When thousands of Russians streamed toward the border of Kazakhstan in mid-September, a local pastor wasn’t worried about the massive flow of outsiders suddenly headed to his home country. He was wondering about how his church would receive them.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he said a few weeks later. “I doubted how hospitable and open we would be.”
The Russians flowing toward Kazakhstan and other neighboring countries weren’t military troops. They were citizens fleeing a war they didn’t want to fight. When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military mobilization to conscript up to 300,000 Russian men for the country’s ongoing war against Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of Russians fled within a few days.
Nearly 200,000 headed to Kazakhstan, a former Soviet Republic of 18 million people on Russia’s southern border.
Many were passing through but needed immediate help. Others intended to stay indefinitely. Denis, the pastor of an evangelical church in Kazakhstan, started getting phone calls from churches and believers in Russia: “Can you help us?”
A Different Kind of Refugee Crisis
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February sparked the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, with 12 million Ukrainians fleeing an onslaught of bombings in cities and villages across the country.
Seven months later, Putin’s plan to draft 300,000 Russian men to participate in the war sparked a different kind of refugee crisis, as thousands fled a battle they didn’t want to fight. Their reasons for leaving varied, but for many, it’s a crisis of conscience.
Their reasons for leaving varied, but for many, it’s a crisis of conscience.
Denis recently hosted three Russian believers who fled to Kazakhstan after the military mobilization began. For hours one evening, they sat with the pastor and wrestled with whether they were right to leave: should they have stayed in Russia and potentially gone to prison for refusing to fight? “They were troubled in their souls,” he says.
The pastor has heard similar struggles from other Russian believers grappling with how to refuse a war they believe is unjust but also provide for their families and loved ones in a time of deep uncertainty. “They want to be faithful to Christ, and they want to be faithful to the church,” he says. “They really don’t know what to do.”
Denis says it’s hard to give simple answers to such complex questions, but from the beginning, at least one thing has been clear to him: the church should help brothers in distress.
Compassion in Complexity
When Denis started getting phone calls from believers headed to Kazakhstan in September, he wasn’t sure how his church would respond. Evangelicals are a tiny minority in the majority Muslim nation, and though they meet freely, they still face challenges of their own.
The pastor was deeply encouraged by the church’s response: “I see now that God’s people are willing to do much more than I think any of us could expect.”
Church members volunteered spare rooms and hot meals, and some who had been on the margins of church life asked to be part of the congregation’s efforts. Meanwhile, a Christian couple heading to Kazakhstan met a fellow refugee on a train and offered to help him through the church as well.
Denis’s congregation helped the lone man find an apartment, and Denis was grateful for an opportunity to offer Christian compassion to an unbeliever. “He called me and thanked me for talking with him and having dinner with him on his first night here,” he says. “He said that was the biggest help he needed.”
Weeks later, the pastor is thankful for how this kind of ministry has helped his congregation too. “I think it melted our hearts,” he says. “I think we are better followers of Christ now because we had to open our homes and our hearts.”
Serving in Place
In mid-October, Putin announced the military mobilization was complete, with about 220,000 men conscripted. But some worry that the Russian leader might launch a second wave of conscriptions and spark another round of departures for those able to leave the country.
For many Russians, leaving isn’t an option. Without sufficient funds or connections abroad, most will stay in the country.
Timur, an Uzbekistan citizen living in the United Arab Emirates, has been fielding calls from Christians looking to leave Russia. But he also knows a Russian pastor headed back to help his congregation. After accompanying a family member who fled in September, the Russian pastor booked a flight home. He knows he may face conscription in the future, but for now, he told Timur: “I’m going back to serve the church.”