In the final days of the Soviet Union, Russian officials invited a group of American Christians to help build a faith-based university in Moscow.
After seventy years of fierce religious persecution under communism, the Russian-American Christian University (RACU) was born. John Bernbaum helped start the school and he has written a book about the experience called Opening the Red Door.
For decades, the school grew in size and influence, but when the government started cracking down on evangelicals, it was forced to close.
Bernbaum spoke to CBN News about the rise and fall of the faith-based university.
“Revolutionary changes that Mikhail Gorbachev made from 1985 to 1988 broke the relationship between communism and atheism. There was a realization of spiritual and moral values that needed to be rebuilt in Russia. That opened up the opportunity for educators to come to the US and ask the Coalition for Christian Colleges and Universities to help start a Christian university in Russia. It was an unbelievable invitation.”
Bernbaum explained the goal of the university was for young people of faith to be the next generation of leaders in Russia.
“Our goal was to train a generation of young Christian kids whose parents could never get into universities – because they were people of faith – to train these young people to be the next generation of leaders in Russia. It was an attempt to equip them to be people of faith and to have a moral and spiritual foundation so they could become future leaders of the country,” he said.
Unfortunately, after Vladimir Putin came into power some of the finest students believed there were no opportunities for them in Russia and fled the country.
“In the first ten years, the Russians were very hospitable and welcomed us in under Boris Yeltsin. When Putin came into power, pressure began to turn against the west and it was increasingly difficult for these kids and some of our best and brightest kids fled the country…ending up in Germany, England, Canada or the US because they saw no opportunities in Russia.”
Bernbaum explained that some students had a difficult time as the pressure increased within evangelical churches. And more obstacles arose with the new millennium.
“During the construction of our building, the communist party and other radical right wing groups came over and broke windows, demonstrated on the streets in front of us and said ‘Americans, get out of the country.’ But the local government officials we worked with were very supportive of our school. Gradually over time, the pressure became too great and the security forces came in and interrupted our school and made life very difficult for us.”
Bernbaum said that increasing opposition from Putin led to the university’s closure.
“I think the philosophy of Putin is that if I can’t control it – I don’t want it. He could not control private universities and colleges or tell us what to teach. The effort was directed at all private schools. The hospitality that we experienced in the 1990’s was replaced by 2010 with open hostility and we were forced to leave.”
He explained that Putin will not be in power forever and there is a bright future for Christianity in Russia.
“Putin is not going to last forever and we need to plant seeds for the next generation of people. It is difficult right now for them, but they have suffered so much before and they’ve heard stories from their parents and their grandparents about what it was like to live in Russia under oppression so it’s not a complete surprise for them,” Bernbaum said.
“I think a lot of them are quietly preparing themselves, trying to build up their churches so that when this new opportunity comes along they’ll be able to give some leadership and step up…that’s our hope.”
Opening the Red Door offers insight into the Russian culture and post–Cold War history but also reveals the dynamics within international educational institutions and their partnerships.
“The book was designed to tell people how you deal with authoritarian governments or dictatorships. There are ways that you can make an impact, primarily by going through the churches, non-government associations and with people-to-people relationships,” Bernbaum concluded.