Soviet Baptist pastor Georgi Vins arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York April 27 a free man, and many Christians worldwide saw living proof of answered prayer. Baptist groups, missions agencies, and local churches had mobilized prayer and letter support for Vins, who was released along with four other Soviet dissidents in an exchange with the United States government for two convicted Soviet spies.

Vins, 51, probably the best-known of the persecuted Soviet churchmen, had just finished a five-year jail term deriving from his involvement with the illegal Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (CCECB). He had begun serving an additional five years in Siberian exile, when the White House announced his release.

He immediately began a hectic schedule—meeting with dignitaries, State Department officials, and former acquaintances. Vins was met at the airport by Olis Robison, an ordained Baptist who is president of Middlebury College in Vermont. Vins planned to stay several weeks at Robison’s home near the 1,800-student campus. (Robison has made a number of trips to the Soviet Union, and on one such trip last year, he began the negotiations that led to Vins’s release.)

Michael Bordeaux, a Vins biographer from Keston College near London, England, called U.S. State Department contacts immediately after hearing of Vin’s release. Those contacts arranged for him to meet with Vins. Bordeaux traveled to New York at his own expense.

Bordeaux, who is fluent in Russian, served as Vins’s interpreter during Vins’s first days in the U.S. Bordeaux helped arrange an interview between Vins and CHRISTIANITY TODAY senior editor Edward Plowman in New York, less than a week after Vins’s arrival. (See box.)

On the Sunday following his release, Vins worshiped with President Jimmy Carter at the First Baptist Church in Washington. Carter taught the adult couples Sunday school class that day, and Vins listened through an interpreter. The lesson in the denominational quarterly focused on justice—an appropriate theme, said Carter, noting that four days earlier Vins “was in a cattle [truck] being transported from Siberia, in exile in his own country because of his belief in Christ.”

Carter drew frequent contemporary analogies from the Old Testament lesson, which described Queen Jezebel’s plotting against Naboth. Jezebel wanted to silence Naboth, said Carter, “but there was no Siberia in Israel so she decided to have Naboth destroyed.” Through his interpreter, Vins told Carter, “I thank you, that you are teaching us not to be silent when we see injustice.”

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Vins’s own interpretations of justice led him to years of confrontation, both with Soviet authorities and with the officially tolerated All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (AUCECB).

Vins spent three years at hard labor after his 1966 conviction in connection with a Baptist demonstration outside Communist party headquarters in Moscow. He went into hiding in 1971, after a new case was opened against him.

But for the next three years, Vins secretly carried on the work of the CCECB, of which he was secretary. The CCECB was launched formally in 1965 after Vins and other Baptist leaders failed in their attempts to initiate reforms in the AUCECB, the government-recognized conglomerate of Baptists, Pentecostals, Plymouth Brethren, and Mennonites (December 20, 1974, issue, p. 26). Their protests had begun as early as 1960, when the AUCECB underwent structural changes that led to increased government controls and influences, and that reduced the autonomy of local congregations—two things sternly opposed by Vins and his sympathizers. (The AUCECB apologized for its structural changes in 1966 and revised its constitution, but by then, Vins and many other reformers were in prison.) The Soviet government refused to recognize the breakaway CCECB, and its member congregations were regarded by the state as illegal.

Vins, a Ukrainian from Kiev, revealed in an exclusive CHRISTIANITY TODAYinterview, that he acted as coordinator of the CCECB’s printing operations, officiated at secret pastors’ conferences, and even visited church services—“often under the eyes of the Soviet authorities,” who had launched a nationwide search for him.

He was finally arrested on March 31, 1974, in Novosibirsk in southwestern Siberia. (February 28, 1975, issue, page 41, and April 25, 1975, issue, page 43).

Vins, who was trained as an electrical engineer, had witnessed persecution of his father: Peter Vins, an American-educated Baptist minister, was arrested for religious activities and died in a prison camp some years ago. Georgi Vins’s son, also named Peter, recently finished an eleven-month term in a labor camp, resulting from charges of “parasitism.”

Following the prisoner exchange, Vins said his only real physical problem is a heart condition. He described events leading to his release in an interview with Bordeaux.

Vins said, “I am convinced that faith is strengthened by trial, and that God offers spiritual comfort in proportion to one’s physical suffering. The imprisoned Christian derives his support from God and prayer.…”

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He expected a reunion with his wife and perhaps other relatives soon after his arrival in the United States. Soviet authorities had asked him to make a list of relatives whom he wanted to join him abroad. On the day of his departure for New York, Vins was issued a new suit of clothes. Then a Soviet official told him “that by decree of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR I was stripped of Soviet citizenship for hostile activities, and was to be deported to the United States.”

Vins at that time denied to the Soviet official having engaged in any hostile activity, “pointing out that all my activity was of a purely religious nature.”

Detente-strengthening motives and tensions surrounding approval of the proposed Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty perhaps most directly induced the Soviet-U.S. trade of prisoners. But Vins asserted in his interview with Bordeaux that Western support of dissidents always “helps a great deal.” Helpful support includes supplying information, demonstrations, and prayer—any nonviolent protest—said Vins.

“I am convinced that even if I had not been sent out of the Soviet Union I would have been dependent to a large degree on Western support,” he said.

“Whenever there was support action in the West, I was treated better by warders and prison administrators. When there was no support, conditions became immediately worse.”

In future weeks, Vins and the other released dissidents may be able to promote their own campaigns against oppression. Alexander Ginzburg, a human rights activist and professing Russian Orthodox believer, would stay indefinitely in Vermont with his good friend, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Edward S. Kuznetsov and Mark Dymshits, both convicted in a 1970 attempt to hijack a small Soviet plane to Israel, visited Israel on its thirty-first anniversary of nationhood. And Valentin Moroz, a Ukrainian nationalist and writer, attended a rally in Philadelphia, where the audience shouted, “Glory to the Ukraine! Glory to Moroz!”

But for Vins, glory was religious freedom, as represented by a Russian language Bible. Vins had requested a Bible soon after arriving in the United States, and the management at his New York hotel secured one from a nearby Russian Orthodox church. He was overheard telling President Carter at the First Baptist Church service, “This is the first time in five years I have had a Bible in my hands.”

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Georgi Vins: From Solitude to a Blurr of Activity

New York Mayor Edward Koch served his honored guest, Georgi Vins, a lunch of London broil and caesar salad. Outside the mayor’s office in the streets below, thousands of unionized city employees demonstrated against the mayor’s plan to close some hospitals.
It was a study in contrasts. Vins, who had been living a meager existence in Siberian exile, and who observed upon seeing the demonstrators, that this was “the first time in my life that I saw such a demonstration” against the government, must have suffered culture shock during those first days after his release.
In an interview with Edward Plowman of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Vins asserted that more evangelistic activity than ever before is being carried out by members of his dissident Baptist movement in the Soviet Union, the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (CCECB). A secret seminary was set up two years ago to train pastors for the CCECB, he disclosed. It apparently relies heavily on correspondence methods to accomplish its work. A number of Sunday schools have been organized, he said, and a network of printing presses are churning out Bibles, hymn books, and other Christian literature.
All of these CCECB activities are in violation of Soviet laws, and as a result a number of church workers have gone to prison. Some are still in prison, said Vins, yet “the work goes on.”
A CCECB printing press in Latvia was seized in 1974 by the government and its operators arrested (April 25, 1975, issue, page 44), noted Vins, but at that time there were two other presses still operating in Moscow and Kiev. Today, he said, “there are many more.”
Currently, according to Vins, the CCECB—outlawed by the government—has between 60,000 and 70,000 members, while the All Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists has about 250,000. (Western observers have usually estimated the numerical strength of both groups at twice those figures.) Seventy percent of the CCECB members are young people and young adults, said Vins. The majority of the AUCEB’s are elderly, he added.
Although a thaw seems to be taking place in relations between some AUCECB and CCECB leaders, Vins remains wary. Full-scale reconciliation, he said, would be “complicated and dangerous.” A lot of internal church issues must be resolved, he indicated, and the AUCECB “has many KGB agents in it and is to a certain extent under the KGB’s control.”
That view is challenged by AUCECB leaders. These leaders acknowledge that certain compromises have been made in order to function legally, but they deny that the KGB controls the churches. Whatever, it all indicates that the policy dispute among evangelicals in the Soviet Union is far from over.

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