3ABN Russia: 20 Years and Still Growing

by Natalia Plotnikova

This year we celebrate 20 years since the miracle that brought 3ABN Russia into existence. As we look back over the past two decades we see God’s careful brush strokes as He paints a beautiful picture. Under the guidance of His will, all the elements have carefully come together. This is the story of 3ABN Russia through the eyes of those who witnessed it.

God Creates Political Conditions

From the first grades of school, Soviet children were taught that only illiterate grandmas believed in God. The Soviet regime didn’t tolerate any ideas other than those put forward by its “prophets.” Religion was made fun of, and church leaders were put into prisons and insane asylums. The USSR, a huge, multinational country, operated powerful political and propaganda systems that seemed unshakable. Like majestic Babylon, it proudly held its head high. But just like Babylon, it too was suddenly wiped off the world maps by the hand of God.

Perestroyka (restructuring) and glastnost (freedom of speech) became the new post-Soviet slogans, but 70 years of militant atheism had destroyed faith in God. In its place witchcraft, mediums, UFOs, and the paranormal captured people’s imagination, making them thirsty for a living faith and a real God.

However, 1992 brought a turning point for many citizens of Nizhny Novgorod, the third largest city in Russia. That spring, massive advertisement for the evangelistic series with Pastor John Carter poured onto us from our television sets.

“Everyone in the city knew something grand was happening in the Palace of Sports,” says Natalia Plotnikova, 3ABN Russia’s public relations director, “and it wasn’t easy getting in! My friend and I came to the 6:00 meeting, but waited outside with the crowds for another hour to get into the second session. Then we had to sit on additional chairs in the aisles because the arena, which seated 6,000, was already packed to capacity.”

“I can still see it in my mind,” says Alexey Latukhin, 3ABN Russia’s accountant. “The music, the atmosphere—I ran there to make it on time. And, under the influence of the lectures, I had to make a choice of either continuing to live as I had, or live according to the principles presented. I made my choice in favor of God, His principles, and His Law.”

Pastor John Carter's 1992 evangelistic series in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, brought 2,500 converts into the Seventh-day Adventist Church. (Photo: Bob Ludwig.)

God Calls People

Pastor Carter’s meetings precipitated a drastic increase in the membership of the Nizhny Novgorod Seventh-day Adventist Church and helped establish 3ABN’s Russian chapter. With about 2,500 new members, it was obvious that they needed new places of worship. At first they rented theaters and public halls, but Danny Shelton and the Carter team began looking for an appropriate facility.

They found an unfinished building that had languished for 20 years after the metal factory that owned it ran out of money. Originally designed as a Palace of Culture, it was built to provide company employees a movie theater, a gymnasium, and other recreational facilities. But now it sat in weeds with filthy, graffiti-covered walls.

The building was scheduled for sale at the first private property auction in post-Soviet Russia, so money to quickly purchase it was needed. And God had just the man. As a member of the Carter team later said, he’d wondered why he’d come to Russia, since he didn’t speak the language, and felt rather useless. “But now I know why I came!” he exclaimed as he offered to pay $100,000 for the building.

“The building was totally abandoned,” says Alexandra Voronina, an early laborer in 3ABN Russia’s construction. “The drunkards came here to drink, and there was garbage everywhere. Our first job was to erase the indecent words on the walls, so another woman volunteer and I started working on them. We didn’t have anything to work with, much less anything to stand on, so since I was a bit taller and thinner than she was, she got down on her knees and elbows and I climbed on her back, wiping away the words with my hands or scratching them out with a piece of brick!”

An abandoned Palace of Culture building was transformed into 3ABN's Russian Evangelism Center through the hard work of dedicated laborers.

“You see how tall the building is?” asks Natalia Rusakova, who now works as 3ABN Russia’s cashier. “We climbed up there on makeshift scaffolding—no rails, and only two or three boards laying side by side. It was very narrow! Sometimes we had to make holes in the roof to hang a ceiling through it. We used the heaviest hammers and metal rods we could find to break through the concrete. Rain or snow, we kept working away, knowing that one false step could send us falling several stories to the ground. But God was merciful!”

Alexandra recalls being so tired by the end of the day that she’d walk home with her eyes closed! “I’d get to my apartment, throw my clothes in a corner, and immediately go to bed,” she says. “I was so tired I couldn’t do anything at home. Then I’d think, That’s it! I’m not going back. But by the next day something drew me, and there I was. We understood we were making a church for God and His people, and that was important.”

The mid-1990s brought a deep economic crisis to Russia. Many enterprises were on the verge of bankruptcy, and people were sent home on unpaid leaves. “I began working with my parents at a factory,” says Mikhail Kemenov, a 3ABN Russia cameraman and video editor. “The wages were very low, and sometimes they delayed payroll for two, three—even six months. One week we couldn’t even buy bread, but we were considered well off because we had rice, flour, and onions and carrots grown in our garden. A lot of companies closed, and some people even committed suicide.”

The majority of Russians were on the verge of poverty, and well-paid jobs were very rare. But to 3ABN’s first workers, the desire to work at a Christian television network outweighed everything else.

“After graduating from my university I was offered two very good jobs,” says Alexey Ronzhin, a 3ABN Russia video director. “I was offered programming jobs both in the local government and the militzia (police) that offered a high wage and good prospects for advancement.”

“But when we thought about our future employment, our priority was to work at 3ABN Russia,” adds his wife, Anna Ronzhina, who’s now a program presenter. “We dreamed of Alexey working at 3ABN Russia, and I remember how much we prayed about it. I also remember going to the train station at night to get a chance to talk to someone from 3ABN. Right there, on the train platform, with our broken English, we tried to explain we would very much like to work at 3ABN. When we heard him say yes, it was a miracle. Praise the Lord, we never once were sorry for that choice!”

This is how 3ABN Russia began—with just five workers.

3ABN's Russian Evangelism Center houses TV and radio studios, a church home for believers, and offices for the local church conference.

God Provides Broadcasters

In Soviet Russia, television broadcasting was exclusively the government’s privilege. But when the first commercial channels came in the 1990s, the opportunity arose for our new Christian television company to offer our first programs to Russian viewers. However, Nizhny Novgorod’s TV stations weren’t in a hurry to take Protestant programming. One by one they all said no—except for the smallest of them, Seti NN. They agreed to air them on a trial basis, with the strict condition that they would only continue if they proved popular with the viewers.

And God’s reality exceeded our brightest hopes!

“We took telephone calls non-stop while the program was airing,” says Alexey Ronhzin. “As we’d hang up they’d immediately ring again, and people kept saying, ‘It’s so hard to get through!’ We’d answer calls during the evening broadcasts and for several hours following it, often walking home after midnight since there wasn’t any public transportation at that time of night.”

“In addition to the calls we’d receive between 800 and 1,000 letters a week in huge bags,” Anna adds. “We answered every one of them and made personal appointments with many people, putting many more in touch with local church members.”

In spite of the programs’ growing popularity, all we had was a Hi8 camera and a computer. All our programs were still edited and put together at 3ABN headquarters in the USA.

“When I started, our so-called studio was located in a small upstairs room of a private home,” recalls Alexey Budnikov, a former 3ABN Russia cameraman. “We lit our humble sets with household electric lamps, and to make a moving shot, we’d put the camera on a little cart with wheels. The cameraman would operate the camera, and two others would pull it with a string! We learned to edit in Seti NN’s studios at night, when they weren’t using their equipment, but through it all we never ran out of material. God always blessed and provided us with opportunities.”

3ABN Russia's flagship program, Face to Face, is seen throughout the ex-Soviet Union countries, bringing the good news of salvation to millions of Russian-speaking people. (Photo: Svetlana Christian.)

God Provides Resources

Two decades have passed and several presidents have come and gone in Russia. The country’s been shaken by a financial crisis, wars, terrorist acts, and natural disasters. But through both the complicated and the quiet years, 3ABN Russia has continued to work and grow as the Lord supports His cause. In fact, there hasn’t been a single moment when we haven’t felt His support.

“I remember once when I didn’t have time to get ready for a program,” says Tatyana Malysheva, 3ABN’s director of marketing, who also works as a children’s program presenter. “I prayed, ‘Lord, I don’t have time to finish the scripts. I’m totally out of time!’ The following day a lady approached me in church and said, ‘Tatyana, I’ve been impressed to help you with writing children’s programs. Can you use my help?’ God constantly leads, and I know every worker here can say that.”

“I remember when the dollar suffered a tremendous drop against the ruble,” says Natalia Plotnikova. “And since much of our support comes from the U.S., at first we tried to compensate by saving on everything. But soon every resource was drained and we were on the verge of shutting down several projects. Then we prayed about this at an evening worship, and within a few days an additional donation came that covered the amount we’d lost due to the exchange rate. In fact, God showed us how precise He is by sending us the exact amount lost by the financial fluctuation!”

Trusting in God’s care, 3ABN Russia made a new leap of faith that year by launching its new 24-hour Internet channel at the height of that financial crisis. “I’m sure that as long as we stick to proclaiming God’s truth, the Lord will keep providing,” says Julia Outkina, 3ABN Russia’s executive director. “God has about 300 million Russian-speaking children living on this planet, and He’s so eager to bring them salvation through Jesus Christ.”

God Creates Technology

By the nineteenth century, scientists believed they’d discovered all possible scientific knowledge; but the twentieth century recorded an explosion of new discoveries. The reason for this huge leap in progress was not merely for our comfort. It was because God began reading the last chapters of the history of this earth to humanity.

Indeed, Jesus replied to the Pharisees who complained about those who praised God for the mighty works they had witnessed, by saying, “I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out.” Luke 19:40.

Not a single word pronounced by our Lord was uttered in vain, and in our days, non-living matter in the form of communication equipment is actively used in glorifying God. For example, a large portion of the letters we receive come from viewers who watch our programming on satellite channels belonging to other denominations. Just look at the letters we received from Svetlana, who lives in a Siberian village.

November 2011: “Sometimes I ask the Lord to take me to Himself. Why has He given me three kids if I don’t have food to feed them? Sometimes the only food we have is to drink hot water. I often think that if I died, my kids would get a pension for the loss of their parent, and that would provide them with a life.”

January 2012: “Thank you very much for the discs with your programs and songs. I listened to them and cried.”

March 2012: “Words cannot describe how thankful we are for your kindness to us. Thanks to your TV and radio programs, many people can learn that we have a heavenly Father who loves us and protects us. You’ve made me understand that God doesn’t leave us in hard circumstances, and is always ready to give us His helping hand. This time, this helping hand has been the workers of 3ABN Russia. You’ve convinced me that I should keep on living and to be courageous. This summer I want be baptized by immersion and become a complete believer!”

April 2012: “We’ve been very fortunate to be taken to the Lord’s Supper in a Seventh-day Adventist church. It happened because you gave our address to a church member in Omsk. As soon as we entered the church, people surrounded us and everyone was so kind. I thought we’d be sitting in a corner as strangers, but it was the other way around. They showed us the whole building, took my younger daughter to a children’s class, and my son to a youth class. Then they invited me to a class for adults. We were given many books, discs, and pamphlets, and we’ve shared a lot of them with people in our village. All the church prayed for us. We sang songs with them and read the Bible. We even had our picture taken with them. Thank you so much! For the first time my kids and I could see how the Lord’s Supper goes. Please give my greetings to all your workers. I’ve become much more peaceful, and I’m reading my Bible and praying every day.”

We praise the Lord, who is always near the brokenhearted, for giving us modern technology to reach the masses. But there are many millions who still haven’t heard! We are a small group of people who, after witnessing 20 years miracles at 3ABN Russia, aspire to even greater goals that may seem unrealistic. However, nothing is unrealistic for God! After completing our strategic planning for the next five years, we’ve asked Him to give us our own satellite broadcast. We’ve also asked Him to give us high-definition equipment to stay on the air, because we are sure that this is what He wants.

Soon we aim to record no less than 50 hours of new programs each month in our current studio and the new one we have almost finished building. Financially we’ll  also need $20,000 a month to operate a satellite channel. But although this amount is huge for us, we believe the Lord will provide it.

By far our biggest challenge —and the biggest test of our faith—is the replacement of our cameras and switchers with high definition (HD) equipment. By 2015 Russia is requiring all TV programming to be produced in widescreen format, and if we do not, then we will lose all the stations that broadcast us. We need four or five HD cameras and an HD switcher for our main studio at an approximate cost of $150,000, and our second studio will need three HD cameras and a switcher costing another $70,000.

The Lord has always brought His 3ABN Russia network through the narrowest paths, but we’ve never stopped working and growing. We have faith that He won’t abandon His cause now, and will send those who are ready to support it. We hope to find some of them among you, our dear readers of 3ABN World magazine.

God’s children, who are desperately in need salvation, are scattered over this vast earth. It is important not to let time slip by while circumstances are favorable. We want to reach people through their televisions, computer screens, and other electronic devices, and we invite you to join us in this walk of faith.

3ABN Russia—and everything connected with it—are only a brush stroke in the big picture God has in mind for the salvation of our world, and we believe the most fascinating possibilities are yet to come!

Belize Radio Update
3ABN World, June 2012