Interview with John Bernbaum

In 1990, higher-education administrator John Bernbaum received a surprising request from the Russian government: Would he consider starting a Christian liberal-arts college in Moscow? Five years later, the Russian American Christian University was up and running, supported by private philanthropy. The university operated for 15 years before closing after the Kremlin changed its mind on education, religion, the U.S., and private giving. Philanthropy spoke with Bernbaum about his experience building this unique college, and the links between civil society and healthy democracy.

Philanthropy: How did you found a new college in Russia? 

Bernbaum: When the Berlin Wall came down, several members of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, where I worked, said, “We want to do an exchange program in the post-communist world. Can you help us?” So the president asked me, “John, would you be interested in doing this?” 

My Ph.D. was in European diplomacy and Russian studies, so this excited me. My wife and I started by hosting Russian educators when they came to the United States. They were often unhappy with the American professors who were coming to Russia to help them during the Gorbachev period. They had values clashes. When they found out about Christian colleges in the U.S. they contacted us, and began to show interest. 

I made my first trip to Russia in October of 1990. The newly appointed minister of education said, “Would you come here and build a Christian college in Moscow like the ones you have in the United States?” I was stunned, because two years earlier, if you were a person of faith, you couldn’t get into a Soviet university. But Gorbachev broke the connection between atheism and Marxism in 1988. 

So that’s how it started. The gestation process took five years. We had no funding. We had to start the whole thing from scratch. 

Philanthropy: Just to be clear, the government invited you, but it wasn’t going to provide any financial support?

Bernbaum: We made the decision early on that we wanted the school to be private, without funding from either the U.S. or Russian government. We wanted to stay away from U.S. government money because the Russians would say we’re a CIA or White House plant. And we didn’t want Russian government money because we knew they would then control the school. 

A year after they invited us, the Deputy Minister of Education came to D.C. and told me, “We have a building for you. A monastery on the Moscow River. It will cost $10 million to upgrade it, but you can have it.” I asked, “Who owned the building before?” Well of course the Russian Orthodox Church did. I said, “I’m not going to come to your country and build a college in a building stolen from the church.” 

The Russian government made several efforts like that which we refused. We went the independent route, believing a private college could be an important part of democratization in Russia. That’s why it took us a while to get the thing off the ground. And that’s how philanthropy became crucial, because we had to build it with private money.

Philanthropy: What was your pitch to donors in the U.S.? 

Bernbaum: We focused on people who had family foundations with evangelical or Christian interests, and interest in seeing Russia come out of communism. Donors were also interested in restored opportunities for young Christians, whose parents couldn’t go to university because of their faith. 

The majority of the funding came from family foundations. People who really wanted to see Russia turn into a just, democratic society. They were visionary donors, and a joy to work with.

[See Philanthropy’s interview with Howard Dahl, a major donor to the university, in our Fall 2014 issue, available here.]

Philanthropy: How much money does it take to operate a college in Moscow?

Bernbaum: It cost us around $5,000 per student to run the school. The Russian students who came to us were poor—many of their families were making $100, $125 a month. We charged about $1,000 per year. We had to raise the difference in scholarships.

The school became competitive to get into. Our admissions committee had to make hard choices. The applicants they chose were going to have a very different life. Those who didn’t get in were going to be stuck in poor towns with few options in their life. It was painful. 

But Americans stepped up and provided funding for us. We tried to find Russian donors too, but that was a very slow process. The school budget began at a couple hundred thousand a year, and then it was up to half a million a year. It grew slowly.

Then we needed to build our own campus, and that turned into a multimillion dollar project. It took us 10 years to build because we wouldn’t do bribes. In 15 years it turned out to be quite a school, with a beautiful facility. It’s a miraculous thing to start a school with no resources, no faculty, no books, and end up there.

Philanthropy: How many students did you enroll? 

Bernbaum: For the first couple years we weren’t allowed to have more than 130 students in the school. We kept getting thrown out of rented buildings. Moscow was so chaotic in the 1990s. The building we constructed could hold 500 students, and we planned to grow beyond that. Sadly, five months after we finished the building, the Kremlin closed us down in 2010. 

The closure was not just us, because we were American, or because we were a Christian college. It was targeted at private schools en masse. There was no discussion of this, it was simply announced. Among other things they took away our tax-exempt status, which caused the property tax on our building to soar from $2,000 annually to half a million dollars. If you want to kill a charitable institution, taxes are a good way. 

They also squeezed us through the college accreditation process. When we applied to be reaccredited they said, “We refuse to recognize American Ph.Ds.” We had 120 American faculty who had taught at our school over 15 years. I said, “These are professors from University of Michigan, University of Chicago, Princeton. What do you mean you’re not going to recognize them?” They refused. So we didn’t have enough Ph.D.s on faculty. 

They took away our tax-exempt status. If you want to kill a charitable institution, taxes are a good way.

So that’s the way the government killed us. And they did that to a lot of other private schools as well. There are very few that remain. They are owned by the oligarchs.

Philanthropy: Why did the government shut you down? 

Bernbaum: The perspective of Vladimir Putin’s government is, “If I don’t control it, I don’t want it.” He and his security people want complete control. They control all the television stations. They control education. Independent social reformers are a threat.

It’s very sad. I can’t even be in conversation right now with hundreds of my students and faculty, because they’re afraid to communicate by e-mail. They know everything is read by the security services.

We feel like we planted a lot of seeds there. Autocracies ultimately collapse. We have trained people to assume leadership, and we think some of them will emerge at a later point. So we are people of hope.

Philanthropy: What happened to your assets? 

Bernbaum: We sold the building and started a private foundation named BEAM (Business & Education as Mission). The focus of the foundation is to support educational programs in Russia, Ukraine, and other post-Soviet states that train and equip young Christians for leadership roles in their churches and the nation. We are one of few foundations committed to this mission. 

Philanthropy: How did this experience affect the way you think about democracy and civil society?

Bernbaum: It was a powerful learning experience for me. There was a significant misdiagnosis of Russia by Western analysts after the fall of the Soviet Union. There was a complete focus on building the free-market system, organizing political parties, trying to put democracy and free markets into practice. But there was no understanding of the cultural context. The cultural corruption was so profound, there never was a chance for democracy or economic liberty to get off the ground. 

Russians in the 1970s and 1980s were crying out to rediscover a spiritual basis, to have some meaning in life, to have some sense of moral purpose. Western policymakers were totally deaf to this. They weren’t paying attention to the deep spiritual and moral needs of the people. All they thought about was building the free market and political parties. That’s not what the Russians were crying out for.

Then the Russians went through a depression when communism collapsed that was twice as large and three times longer than the Great Depression in the United States. A small group became fabulously wealthy because they stole the assets of the Russian state, and the vast majority of the population became very poor. Their currency was worthless. So for most people in Russia, democracy and capitalism meant poverty. It meant being humiliated. 

Dysfunctional societies need spiritual and moral transformation before the externals of their society can change. The culture has to change. Support for top-down power, political strongmen, those kinds of cultural values have to change. And that will come only with education and spiritual renewal. 

Philanthropy: Did you encounter other civil-society reformers in Russia? 

Bernbaum: We tried to encourage the formation of those kinds of organizations among our students and their families. We talked with them about the importance of taking private initiative to get things done, of organizing themselves around local concerns. Boy, was that hard. Our Russian students would say, “That’s not our responsibility. The government has to do that.” 

It was very hard for people to organize themselves into civil-society groups. There was so much anarchy. Yeltsin was drunk a lot of the time, and these oligarchs were running the country. It was chaos. And the security people wouldn’t allow reforms. Communism tries to make it impossible for people to organize. 

Philanthropy: American philanthropic culture is really rare in other countries.

Bernbaum: Oh absolutely. There was, before the communist experience, a rather remarkable philanthropic culture in Russia. But communism stamped all of that out, and made it impossible for people to take up philanthropic activities. 

For three generations philanthropy was squashed. And now there’s so much corruption that the philanthropic organizations that have been formed since the collapse of communism are profoundly corrupt. Money given to many organizations has not been used as promised. We tried to teach our students, “You don’t have to live like this.”

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