Ivan S. Prokhanov: A Brief Biography
One of the great leaders of the Protestant movement in Russia is Ivan S. Prokhanov, who lived through sixty years of tumultuous history which included the end of the Romanov dynasty, the agony of the First World War, the revolutions of 1917 and the formation of the Soviet Union by the Bolshevik Party headed by Lenin and Stalin. The context of his life gives us significant insight into the struggles of Christians under both tsarist and Communist Party rule.
Prokhanov was born in 1869 in a small village in the Caucasus. His parents were Molokans (“Milk Drinkers”), a dissident movement which broke off from the Russian Orthodox Church in the 18th century, rejecting the ritualism of Orthodoxy and instead emphasizing internal spirituality. Their name came from their unwillingness to observe Orthodox rules about fasting during Lent, including the drinking of milk, and, as a result, they were dubbed “milk drinkers” by their Orthodox neighbors.
Ivan’s parents fled to the Caucasus in the 1860s, along with many other religious dissidents, to avoid persecution by Orthodox priests and tsarist police. They hoped to find religious freedom there as they carved out their living as peasant farmers. The plight of his parents and their struggle for religious freedom helped to make Ivan a serious-minded, reflective young boy and instilled in him a passion for poor, suffering people.
In his autobiography, recently translated into English (1993), Ivan described the principal influences on his life. The most profound was the experience of religious persecution which he witnessed through his family. At school, he and his brothers were often ridiculed and sometimes beaten. Yet education became the means for broadening Ivan’s horizons and he fell in love with history, literature and the sciences. He was particularly influenced by the writings of Dostoevsky, which awoke in his heart a deep pity, love and admiration for every sufferer and martyr in Russia. He recalled that as a teenager he decided “to devote all of my life to the cause of freedom for my people” (Prokhanov, In the Cauldron of Russia, p. 40).
Prokhanov described his teenage years attending schools where religion was taught as a part of the required curriculum, but “all this teaching was so obviously official and so far removed from revealed truth as contained in the Scriptures that it aroused only antipathy or actual resistance in the minds of the students” (Cauldron, p. 42). Despite the sterile way Christianity was presented in the schools, Ivan became a Christian in November 1886, at 17 years of age and was baptized in the Terek River. Consciously following the “tentmaking” model of the Apostle Paul, Prokhanov decided to gain a practical education in technical engineering by which he could make a living, while using all his other time to work as an evangelist, teacher and organizer.
Prokhanov’s Vision for Education
Prokhanov’s life is an amazing example of a man committed to his faith, a man willing to suffer imprisonment for his beliefs, while remaining deeply committed to his country, despite persecution by both tsarist and Bolshevik governments. His achievements are enormous, more than most people would accomplish in several lifetimes. As a young Christian he founded the monthly Christian magazine Besseda (“Talk”), established a Christian agricultural commune in the Crimea called “The Vineyard,” created the first association of Protestant Christian youth and issued a periodical to support its ministry. He achieved national recognition as a young leader in Russian Protestant circles. In subsequent years, Prokhanov continued his dynamic ministry: he founded a monthly magazine, “The Christian,” in 1906 which was published for 22 years until the Communists closed it down; created the first Evangelical Christian Publishing Association in 1908; opened the first Protestant bookstore in St. Petersburg, established a Bible school in 1913 and later a theological school both located in St. Petersburg; and, finally, was one of the founders of the All-Russian Evangelical Christian Union. While doing all of this, Prokhanov also published ten hymnbooks for use in Protestant churches: hymnbooks which included over 600 songs he had written!
As a result of several trips to Western Europe and North America, Prokhanov became convinced that religious liberty provided the basis for political and scientific liberty in the West and that Protestant countries in the West were the “most free in the world.” He was deeply impressed by the “enormous work of social and spiritual education” in these countries, an accomplishment that, in his judgment, related to the nature of Protestant Christianity. “My experiences abroad in connection with Protestantism brought me to the unshakeable conclusion that only the Bible and the Gospel freely distributed and freely accepted could create the highest welfare of my fatherland….” (Cauldron, pp. 105-6).
Prokhanov’s vision for education — a vision shared by many other Russian Protestant leaders who worked with him — was captured in a short statement written and adopted by the All-Russian Evangelical Christian Conference in 1926. The purpose of the statement, titled “The Gospel Standard of Life,” was to help Russians understand the practical side of Christianity. The critical importance of education was highlighted in points three and four. Point three read: “The Gospel should bring its influence to bear upon Science. Evangelical Christians must acquire all the scientific knowledge possible, either for themselves or their children, or to take part in the development and extension of scientific achievements. There should not be among us even one illiterate man or woman. All members, both parents and children, must try to secure the highest education commensurate with their means.” Point four carried the issue one step further: “The Gospel must find expression in the development of the arts, such as literature, music, architecture, printing and sculpture” (Cauldron, p. 237). Unfortunately for Prokhanov and his colleagues, this inspired vision for education was never put into practice because the Stalinist reign of terror was soon to begin.