ANITA AND PETER DEYNEKAAnita Deyneka teaches in the Institute of Soviet and Eastern European Studies of the Slavic Gospel Association; her husband, Peter, is director of the SGA, in Wheaton, Illinois.
“You have an ideological problem,” the Soviet consul in Helsinki informed us in 1988, telling us our visas to visit the USSR had once again been denied. Having been refused visas repeatedly for 13 years (save for a three-day visit Anita made to Estonia in 1984), a return had finally seemed possible under perestroika (reconstruction). Indeed, earlier in 1988 Christian leaders in the Soviet Union had sent a message urging us to come: “We have perestroika in our nation. Now you need to have perestroika in your perception of the church in Russia.”
In the spring of this year, we finally held visas for an 18-day visit, hoping at last to see firsthand whether the edifice of communism was changing as radically as Gorbachev has claimed.
We saw both change and continuity. After so many years of what the Soviets themselves now characterize as stagnation, the changes startled us. Soon after we arrived in Moscow we met with Konstantin Kharchev, at that time head of the Council of Religious Affairs (CRA), the government body that oversees—and in the past has repressed—religion and has attempted to curtail contacts between Soviet and Western Christians. Kharchev assured us the CRA is an organization that “helps believers live well in the Soviet Union.” He acknowledged the past was “not exactly.… the way we would have liked it to be,” but declared the government is currently attempting to reestablish “an absolutely normal relationship with believers and the church.”
We wanted to explore possibilities of publishing large quantities of Christian literature inside the Soviet Union (until 1988, Christians have been permitted only token amounts of religious literature), so we met with several secular publishers, including the largest publishers of textbooks in the Russian Republic. Presumably the primary producers of atheistic textbooks, they acknowledged the need for moral teaching in their society and expressed interest in Christian books on child rearing, alcoholism, and abortion.
Winds of change in Russia are not only altering attitudes and actions of Communists toward religion, but also bringing new possibilities for religious believers.
In Moscow, we attended an editorial meeting of The Protestant newspaper, one of several new Christian publications surfacing across the USSR. Previously these were circulated only in underground form. We also met with leaders of the seminal Free University in Moscow, a movement attempting to integrate Christian faith and learning in a land where only atheistic liberal arts education has been allowed.
In Kiev we participated in a seminar to train Christian writers that was attended by 86 Christian leaders. The 28 women at the seminar concentrated on writing Sunday school curriculum, aware that until recently, organizing and conducting Sunday schools was generally punished with imprisonment and is technically still not permitted, according to Soviet laws on religion.
On April 2, 1989, Gorbachev stated, “When will there be full religious liberty in the Soviet Union?… I believe this process is already under way. It is developing within the framework of glasnost, perestroika, and democratization. Many things have already changed. A discussion of a new policy was already begun by the new Supreme Soviet on the basis of new laws.”
Despite promises and the drafting of revisions to existing laws, new laws have not yet been adopted to permit broader rights for Soviet Christians. Nevertheless, as Gorbachev has promoted his policy of glasnost (openness), Christians have begun to open more churches, increase their church-related activities, and more openly carry their faith beyond the churches.
Official Soviet sources claim that 1,610 new religious communities for all religious traditions were registered in 1988, including restored and newly constructed church buildings. But even as new churches are opened, the number available for all Christians is probably fewer than 17,000. That is more than during the bleakest years under Stalin, but far fewer than the estimated 60,000 churches and chapels that existed before the revolution. In addition, Orthodox, Baptists, and Adventists have received permission to open a few new seminaries, easing somewhat the severe restrictions on theological education.
The period of perestroika has allowed the delivery of more Scriptures in the Soviet Union; according to Karchev, the total is 1.2 million in Russian and Ukrainian. Delivery of Scriptures in 1988 surpassed all the previous years of Soviet rule, and estimates for 1989 predict the figure will reach 6 million or more. But Bibles remain scarce and are still hot items on the black market. Christians in Kiev who distributed Scriptures in a park at an evangelistic meeting they had received permission to conduct told us how they tore Bibles into sections so everybody could have at least a portion.
Especially during 1988, Christians reached beyond their churches to non-Christians. For example, citing the mass baptismal immersion of Kiev’s citizens in the tenth century as historical precedent, Soviet Baptists began to organize large, official, outdoor baptismal services—attended by as many as 18,000 at one meeting.
One Baptist church in Soviet Central Asia received permission to print and distribute invitations to a baptism. Intrigued by an event he had never heard of, the printer asked whether he might print and distribute extra copies. The Baptists soon began to receive requests from non-Christians who wanted to attend. As a result, 2,000 attended the five-hour service by a river; 1,500 responded to the pastor’s invitation to return to the church and receive Christian literature sent by the West.
Throughout the Soviet Union, Christians are increasingly permitted a voice in public forums. In Kiev, we met a Christian professor (who holds Ph.D.’s in physics and philosophy) who had publicly debated creation versus evolution at the Communist House of Truth Club. When the atheist respondent rose to reply, he admitted he was not trained in science and sat back down. A second respondent insisted he could defend evolution, but the audience shouted, “We’ve been hearing atheism all our lives. We don’t want to hear it now!”
Also, though previously forbidden to participate in charitable activities, Christians now are beginning to help in hospitals, assist in orphanages, and organize charitable outreach—all with official sanction. Gorbachev has declared, “The church cannot distance itself from the complex problems that disturb humanity or from the changes taking place in society.”
Baptists we met in Moscow described their visits to injured Armenian orphans who had been brought to a hospital there. Fifty members of Moscow’s Baptist Church are serving as volunteers in the city’s Psychiatric Hospital No. 1, helping in the gerontology department, cleaning wards, and befriending patients. The department head describes the Baptists as “polite, affable, and painstaking people.” While only a handful of Moscow hospitals so far are helped by volunteers, their presence is noticed. The chief physician at Moscow’s Hospital No. 6 said he had invited youth from the young communist Komsomol to assist at his hospital, but they had little interest. “We basically live in a very self-centered society,” he said. “Charity is not an easily understood concept by people here who are just trying to get through each day. And those young kids were brought up as a part of that selfish society. But believers are different. I knew if they came, it would be sincere, and it is really very beautiful to see them work.”
Christians are also benefiting from new freedoms in other areas of Soviet society. The Soviet press, which has consistently been an arm of the authorities for communistic, atheistic indoctrination, now occasionally publishes articles acknowledging mistreatment of Christians and defending their rights. Christians are also experiencing more visibility on Soviet television.
One of the most remarkable developments of perestroika has been the nomination of Soviet Christians—previously denied any participation in politics—to the new Congress of People’s Deputies. (No Christian candidates were elected to the more influential Supreme Soviet, however.)
Such religious freedoms—remarkable in Soviet history, but taken for granted in the West—may be a result of Gorbachev’s religious roots. Reportedly, his mother is a devout Orthodox believer, and in 1984 Gorbachev said that his grandparents had kept icons in their home. During Gorbachev’s visit to Paris last summer a reporter asked whether the president had been baptized. He reportedly replied, “Yes, I was baptized. I don’t think there’s anything strange about that.”
But in reality, the reasons for reforms leading to increased religious freedom are almost certainly pragmatic, produced by moral collapse and economic catastrophe that could threaten the control of the Communist party and the superpower status of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev is not the first Soviet leader who has lessened repression as a political ploy to retrench and strengthen the Soviet state. To insure the success of his sweeping program, which has had difficulty delivering on its promises, Gorbachev is seeking the support of all citizens, including Christians. They may constitute as much as 25 to 30 percent of Soviet society and are recognized as the most honest, reliable workers.
Under glasnost, Gorbachev has proffered more freedoms to Christians, possibly a step toward the democratization he has promised. One young Soviet Christian told us, “Under Stalin, we were afraid to think or speak. Under Khrushchev, we began to think, but were still afraid to speak. Under Gorbachev, we are thinking and speaking.”
Most Soviets with whom we spoke agreed that under glasnost, Soviet society is characterized by considerably more freedom of expression. However, most are also less optimistic about the progress of perestroika and democratization. A taxi driver told us he was a graduate of Moscow State University and the son of a high Communist party official. “I don’t want any part of the system,” he said. “Communism in our country is corrupt from top to bottom. Gorbachev is trying. But how can one man change a whole system?”
We met a Soviet professor who felt Soviet society is as decrepit as its prefab apartments. With the economy in a shambles, he said Gorbachev had first tried to renovate Soviet communism through minor changes in the economic structure, cracking down on alcoholism, and granting a small measure of more freedom. “But the house was too ramshackle,” the professor said, “so Gorbachev proceeded to perestroika—reconstruction.” Under perestroika, the professor believed, Gorbachev discovered a society more demoralized and disillusioned with Marxism than he had imagined. “Gorbachev is moving in the right direction, but he hasn’t gone far enough,” he said.
Will Gorbachev succeed in rebuilding communist society? Many Soviets we met believe reconstruction will not succeed without repudiation of Soviet society’s foundation, Marxism—an ideology to which falsehood is innate, says Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “In our country, the lie is not the whim of corrupt natures but a mode of existence.… In our country, the lie has been incorporated into the state system as the vital link holding everything together.”
Under glasnost, in a move away from Marxism, the truth is being told in many spheres. Communist leaders are admitting falsified history books and distorted maps. The magnitude of Stalin’s crimes is being probed. Several people we met in the USSR told of recent television exposés of mass graves of Stalin’s victims. One man mentioned a recent news article featuring a babushka whose photo as a child sitting in Stalin’s lap had been widely displayed in the 1930s. Stalin later murdered the girl’s parents, but she had grown up renouncing them, regretting only that her own daughter had been born after Stalin’s death. Now a grandmother, the old woman finally understood the truth about her hero.
But while their history, geography, and the familiar world around Soviet citizens might shake with uncertainty, in the Soviet citadel of communism the statue of Lenin has remained largely sacrosanct. Now, however, more articles are linking Lenin with the failures of Marxism. And many people reared in the womb of a Marxist world view—which claims both certainty and inevitability—are severely shaken by such revelations.
But if Soviet society is to be rebuilt, some citizens believe the nation must move beyond repudiating its crumbling foundations to repentance. That sentiment is strongly expressed in Repentance, a film that may have been viewed by as many as 80 million Soviet citizens since its release in 1986. In it, the signs to truth and meaning point repeatedly to Christianity, and questions of spiritual rebirth and renewal are raised, which we found reverberating through Soviet society. In the final scene, an old woman asks, “What good is a street if it doesn’t lead to a church?” Father Gleb Yakunin, Russian Orthodox priest imprisoned for seven years for his religious rights activities, estimates that now there are “three times as many baptisms in Moscow and ten times as many elsewhere. There’s an explosion of spiritual interest. Hardly anybody would say he is an atheist.”
In Kiev we met with leaders from the Communist Youth Organizations of the Ukraine, whose president said, “We have lost the element of spirituality of life in the past. Perestroika is not possible without the element of the spiritual life.” And a Christian intellectual told us that the visible spiritual interest in society was “not an explosion, but a sure process that can’t be reversed.”
Like Pinning Jelly To The Wall
How will the church respond to the phenomenon of perestroika—a process that not only has implications for the Christian church but whose success or failure will shape history?
Soviet Christians are grateful for religious freedoms, but many are skeptical about their permanency. “It is one thing for the authorities to make promises and even issue new edicts and change the laws,” one Christian told us, recounting how his youth group had been unable to gain permission for a baptismal service. “It’s like trying to pin jelly to the wall,” he complained.
It is particularly difficult for unregistered Baptists, Pentecostals, and others who have been relentlessly persecuted by their government, to trust the promises. Some groups still refuse to consider the possibility of official registration. One unregistered Baptist leader who has lived in hiding for most of 19 years openly attended the funeral of another unregistered Baptist. But though he was neither harassed nor seized by the authorities, he went back into hiding.
Long persecuted and isolated by their Communist government, some Christians feel fearful and ill-equipped to reach out to the wider Soviet society—where spiritual thirst has probably never been greater. A Baptist pastor predicted that many seekers will not stay in Baptist churches: they are highly conservative, often alienated from the culture around them, sometimes divided by generational differences, with older pastors in control and reluctant to share responsibilities and authority with younger members.
Older pastors accustomed to submission to Communist authorities often neglect to take full advantage of opportunities offered by glasnost. Others adopt command styles similar to their Soviet leaders. For example, a pastor in one large registered Baptist church arbitrarily decided that a musician should not be permitted to perform in the church or even practice at home, and he once asked her son to report if she did. When other members of the congregation interceded, the pastor acknowledged he knows it is wrong not to permit her to perform, but declared he was taking responsibility for the decision and that “she will not perform.”
In December, a Baptist congress will elect new leaders. Describing its importance, one young pastor told us, “We are having perestroika in our nation—now we need it in our church.”
The Russian Orthodox Church, too, is characterized by an older, submissive leadership. One young Russian Orthodox told us he deplores his church’s slow response to glasnost. “But then, who would have believed that there was a Gorbachev in the Politburo?” he said. “Perhaps the Gorbachev of the church will appear.”
So far, the only radical change of church leadership in the USSR occurred last April when the Evangelical Church of Latvia voted out of office its archbishop and consistory, both generally regarded as too submissive. A new archbishop was elected who belongs to the reform organization Renaissance and Renewal.
In fact, if Soviet society overall does become more democratic, pluralistic, and perhaps prosperous, the church in the USSR will confront a new set of challenges. Highly conservative doctrine will encounter liberal theology. Centralized control by denominational leaders will be more difficult to maintain, and new churches and denominations may form, reflecting not only theology and church polity but also ethnic, generational, and gender differences. Acquisitive, more than philosophical, materialism may dilute Christian commitment. Corrupting influences, such as pornography and drug addiction, which have been restrained by the Iron Curtain, may multiply, offering the church more ministry challenges.
Some Soviet Christians fear the church may become less fervent if it lives in more freedom. A Russian pastor told us, “In Russia, Christians have been tested daily and their spiritual fiber toughened. This creates a contrast between Christian and secular life.” He worried that with more freedom Soviet Christians might become like Westerners, where it is sometimes “hard to tell the difference between Christians and secular people.”
How, then, can Western Christians most effectively be part of God’s plans and purposes for the USSR? For despite new freedoms, restrictions still remain for Soviet Christians who wish to express their faith outside the limited number of churches tolerated by their government. Even if Gorbachev’s reforms produce further significant freedoms, Soviet Christians can still benefit from Western assistance and attention as they recover from 70 years of a communist stranglehold.
Though most known Christian prisoners have been released and there are fewer new arrests and repressions, Western Christians still have cause to be concerned for the religious rights of believers in the USSR until these rights are not only enshrined in law, but until a pluralistic, democratized society exists to protect the laws. Soviet Christians urged us to ask Western Christians to lobby for religious rights until these exist in full measure—without demanding that the Soviet political system duplicate the American.
New Challenges For The West
Westerners must think realistically and creatively, and address new ministry opportunities with energy and enterprise. This may mean some revision in traditional thinking about Christian outreach to the USSR:
• Scripture distribution. There have been many appeals from Western organizations to help smuggle Bibles and Christian books behind the Iron Curtain. Will Christians in the West respond instead to appeals to help print Bibles and Christian books now authorized inside the Soviet Union? “Before, we were saying we need a million Bibles and Christian books. Now we know we need tens of millions,” a Soviet Christian leader told us.
• Radio broadcasting. The government is no longer jamming Christian broadcasts from the West. Strategies for broadcasting into the USSR may require reformatting as Western Christian broadcasts have a clearer channel than ever before. But Christian broadcasters are also faced with more competition for listeners as glasnost erodes censorship in the Soviet media. Some Soviet Christians dream of the day when they will have access to the media within their country. A few Christian leaders have been interviewed and some church choirs have performed on Soviet TV, but regular Christian programming is not permitted.
• Personal contacts. Western Christians need to be prepared for new opportunities for student exchanges, teaching English as a second language, teaching theology, and for other extended contact with people in a nation that for years has cut off personal contact. Some Western Christian organizations long denied access to the USSR are now finding entrance. World Vision, Tear Fund, and other Western Christian organizations sent aid at the time of the Armenian earthquake and were welcomed by Soviet authorities who themselves could not channel assistance with speed and efficiency. Western student organizations such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship are also discovering new possibilities for placing American students in study programs in the USSR. And for the first time, the 150-member central committee of the World Council of Churches convened its annual meeting in the USSR.
• More exit permits. Currently the door to the USSR is swinging both ways, and Soviet citizens are exiting more easily—not only to emigrate, but also for visits outside their country. Last July, 70 Soviet delegates attended the Lausanne Congress for World Evangelization in Manila.
Reflecting on the current moment of opportunity in Soviet history, Russian Orthodox priest Gleb Yakunin has said, “God and history will never forgive us if we lose this wonderful opportunity.” As Western Christians, we must above all pray and act while the door to the Soviet Union that Gorbachev is reconstructing is open—wider than it has ever been before to the gospel. In communist countries, open doors can suddenly close.
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