For several months now, Soviet experts in the West have pondered how to interpret Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s much-touted policy of glasnost, or openness. About 120 political prisoners were released between February and mid-April of this year. Of these, nine were believing Jews and 36 were Christians, according to Keston College, an England-based group that monitors religious oppression behind the Iron Curtain.
Many experts are urging caution and realism in assessing the apparent change of climate in the Soviet Union. Keston says at least 227 Christians remain in prison. It speculates there may be many more who are unknown.
In response, last month 15 Christian and human rights groups joined to form the Coalition for Solidarity with Christians in the USSR. Coalition chairman Kent Hill, also executive director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, said that while coalition organizers “in no sense wish to ignore important developments now under way in the Soviet Union,” neither do they want to ignore “the continuing fundamental realities” in that country.
The coalition emphasizes a strategy of unity and grassroots activism. At its inaugural rally, held May 1 on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, representatives of the Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic faiths displayed their concern for Soviet believers still facing harassment, persecution, and imprisonment because of their religious beliefs.
Hill said glasnost, in order to be considered genuine, must affect the entire fiber of the Soviet system. “It is one thing to release a prisoner early,” he said. “It is quite another to exonerate him. They are not exonerating the prisoners … nor have the statutes which sentenced them to jail in the first place been rescinded.”
One of the rally’s main speakers was former Soviet prisoner Irina Ratushinskaya, a Christian poet who spent over four years in a labor camp on charges of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda (see sidebar below). She remarked that this was her first demonstration at which she would not be arrested afterward.
What can U.S. Christians do to help imprisoned believers?
When I was in labor camp, thousands of letters were sent to me from people in the U.S and other countries. I didn’t get one of them. But our “dear” KGB had to read all those letters. And they understood that if they would kill me, it would be, as they say, “too noisy in the West.” In the spring of ’86, when they thought I would die, they ordered doctors to do something.
The way to help is to send letters to Soviet authorities. You will not get answers, but they will understand the case is well known. And they must make a good face for Western people because they want economic support.
Articles in newspapers, demonstrations—everything helps. They don’t pay attention to opinions of their own people, but they do listen to people in the West.
“Let us test glasnost,” urged Ratushinskaya. She called on listeners to demand that all prisoners of conscience in the Soviet Union be exonerated and released, adding, “We shall see how real this new Soviet democracy is.”
The rally attracted congressional support, as Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf and California Senator Pete Wilson made appearances. Wilson told the crowd to look “beneath the Gorbachev gloss” and to distinguish between “deeds that support a more humane policy … and those intended simply to convince the free world that the good will of Soviet leaders rises above the atheism of the Soviet state.” Wilson added, “Never, never give up these prisoners who refuse to give up themselves and who refuse to give up their God.”
As a sign of the coalition’s strategy of activism, Anita and Peter Deyneka of the Wheaton, Illinois-based Slavic Gospel Association presented to Wilson and Wolf petitions signed by over 40,000 American Christians asking the President and Congress to “take any and all action necessary to secure the release of all Christians imprisoned in Soviet labor camps.”
Prayer And Advocacy
Another coalition strategy is its “Adopt-a-Prisoner” campaign, which calls for individuals and congregations to pray specifically for prisoners and their families. This campaign also promotes writing letters to prisoners, as well as to Soviet and American officials. Organizers say they want every known Christian prisoner to have “prayer and advocacy support.”
Ratushinskaya, who credits her release from labor camp to activism in the West, told protesters that, while current prisoners of conscience may never know about the rally, they could benefit from its results.
The coalition has specifically highlighted the plights of six prisoners:
- Leonid Borodin, teacher, writer, human-rights activist, Orthodox Christian active in the writing and circulation of unofficial religious writings; sentenced to ten years in a special regime camp to be followed by five years of internal exile.
- Anna Chertkova, Baptist Christian; sentenced to compulsory treatment in a psychiatric hospital.
- Lev Lukyanenko, Orthodox believer; serving ten years in a special regime camp to be followed by five years of exile.
- Viktoras Petkus, Lithuanian Catholic active in religious work with young people; sentenced to a ten-year prison term and five years of exile.
- Father Vladimir Rusak, Russian Orthodox deacon, an outspoken critic of the Russian authorities; sentenced to seven years of regime camp and five years of exile.
- Vikter Walter, pastor of a Pentecostal church in the Siberian village of Chuguyevka, who led his congregation in applying for permission to emigrate; sentenced to a five-year term in ordinary regime labor camp followed by two years of internal exile.
Participants say the rally was unprecedented in its diverse composition. The steering committee included representatives from: All-Ukrainian Evangelical Baptist Fellowship; Christian Rescue Efforts for the Emancipation of Dissidents (CREED;) Christian Response International; Committee for the Defense of Persecuted Orthodox Christians; Concerned Women for America; Congressional Human Rights Caucus; Freedom House, Inc.; Institute on Religion and Democracy; Lithuanian Catholic Religious Aid; National Association of Evangelicals; National Committee to Commemorate the Millennium of Christianity in Ukraine; National Interreligious Task Force; Slavic Gospel Association; Ukrainian Congress Committee of America; and Keston College.
Hill called the rally “a landmark event in the history of cooperation on behalf of Christians behind the Iron Curtain.” He said, “Today we stand shoulder to shoulder and hand in hand as we will one day stand before God—not as Catholics, not as Protestants, not as Orthodox, but as simple Christians, accountable to love God and serve our fellow men.”
By Kim Lawton, in Washington, D.C.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.