When Francis Street First UMC held its rally in support of Ukraine on March 13, it had a distinction from other churches that were doing the same: first-hand knowledge of the history of the region and current insight. Their pastor, Rev. Dr. Lydia Istomina, is Russian.
When Istomina was a child, her father was director of a cultural center for children. It consisted of a choir, orchestra and theater group. They traveled around to other countries, songs and dances that honored the other nationalities. The show ended with a gala representing different cultures.
“That’s how I grew up,” Istomina said.
Although it aimed to be multicultural, the show wasn’t always well received.
“When we performed in Latavia, our food was poisoned, and everyone got sick,” she said.
When she was 12 years old, she was with this ensemble in a mountainous region of western Ukraine. At 4 a.m., her mother woke up to the sounds of tanks and planes, which she recognized as the sounds of war. The time was significant, she associated 4 a.m. with the time that Russia was first attacked at the beginning of World War II. She got Istomina up, and they took shelter.
The year was 1968. Ukraine wasn’t being invaded, but rather the Soviets were invading Czechoslovakia. There were hard times. Istomina remembers when she had a baby, people were getting in line at the grocery store at 4 a.m. in the hope of getting some milk and bread. Her father did this for her.
“And he still came home with no milk,” she said.
She went on to have a career in business. In the 1980s, things began to change. She started to make connections with United Methodists who were able to visit Russia for the first time.
“When the Cold War was over, we had a sense of excitement, hope and trust,” Istomina said. “The Methodist Church was part of that.”
Istomina started making inroads to establishing a United Methodist presence in Russia in 1990. Restrictions on religion in the country were just beginning to loosen at that time. In July 1990, she started a United Methodist fellowship, essentially an informal club. That October, she was able to advance it to a “Community” status, which meant they could begin conducting administrative meeting but still weren’t allowed to have worship elements, like prayers or singing. They signed up 600 supporters.
When they began starting churches, four were started, one in Crimea and three in Russia. The people involved were a mix of Ukrainian and Russian. When worship was finally allowed in 1992, one church baptized 160 people on the first Sunday.
The Louisiana Conference was very involved at this point. Istomina was acquainted with Naina Yeltsina, wife of Russia’s president Boris Yeltsin, and she used that connection to secure an Anotonov, a large military transport aircraft that flew from Russia to Shreveport, Louisiana, to pick up aid supplies, with approval from the Pentagon.
“We didn’t want to use commercial transport because we would have lost everything to corruption as soon as it landed,” she said.
This plan worked, and the supplies arrived and were distributed as needed. Five people from the Louisiana Conference accompanied the flight, which made for a long flight, as it was a cargo, not a passenger, aircraft. They landed with 80 tons of rice, flour, sugar and various food.
“The supplies were mostly going to Ukraine,” Istomina said. “Russians were driving vans through snowstorms to get food to their Ukrainian brothers and sisters.”
That’s not to say that some people didn’t hold deep-seated prejudices. Istomina’s first husband was Ukrainian. When she told her mother about her boyfriend, her mother recognized his name as Ukrainian, and she responded with a Russian pejorative for Ukrainians.
“There are many of these pejoratives,” Istomina said.
Istomina’s last time in Russia was three years ago, before the pandemic. She could already sense a rising tension in the country. But she also saw improvements that people were taking pride in.
“Streets were very clean. People were well dressed – better than Americans. They were also very fit, different than the old stereotype of Russian women being large and overweight,” she said.
Not everything had improved. She noticed that disability access, which she had worked to improve 30 years ago, had not advanced, with few
ramps or elevators.
“I had hoped, but nothing with that had changed,” she said.
In light of the recent troubled times, Istomina’s son wanted to send money to his father, a Ukrainian living in Russia, but no good way to do so. Istomina’s cousin in Ukraine described to her sitting in front of a computer screen and seeing all his investments disappear. He opposes the war but does not want to protest as it can result in three days in jail and losing your job.
Istomina is now hesitant to connect with the pastors of the churches she helped start because she thinks they may be supportive of the invasion of Ukraine.
“I don’t want to be disappointed,” she said.
Of the Russian people, Istomina is in contact with, they are split on the war.
“Some people with a Soviet background are nostalgic for those times,” she said. “They don’t use the terms invasion or even war. They view this action as liberation for oppressed Russian people in these areas.”
She does still stay in touch with some friends and family in Russia as much as she can. Istomina has switched some social media accounts as some have now been cut off, either by the provider or the Russian government. She watches the news, and she worries.
“I’m careful how I watch television. I try not to get swallowed up by it,” she said. “I limit how long I will watch, then I turn it off and give myself time to process.”