Political and economic turmoil in the Soviet Union prompts fears that the winds of religious change are turning chilly.

Last month—at about the same time President Mikhail Gorbachev called a good-will meeting with a diverse group of religious leaders—Soviet customs officials detained a shipment of Christian literature being imported from the West. And while Trans World Radio dedicated a new Christian broadcasting facility in the Byelorussian city of Brest, Soviet communications officials suspended Robert Schuller’s Sunday night religious television program that had been running since last year.

American observers of the Soviet Union say the recent mixed signals on religious freedom are symptomatic of the overall confusion that seems to dominate the political and economic realms there. Yet many caution against writing glasnost’s obituary. “Things are not very clear at the moment in terms of long-term implications,” says Peter Deyneka, Jr., of the Slavic Gospel Association (SGA). In the midst of the confusion, Christians continue to press forward in unprecedented opportunities for ministry.

Recent visitors to the Soviet Union say the glasnost that Gorbachev unleashed has made virtually every sector of society open to religion and morality. In February, a delegation of the Christian Legal Society (CLS), the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), and Catholic University Law School met with Soviet educators, legal scholars, and politicians to discuss how Christian values can be linked to law, human rights, and democracy.

Still Wide Open

IRD executive director Kent Hill says most of the discussions centered on how Christianity can fill a moral vacuum in society. “I was struck by their own sense of the moral collapse their society is facing, and as a result of that, their openness to Christian and other spiritual perspectives,” Hill says. “We were very frank with them about the fact that there is a severe moral and legal crisis in the U.S. right now as well,” he adds. “Their crisis is one of achieving democracy and ours is one of sustaining it.”

The CLS will set up future cooperative efforts, and Hill has been invited by the Department of the Theory and History of Religion and Free Thinking to teach a class at Moscow State University. Joint projects are also being developed with the Soviet Union by the Christian College Coalition and the Christian Medical Society.

Soviet Christians are also discovering unprecedented evangelism opportunities. For example, several churches have begun a “portable library” ministry to unchurched areas. On weekends, participating churches set up book tables in village marketplaces to lend Christian books for two weeks. According to Deyneka, in the last six months, new Bible studies have emerged from the libraries, and new churches are being planted.

Article continues below

Christian publishing is also growing. Deyneka says there are currently about 100 Christian Protestant publications in circulation there. SGA sponsored a Christian writers’ conference in Moscow earlier this month to encourage more publishing. SGA has also begun broadcasting Christian programming on the Radio Moscow Network, which boasts 500 stations nationally (programs are also broadcast on a local station in Ukraine).

The Radonezh Society, an unofficial Russian Orthodox group, has opened the first registered private Christian school in the Soviet Union, according to Mikhail Makarenko, president of Resistance International, the society’s U.S. support group. Two hundred students have begun an educational curriculum from a Christian perspective, and thousands are on a waiting list, he says. The Radonezh Society hopes to open ten such schools across the Soviet Union and is soliciting aid from American Christians. “The Radonezh Society is able to take advantage of the chaos and instability in the country to move forward with its program,” Makarenko says.

Remaining Obstacles

Despite these advancements, uneasiness remains. Makarenko claims some authorities have tried to close the school and have harassed the priest by forbidding him to wear clerical garments and trying to stop him from entering the classroom. And the Radonezh Society continues to do battle with the authorities for the right to call their schools officially Christian. “They want us to call them everything but that,” Makarenko says.

Soviet Christians also report that the Council of Religious Affairs—the agency that controlled religious activities before glasnost—is once again stepping up its influence. “We were about to forget about [the council’s] existence,” says Aleksandr Semchenko, editor in chief of Protestant Publishers. Semchenko reports that customs officials say they are again seeking the council’s permission for imports of religious materials. He says Christian groups still have difficulties establishing industry and production projects, and churches still have problems obtaining land. “Strangely enough, the same obstacles [in place before glasnost] are there,” he says. “It is hard to tell the difference between the old-guard Communists and the new-breed democrats.”

Article continues below

An Uneasy Future

Experts agree that much of the future of religious freedom in the USSR is tied to the tenuous political situation. But even then, it is difficult to assess how religion may be affected by surrounding events. In the Baltic States in particular, Hill says, religion is deeply intertwined with nationalism, so official crackdown on religion may stem from a desire to quench the drive for independence.

Other restrictions on religion may be politically motivated rather than ideological, says SGA’s Anita Deyneka. For example, she says, the incident in which Bibles were detained at the border may have been an effort to get hard currency—although, she concedes, “inevitably, if the political and economic outlook is precarious, there is cause for worry about religious freedom.”

While business advisers are urging Western caution about investing in the USSR right now, Hill says Christians should not follow that advice. “The growing sense of uneasiness there ought to convince Christians in the West that one cannot assume the opportunities that exist today will always be there,” he says. “It means that people need to move forward with dispatch in exchanges and contacts.”

Even if the government takes a more repressive turn, Hill speculates, officials may be too preoccupied with political issues to move quickly against religion. In any event, he adds, “It’s not going to be easy for the Soviets to put the lid back on glasnost.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.