A joke from the 1970s, when Leonid Brezhnev and Alexi Kosygin were the Soviet Union’s leaders, still circulates in the USSR and Eastern Europe:
Kosygin says to Brezhnev, “Let’s tear down the Iron Curtain. Let’s open the borders around our country.”
“But,” exclaims Brezhnev, “if we did that, everybody in the country, except you and me, would leave!”
“Speak for yourself,” Kosygin replies.
The Iron Curtain still surrounds the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. But there is another, less concrete, divider. It is the wall of hostility between East and West, and it also stands high and casts a dark shadow across the world.
During the last months of 1985 and the first half of 1986, hopes for improved relations between the superpowers rose higher than they have at any time since the days of détente in the seventies.
Some Westerners, for example, believed that the November 1985 summit between USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President Ronald Reagan dissolved at least a few of the differences that divide East and West. Other people have been optimistic about continuation of the Geneva arms-control talks, and some are encouraged by new cultural and educational exchanges between the U.S. and the USSR, such as the recent “town meeting” in Jurmala, Latvia, between Soviet citizens and 270 Americans.
Nevertheless, during the past four months, many people’s hopes for improved U.S.-USSR relations began to wane. In August, the Soviets arrested U.S. correspondent Nicholas Daniloff and held him hostage for a month in retaliation for the American arrest of accused Soviet spy Gennady Zakharov. Both men were released in September, and a presummit was suddenly convened in Iceland. But even this high-level meeting between Gorbachev and Reagan did not hurdle deep Soviet-American differences to produce any concrete agreements. Since Iceland, the world is carefully watching developments in Soviet-American relations.
The recent roller coaster of Soviet-American events reveals that relations between the two superpowers—critical as they are to the world’s future—are impossible to predict. Still, several recent trends are discernible, and they provide some clues as to whether the wall between East and West may be lowered or rise higher in 1987. Most important, these trends also affect East-West church relations and evangelism of the USSR and Eastern Europe.
President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev have met twice in the past year, and hopes persist for another summit. Terrified by the specter of nuclear war, a tinderbox world watches, desperately hoping these superpower politicians will defuse the explosive differences between the two nations.
Many Westerners have based their hopes for improved relations on the accession of Gorbachev, whom some have characterized as a new brand of Soviet leader: because he is younger, educated, and urbane, they believe he must therefore be more enlightened and liberal than previous Soviet rulers.
Since coming to power, Gorbachev has replaced over 50 percent of the senior Soviet government and Communist party officials—many whose careers were marked by incompetence and corruption. And with the notable exception of the Chernobyl disaster when media coverage was initially tightly controlled, the Soviet press under Gorbachev seems somewhat more forthright, less controlled, occasionally even commenting on bureaucratic failures.
Overall, however, Mikhail Gorbachev has done little to initiate reforms that might make the USSR and Eastern European societies more humane and democratic. According to Keston College (center for the study of religion and communism, based in England), “The hopes fostered initially by the progressive, energetic image of the new leadership for improvements in the human rights situation have not, so far, been justified. Specifically, the situation is no better.”
Since Gorbachev’s rise to power, Christians have continued to be imprisoned. Keston College currently documents 403 Christian prisoners in the USSR (an increase of 223 since 1979). Also under Gorbachev, repressive laws that facilitate resentencing of Christian prisoners without trials have been applied with greater regularity. Radio jamming, house searches, and other repressions and restrictions against believers have not decreased.
Igor, a Christian youth leader in the USSR, exuberantly described to a recent Christian visitor from the West an expanding network of home Bible studies and prayer meetings he helped organize in his city. But he also confided, “The authorities have been cracking down harder on home meetings. We’re continuing to meet, but breaking into smaller cells.”
KGB officials had gone recently to Igor’s apartment, confiscated 500 cassettes of Christian music and messages, and then interrogated him for 12 hours. When he was later asked about political trends since Gorbachev’s accession, Igor said, “I’ve heard that many people in the West think there’s more freedom under Gorbachev. In our city, we’ve been experiencing more repression.”
Under Gorbachev, the Kremlin has initiated a new campaign to refurbish its image in the West—even hiring a U.S. public relations firm to help do this. If, while repressing their own citizens, Soviet authorities should succeed in projecting a reformist stance to the West, Western Christians may logically assume that beleaguered believers in the USSR and Eastern Europe are less in need of the Christian radio broadcasts, literature, prayer, defense of religious rights, and other supports that the church in the West currently provides. Such a misreading would be a mistake.
“Under capitalism, man exploits man,” states an East European joke. “Under communism, it’s the other way around.” While there may be some similarities between capitalism and communism, the economic systems of the U.S. and Western Europe, and the USSR and Eastern Europe diverge widely. Prospects for any significant convergence between the two systems—which might help bring East and West closer together—seem slight.
R. C. Longworth, a former Chicago Tribune correspondent in Eastern Europe, observes, “Seen against its own past, the USSR and Eastern European countries have all made some economic progress, but seen against the rest of Europe, they have failed. Poland is in intensive care, Czechoslovakia remains paralyzed since 1968, [economically,] Bulgaria is pulling out of the Third World, while Romania slides back into it, and East Germany is living on the charity of its rich cousin. Only Hungary can stand comparison with the West.”
General Secretary Gorbachev has laid blame for increasing Soviet bloc economic problems at the doorstep of the U.S., particularly citing American development of SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative). In fact, the economic stress on their system, which the Soviets believe competition with SDI would produce, is thought to be a primary reason for Soviet scuttling of American proposals at the Iceland summit in October. In a Moscow publication of his speeches, made available October 13, Gorbachev wrote an introduction charging the United States with trying to destroy the Soviet economy by pushing ahead with the arms race.
Gorbachev’s preoccupation with economic issues has stirred speculation that he will institute reforms that will not only radically improve the Soviet economy, but also create ripples across Eastern Europe. So far, his reforms have consisted primarily of tightening worker discipline, replacing some corrupt bureaucrats, and attempting to introduce modern technology.
This tinkering has scarcely touched the Soviet economic machine and the system of controlled, centralized planning that fosters inefficiency, waste, laziness, low productivity, and corruption in most East European societies. If Gorbachev were to overhaul the Soviet economy radically, such reforms quite possibly would loosen totalitarian political controls. Most Sovietologists, however, do not predict that Gorbachev—who has been in power less than two years—will take such risks.
Some Westerners speculate that increased commerce between the U.S. and USSR might help improve relations between the two countries. Indeed, two recent economic developments could prod closer East-West economic ties.
First, oil has for several years provided a source of hard currency revenue, and the USSR has used this to help prop ailing economies throughout the Soviet bloc. Now, however, plummeting oil prices have created what Jan Vanous, a Western-based analyst of the Soviet economy, describes as “the most serious external challenge to the Soviet Union since World War II.”
Internally, another event, the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, has taken a severe economic toll. On September 19, Soviet Finance Minister Boris Gostyev announced that the Chernobyl accident had already cost the USSR 600 million rubles (about $895 million) in losses and damages. Gostyev estimated that the total cost of the accident could amount to 2 billion rubles ($2.98 billion).
These economic crises may cause the Iron Curtain to widen several cracks so as to attract Western tourists and trade to bring hard currency the Soviets need for transactions with the West. This kind of openness could offer Western Christians increased access and opportunities to aid the church and promote evangelism in the Soviet bloc.
Many Western Christians, frustrated by political and economic attempts to improve relations with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, are trying to build bridges with the East by joining growing numbers of U.S. and Western European peace movements with religious motivation. Mounting nuclear stockpiles have understandably stimulated campaigns for peace by citizens on both sides to diminish the distrust and conflicts that increase military defenses.
With deeper war scars in the East than in the West, there is no reason to doubt the sincere desire of Soviet-bloc peoples for peace. Unfortunately, citizens of most of these countries can campaign publicly for peace only if their statements coincide with the one-sided positions of their leaders.
Even Soviet and East European church leaders echo Soviet proclamations about peace. For example, Patriarch Pimen, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has stated: “The consistent peace-loving foreign and domestic policies of our state are unreservedly supported by the believers of our church. With all our hearts we approve of the great peacemaking actions of the Soviet state which promote the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy.”
A few independent peace movements, such as the Sword and Ploughshares movement in the Lutheran Church in East Germany and Basis Communities in the Catholic church in Hungary, have sprung up in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. But independent peace movements in the USSR and most other Eastern countries are swiftly squelched. Jewish dissident Anatoli Shcharansky, released from the Soviet Union in February 1986 after nine years of imprisonment, recalled in an interview that he shared prison cells with members of unofficial peace movements.
Efforts by well-intentioned Westerners to promote peace and scale walls that divide East and West are commendable, but there is little benefit—and even damage done—when Westerners believe Soviet and East European citizens can influence their governments’ decisions in the same way citizens can in democratic countries. Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski stated in an interview on Chicago radiostation WGN’s “Open Line” (June 26, 1986): “There is no grassroots in the Soviet Union that has opportunity to impact directly on Soviet policy.”
Describing a recent peace delegation of Western Christians traveling in his country, an Estonian believer commented, “The Americans told us how important it is for Christians to work for peace and disarmament. Of course I want peace. But don’t Americans understand that in Russia it’s not the citizens who make such decisions? A government-assigned Intourist guide accompanied the Americans, so I couldn’t speak openly to them. They didn’t even seem to understand that we can’t talk freely in such circumstances. I wanted to tell the Americans that if they truly wanted to help, they could bring Bibles to us.”
Isn’t the USSR Russia?
When asked to define the USSR, most Americans might respond with “Russia.” Yet the republic of Russia (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, or RSFSR) is but one—albeit the largest—of 15 republics that constitute the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Among the other 14 are Armenia, Estonia, Georgia (Josef Stalin’s birthplace), Latvia, and Lithuania. And, no, the recent nuclear accident at Chernobyl did not take place in Russia: the Ukraine is a different republic.
Technically, the term USSR is no more interchangeable with the name of its most populous republic, Russia, than the U.S. is with our most populous state, California. (It is almost as though we would introduce a resident of Ohio as a Californian.) Nevertheless, the term Russia persists in popular usage. This is probably true since Russia was the name of the nation until 1917, and it still reflects the predominant ethnic composition of the Soviet Union: Russians make up about half of the USSR’s total population. And approximately 83 percent of these ethnic Russians live in the Russian republic, which covers three-fourths of the nation.
Building Bridges To Reconciliation
It is essential for the West to improve relations with the USSR and Eastern Europe. And some political, economic, and peacemaking efforts are productive. But in spite of the strategic and sincere efforts of many, relations between the world’s superpowers show little improvement. What, then, can followers of Christ, who “is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility,” do to bridge barriers dividing East and West?
Although separated by 5,000 miles, the U.S. is but 30 minutes from the USSR by nuclear-warhead missiles. That reality, plus our spiritual solidarity with millions of believers behind the Iron Curtain and our concern for nonbelievers, compels Western Christians to look for ways to build bridges with the Soviet Union.
That the gospel holds hope for promoting peaceful coexistence—even reconciliation—between East and West is evidenced by the bond that already exists among millions of Christians in both East and West. Even after many trips to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, this phenomenon still sometimes startles us. We cross through barbed-wire fences, past guard towers and land mines intended to separate East and West, and we meet Christians who trust us as family—even if we have never met. We are reminded that the Holy Spirit cannot be denied a visa to Iron Curtain countries: concrete walls cannot ultimately separate Christians from God or from one another.
But there are walls that divide people from one another and from God. As Solzhenitsyn has observed, the dividing line between good and evil is not set by boundaries between countries, but is found in every human heart. In both East and West, only the gospel has power to dissolve walls erected by sin. And as interior walls of evil disappear, exterior walls of hostility may also crumble.
The gospel must first be heard, however. While the good news may be freely proclaimed in the United States and Western Europe, Soviet and East European governments consider the message of Christianity inimical to communism, and attempt in varying degrees to silence it. Nevertheless, there are millions of Christians and thousands of churches in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Unable to proclaim their faith freely in most of these countries, Eastern Christians ask their free Western counterparts to help make the gospel heard in their countries.
Radio: Leaping Walls
The most powerful, pervasive means available to accomplish that task and influence the masses living behind the Iron Curtain is through Christian short-wave radio. While Iron Curtains close the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to most traditional missionary ministries, gospel broadcasts daily cross communist country borders and barriers.
Currently, for example, 15 international missionary radio stations transmit approximately 1,000 hours of Christian broadcasting to the USSR each month. There are approximately 60 million short-wave radio sets in use in the USSR (population 274 million); potentially, nearly every Soviet citizen could listen to Christian radio.
While letters from listeners and listener surveys—exceedingly difficult to conduct in closed, totalitarian societies—indicate Soviet Christians are the most interested in gospel broadcasts, non-Christians are also listening.
A recent letter from a listener in Moscow states, “Certain things on the program RADAS [Radio Academy of Science, a program about science and the Bible] interest me, especially because the programs are made for intelligent people in this century.… I am an atheist … and have a doctorate in technology. We are living as prisoners in a spiritual vacuum. Our only salvation is through information that we get from the outside world. Whoever invented short-wave radio deserves a gold medal.”
Also numbered among Soviet listeners to Western broadcasts are Communist party members and government policy makers—people who control the destiny of the USSR and Eastern Europe, and whose decisions influence the direction of the rest of the world.
In a recent article, “How the Kremlin Stays Tuned In,” two Russian-born authors, Vladimir Solovyov and Elena Klepikova, discuss the communications systems in the Soviet Union—“namely how and from where the Soviet leaders get information about what is going on in their own country and outside it” (Chicago Tribune, June 7, 1986). Solovyov and Klepikova describe Brezhnev and Andropov as having been regular listeners to Western broadcasts from Voice of America and the BBC. Grigori Romanov, the Leningrad party boss once considered a rival to Gorbachev, “listened to these foreign radio stations regularly.” The authors further observe, “It is hardly likely that Gorbachev differs in this respect from his Kremlin rivals, colleagues and predecessors.”
A Christian leader in the Soviet Union tells of one KGB agent who became a believer through Christian broadcasts from the West. Ten years after his conversion, nearing death, he summoned the pastor of the local Baptist church. “Perhaps you noticed that you have had less oppression in the last ten years,” the official said. “I am a Christian, but I purposely remained a Nicodemus in order to keep my KGB position because I believed I could help and protect you.”
This year, the U.S. government is spending $292 billion for military defense and $306 million for ideological warfare through the Voice of America, Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Europe. But Christians in the West will invest only around $5 million this year to broadcast the gospel to the Soviet Union.
Still, the gospel message by short-wave radio offers the church a most strategic, if oft-forgotten, voice in the rhetoric between East and West. Now only a whisper, it could be shouted across the USSR and Eastern Europe, with its power not only to change the destiny of individuals, but also to establish a Christian foundation for peaceful relations between East and West.
Anita Deyneka teaches in the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies of the Slavic Gospel Association; her husband, Peter, is director of the SGA, which is based in Wheaton, Illinois.
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