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Good news, bad news

Yeltsin defeated the communists, but victory came at a price

Communist general secretary ever gave up power by his own volition," wrote journalist Lee Hockstader last spring. Neither, so far, has a Russian president. Given the momentous opportunity to go to the polls and elect a leader, Russians went. It required no palace plot or military coup or revolution, the stock in trade for political change throughout Russian history. But the newfound electoral machinery did not produce a power shift. While voters chose decisively against reverse, in the form of a return to Communism, going forward with incumbent Boris Yeltsin looks a lot like idling in neutral right now. Great tests of democracy remain and there is room for worry about the direction of a second Yeltsin term. Questions about the 65-year-old president's health, economic stagnation, and restrictions on individual freedoms loom. At the root of this murky future is a continuing quest for a coherent ideology. The communism espoused by challenger Gennady Zyuganov did not look quite like the Soviet variety. The democracy of Mr. Yeltsin, however, continues to be seasoned with authoritarianism and statism. And the majority of the electorate has spent most of their lives stripped of any philosophy save Marxism-Leninism. "In many studies, we've found that people feel they have nothing ideological in their lives," said public opinion researcher Masha Volkenstien. "They don't know what society lives for. They feel there is a lack, an empty place. They are used to this feeling that society should live for some kind of goal, and society should have something to believe in. They have nothing."

Those who would like to replace faith in the state with faith in God faced new concerns when Mr. Yeltsin appointed Alexander Lebed as top national security aide. A retired general who placed third in the first general election June 16, his appointment by Mr. Yeltsin aimed at bringing in Gen. Lebed's constituency for the July 3 run-off election. Not content only with supervising the Russian Security Council, as well as the Defense and Interior ministries, Gen. Lebed moved quickly to broaden the definition of national security to include economics, religion, and social and cultural issues. He immediately called into question the work of foreign missionaries in Russia, labeling them "mold and scum that is brought into this country with the aim of perverting, corrupting, and ultimately breaking up our state." Although he singled out Mormons and the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, Christian denominations were slammed too. Russia, he said, has only three traditional religions: Orthodoxy, Islam, and Buddhism. He later amended that statement to include Judaism (whose numbers are three times higher than Buddhists in the country). But he stuck by his call to ban foreign religions in Russia and said he would introduce stricter visa requirements for foreigners. "Regarding strangers on our territory ...I'm categorically against them," he said. Gen. Lebed also vowed to make the fight against "Western cultural expansionism" a cornerstone of national security policy. Foreign missionaries, as well as Russia's smaller denominations, are likely to face a continuing, if more subtle, threat from the Russian Orthodox hierarchy. Heavily courted by all the major candidates during the presidential campaign, it is poised to be a larger political player in Mr. Yeltsin's second term. Mr. Yeltsin appeared numerous times with Patriarch Alexiy II, head of Russian Orthodoxy, in the days leading up to the election. He cheered on reconstruction of Christ the Savior Cathedral, razed by Stalin in the 1930s to make way for a planned Palace of Soviets. He has even been charged with using government funds to pay for it. Now the church's solid gold cross and gleaming cupolas tower above the Moscow River, symbolizing an end to Communist repression of Orthodoxy but also a new preeminence for the church leadership that has never looked favorably on Protestant evangelism.

"No one really knows what kind of promises Boris Yeltsin made to the Russian Orthodox Church," Jim Austin, who is chairman of the Europe Committee for the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board, told WORLD. "Initially you could go in and do anything," he said of missionary activity after a June trip to Kharkov, Ukraine, and numerous trips to Russia. Now, he reports, local Baptist church leaders and American missionaries who work at their invitation are subject to "a little bit of intimidation." They are required to get permits for street meetings and complete other paperwork in order to schedule public events. Mr. Austin said the influx of Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, and members of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo-the group behind last year's Tokyo subway gas attacks-have made Russians more wary of outsiders. "And they don't like to be treated as a backward, Third World country. They are fond of reminding us that they were the first to put men in space." Mr. Austin says the Russian people will have to make the decision themselves about how open they want to be to Western influence. But they will make it in the context of a power struggle between Yeltsin appointees Viktor Chernomyrdin-given a second term as prime minister last week-and Gen. Lebed, who one Muscovite called a neo-Hitler. Both clearly view themselves as heirs apparent in view of Mr. Yeltsin's obviously unstable health.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.