The Invitation

On Saturday, October 20, 1990, a delegation of thirteen Christian educators boarded a plane in New York’s Kennedy Airport for a trip to Russia. As coordinator of the trip — and in Soviet eyes, the delegation head — I was very nervous. This was my first trip to the Soviet Union. Although I had completed a Ph.D. in European and Russian history almost twenty years earlier, I had never had the opportunity to visit Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union. The closest I had come was the Austrian-Hungarian border in 1971.

Our trip to Moscow was a follow-up to a visit to the States by a delegation of sixteen Soviet educators in September 1990. Under the leadership of Evgeny Kazantsev, Deputy Minister of Education of the USSR, this delegation had been invited by the Christian College Coalition (CCC) to visit Washington, D.C., and travel to the campuses of three Christian colleges within driving distance of the nation’s capital. During their visit, they attended seminars on private higher education and federal funding of education, visited tourist sites and shopping malls, and were hosted for one-day visits by the leadership of Eastern Mennonite College, Eastern College and Messiah College.

The initial contact that led to this exchange was the friendship established by Peter and Anita Deyneka, the leaders of Slavic Gospel Association (and later founders of Deyneka Russian Ministries), with Kazantsev. They told him several times that if he wanted to reform Soviet higher education, he needed to learn about Christian liberal arts colleges in the United States, which would provide models of private educational institutions where moral values were taught and ethical behavior was encouraged. When Kazantsev agreed that this was a good idea, he also agreed to meet with Karen Longman (CCC) and Dick Scheuerman (SGA), who traveled to Moscow in March 1990 to lay the groundwork for cooperation in higher education. During these meetings, it was agreed that “sister relationships” should be formed between Christian colleges in the States and Soviet state universities. In order to build these “sister relationships,” both sides agreed to host and finance visiting delegations from each other’s country.

In the midst of all the revolutionary changes occurring in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during 1990, our delegation was thrilled with the opportunity to visit a country where travel had previously been limited and to observe an educational system that was largely unknown to us. For three days, our delegation was divided into six groups and sent to six state universities throughout European Russia; the cities visited included Gorky (later renamed Nizhni Novgorod), Ivanovo, Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Stavropol, Tula and Yaroslavl.

We then returned to Moscow for three more days of visits to Moscow area universities and institutes and a series of farewell banquets and celebrations. There were many highlights for me during this first visit to the Soviet Union, but one I will never forget took place on Friday, October 26, 1990. The previous day I had been told that I must appear at the Ministry of Education for a meeting with the new First Vice Chairman of the State Committee on Higher Education, Dr. Vladimir G. Kinelev. Knowing a little about Soviet education and Communist Party control mechanisms, I was concerned that the new minister might insist on interfering with our newly-formed “sister relationships” with these state universities. I must admit, I also did not like being ordered to appear somewhere without much warning.

The late Friday afternoon meeting with Yeltsin’s newly appointed higher education minister was a surprising delight. Kinelev was gracious and cordial. Early on in our hour-long meeting, he reported that the Soviet rectors had told him about their September visits to Coalition colleges in the States and how the “atmosphere” of these colleges, “due to their humanitarian bases, humane views, [and] high morals” so impressed them. “This,” he said, “is very attractive to us.”

After describing the radical changes in Soviet education that were currently underway — a list of reforms, breathtaking to comprehend in light of the previous seventy years — Kinelev offered this invitation: “Would you come here to found one of your colleges on our soil, a college that would be a member of the Christian College Coalition? Would you do here what our rectors saw on your campuses in the United States?”

I was stunned. I remember changing subjects quickly, while I tried to figure out an appropriate response to an invitation I never imagined would come. I did not want to promise something I could not deliver, nor did I want to ignore the offer. Frankly, the rest of the conversation is a blur in my memory and the minutes of this meeting, carefully recorded by Elaine Stahl (SGA), contain no more references to this invitation.

Who would have known that this invitation, made in the fall of 1990, would lead to the creation of the Russian-American Christian University, which offered its first courses in the spring of 1995 and hosted its first freshman class in September 1996? Another fascinating point also deserves to be made: Kinelev, the young reformist First Vice Chairman, survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reconstruction of the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Education into a Russian Ministry. He is now the Russian Minister of Education with responsibility for the entire educational system and all the related academies and research institutes. I look forward to the day when he visits our campus!