During the Cold War, Siberia was known as a place of forced exile for citizens who disagreed with the Soviet government. In fact, one of its megacities, Omsk, literally means ‘a faraway place to send prisoners.’
Now home to just 40 million people (a mere 27% of Russia’s population), it’s a region where the average monthly wage runs to little more than £450 and you may need to take out a mortgage to buy a fur coat. An essential in temperatures which can plummet to -60C.
But while the bleak and vast landscape remains unchanged the good news is that Innovista missioners are helping to bring life-changing hope to its people. Despite being the largest region in Russia, Siberia has been an unpopular destination for foreign missionaries. And not simply because of the harsh climate. The mentality of the local population towards westerners is harsh too, resulting in strong resistance and suspicion to the Christian message. Even among church leaders.
‘Some pastors can be scared of the world and spend much of their time protecting their flock rather than thinking creatively about mission,’ explained Slavic, Director of Innovista in Siberia. ‘I spoke at a church meeting in Siberia and encouraged them not to think of church as only within the building, but urged them to bring Jesus into their soccer clubs, dance classes, coffee times and friendships. After I finished, the pastor got up and said, 'Of course, we should forget every word that he just said.’’
But a new generation of Christians is thinking differently, trying to engage with people on their patch through social activities and friendship groups.
Slavic joined Innovista in 2003 as its first evangelism/mission trainer, frequently travelling 24 hours and more by Trans-Siberian railway to encourage young people to share their faith confidently and to develop up-and-coming leaders to head up mission themselves.
As the work in Siberia grew, Slavic sensed God calling him to move his family to the region. Since 2010 when he’s not on the road, Slavic works with the Siberian Youth Movement and he and his family are part of a local church plant in Omsk.
Now there is another challenge to face. In 2016, Russia passed a law making it illegal for Christians to talk about their faith anywhere except inside a “specially registered place”, like a church building.
But the church and its young leaders are responding with courage, seemingly even more determined to bring the hope of Jesus to those around them.
Slavic says – “Pray that we are invisible to the authorities, but incredible for God.”