Quakers are mentioned in Alexander Pushkin’s novel “Eugene Onegin” (1823). And Leo Tolstoy’s daughter-in-law, Olga Tolstaya-Voyekova (1858-1936), joined the Quakers in 1924.
Quakers actually have a long history of involvement in Russia, and thanks largely to the efforts of Quakers, the peace church remains on Russian soil.
Closure of the Mennonite Central Committee’s Moscow offices in 2000 led some to assume that the witness of North America’s pacifists, the “historic peace churches” (Quaker, Mennonite, Church of the Brethren), had come to an end. That has not been the case.
Friends House Moscow, founded in 1994, remains active as a non-governmental organization (NGO) committed to social and humanitarian causes. In addition, two small groups of Moscow Quakers are meeting. Interested individuals or groups are active in Kazan, Lipetsk, Elektrostal (near Moscow) and Barnaul as well as in the Baltics, Minsk, Tbilisi and Ukraine. Yet total Quaker membership within Russia numbers less than 50, with 20 of them in Moscow. Worldwide, they number less than 400,000.
The Moscow Quakers presently meet in a downtown basement room on Sunday evenings. At their meetings, there are no religious trappings other than a candle. No sermons. Usually no music. On the evening I was there, the meeting began with five in attendance. It ended an hour later with nearly 15. The hour was spent in silent meditation except for the reading of several Scriptures. The second group, which meets biweekly, could be described as a discussion group.
Johan Maurer is a member of the Evangelical Friends Church International branch of Quakerism. He’s an American teaching language in Elektrostal, and he describes his strategy as, “Finding out what Jesus is doing in Russia and joining in.”
That joining involves becoming neighbors to the folks in Elektrostal – a way for him and his wife, Judy, to become rooted in Russia.
“We want to find ways to bring a redemptive message into the classroom,” says Maurer. “We have a special message to give, but we do not proselytize.”
The Quaker belief in the “inward light,” in “that of God” within each individual, lends itself strongly to dialogue. It makes the convictions of every person worthy of consideration. But the belief that the Holy Spirit speaks directly to each individual has led Quakers at times to go beyond the teaching of sola scriptura. If God speaks to each person, then it indeed becomes difficult to claim that one is speaking at the behest of the Holy Spirit – and the other person is not. At this point, Friends’ teaching on corporate discernment is crucial.
Quaker teaching became increasingly broad during the last century. Maurer concedes that it is no longer clear to all Quakers whether they are a Christian community or an interreligious order driven by a common concern for peace and social justice.
Maurer says that a church community with little structure and no sacraments (no baptism, communion or church calendar) lacks the sensuality common to Slavic worship. He sees it as a possible impediment to the growth of the Quaker movement in Russia – or, more positively, an invitation to merge the simplicity of traditional Quaker worship with the depth and directness of Russian spirituality.
But the weakness of the Quaker movement is also its strength: The absence of outward forms opens it for dialogue with a very diverse community of human beings.
Quakers were among the earliest to champion individual rights and civil society.
The founder of the movement, the Englishman George Fox (1624-1691), wrote a letter to Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich in 1654. Their fame in Russia was due not least of all to Czar Alexander I (1777-1825), who is sometimes described as an evangelical. He had become enamored with the Quakers during his 1814 visit to London.
Quakerism has practiced sexual equality since the days of Fox. In Russia, Quakers were regarded by some members of the intelligentsia as a liberating alternative to the Orthodox Church with its egalitarian and nonhierarchical approach.
Driven by concerns for humanitarian relief and peace, Quakers were able to maintain an office in Moscow from 1923 to 1931. Their office was possibly the very last Western NGO operating in Moscow during the Stalinist period.
Surprisingly enough, despite being involved with Russia’s conscientious objectors, they work with units of the Russian army in Moscow and Lipetsk. Along with the other two peace churches, Quakers are stressing peaceful conflict resolution worldwide.
Sergei Grushko is director of Moscow Friends House and head of its Alternatives to Violence Project, which teaches communication skills in everyday situations with the intent of reducing violence within the military, schools and other social groupings.
Other Quaker social programs presently include a hospice for the dying in Yaroslavl, aid for young people leaving orphanages to live on their own and for the children of migrants. Programs provide aid to foster children and their new parents. Another program helps children suffering from cancer.
Though Quaker work on Russian penal reform goes back as far as 1819, they are presently refused access to prisons.
William Yoder is spokesperson for the Russian Evangelical Alliance.