Oleksandr Turchynov, the interim president of Ukraine following the dismissal of former leader Viktor Yanukovych, is a member of one of the strife-torn nation’s tiniest minority groups: He is a Baptist. Not only that, but Turchynov is reportedly a pastor -- in a country overwhelmingly dominated by Ukrainian Orthodox members and Eastern Rite Catholics. The Religion News Service (RNS) suggested that Turchynov’s Baptist faith could potentially serve as a bridge between the gulf that separates the nation’s Ukrainian majority and Russian minority. “[Turchynov’s faith] testifies to the diversity of Ukraine’s cultural landscape,” Vitaly Chernetsky, a professor of Slavic languages at the University of Kansas and president of the American Association for Ukrainian Studies, told RNS. “Ukraine is sort of the Bible Belt of the former Soviet Union. This is the part of the former Soviet Union where evangelical churches are the strongest.”
Turchynov, who wrote a novel in 2005 called “Illusion of Fear,” which was replete with biblical quotes and images, belongs to a church called Slovo Zhizni, or “Word of Life” in Kiev, where he serves as a church elder. He is also a member of the Baptist Union of Ukraine (the All-Ukrainian Union of Churches of Evangelical Christian Baptists). According to reports, Turchynov has met with several Baptist groups from across Europe, including the European Baptist Federation (EBF) and the Baptist World Alliance. RNS noted that in a country of some 45 million people, only about 135,000 are Baptists. Associated Baptist Press (ABP) reported that with 2,362 churches and 121,645 members, the All-Ukrainian Union of Associations of Evangelical Christians-Baptists is one of the largest Baptist bodies in Europe.
Most protestants in Ukraine were recently converted after the country allowed missionaries, particularly from the U.S., to spread the word of the Bible. Under the rule of the Soviet Union, such activities were banned in Ukraine. Sergey Rakhuba, head of the U.S.-based Russian Ministries, who has kept in touch with Turchynov, told Christianity Today that the new acting president of Ukraine is “principled” and “honest.” “He is well-known as a preacher who, despite his political opposition work, preaches on a regular basis at one of the Baptist churches in Kiev, even though security must travel with him,” Rakhuba said. “Overall, the evangelical church is excited about Turchynov's sudden unanimous appointment as acting president. Within the evangelical community, the post-Soviet mindset exists that a true Christian cannot necessarily be a politician. Personally I think it is great that Turchynov is calling for unification and healing of the nation.” Turchynov also reportedly abstains from tobacco and alcohol.
As of 2006, according to the CIA/World Factbook, 50.4 percent of the Ukrainian population adhere to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate, while 26.1 percent belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate. Another 8 percent identify as Ukrainian-Greek Catholic, and 7.2 percent as Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox. Only about 2 percent are classified as either Roman Catholic or protestant. (These figures may have changed somewhat over the past eight years, although it’s unlikely that protestants account for a significant part of the population.)
In any case, Turchynov has been tasked with the thankless job of running the Ukrainian government ahead of elections scheduled for May 25 as turmoil engulfs the southern regions of the country where Russian troops have massed.
Turchynov, only 49, commenced his political career in 1993 as an adviser to Ukrainian Prime Minister Leonid Kuchma. In 1999, Turchynov co-founded, with Yulia Tymoshenko, Batkivshchyna, or the Fatherland Party. Two years later, he organized rallies against Kuchma. By 2005, Tymoshenko became prime minister during the so-called Orange Revolution, with Turchynov serving as her deputy. Since Tymoshenko’s imprisonment in 2011 (on alleged corruption charges), Turchynov has loyally looked after Tymoshenko's political machinery. “Turchynov is one of the best organizers in Ukraine,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Center of Applied Political Studies, or PENTA, in Kiev, to RNS. “He is known to always play secondary roles, never pretending to take the primary ones.”
Still, it's not clear whether Turchynov has the support of the anti-Yanukovych protesters who agitated for three months to overthrow the pro-Russian president. As Turchynov is loyal to Tymoshenko, who was just released from prison, he may be linked to her in a negative way -- that is, a part of the political establishment, which the Maidan demonstrators seek to topple entirely in a country they feel is overwhelmed by corruption and nepotism.
Interestingly, Turchynov failed in a bid to become mayor of Kiev in 2008, despite enjoying Tymoshenko’s support. “I am a little annoyed by [the selection of] Turchynov but I understand he is only a temporary choice,” a protester named Igor Blyzniuk told RNS. “Let’s see what happens next and who will be in the new government.”
Some analysts suggest Turchynov’s faith may actually hurt him. “Unlike Yulia Tymoshenko, Turchynov is not charming at all,” Fesenko said. “And he is a Baptist preacher. It works against him too. Baptism is not mainstream.”
Of course, Turchynov has the support of the nation’s small Baptist population. “Unite in prayer for the future leadership of our country,” said a statement by the Evangelical Baptist Union of Ukraine. “Please pray for the members of the current transitional government performing parliamentary and presidential duties so that they are not driven by more than wisdom and fear of God.”
In addition, the EBF praised Turchynov's appointment as interim president as triumph for Christianity in Eastern Europe. “During all these days of protests and confrontations the Christian community in Ukraine has been the light and the salt for both parties,” EBF said in a statement. “What Ukraine needs is not just a change of people in authority but a change of the system and the relationship of the authorities to ordinary citizens. Ukraine needs love, mercy and forgiveness. Ukraine needs Christ!”
Christianity Today further noted that Turchynov’s appointment has a precedence in Eastern Europe -- in 1999, a lay Methodist named Boris Trajkovski was named president of Macedonia. Trajkovski, who served the tiny nation’s Roma (Gypsy) community, was called the “George W. Bush of Macedonia.”