The first two days of my visit to Moscow in January 2001 were some of the most discouraging in my ten years of work in the Russian Federation. As usual, I was excited to return to Moscow and my adrenalin was really flowing as I anticipated meeting with staff, faculty and students at the Russian-American Christian University’s campus.
However, my schedule was tight and the first two days of my visit were devoted to the search for a new campus facility, so there was no time for a campus visit until my meetings with various real estate developers were completed. On the first morning following my arrival, I was notified by our lawyers that the five-story institute building which we had been pursuing for almost a year had been “stolen” from us through “inside financial transactions,” which meant that the bankruptcy trustee had been bribed “under the table.” I subsequently learned that a large Russian company, with enormous financial resources, wanted the institute building and made the necessary arrangements to get what they wanted. This was a heavy blow. We not only lost a considerable investment in legal fees which we had paid out to ensure that the building papers were legitimate and “clean,” but we also lost a year’s worth of time and effort as we patiently waited while bankruptcy court proceedings slowly moved forward.
The second blow came that same afternoon. I met with a Senior Vice President of a large Russian firm, who brought his real estate and construction advisors to the meeting. They were clearly interested in working with us and the commission on a $4 million building was attractive, even to large corporation officials. The conversation proved to be very discouraging. The real estate advisors basically informed me that even though RACU had the legal right to buy a building in Moscow, it would never happen. The problem, in their judgment, was that 32 different Moscow city departments needed to issue permits once the building was purchased and when they found out that we were a Russian-American institution, every one of these departments would insist on payoffs.
The only way to solve this “problem,” according to these experienced real estate brokers, was to form a joint partnership with their firm, they would then buy the building through this partnership, hide our true identity, and pay off the officials. For their services, they would require a commission and a small percentage share of the ownership of the building.
I thanked them for their counsel and left the meeting very concerned. My concern was heightened when, on the morning of the second day, my next meeting with Russian officials of another large firm resulted in the same “solution.” These officials were also eager to form a partnership with RACU and “solve” the problems of dealing with city officials. While I am certainly not an authority with experience buying property in Russia, I knew that forming a partnership with Russians I did not know was not an answer! Nor was I going to authorize the payment of bribes to Moscow bureaucrats, even if the details were not revealed to me.
After a day and a half, I was deeply troubled. When I arrived on campus and reported to my colleagues what had happened, my disappointment was further deepened by story after story from my Russian and American friends who recalled numerous examples of Moscow city bureaucrats who “stuffed money into their pockets with both hands” and had no concern for the future of their city or their country. Short-term self-interest was their only motivation, according to these friends.
I went to bed that night very downcast. In my frustration, I asked God why He had lead me to this point after five years of developing a successful undergraduate program, only now to reveal to me that RACU would probably never get a campus of its own. As I laid there, it seemed like this was all a bad joke. Where did I ever get the idea that we could actually develop a private bi-national liberal arts university in Moscow? Was I dreaming? How can you build a university committed to integrity and truth-telling in a society which is so riddled with corruption? It was hard to sleep that night.
The next morning, after a cup of coffee, I sat down to do my devotions and The Daily Lectionary reading for the day was Psalm 37. When I opened the Bible and started to read, I literally laughed out loud at the words in verse 1:“Do not fret because of evil men.” “Fret” was not a strong enough word to describe my feelings, but it was close enough. Then two verses later I read these words: “Commit your way to the Lord; trust Him and He will do this. . . . Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him. . . . Refrain from anger and turn from wrath.” I laughed a second time, but then I could not believe the next words: “those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.”
I know this promise of inheriting the land was given to the Hebrews and is not directed to RACU, but I was struck by God’s provision for His people, if they only trusted Him. What a powerful lesson I learned that morning in my Moscow apartment! The Lord removed my anger and my fretting, and I was able to transfer these concerns about a campus to Him. As I reflected on this experience, I realized how my frustration had left me paralyzed and incapable of action. Here I was in Moscow, but I was so troubled by the corruption I had seen that I did not what to do next.
God is gracious to people like me who can sometimes be slow learners. The words of Psalm 37 were like a fresh breeze that blew away all my anxieties. Now I was able to restart the search process for a new campus, but I had learned to put the whole operation in the Lord’s hands. We will indeed “wait patiently” on the Lord, knowing that He will bring us to the property He wants us to have in His own time. I can truly say that this difficult 48-hour struggle in Moscow sure proved to be a blessing in my life.