Opening the Red Door, John A. Bernbaum. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.
Summary: An inside account by a founder and President of the Russian-American Christian University, from the surprise invitation received from Russian leadership to its closing.
The period of 1989-1990 was a heady time as the Iron Curtain fell and country after country overturned Communist leadership and talked of embracing democracy. Then the changes came to the Soviet Union itself under Gorbachev and Yeltsin as glasnost and perestroika gave way to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the spinning off of republics as autonomous nations, leaving Russia, a large, but much diminished country, struggling to convert from a command to some version of a capitalist economy, and failing miserably in the effort.
This book originates in that era. A group of Christian college leaders with the Christian College Coalition (now the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities) who had ties with evangelical mission efforts to Eastern Europe sought to discern what opportunities this might present to build ties of understanding and opportunities for Christian influence in a country that had been officially atheist since 1917. They determined to explore possibilities for student study and cultural exchanges during a 1990 visit when a more daring proposal came from a Russian governmental official. Please come and set up a faith-based university in Russia!
John Bernbaum, then a vice president with the Christian College Coalition, was part of this delegation and was tasked to follow up this proposal, a task that eventually led to his presidency of the Russian-American Christian University (later the Russian-American Institute). In this work, he offers a first-person account of the history of this initiative from the initial proposal to the decision to close the doors years later.
Bernbaum traces this history from working groups to a joint Russian-American and the first classes in 1994-1995. He recounts the beginnings from agreements and charters, setting up tax exempt status in the US and gaining licenses in Russia. He describes the expansion of the program from initial English Language programs to a full program of undergraduate courses and the first graduation in 2001 (of 19 students). He traces the various moves to different temporary facilities and the nearly ten year process from 2001 to 2010 in securing land, gaining permits, building, and gaining occupancy permits for their own academic facility and the “perfect storm” that led to the closure of the Russian American Institute in 2011 and the sale of its building in 2014. It is a narrative of a both extraordinary and less than perfect Russian-American partnership.
The external events in Russia were critical to this history, as the initially open and supportive relationship with the Yeltsin government gave way to the Putin era, and an increasing chilling of American-Russian relations, coupled with increasing suspicion of any American effort in Russia. At first this manifested in community opposition and bureaucratic delays culminating in a reclassification of their tax status increasing annunal taxes from $2,000 to $500,000 coupled with a refusal of reaccreditation.
The brightest spot in the narratives are the descriptions of the students and their eager welcome and embrace of instruction by a joint American and Russian faculty. We also see how forming deep relationships of integrity with Russian officials overcame many barriers until political pressure became too great. This was matched by the generosity of Bernbaum’s American partners.
The deep regret of course was that international relations finally made it impossible to continue this effort. The narrative offers evidence that the students who came through the program, the many faculty from both countries who taught in the program, and the student exchanges and programs in English and Russian that were formed, built bridges of understanding and equipped a cohort of students with a Christian vision for their work in Russia. One hopes this is a kind of “mustard seed conspiracy” that will one day bear great fruit in Russia, and in American relations with that great country. One also hopes and prays that the spiritual hunger that originated this initiative will be sustained and grow.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.