Yanukovich was seen as friendly to Russian interests. In reality, Russia cared far more than the EU did.
Then in 2014, Yanukovich was overthrown – this is often painted as a joyous revolution, but was actually a little murkier. It led to the Russian parts of Ukraine feeling a sense of persecution as pro-Western forces left the strategic middle-way and launched into a Westward drive.
This led to the capture of Crimea by Moscow. It was a simple operation – if Moscow did nothing, it would lose its base at Sevastopol as Western influence would force out the Russian navy. So Russia did a ‘surgical snip’ and took Crimea. It was relatively bloodless because most of the people on Crimea wanted to join Russia, recognising their ethnic and financial connections. Unfortunately, Russia seems to have concluded that the ease of taking Crimea in 2014 would be replicated in 2022.
The 2014 NATO summit in Wales promoted interoperability between NATO military forces and Ukraine, taking another clear step towards Ukraine joining the West, agitating Russia further. It was perceived that Kyiv was being stolen from Russia. Kyiv is like London – how can London leave the UK? It is integral to Britain. Our history happens here. Yet in Putin’s mind that was what was happening – the birthplace of Russia was leaving the Russian world. Tensions rose and rose, the Western sanctions after Crimea, and also at work were more societal forces: the shunning of the Sputnik vaccine by the West, despite it working rather well. The perceived promotion of extreme liberalism and woke ideas in a culture that is more conservative. Russia largely views these forces as decadent and as sign of Western collapse.
So basically, if Putin was going to put an end to Ukraine’s westward, decadent drift, then he had to act now. He’s 69, not getting any younger, and inspired by conservative values and a clash-of-culture narrative, he was taken this step, which I fear he sees as almost a crusade.
- Can you characterise the difference between how Russians you might meet in your everyday life feel about the current situation and the that of the government?
Simply put, the older generation don’t know what is happening, because they get most of their information from state TV. The younger generation, with greater knowledge of English and more international connections, are more aware but they have all learned that you don’t talk about politics, because it is dangerous.
So the people I know are reluctant to talk, but generally sad. They don’t like what is happening.
- Can you tell us something about your feelings on leaving Moscow, especially with almost no notice?
My exit from Moscow was swift and it was all so surreal. On Monday I had a job and lots to do; on Tuesday I was packing my bags; Wednesday saw me lead my last service with them; and on Thursday morning I flew out of Moscow.
Surreal is the only word. We flew to Egypt, me and group of others forced to suddenly leave, and they were in a worse state of shock than me. So I had to try and give them time and space to talk too. I tend to focus on being resilient, but honestly it feels like a holiday at the moment, with a strange fact that I won’t be going back; a fact that doesn’t seem real.
- Do you see any overlap between this current situation and the issues raised in today’s Gospel, and Jesus addressing Herod Antipas as “that fox”?
Where do you start with such compelling relevance?! There is so much that can be said, but I want to remind us that the gospel challenges all forms of politics. It overturns this world and its values. Russia is acting like Herod: seeking to enforce its will by power and force, murder and vengeance. This is how people of this world act. Let’s be honest: given the same power, our politicians would be no better. And it is tragic that Christianity, in the Orthodox version, has been entwined to an extent with the machinations of the political state. War has no relationship to the Kingdom of God.
As Christians we must remember to follow Jesus and to lay down our ideas and ideologies, and pick up the good news of Christ. It is that good news, that God has sent a saviour, that Jesus can set you free from sin, anger, hate, addiction and bondage, that we must proclaim and enact.
This is our mission: to live humbly, to serve God and the poor, to bring healing to those who suffer, and to encourage justice and love on earth. God is building a new family. It’s us, the church! We are to become like Jesus, full of love, graciousness, mercy, compassion, gentleness and self-control. Our mission is to decrease, and instead exalt Jesus.