Schuller Sows Seeds of Religion in Russia : Ministry: Orange County pastor leads project to revitalize farmland in Kaluga at the request of Russian government. But he says he hopes to plant a lot more than potatoes.


It didn’t seem like a big deal. They were only planting a handful of potatoes in a swampy plot of land.

But nine Russian Orthodox priests were here to bless the event, and looking on was a crowd of Russian government and church officials, two busloads of American missionaries and the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, the TV preacher who had come all the way from the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif.

Schuller was there, he said, to plant religion along with the potatoes.


The experiment in increasing potato production in this stunted agricultural region was conducted by Churches Uniting for Global Mission (CUGM), which Schuller helped found and chairs. The organization--made up of the United States’ largest congregations, their pastors and a handful of agricultural experts--plans to raise $2 million this fall for a trust fund to finance the Russian farming project.

Schuller, who has addressed Russians via television and conferred with government officials on several occasions, called the farming project a historic opportunity. He said that, at the invitation of the Russian government, once-flourishing farmland will be made productive again and divided among farmers.

The televangelist said CUGM’s agricultural experts are creating a prototype farm here to test which kinds of potatoes grow best.

During a ceremony last month, CUGM Executive Director Ralph Hofstad declared that more than food will grow on the land. “Although we are planting seeds of potatoes, we are also planting seeds of hope,” said the former chief executive of Land O’Lakes, a Minnesota-based food and farm products producer.

The project seems a natural for Schuller, combining his Iowa farm upbringing with his religious fund-raising skills. He said the Russian farming project is in the hands of CUGM’s agricultural specialists, but the seeds of the project came from Schuller’s contacts within Russia.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in December, 1991, Schuller has been one of many Western missionaries to visit Russia and pledge to save the nation’s soul. Billy Graham has been here. So have the Hare Krishnas, the Mormons and the Lubavitch Jews.


But Schuller has become the best-known and most influential. His first venture, in 1989, was sponsored by the late Armand Hammer, then chairman of Occidental Petroleum. Hammer’s business ties with the Soviets enabled him to arrange a meeting between Schuller and then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Nowadays, “Hour of Power,” Schuller’s TV show promoting his philosophy of positive thinking, is aired in Russia with subtitles every Sunday morning, funded by American contributions.

Schuller has returned to Russia six times, becoming increasingly involved with the country.

He said the offer of land came last year during a meeting with government officials. While discussing the threat of famine, he said, the officials offered to grant Schuller ownership of the farmland on the condition that the Russian farmers be taught modern agricultural techniques and that the land be divided and given to the farmers.

“I knew that if I accepted the gift that 50 years from now they would say that I took advantage of a historic opportunity,” Schuller said. “But I said I could not accept a gift of land; that would be exploitation. I said I would consult the Churches Uniting for Global Mission.”

CUGM had been sending prepared meals to the Russian Orthodox Church, which distributed the food. Now, CUGM is involved on a grass-root level.

“If the church stays within its walls, it dies,” CUGM’s Hofstad said. “If God says, ‘They’re my people,’ it’s a duty to reach out to those in need.”

Kaluga, which lies 90 miles southwest of Moscow, is one of two areas targeted by CUGM. Before the Russian Revolution in 1917, the region was home to 23 monasteries and the residents were deeply religious. Now, the sleepy villages are trying to rouse themselves after more than 70 years of Soviet rule.

Vladimir Kruchkov, a member of parliament who sits on the committee for freedom, consciousness and religion, said the region needs an infusion of religion that “is not economic, but spiritual. If you have nothing in your soul, you will never produce anything good.” Kruchkov said he became a believer three years ago and has been instrumental in forming religious and agricultural ties with the West.

Kruchkov said he was amazed when he visited an Iowa farm in January that was run by only four people. “Here it would taken dozens,” he said. “We have a different culture of productivity.”

Although Russia is moving toward a free market, the state still owns the majority of agricultural land, where productivity lags far behind the West. Only 15% of Russian farms have been transferred to private ownership, according to the Ministry of Agriculture. Only 1% of the farmland in Kaluga is in private hands.

“State farms will be converted,” said Hofstad. “But . . . it will not be a revolution, but an evolution.”

Russian farming techniques will also have to change. Viktor Astorozhenko, director of Moscow’s Agricultural Academy and the Russian director of CUGM, said most farmers could double their yields if they used their land effectively.

Hofstad estimated that 40% of potatoes are lost while in storage, either to decay or theft. He said 40% of what is left must be sold to the government at below-market prices.

Will the potato project change that? The crowd at the potato field ceremony was full of expectations--but not the same ones.

“If we can help them be more effective farmers, the message of God will come,” said David Kobelie, a pastor from Washington who teaches Bible classes in Moscow.

But Ivan Afanasyev, one of the area’s few private farmers, said he wasn’t very interested in the religious and experimental goals. “Our biggest problem is the price of cattle feed and construction materials,” he said. “Our purchasing ability is falling. It is difficult to say how all this can help.”