A Christian radio station in Ukraine is planning an invasion

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Ivan Zhurakovski prepared a backpack and an escape vehicle. He thinks he can get out of Odessa, Ukraine, with an hour’s warning of a Russian invasion.

“I told my wife and kids to get ready.” said Zhurakovski. Originally from the Komi Republic, a mountainous region in northern Russia, he has lived in Ukraine for 10 years now. His wife is Ukrainian and his two children grew up there.

Zhurakovski is station manager at New Life Radio, a Russian-language Internet and satellite station broadcasting 24-hour Christian music and teaching in the former Soviet Union and beyond. He has been part of New Life Radio’s five-person on-site team since shortly after moving from Moscow to Odessa in 2019.

The prospect of an imminent invasion threatens the station’s evangelistic mission and could force it to relocate once again, taking Zhurakovski with it. Russia has mustered more than 130,000 troops along its border with Ukraine and on the Belarusian border in northern Ukraine. Russian and Belarusian troops conduct joint military exercises along the border.

Odessa’s location on Ukraine’s southern border with the Black Sea leaves it vulnerable to attack by sea. Russia has moved several amphibious assault ships to the Black Sea in recent weeks and is conducting live-fire naval exercises near Odessa. The White House has warned an attack could come at any time.

“We have the option of keeping a reduced staff at our station [in Odessa]. They can at least do some programming,” said Daniel Johnson, president of Christian Radio for Russia, a US-based nonprofit that sponsors New Life Radio. “But if the Russians came in, the first thing they would do would be to cut the internet and the phone lines.” Johnson and Zhurakovski also outlined plans to move to an evangelical church in Moldova or the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Either way, the station plans to maintain a team in the Odessa studio, where it can at least do production even if the radio moves elsewhere.

“Every day we pray for peace. But it’s not under our control,” Zhurakovski said. “We have peace in our hearts that God has everything under his control.”

First broadcasting as an FM station in 1996, New Life Radio was initially based in the Siberian city of Magadan.

“I chose the toughest city in the Soviet Union,” said Johnson, who founded the station with sponsorship from the US-based Evangelical Covenant Church. “When Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote about the gulag, he was talking about Magadan. It is the darkest spiritual place in this country.

In 2000, the station branched out to Moscow and began offering radio programs to the whole of the former Soviet Union via a newly launched satellite between Lockheed Martin and Intersputnik. But the team needed access to a facility with a fiber optic link to a ground station receiving the transmission from the satellite. The only location available was a controlled-access facility located in Red Square. After an introduction to the facility manager, Johnson requested access to the building’s fiber optic line.

“Now it was a miracle,” Johnson recalls. “He said OK, and it was like all his defenses had melted away.”

New Life Radio continued to broadcast from Moscow until 2019, when increasingly restrictive Russian laws on freedom of speech, religion and telecommunications prompted the ministry to move its operations to Odessa. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the Sovereign Internet Act of 2019, which gave government officials the power to block the station’s internet presence for any reason.

“If we wanted to save this radio network not just for Russia, but for all these former Soviet countries, we had to leave Moscow,” Johnson said.

Today, approximately 120 million homes in Eurasia can access New Life Radio via satellite. Through its 24/7 internet radio service, the station’s audience has expanded beyond the countries of the former Soviet Union to Russian speakers around the world.

A survey of the station’s channel on the Telegram messaging app shows a handful of Russian and Ukrainian speakers sending prayer and chant requests and greetings from around the world. While most attendees say they are in Ukraine, Belarus or Russia, others are further abroad: one offers “a big hello to all from the Russian-speaking brothers and sisters of New Zealand “. Another is from Germany. They all address each other as brothers and sisters.

Noticeably absent is any direct reference to the current political situation. The station itself chose not to allocate airtime to directly comment on the simmering conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

“If we’re going to discuss it, what can we tell them?” said Zhurakovski. “In any case, we continue to teach the Bible – what Jesus wants us to do, how to trust God and how to grow in understanding God’s will.”

Although the station does not directly address the political situation on the air, Zhurakovski believes New Life Radio has a role to play in uniting believers. He especially sees it on the station’s social media chat rooms on Telegram and Viber, another popular messaging app in the former Soviet Union. He describes seeing listeners join the chat room to post hateful remarks towards Russians or Ukrainians.

“But then I see God’s work on them, and I see their messages start to change from hate to saying, ‘We glorify God for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine,'” Zhurakovski said.

David Paronian is a frequent listener to New Life Radio. Born in Georgia, Paronian now resides in Moscow, where he works in construction and is the pastor of a local church. In a Telegram message to WORLD, he framed New Life Radio’s work in the context of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:11 that His disciples be one, as He and the Father are one.

“Those who love God can only say ‘amen’ to New Life Radio,” Paronian said.

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