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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

No Christmas Tree for Tver's 70 Calvinists

For MTYevgeny Kashirsky leading a service at the Evangelical Reformed Church in Tver.
TVER, Central Russia -- What is Christmas without a Christmas tree -- that German tradition that made its way to Russia some 300 years ago and has become such a part of both Orthodox Christian and secular culture here?

But there is at least one small Protestant Christian community that takes its Biblical foundations so seriously that a tree and even the whole merry spirit of the holiday is a matter of debate -- if not controversy -- among its 70 members.

On Zavokzalnaya Ulitsa, among typical wooden houses with snow-covered gardens, one of Russia's four tiny Reformed communities made its home six years ago in a brick house it bought from a Gypsy clan.

Here, where the services are translated from the Dutch liturgy, the seemingly simple question of a Christmas tree caused Pastor Yevgeny Kashirsky to hesitate.

"I have not raised this question yet," Kashirsky, who resembles characters from Holbein and Vermeer canvases, said Friday. "Last year, we did have a tree. The year before we didn't. The more conservative brothers consider it to be pagan."

Otherwise, the pastor speaks with conviction about John Calvin's theology and a need for Christian enlightenment and political activism to eventually build something of a 16th-century Geneva or rural Dutch town in this sleepy city of about 500,000 inhabitants.

Contrary to the traditional Russian perception of Dec. 25 as "Catholic" Christmas, the vast majority of the arguably more than 1 million Russians who will celebrate the holiday on Wednesday are Protestants, predominantly adherents of Protestantism's 19th-century, originally Anglo-Saxon denominations -- Baptists, Pentecostals and Seventh-day Adventists. So-called first-wave Protestants are represented in Russia by two Lutheran churches -- one of German, the other of Finnish tradition.

Reformed communities, which existed before the Revolution in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Odessa, were almost exclusively Dutch and did not survive the Soviet period, while Hungarian Reformed churches from Transcarpathian Ukraine never proliferated either.

Against this background, Kashirsky's strictly conservative Evangelical Reformed Church and its even smaller fellow parishes in Moscow, Omsk and Ufa represent a somewhat exotic phenomenon for the followers of Russia's religious revival. One of the most traditional forms of Protestantism, the Reform church emerged in a most untraditional setting as a result of a religious pursuit by a group of intellectuals and not of proselytizing by foreign missionaries.

"I see it as a form of religious creativity, which was so widespread in the 1990s in Russia, when tons of people began inventing their religions," said Alexander Shchipkov, author of the "What Russia Believes In" program on Radio Rossii and head of the Media Union's Religion Reporters' Guild. "They are intellectuals, and it comes from their heads, not from their hearts. It is unlikely to become big in Russia. But they are serious. They took a real basis, a tradition that works without them, and began adapting it to Russian conditions."

The small group that formed around Kashirsky meets weekly for services, holds a theological class, tries to enforce Puritan discipline among its members and does not go after new adherents for sheer numbers. It produces a web site and publishes brochures to disseminate its ideas.

"The most common Russian Protestant worldview largely has to do with your personal salvation and preaching the Gospels, usually a very optimistic and joyful type of preaching," Kashirsky said as a portrait of Calvin looked down from the wall. "But what do you do after that? Well, you create one choir, another choir and the question arises -- is that it? We are saying that you should be totally Christian in all spheres of life -- in the family, at work, at school, so that everything leads to Christ."

While rejecting what Protestants describe as Orthodox "additions" to the Bible, Kashirsky said he finds many common points with the Orthodox Church. "We work on the same field with the Orthodox -- we are pro-state, pro-family, pro-patriotism," he said.

Kashirsky, who was born in Tver and specialized in English and German during his studies at the local university's linguistics department, said he had had an interest in faith since his childhood. Growing up in a typical, religiously indifferent Soviet family, he would stop by the city's only Orthodox church and light a candle, but no one would ever speak to him there about faith. In the late 1980s, he went to a Baptist church.

"I am very grateful to Baptism that it led me through the doors of Protestantism, and then I walked on my own," he said. His love of reading led him to Calvin's theology. It was not available in Russian until several years ago, but he got hold of an address for a British publishing house, which sent him several books in English.

In 1991, he registered the first Calvinist community in post-Soviet Russia. After ties were established with several Reformed churches in Europe, mainly with the Dutch-based Reformed Church (Liberated), Kashirsky attended pastoral seminars in Wuppertahl, Germany, and at Theological University in Kampen, the Netherlands.

In 1996, the community bought the house on Zavokzalnaya Ulitsa. Built by an extended Gypsy family, it had a spacious common room in the middle with a staircase leading to a second-floor gallery, so no remodeling was necessary to convert the house into a church.

Kashirsky writes extensively on issues ranging from men's need to reassume responsibility and leadership in families to the confrontation between Islam and Christian civilizations. He views his community as God's nation with a special mission to bring the Reformation to Russia and said he would like one day to form a Christian political party

"We will create our own Russian Protestant culture," he said. "There was a time when there was no Protestant culture in the Netherlands or Switzerland either."

Sermons in Kashirsky's church take up more than an hour of the 1 1/2-hour services, which seem to have more of an intellectual than an emotional or artistic appeal. There is no organ.

The Christmas service at 7 p.m. on Wednesday will not be much different from others, Kashirsky said, while community members are encouraged to invite relatives and friends who are alone for Christmas Eve dinner. Children will get their gifts on New Year's Eve.

Vadim Skakovsky, co-owner of a small company producing communications equipment, said he was baptized in the Orthodox Church but did not like its emphasis on ritual. When a friend of a friend brought him to Kashirsky's church, Skakovsky, who said he had always liked to read philosophical books, found a home here.

"I discovered such a depth of theology here, and such a systematic worldview that I could not find elsewhere," Skakovsky said. As a presbyter, his duty in the community today is to oversee discipline, visit troubled members at home and resolve issues such as a quarrel between two sisters who refused to receive Communion together.

Because of its small size and because it does not proselytize in the streets, Tver's Reformed church has not encountered any problems with the authorities or local media, which did not appear aware that such a church exists in their city at all during a seminar on religion and the press in Tver on Friday.