Evangelism, the spreading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is precisely that religious activity which the Soviet state is pledged to eradicate. The authorities realize that religion is very difficult to destroy among the old and “superstitious”; what worries them is that a young person should emerge from years of atheist state education as a Christian. Freedom of worship (within limitations) is therefore allowed, but not freedom of evangelism; Christianity must not spill out beyond church walls.
Such strict limitations on evangelism were imposed on the All Union Council of Evangelical Christians and Baptists (AUCEB) in 1960 that there was a schism, and the new, unregistered, and therefore illegal Evangelical Baptist Church (ECB) came into being. The ECB probably exceeds the official body in numbers and has borne the brunt of the persecutions, though all have suffered.
All the media are state-controlled; there is freedom of anti-religious propaganda, but no religious propaganda is permitted. The printing of Bibles is so restricted that a whole congregation might have only one or two. In contrast, in 1971, in the Uzbeck Soviet Socialist Republic, sixty-two anti-religious programs in three languages, and 300 reports on anti-religious activities, were broadcast, and unlimited printing resources were available for pamphlets.
Believers are not able to make any public defense against crude slander and ruthless misrepresentation in the press, nor even in court when they are arrested, and on these occasions the courts are closed to the public. The average Soviet citizen hears of religion only as a dubious activity indulged in by the weak-minded and unbalanced, or by fanatics determined to get children into their clutches. According to the media, Baptist children are “usually recognizable by their appearance; the stamp of religiosity is graven on their faces, and they are sad, withdrawn and taciturn.”
The Soviet system produces widespread indifference and corruption. Belief in the ideal of a noble socialist state, implanted in the young, soon crumbles away as adolescents face reality: poor food, no rights for workers, shoddy goods, cheating, passports to be produced before a change of job or residence can be made, police-state atmosphere, complete lack of a basic moral sense or a social conscience. The majority take refuge in a dull life without horizons; too many find solace in vodka. Where model citizens are to be found—hard-working, sober, reliable workers who fulfill their norms—they often turn out to be Christians.
Some of today’s youth are asking questions. Anatol Levitin-Krasnov, an irrepressible Orthodox layman and pillar of the Human Rights movement who was just released after 2½ years in prison, writes:
In 1956 when I came from seven years in prison and returned to the same school where I had taught before my arrest, I literally did not know the youth there, because after the death of Stalin they had become so mature, understanding life, freedom-loving and audacious.… Youth is disturbed, seething, passionately seeking for something.
Going on to talk of conversions he says,
Often sons of Communists and even of Security Police are baptized … provoking sharp family collisions, leading to loud quarrels, even to complete alienation from their parents. It is no exaggeration to say that the strength and intensity of the religious revival among youth is nothing less than the burning enthusiasm of the early Christians.
Although Levitin is an optimist, a recent detailed official survey among Leningrad students reveals that there is a segment of youth convinced of the positive influence of religion on the moral standards of society. In their view, it restrains people from doing evil; the church in the past has done more good than harm; and the Orthodox Church is an organization constantly concerned about the welfare of the people (this despite the fact that all churches are forbidden any part in social outreach).
No better person to fit Levitin’s description could be found than Aida Skripnikova. In a Leningrad street on New Year’s Eve 1962 she handed out postcards saying,
The world is passing away.… Perhaps tomorrow you will appear before God to give an account of everything you have done.… Seek God while you can still find Him.
Attacked in a youth magazine, she made a reply that was, of course, never printed, but it was handed round in “samizdat” (underground literature):
In your opinion there is no nobler goal than that of building communism and living under it. I consider it neither bright nor noble. The society which you will build will never be just, because you yourselves are unjust. I am convinced that where there is no truth, there can be no happiness either. The goal of my life is to serve the truth.
The mere existence of a body of fully committed people who are different is perhaps the best means of evangelism available under these conditions. Others begin to ask, “Why?” And so the most questioning, the most thoughtful, are attracted. The Christians are thus generally of high caliber. They have to be, in the face of discrimination in education, social benefits, and employment. The atmosphere of worship, of utter devotion, of the presence of the Holy Spirit, of living faith, has struck Western visitors again and again in both Orthodox and Protestant churches.
There are none of the variables of situation ethics among Soviet Christians; the convert is faced with firm absolutes of right and wrong, strict ascetical demands. For a Baptist, a cigarette, a glass of vodka, petting, are not first but last steps to ruin; even taking part in fairly harmless secular activities is out for ECB members, because the “world” is so opposed to the Church. There is an engaging purity about the deeply committed Christian. Levitin’s words, written in the darkest days of persecution in the sixties in defense of monasticism, apply equally well to the ordinary Christian:
Restraint and cleanliness show the profligate that debauchery is not a norm, but an abnormality; renunciation and voluntary poverty teach scorn of riches; self-denial is the best weapon against egotism.… By the power of the Holy Spirit human nature is endowed with power over passions and lusts, and becomes superhuman and angelic. It is a betrothal to purity, an imitation of Christ. It is not something sad and depressing; it is joy and eternal Easter.
Since the Orthodox Church has a long history of state dependence, it is easier for it to accept limitations than for Protestants. It also has enough skillful church politicians to salvage something and turn what might seem evil into good. Numerically it is far the largest; with its 30 to 40 million members it is ten times larger than the AUCEB and the ECB combined.
More important, the Orthodox Church has its roots in Russia’s past—the only surviving visible link with pre-revolution Russia. Students are led to it by their reading of great authors like Dostoevsky; ancient churches are visited—groups even go and restore them; ikons can be seen and their spiritual power experienced in museums; books by émigré theologians are smuggled in; and groups meet to discuss religious problems. With churchmen of the caliber of the writers Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Sinyavsky, Maximov, and Ukrainian Valentyn Moroz, with young poets like the pacifist Galanskov, who died a martyr in a labor camp, or Gorbanevskaya, who spent two years in a psychiatric hospital for her part in the human-rights movement, with giants of courage like the schoolmasters Levitin and Boris Talantov (the latter also died in prison), there is much God-given encouragement to seek God in the Orthodox Church. Even these very stern critics of state interference in church affairs have remained loyal when there is much to deplore. Many Jews, too, deprived of the chance to practice their faith (only sixty synagogues are open), are brought into the Orthodox Church.
Old Slavonic, the language of Orthodox services, is a barrier to the more educated (oddly enough, it is easier for the peasants—who, old and poor, form the majority of believers—to understand, being nearer their dialect), and so the church is now slightly modernizing it. Significantly, many priests, learning from the Protestants, have recognized the sermon as a means of evangelism, and good preachers tend to draw most of the inquirers in the cities. Tape recordings are now commonly used among Orthodox and Protestant churches so that the sermon can reach those who cannot or dare not attend church.
Priests are limited to the conduct of services; evangelism therefore, as Levitin says, is the task of the layman. “The apostolate of the laity has been with us for many years,” he wrote in his letter to the Pope, and he cites many fascinating examples of the conversion of friends, very often young couples starting life together. He tells of a medical student converted as he read of the raising of Lazarus, and of a young engineer who was dissatisfied with dialectical materialism and was converted and baptized. The engineer then confessed to his wife and found she had been secretly baptized a week before with their baby!
The AUCEB churches have also had to compromise, even denying that there is persecution of their fellow Christians. Their position is fraught with difficulties, more than many Westerners realize. Like the ECB, they attract a greater proportion of non-Russian peoples (among Russians they attract mostly the more intelligent, well-qualified workers). Their approach is more direct, less mystical than the Orthodox. They flourish on the Western borders, the Baltic states, White Russia, Southern Ukraine, and North Caucasus. The deliberate dispersal of “suspect” non-Russians, especially Ukrainians and Germans, has in fact helped to spread the Gospel throughout Asiatic U.S.S.R., the vast area worst affected by closure of Orthodox churches.
Although the AUCEB has officially retracted from the 1960 restrictions, it still tends to operate within those limits, confining evangelism to within the church building, or by individual approach. It was ordered not to allow children to take part in services, not to evangelize among the young, to restrict meetings to “worship” and “choir,” and to reduce baptisms of those between eighteen and thirty to an absolute minimum. Despite this, the proportion of believers who are in that age group may be as high as 15 per cent; in the Ukraine a third of all new members are young. There are approximately 5,000 AUCEB congregations with 500,000 baptized members. One pastor had thirty people wanting baptism but was waiting for definite permission from the local authorities; he had already been in trouble and would have been dismissed had he acted without permission. The omnipresent choirs are large, and hymns form a potent means of evangelism.
A certain amount of prohibited instruction of the young may be carried out secretly. One member of an AUCEB church runs a Bible-study group on the quiet in his flat. He defied the authorities: “I cannot send away people who desire to visit me. If you don’t allow guests to come here, then you must place a notice on the door ‘it is forbidden to enter here’ or ‘beware of the dog’ ”—and he got away with it. There may be many more like him.
By showing adaptability the AUCEB has achieved much of what the ECB fought for in vain. A limited biblical mission may now be carried out. Nevertheless, it is largely indebted to the reckless courage of the ECB for the removal of the original strict restrictions on evangelism. Although not in the mainstream of the human-rights movement, the ECB has, by its struggle for basic rights, contributed greatly to critical awareness within Soviet society, and has been much admired by the most perceptive members of other churches. For instance, Solzhenitsyn has drawn attention to a second ten-year sentence on a most versatile and intelligent Baptist preacher, Zdorovets, a Ukrainian. Soviet religious policy aims at having officially controlled, unified church organizations, and the ECB didn’t fit in.
There are more Protestants outside than inside the official AUCEB. Inevitably there are difficulties in trying to fit together such diverse bodies as Evangelicals, Baptists, Pentecostalists, and Mennonites. Moreover, not all ECB congregations are that by choice. New groups form and are refused registration because local officials want to send impressive statistics to Moscow.
Mostly, however, congregations in the ECB are there because they reject state interference, believing passionately in the right of the congregation, and recognizing absolutely the command of Jesus Christ: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel.” They meet for Bible study and prayer in private homes, and hold evangelistic rallies in the open air. Zdorovets was arrested after a rally attended by 2,000 people, last year. Whether in homes or in the open air, their meetings are liable to be broken up by brutal police action. Sergei Kourdakov describes police action against house groups in Kamchatka in which those gathered were treated as if they were drunken rowdies. In some places, of course, local party officials are much less keen, and these illegal groups go unmolested. One congregation in Lithuania is able to use a friendly registered Lutheran church. This is not a lone sign of friendship between churches. Although mutual aid is forbidden, wealthy AUCEB members have paid fines as large as 1,000 R for arrested ECB members, despite ECB leaders’ harsh condemnation of the AUCEB policy of compromise. Warm relations developed between an Orthodox congregation and the local ECB congregation, although the parish priest lost his job for letting the famous, persecuted young evangelist Josef Bondarenko preach in his church.
ECB congregations run excursions for young people; they hold poetry readings; they circulate “samizdat” texts and instructions on how to counter atheistic propaganda. When appeals to the authorities had failed, they sent to churches in the West information on persecution that the government wanted suppressed. There have been conferences and exchange visits of outstanding preachers and choirs. Singing youngsters have challenged passengers on trains and buses. Having had a very modest request for Bibles turned down, they have even set up a so far undiscovered secret printing press that prints Bibles and even a regular magazine! Personal contacts, as with other churches, are a major source of conversions. Soviet women spend a fortnight in maternity homes when giving birth, but aren’t allowed visits by their husbands. One wife never even received a note of congratulations; the Baptist in the next bed felt sorry for her and had flowers sent in for her. Later she arranged for her to be driven home, and as a result of this kindness the woman was brought to God.
There are flourishing Pentecostalist congregations throughout the U.S.S.R., as well as individual Pentecostals in Evangelical congregations, but they have to be fairly subdued. Within the AUCEB they are permitted only if they refrain from speaking in tongues at public services. They face the grave risk of being accused of being mentally unbalanced and interned in psychiatric hospitals. Not allowed to form their own separate union, most worship in small, close-knit, illegal groups, confining the outward manifestations of the Spirit to these. Keen to find potential converts, even from among Evangelical and Orthodox members, they keep a special lookout for people in any need: people with emotional, marital, financial, or drinking problems; the lonely (they visit hospitals, watching for patients with no visitors), the old, widows, new settlers from other areas, young people who find little social life locally. Through personal contact and perhaps practical help, the person in need often finds himself drawn into a warm supporting group, and conversion takes place. Even the Pentecostalists are not necessarily cut off from friendly relations with other churches, and there are reports that a Pentecostal girl was baptized by a Moscow Orthodox priest.
Breaking so many laws in a state that has vowed to eradicate all religion, “illegal” congregations can hardly expect to get away with it; but much injustice and cruelty has been shown them, and prison sentences have recently been raised—up to ten years instead of between one and five. Yet even in and through persecution converts are made.
God has worked wonders through Christians in the labor camps. Solzhenitsyn, in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, illustrates the influence of a man like the Baptist Alyosha. The cruelly martyred Hmara had just been converted after a life of drunkenness and crime.
Another former criminal, Kozlov, now a church leader, writes:
Among the general despair, while prisoners like myself were cursing ourselves, the camp, the authorities, while we opened up our veins, or our stomachs, or hanged ourselves; the Christians (often with sentences of twenty to twenty-five years) did not despair. One could see Christ reflected in their faces. Their pure, upright life, deep faith and devotion to God, their gentleness and their wonderful manliness, became a shining example of real life for thousands.
Khrapov, who has spent half his life in jail for the faith, won Kozlov for Christ. “The prisons and camps,” says Kozlov, “have become for many a place of spiritual regeneration” (there is in Russian tradition a great capacity for renunciation of a life of utter degradation). “In prisons and camps,” continues Kozlov in his open letter to Brezhnev, Podgorny, and Kosygin (1970),
there are still thousands like I used to be. They are not being reformed; camp education methods do not make them better. Indeed they get worse and worse. They don’t need the morality of atheism; they need Christ. If only you didn’t prevent believers who are in prison from speaking about Him … you would not need to maintain your million lecturers upholding atheist morality; you wouldn’t need so many police. The money you spend on them, and on waging war on God, would be better directed to publishing Bibles and Gospels. There would be fewer drunks and thieves and less crime; the camps would empty significantly.
Kozlov adds that he was happy to go to prison again for his faith.
In corroboration of this, an Orthodox priest, Father Zalikavo, is reported by former fellow prisoner Sinyavsky to be at death’s door after being removed from the dreaded Mordovian camps to the even worse Vladimir prison, because of the effect he had on fellow prisoners. It is believed that Sinyavsky himself was released for the same reason. Although Perm camp desperately needed electricians, ECB leader Georgi Vins, a skilled electrician, was employed in hauling logs by hand. Often he collapsed on the daily ten-mile walk across the Urals. He had double hernia and a weak heart, and was covered with malnutrition sores, something quite common in the camp, where food is inadequate and bandages and antiseptics often not available. His mother, Lydia, a lawyer and president of the Council of Prisoners’ Relatives, which sent to the West much painstakingly collected information on prisons in over seventy-five camps, was sentenced in her mid sixties to three years. With chronic stomach ulcers, diabetes, and high blood pressure, she needed to be supported to reach her work place until after a year and a half she was allowed to enter the prison hospital, where she stayed till her release in December, 1973. Such are the people who evangelize by example in prison and labor camp.
Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago still exists; conditions in some camps are as bad as in Stalin’s time. Returning prisoners are often mere skeletons, broken in health but not in spirit. A mere handful of the 700 Baptists given long sentences since 1960 have lost their faith; the Christian prisoners’ ascetic training has stood them in good stead. Often they start their evangelical activities at home at once and are soon resentenced. Such harsh treatment, utterly inexcusable, has unintended results: the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
Obviously there is no opportunity for visiting evangelists from overseas, and all evangelism is the responsibility of local Christians. But there is one exception. There are 45 million radios in the U.S.S.R., and Soviet citizens listen avidly to Western broadcasts. Many letters are received by religious broadcasters (and far more, it seems, never get through) from grateful believers, strengthened in their isolation, or from those converted through these broadcasts, sometimes from lives of open sin. They are written in very general terms, though again and again the writers appeal for copies of the Scriptures. A comparison with, say, letters written by Polish listeners shows how much fascinating personal detail has to be suppressed.
We know that radio reaches people for whom no church is accessible (two men wrote to the BBC from Siberia thanking them for the Orthodox Easter liturgy from London; they hadn’t been within reach of a church for forty years). Sometimes the turning of a knob has led to salvation. On some farms, workers lay down tools to listen to regular gospel broadcasts. Radio ministry reaches a deep need in people’s hearts, and only God knows how many have come to him by this means alone.
Evangelism in the long run depends on the personal life of the individual Christian: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” If this is true anywhere, it is doubly true in the Soviet Union, where there is little scope for other forms.
The ability to give a reasoned defense of one’s faith is an additional asset, which many members of the ECB possess in amazing measure. Where a believer is unable to do so, he can still point the way to the warmth and fervor of a Protestant prayer meeting, or to the centuries-old tradition of the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox. Its beauty attracts even those who understand almost nothing of what is going on, like the well-educated boy who stood entranced for a service lasting three hours, sought instruction afterwards, and was later baptized. His words at the time were, “I only know that it is good for me to be here.”
So long as there is one deeply committed Christian in the Soviet Union, others will be set alight by that living flame. After more than fifty years of persecution, the fire burns as brightly as ever.
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