Faithful Under Fire
The story of Russia’s Oksana Sergiyenko
By Andrew Mcchesney
“Cry aloud, spare not; lift up your voice like a trumpet; tell My people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins” (Isa. 58:1).
Tension filled the conference room in Moscow. Around the long table sat the Russian prime minister and other top government officials. It was summer 2008, and the cabinet of ministers had gathered to consider spending cuts amid the global recession.
The ministers concurred that plans to increase pension payments must be canceled. But one ministry official disagreed.
“I’m a believer,” said the official, Oksana Sergiyenko. “I don’t know how we will be able to do this. But if we decide today not to freeze pensions and to at the very least adjust them for inflation, God will bless our country.”
Then an amazing thing happened. The ministers unanimously agreed to adjust pensions for inflation annually.
After that, God came through, said Oksana’s brother, Alexei Sergiyenko, who related the story about the cabinet session.
“God blessed us in such a way that the price of oil nearly tripled in value between late 2008 and 2011,” said Alexei, a stock market analyst with Sberbank, Russia’s largest bank. “The budget line for pension payments has always been met.”
And that’s not all. Just weeks after Oksana spoke up, the prime minister promoted her to the post of deputy finance minister.
Oksana Sergiyenko, who ascended to the highest government post of any Seventh-day Adventist in Russia’s history, fearlessly expressed her love for God while cherishing her country, setting an example for all Adventists that they can faithfully serve God and country at the same time.
SAYING GOODBYE: Oksana Sergiyenko’s brother, Alexei (left), holds the hand of his mother, Larisa (right), at Oksana’s funeral service in a Moscow cemetery.Oksana’s whirlwind career started when she moved to Moscow, broke and homeless, and landed a Finance Ministry job, rising to the upper echelons of government in a decade despite deep hostility over her faith. She died on August 30, 2011, after a struggle with cancer. She was 37.
“Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry … ?” (Isa. 58:6, 7).
Oksana loved Isaiah 58, and she clung to its promises of blessings when she stood up for the retirees at the cabinet session, her brother said.
But that wasn’t the first time that a biblical principle had allowed Russia to prosper. In 2003 and 2004, as billions of dollars from high oil prices flowed into government coffers, Oksana and her boss, then-finance minister Alexei Kudrin, called for a special government fund to collect the windfall. Oksana spent days and nights drafting plans for the stabilization fund, which she saw as Russia’s answer to the counsel God gave to Joseph to store grain during the seven years of plenty for an upcoming famine.
Sure enough, lean times arrived with the 2008 recession. The finance minister received praise from around the world for his farsightedness in stashing away more than $200 billion. Scarcely a word was uttered about Oksana’s role—and she liked it that way.
“She never wanted praise. She only wanted to make things easier for Kudrin and the other leaders,” said her mother, Larisa Sergiyenko, a former economist.
But Oksana wasn’t always like that.
Born on March 19, 1974, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, Oksana grew up a proud and ambitious child, her mother said. An avowed atheist, she had one goal: to be first.
After graduating with an economics degree from a college in Uzbekistan, she set her sights on a career in Moscow. She and Alexei, four years her junior, arrived with no money or a place of their own. They stayed in a friend’s apartment and later moved into a dormitory while Oksana completed graduate work in economics.
Times were tough. Sometimes Oksana and Alexei lived for a week on a single loaf of bread. Some days they ate nothing. It was during that period—the most difficult and miserable in her life, her brother said—that Oksana prayed to God for the first time.
Oksana said in a January 2010 interview that she also started reading the Bible—and found the secret to happiness.
“We are born selfish. When a baby comes into this world, he says, ‘Give me!’ He doesn’t say, ‘Here you are.’ He says, ‘Give, give, give,’ ” Sergiyenko said in the interview with 3ABN Russia television. “For many years I was like this. But when I met God, He showed me a completely different way of life. He said it is better to give than to receive. . . . When I began . . . to give rather than to receive, I began to receive incomparable blessings.”
One blessing involved work. Oksana didn’t want a routine job, so she boldly telephoned the Central Bank, the Economic Development and Trade Ministry, and the Finance Ministry. None had placed a job vacancy advertisement. But the Finance Ministry invited Oksana in for a job interview, and subsequently offered her an entry-level position with a salary of $100 a month in 1999.
Oksana didn’t care about the money, her family said—an attitude that set her apart as a true patriot.
“If you … call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, … then you shall delight yourself in the Lord; and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth” (Isa. 58:13, 14).
CLOSE SIBLINGS: Oksana (left) and her brother, Alexei, in gradeschool.In 2000 Oksana made what she called the most important decision of her life. She was baptized. “I entered into a covenant with the Lord,” she said in the television interview. “My life radically changed.”
Oksana embraced Adventism with reluctance. Her mother had been baptized years earlier, but Oksana and her brother had shunned her pleas to befriend God. Indeed, the two siblings grew so furious with their mother that at one point they threw her out of the home they shared in Uzbekistan. “I’m very ashamed now about how we treated her,” said Alexei, who was baptized a year after his sister.
Once Oksana took her stand for God, she determined never to attend a government meeting or conference on Sabbath. Many times the gatherings were rescheduled so she could participate.
“I’ve never had a problem with this issue because I have put it in God’s hands,” Oksana said. “God blesses me, and people at work see that.”
She also credited the blessings in her life to the amount of time that she spent with God—an hour every morning. “Even if I get only two to three hours of sleep, I set my alarm an hour early so I can spend time with God reading His Word,” she said.
The awards began to flow in. Her mother now has Oksana’s collection of framed letters from the president, finance minister, and other senior officials recognizing Oksana’s patriotism and contribution to national security. In 2007 then-president Putin decorated Oksana with the Medal of the Order for Service to the Fatherland, second rank.
But Oksana’s activities went beyond drafting macroeconomic models for Russia’s prosperity. She made God a part of her workday in ways seldom seen in corporate offices, much less in government ministries. Oksana hosted a weekly prayer group for ministry officials in her office. She organized Easter and Christmas concerts at two different ministries and invited Adventist musicians to perform. The ministries’ concert halls were packed to their 200-person capacity, her family said, and Oksana made sure that every audience member left with a gift—a brand-new Bible.
Oksana explained in the TV interview that faith is often little more than a formality if a believer doesn’t actively share God with others.
“If we buy a new washing machine, television, or some other kind of technology that eases our workload, makes our lives more comfortable, or helps us save money, we tell our neighbors and friends about it right away,” she said. “How much more important it is for us to tell others who haven’t seen God’s light about the love of God that we as believers have found.”
Oksana also prepared what she called a “spiritual gift”—a gift bag containing a Bible, mail-in Bible studies, and a DVD of her and her brother preaching at an Adventist church. She presented the gift bags to senior Russian officials on birthdays and religious holidays and to foreign ministers and even flight attendants on business trips.
Satan took notice. One of Oksana’s biggest trials erupted days after the broadcast of the 3ABN television interview when a newspaper accused her of spending more time promoting Adventism than engaging in government work.
“According to sources in the Finance Ministry, prayers, religious seminars, and Bible studies are held weekly in Sergiyenko’s office,” said the report in the Vek newspaper.
“In the breaks between these activities, if there is time, the ministry officials work on budget planning,” it said.
The newspaper also darkly hinted that Oksana was on the payroll of American spies who wanted to damage Russia’s national interests.
COLLEGE DAYS: Oksana (center) with two classmates at the college in Uzbekistan where she earned her first degree in economics in 1996.The article was picked up by other media outlets and caused a storm in a country where the Russian Orthodox Church is the dominant religion and Protestants, including Adventists, are denounced as members of a sect. Lawmakers in the Russian parliament asked the prosecutor general’s office to investigate.
The resulting inquiry delved into every facet of Oksana’s life. Government agents scrutinized not only her work but also her childhood, studies, family, friends, and faith. But they failed to find one mistake or hint of wrongdoing. The investigation’s results echoed the biblical account of the government officials seeking to find some charge against Daniel: “They could find no charge or fault, because he was faithful; nor was there any error or fault found in him” (Dan. 6:4).
Prosecutors realized that Oksana was faithful to God, and that made her more faithful to her country. They were forced to admit that Russia needed her as a top economist.
The investigation was closed. Oksana kept her job.
Oksana, meanwhile, pressed ahead with her outreach efforts. The literature she most liked to pass out was Hidden Treasure, an Adventist sharing newspaper that she distributed in apartment blocks nearly every Sunday for eight years, Alexei said.
The newspaper’s circulation soared from 300,000 copies per month in early 2010 to 1.7 million copies a year later, an astounding growth credited in large part to Oksana’s example.
“Your healing shall spring forth speedily, and your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am’ ” (Isa. 58:8, 9).
Oksana took her passion for sharing God to the hospital where she, weakened with cancer, was admitted in June 2011. She immediately ordered Bibles for all the other patients.
As the pain grew more intense, she seemed to sense that she wasn’t going to get well. On August 29, as her mother left her bedside for the last time, Oksana told her, “Mama, I love you very much.”
The last passage Oksana turned to in her Bible was Psalm 31:15-17: “My times are in Your hand; deliver me from the hand of my enemies, and from those who persecute me. Make Your face shine upon Your servant; save me for Your mercies’ sake. Do not let me be ashamed, O Lord, for I have called upon You; let the wicked be ashamed; let them be silent in the grave.”
Alexei’s wife, Svetlana, stopped by the hospital that night. The two women prayed together, and Oksana ended her prayer, saying, “Dear Jesus, take me to You.” She then fell asleep.
Her mother, who warmly welcomed me into her home several weeks later to talk about her daughter’s life, acknowledged that she could not understand why Oksana had died. “This was her first illness, and it proved terminal,” she said.
But perhaps Oksana’s biggest opportunity to share God was yet to come.
As a stateswoman, Oksana qualified for a state funeral, and one of her final wishes was for her pastor to officiate.
Alexei, however, came under tremendous pressure when he organized the funeral in two parts: 30 minutes for an Adventist service and 30 minutes for a government service. Government officials who did not identify themselves called his cell phone, warning him right up to the night before the funeral that he should not try to use his sister’s death to promote Adventism and that no statesmen would attend alongside Adventists.
PRECIOUS MEMORIES: Oksana, already a deputy finance minister, and her mother, Larisa.Alexei refused to yield.
Most statesmen did stay away. But several government leaders joined Finance Ministry officials at the funeral and, after listening to the half-hour Adventist service, used their own 30 minutes to wholeheartedly praise Oksana—and her love for God.
“Love has left our home,” one official said.
Another said: “Her faith in God helped her work and energized our work.”
“It’s sad that she passed away so early, after only 37 years,” said a third official. “But her Jesus died even younger at 33.”
One official compared Oksana to a shooting star: “She shone brightly, and then she was gone.”
The Adventists in attendance were deeply moved by the tributes. “When I heard those beautiful words at the funeral, I wished that the day would come when people could say the same about me,” said Vasiliy Stolyar, vice president of the Euro-Asia Division.
God’s name was glorified even at her funeral. God’s name can be glorified again in the life of every Adventist who works hard and faithfully serves God and country. That’s how Oksana would have wanted it.
“If you extend your soul to the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul, then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday” (Isa. 58:10).
Andrew McChesney is a journalist living in Russia.