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SBC Life Articles

The Udmurts: On the Brink


No father should have to bury a son.

But the world can be a sad place — particularly the piece of it called Udmurtia (ood-MER-ti-yah) in the foothills of Russia's Ural Mountains. On a spring day there last year, Leonid touched his son Yevgeny's cold, pale cheek for the last time and wept as Yevgeny was lowered into the silent ground.

Yevgeny, 21, hanged himself after a drinking binge. It was the third suicide of the year in the tiny Udmurt (OOD-mert) village of thirty families.

Why? Hopelessness. Aimlessness. Spiritual poverty.

"Young people want everything and they want it now," Leonid says, sitting at his kitchen table a few months later. "My son was that way. They watch TV and can't tell the difference between fantasy and reality. With no work, all they do is drink."

The gulf between soaring expectations and grim, jobless reality overwhelms some young Udmurts. They brood, drink, sniff glue, become depressed — sometimes suicidal.

Leonid folds his burly arms and shakes his head. For a long moment, he looks out the window at the rolling hills that stretch to the forest. He pours more tea for his Christian guests. Normally good-natured and cheerful, the forty-three-year-old former teacher manages a smile and even a quip or two. He brags about the homegrown herbs he uses to brew his tea. But soon he grows pensive again.

"We Udmurts are famous for healing herbs," he says. "Yet we have the second-highest suicide rate in Russia. I don't understand it."

Day of Prayer and Fasting

In many ways, Leonid's personal tragedy symbolizes the struggle of the Udmurt people. But he also symbolizes hope for the Udmurt, because Leonid has become a believer in Jesus Christ. He was led to faith by Vasily Zagrebin, an Udmurt Baptist evangelist, and Southern Baptist missionary Tim Wicker. Now he wants to help take the Gospel from village to village, so other Udmurts might know hope and escape the hopelessness his son suffered.

The Udmurts are the focus of this year's Day of Prayer and Fasting for World Evangelization, which Southern Baptists will observe May 27 (Pentecost Sunday).

You can use this article as you pray that day or at other times. You also can order a new DVD from the International Mission Board. It contains multiple resources for use by churches, small groups, and individuals, including a video profile of the Udmurts and several "virtual prayerwalks" through Udmurtia. To order the DVD and other free resources, visit ime.imb.org/dayofprayer or call (800) 999-3113. To learn more about how to reach the Udmurts — and other peoples of the former Soviet Union — visit hope4cee.org.

The Udmurt people, who number about 770,000, are one of the larger non-Muslim groups in Russia. Ethnically related to the Finns, they have occupied what is now known as Udmurtia for probably millennia. Written history, however, records their emergence as a distinct people in the sixth century A.D.

This pastoral group has been dominated by various peoples and empires over the centuries, including the Mongols, the Russians, and the Soviets. Their communist-era Udmurt Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic became the democratic Republic of Udmurtia in 1990 as the Soviet Union crumbled, but it remains a part of the current Russian Federation.

The Udmurts have been nominal adherents of the Russian Orthodox Church since they were forcibly converted by Russian monks and military commanders in the 1700s. But their skin-deep Christianity has mingled ever since with older, deeper layers of animism and nature worship.

An estimated two thousand Udmurts are evangelical followers of Christ — barely a quarter of 1 percent of their total population. Some two hundred of them worship with ethnic Russians in the nine Baptist churches of Udmurtia. Few evangelical churches are considered truly Udmurt; most preach and teach in Russian with a mixture of Udmurt and Russian worship songs.

Tradition and Troubles

Traditionally, Udmurts revered sacred forests (they are known as "people of the woods"), the land, the sky, the sun, water, spirits, ancestors, their mythical creator "Inmar," and a host of lesser deities. They made sacrifices to their gods in forests and sacred barns, but knew nothing of personal repentance or divine forgiveness. They saw their offerings as barter in exchange for a good crop, fertility, and prosperity.

How much do the old ways influence Udmurts today? Some say paganism has faded. Others see a direct link between pagan practice and the alcoholism and suicide that torment their people.

Whatever their origins, the problems of the Udmurts threaten their long-term existence. Like many indigenous peoples, particularly in the former Soviet Union, they have experienced a cultural revival in recent years. Yet as one Udmurt leader laments, "We are a minority in our own republic," which is socially and economically dominated by the Russians.

Most Udmurts live in small villages, many of which count only a few families. The years of economic chaos after the fall of communism hit Udmurtia hard. Decent jobs remain hard to find. Higher education is even harder to attain. Many Udmurts get by on family gardens.

The birthrate in the countryside is low; the mortality rate from alcoholism, particularly among men, is high. Some Udmurt young people leave for the cities and assimilate into Russian culture. They try to forget their rich language and ethnic heritage or never learn it in the first place.

For those who stay in the villages, what's left?

"Youth in the countryside can't see the future or the meaning of life," says a young Christian in Izhevsk, Udmurtia's capital. "They don't have anything to look forward to."

Flickers in the Darkness

But lights of hope are flickering like scattered candles in the darkness surrounding the Udmurts.

"I genuinely sense that God is working among them now," says Wicker, who is based in Moscow. He directs Southern Baptists' "virtual strategy coordinator" initiative for some of Russia's key unreached peoples. The effort connects Gospel-needy peoples with Southern Baptists in the United States who commit to reaching them.

For now, however, Wicker personally serves as "virtual strategy coordinator" for the Udmurts. He looks forward to the day when God calls an individual within a Southern Baptist church to coordinate work among these people. Meanwhile, he visits the region regularly, building partner relationships with Baptists and other evangelical leaders. They include Alexander Popov, the head pastor of the Baptist association in Udmurtia. Popov is helping spearhead a united movement of Christians convinced the time has come to reach all of Udmurtia with the Gospel.

Other lights illuminating the darkness:

House churches and worship groups are springing up in Udmurt villages, thanks to the ministry of Udmurt evangelists.

Young Baptists and other Christians in Udmurtia are reaching out to the lost of their generation — Udmurts as well as Russians. The Christian music/drama group "Paradigma," for instance, tours villages and orphanages to bring the love of Christ. "We perform often for people who have no hope," says Paulina, a "Paradigma" member. "But they hear us sing, they see our faces, and they have hope."

Some younger Russian Orthodox priests in Udmurt villages gladly accept Bibles to give to members of their flocks.

Baptists and other evangelicals in Izhevsk are touching hurting people through posters and public-service TV commercials that offer a way out of alcoholism and drug abuse. People who respond to the media outreach can call a hotline for help. They also can come to the International Center for Hope, which ministers to addicts, orphans, abused children, and other wounded people through Christian counseling and twelve-step programs.

What else is needed? Many, many more churches and Udmurt disciples to lead them. A complete Udmurt Bible translation, which is in the works. A set of chronological Bible stories designed specifically for Udmurt culture and worldview.

Most of all, the Udmurts need your prayer.

"We've got to get people praying," says Wicker. "I'm so thrilled about the Day of Prayer and Fasting and how it's going to generate a spiritual force. We've got to get the Gospel out there."

Unite now in prayer for the Udmurts:

Father, break down the strongholds of paganism, alcoholism, depression, and suicide that oppress the Udmurts so they may see You through Jesus Christ.

Lord, bring about the rapid completion and wide distribution of the new Udmurt translation of Your Word.

Unite Udmurt and Russian Baptists and other believers in a grand vision to reach all of Udmurtia with Your Gospel.

Lord God, multiply churches among the Udmurts into an unstoppable church-planting movement.

Father, guide Your servants in the production of a set of chronological Bible stories that will effectively communicate Your truth to Udmurts.

Lord, open hundreds of Udmurt villages to showings of the JESUS film.

Extend Your Spirit throughout Udmurtia, Lord God. Extend your mercy and grace to the Udmurt people.

Your prayers will help decide the future of Russia's struggling "people of the woods" during this year's Day of Prayer and Fasting for World Evangelization on Sunday, May 27.

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  • SBC Staff