After the Berlin Wall fell, a group of Christian colleges in the U.S. seized the opportunity to begin strategic faculty and student exchanges with universities inside the Soviet Union. They could not have foreseen the doors that would open next. During a 1990 visit to Russia, John Bernbaum and his colleagues received a surprising invitation from a Russian government official: come help build a faith-based university in Moscow. Thus, after seventy years of fierce religious persecution under communism, the Russian-American Christian University (RACU) was born.

In Opening the Red Door, Bernbaum presents an insider's account of the rise and fall of a Russian-American partnership. As a founder and later president of RACU, Bernbaum offers a ground-level perspective on Russia’s post-communist transition and the construction of a cultural-educational bridge between the two superpowers. He describes how American RACU staff worked to understand Russian history and culture—including the nation's rich spiritual heritage—so they could support their new Russian friends in rebuilding an educational system and a society. He documents the story of the first private Christian liberal arts university to be accredited in Russia's history, from its first steps, through its major successes, to its facing increasing opposition during the Putin era.

Opening the Red Door offers unique insight not only into Russian culture and post–Cold War history but also traces the dynamics within international educational institutions and partnerships. When he first traveled to Russia, Bernbaum writes, he thought of it as a nation of mystery. But after more than twenty-five years of work there, he believes Russia can be understood. His journey of understanding will prove instructive to educators, administrators, students, missionaries, and anyone interested in international relations.

"This book recounts an amazing opportunity: an invitation from Russian reformers at the end of the Cold War to found a Christian liberal arts university in Moscow. John Bernbaum was at the center of that adventure, and in Opening the Red Door he shows, in frank and colorful prose, what made this enterprise possible and what brought it down in the end. Christian higher education today is a global endeavor, but it is not just about growth and success. It is a risky business, and we can learn much from our struggles and failures. I commend this highly instructive account to all who engage in Christian higher education."

Joel Carpenter, Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity, Calvin College

"The history of establishing a university could be dry and boring. However, in light of the upheavals taking place in Russia during that time, a word such as boring does not apply to this book. Opening the Red Door reads more like a spy thriller."

From the foreword by Philip Yancey

"Although the Russian-American Christian University has now closed, its history as told by its president John Bernbaum is both important and fascinating—and a riveting read. The university's twenty-five-year existence is a story of Russia's fraught transition out of communism and of extraordinary feats of international cooperation, a nearly unbelievable record of perseverance through official roadblocks and of unanticipated achievement by Russian students, and a moving account of deep person-to-person friendships. It is hard to imagine a more illuminating narrative of recent Russian history and Christian-inspired cooperation."

Mark Noll, author of A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada

"What a book for such a time as this! John Bernbaum, a friend and longtime Christian educator, has given us something special in this volume. Academically trained in international relations and experienced in diplomacy, he shows himself to be a gifted writer with keen insight into recent Soviet and Russian history as well as one who understands the hard work of Christian education. Moreover, John writes about the country and its people from the inside. He shares with us his experience of both high hopes and heartbreaking dismay for Russia and his beloved colleagues and friends there. The dark door may have closed, but it will not extinguish the light from Christ's transcendent lordship."

James W. Skillen, president (retired), Center for Public Justice, Washington, DC


Foreword by Philip Yancey
1. The Red Door Slowly Opens
2. The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!
3. Entering the Soviet Heartland
4. Getting Started
5. Surviving the Coup
6. Meeting with Gorbachev and the KGB
7. Reading Russia Right
8. Seizing the Initiative
9. Laying the Foundation in Russia
10. Learning Together and Telling the Truth
11. A New Way to Educate
12. Russia's Generation Nyet
13. Assembling RACU's Building Blocks
14. Birthing in Chaos: The First Five Years
15. Stability Bears Fruit
16. Terrorism, Economic Collapse, and Growing Opposition
17. The Struggle for Survival
18. Changing Course
19. Lessons and Legacies
Appendix A: Historic Milestones in RACU's Development (1990–2015)
Appendix B: RACU's Board of Trustees
Appendix C: RACU's Board of Advisors
Appendix D: RACU/RAI Provosts
Appendix E: RACU's Faculty and Staff (American and Russian)


John A. Bernbaum (PhD, University of Maryland) worked for the U.S. Department of State from 1972 to 1976 and then spent nearly two decades with the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities in Washington, DC, where he founded and directed the American Studies Program, served as CCCU executive vice president, and developed the Russian Studies Program. He also served as president and CEO of the Russian-American Christian University (RACU) in Moscow, from 1996 to 2011. He is the author of Why Work? and Perspectives on Peacemaking.

Bernbaum is also president and CEO of BEAM, Inc., where he searches for ministry partners in the post-Communist world who are committed to raising the next generation of young Christian leaders, creates networks between them, and recommends grants to BEAM's board of trustees. He lives in Rockville, Maryland.

BY John A. Bernbaum

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