Last fall a group of 19 evangelical leaders went to Moscow to advise the government. The letter of invitation from the Supreme Soviet read in part, “In the difficult, often agonizing transitional period that our country is experiencing … spiritual and moral values acquire a great, if not paramount significance.… We know the role which your Christian organizations are playing as you follow the great words of Christ: ‘Faith without works is dead.’ ” The letter called for help in rebuilding the “moral· values of Christianity.” The evangelicals who responded, calling themselves Project Christian Bridge, included television and radio broadcasters, educators, publishers, Russian scholars, pastors, businessmen, and mission executives. CHRISTIANITY TODAY Editor at Large Philip Yancey accompanied them and presents here his report of those extraordinary days. A book-length account will be published by Multnomah Press later this month.
Several Times in Moscow we passed the sturdy pedestal that, until the collapse of the coup last August, had supported a statue of the founder of the secret police. Toppling the statue required the use of a huge crane, and for several days the workers let Feliks Dzerzhinsky dangle from a steel-cable noose high above the street, a shocking symbol of the triumph of freedom over fear. Muscovites were still filing solemnly past the bare pedestal, staring at the vacant space, shaking their heads in disbelief.
We, too, shook our heads in disbelief when we got a friendly invitation to stop by the squat, hulking KGB building behind the pedestal and sip tea with the agency’s leaders. Most of us had read dissidents’ memoirs that describe in hideous detail what went on downstairs inside Lubyanka, the most famed and feared of Moscow’s many prisons. From offices above the basement cell blocks, the KGB oversaw a vast network of prisons, exposed by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as “the Gulag Archipelago.”
Cautious historians put the death toll from the camps and purges at 10 to 20 million; Solzhenitsyn reckons the figure at 60 to 70 million. I can hardly comprehend these numbers, but I recoil in disgust against not only the tortures but also the accounts of simple human meanness inflicted by the KGB. Andrei Sakharov reports that agents put cockroaches in his mail envelopes, punctured tires, smeared windows with glue, stole his dental bridges, glasses, and toothbrush. Solzhenitsyn tells of a hapless workman who got 10 years in prison for carelessly hanging his coat on a bust of Lenin, of a woman who got 10 years for scribbling a note on a newspaper over a picture of Stalin, of a man who got a 25-year sentence for attending the secret reading of a novel. Now we were to sip tea with the authors of such brutishness?
The Repentance Of The Kgb
Though Toppled from his Pedestal outside, Feliks Dzerzhinsky lived on inside the KGB headquarters; a large photo of him still hung on one wall of the room we met in. A handful of agents, their faces as blank and impassive as their movie stereotypes, stood at attention by the doorway of the wood-paneled auditorium. Gen. Nikolai Stolyarov, vice-chairman of the KGB, introduced himself.
A young, handsome man with a strong-boned face, Stolyarov had emerged as a popular hero during the August 1991 coup. A career officer in the air force, he had, at the height of the tension, flown to Gorbachev’s dacha to help rescue him. The KGB job was his “reward.”
“Meeting with you here tonight,” Stolyarov began, “is a plot twist that could not have been conceived by the wildest fiction writer.” Indeed. He then surprised us by saying, “How to bring peace and quiet to the hearts of people is a great problem for us. We are united with you in working together against the powers of evil.”
A few looks were exchanged around the room, and eyebrows arched upward. I thought cynically of the cockroaches in Sakharov’s envelopes and the humiliating strip-search of Solzhenitsyn in the prison below.
Stolyarov continued, “We realize that too often we’ve been negligent in accepting those of the Christian faith. August 1991 shows what can happen. But political questions cannot be decided until there is sincere repentance, a return to faith by the people. That is the cross I must bear. In the study of scientific atheism, there was the idea that religion divides people. Now we see the opposite: love for God can only unite. Somehow we must learn to put together the missionary role—absolutely critical for us now—and also learn from Marx that man can’t appreciate life if he is hungry.”
Our heads were spinning. Was that “missionary role” he said? Where did he learn the phrase bear a cross? And the other word, repentance? Did the translator get that right? What to make of this never-never land where a KGB director talks like a seminarian? I glanced at Peter and Anita Deyneka, banned from the USSR for 13 years for their Christian work, now munching cookies in the KGB headquarters.
Stolyarov could not get off the hook so easily. Joel Nederhood, a refined, gentle man who makes radio and television broadcasts for the Christian Reformed Church, stood with a question. “General, many of us have read Solzhenitsyn’s report of the gulag. A few of us have even lost family members there.” His boldness caught some of his colleagues off guard, and the tension in the room noticeably thickened. “Your agency, of course, is responsible for overseeing the prisons. How do you respond to that past?”
“I have spoken of repentance,” Stolyarov replied in measured tones. “This is an essential step. You probably know of Abuladze’s film by that title. There can be no perestroika apart from repentance. The time has come to repent of that past. We have broken the Ten Commandments, and for this we pay today.”
I had seen Repentance by Tengiz Abuladze, and Stolyarov’s allusion to it was stunning. The movie details false denunciations, forced imprisonment, the burning of churches—the very acts that had earned the KGB its reputation for cruelty, especially against religion. In Stalin’s era, an estimated 42,000 priests lost their lives. Ninety-eight of every 100 Orthodox churches were shuttered. Repentance portrays these atrocities from the vantage point of one provincial town.
In the film’s most poignant scene, women of the village rummage through the mud of a lumberyard inspecting a shipment of logs that has just floated down the river. They are searching for messages from their prisoner husbands who cut these logs in a labor camp. One woman finds initials carved into the bark and, weeping, caresses the log tenderly; it is a thread of connection to a husband she cannot caress. The movie ends with a peasant woman asking directions to a church. Told that she is on the wrong street, she replies, “What good is a street that doesn’t lead to a church?”
Now, sitting in the state headquarters of tyranny, in a room built just above the Lubyanka interrogation rooms, we were being told something very similar by the vice-chairman of the KGB. What good is a path that doesn’t lead to repentance, to the Ten Commandments, to a church?
Without warning, the meeting took a more personal turn. John Aker stood up. “General Stolyarov, I am a pastor from Rockford, Illinois. I began a career as an army officer and was trained as an army intelligence agent. I taught courses in Soviet-bloc propaganda and participated in two high-level counterespionage activities involving KGB officers.
“I grew up as a young boy in America very much afraid of the Soviet Union. That fear turned into distrust and, finally, in the army, it turned into hate.
“General, you said something tonight that touched a chord deep within me. I have one thing to add, though. You used the phrase, ‘That is the cross I must bear.’ I went through a time when guilt over things I had done as an army intelligence agent was destroying me. I couldn’t bear that guilt, and I seriously considered ending my life. That’s when I realized I did not have to bear that cross forever. Jesus bore it for me.
“Jesus’ love for me has given me a very real love for the people of the Soviet Union. This is my fourth visit in six months, and I have found them to be loving, kind, and searching people. General, I mean it sincerely: As I think of you, I will pray for you.”
General Stolyarov was obviously moved.
Then Alex Leonovich spoke. Alex had been sitting at the head table translating for Stolyarov. A native of Byelorussia, he had escaped during Stalin’s reign of terror and had emigrated to the U.S. For 46 years he had been broadcasting Christian programs, often jammed, back to the land of his birth. He knew personally many Christians who had been tortured and persecuted for their faith. For him, to be translating such a message of reconciliation from a high official of the KGB was both bewildering and nearly incomprehensible.
Alex is a stout, grandfatherly bear of a man with gray hair and a look of kindness imprinted on his face. He epitomizes the old guard of warriors who have prayed, sometimes believing and sometimes not, for more than half a century that change might come to the Soviet Union—the very change we were apparently now witnessing. He spoke slowly and softly in Russian to Stolyarov, and the Russian speakers scattered around the room translated quietly for the rest of us.
“General, many members of my family suffered because of this organization,” Alex said. “I myself had to leave the land that I loved. My uncle, who was very dear to me, went to a labor camp in Siberia and never returned. General, you say that you repent. Christ taught us how to respond. On behalf of my family, on behalf of my uncle who died in the gulag, I forgive you.” And then Alex Leonovich, evangelist and president of Slavic Missionary Service, reached over to Gen. Nikolai Stolyarov, the vice-chairman of the KGB, and gave him a great Russian bear hug.
Stolyarov whispered something to Alex, and not until later did we learn what he said. “Only two times in my life have I cried. Once was when my mother died. The other is tonight.”
What was there left to do but pray? Our spokesman, Mikhail Morgulis, a half-Jewish Soviet émigré whom Alex had befriended in New York and converted to Christ, prayed eloquently for “the thousands of our brothers and sisters who have perished” and for “the new leaders who would attempt to lead this nation down a new path.” The television cameras clicked on, and cameramen vied for the best angle: Mikhail praying underneath the photo of Dzerzhinsky, the KGB guards peeking nervously about the room, Stolyarov wiping awkwardly at his face.
Gen. Nikolai Stolyarov, vice-chairman of the KGB, confessed, “There can be no perestroika apart from repentance. The time has come to repent of that past. We have broken the Ten Commandments, and for this we pay today.”
“I feel like Moses,” Alex said on the bus home that evening. “I have seen the promised land. I am ready for glory.” For him, and for others, our visit seemed a sacred moment distilled from the prayers of an entire generation and poured out of a crucible of suffering.
The local photographer accompanying us had a less sanguine view. “It was all an act,” he said. “They were putting on a mask for you. I can’t believe it.” But he too wavered, apologizing a short time later: “Maybe I was wrong. Maybe they have changed. I don’t know what to believe anymore.”
Messenger From The Camps
Three days Later we Assembled in a conference room in our hotel, a luxurious building that once belonged to the Central Committee of the Communist party. By now, all doubts had vanished. What we experienced at the KGB headquarters was but one dramatic episode in a trip that convinced all of us that a revolution has taken place in the Soviet Union—a revolution every bit as sweeping and monumental as the Bolshevik one 74 years before.
As “Guests of the President,” our group received VIP treatment: private tours of the Kremlin museums, daily coverage in the national media, and an itinerary that included meetings with top-level officials. Everywhere we heard the same message. As a leading economist put it, “The worst crisis these days is morality. Ideology, which was a religion for us, has been crushed. Yet there is no Christ to replace it.” These seemed surprising words from a person devoted to improving the material state of the country, but everyone without exception echoed his words.
“Yes, he’s right,” the editor-in-chief of Pravda assured us. “Morality is the worst crisis, worse than the economic and political problems. Christian values may be the only thing to keep our country from falling apart.”
Perhaps understandably, Mikhail Gorbachev himself had been the most cautious in expressing the spiritual nature of the crisis. “Let me be honest with you—I am an atheist,” he told us in a private meeting, setting to rest all rumors about his being a closet believer. “Even so, I have profound respect for your beliefs. This time, more than ever before, we need support from our partners, and I value solidarity with religion.
“But I must say,” Gorbachev added, “for a long time I have drawn comfort from the Bible. Ignoring religious experience has meant great losses for society. And I must acknowledge that Christians are doing much better than our political leaders on the important questions facing us. We welcome your help, especially when it is accompanied by deeds.”
A few days before, a government official had attended the reopening of the Russian Bible Society, an organization that had not been allowed to function for 70 years. “We have treated this book like a bomb,” he said, holding up a Bible. “Like contraband material, we have not allowed Bibles into our country. Now we realize how wrong that was.”
Almost overnight the Soviet Union has moved away from an official position of atheism and hostility to become perhaps the most open mission field in the world. Wherever we went, officials invited us to set up exchange programs, relief work, study centers, publishing ventures. We heard reports that Young Life was inheriting camps from the Young Communists, and that the Gideons were frantically trying to resupply Bibles to hotel rooms (guests kept stealing them).
Gathered in our hotel conference room, we were discussing this amazing turnaround when an ex-convict named Basil unexpectedly showed up. After a week of meetings with Soviets, all of whom followed the same script of unvarying politeness and respect for Christianity, it was easy to lose sight of how radically the nation had changed. Basil’s visit brought a jarring reminder.
Basil had been listening, incredulously, to reports of our visit over the Soviet national radio network. For years he had clandestinely tuned in to short-wave programs by Alex Leonovich and Mikhail Morgulis. Now state radio reported that these men, along with other Christians from the U.S., were meeting with Gorbachev, the Supreme Soviet, and the KGB. The new openness toward religion seemed so inconceivable to Basil that he got on a night train and made the 14-hour journey from Moldavia in order to see us.
Basil had broad, hulking shoulders and the rugged, weatherbeaten features of a farmer, and he looked ill at ease in a suit and tie. He had a most peculiar smile: two front teeth on the top row were missing, and when he smiled, gold fillings in the back molars gleamed faintly through the gap. He presented us with a sack of gorgeous purple grapes and golden apples, which he had hand-picked and carried on his lap from Moldavia. He asked for five minutes to address us.
When Basil opened his mouth and the first sound came out, I jumped. We were meeting in a small room, and Basil spoke at the decibel level of a freight train. I have never heard a louder voice from any human being. We soon learned why.
In 1962 Basil founded a small publishing company, distributing a total of 700,000 gospel tracts before the KGB paid him a visit. They arrested him and sent him to a labor camp. At first Basil was perplexed. Why should he be punished for serving God? But then one morning he saw in a flash that God had provided a new opportunity.
Every morning before sunup, prisoners from the labor camp had to assemble in an open space for roll call. Camp commanders insisted on strict punctuality from prisoners, but not from guards. As a result, thousands of prisoners stood outdoors for several minutes each morning with nothing to do. Basil, who loved to preach, decided to start a church.
As he recounted this story to us, Basil spoke louder and faster, gesturing passionately. Every few sentences, Alex, who was translating for us, grabbed Basil’s flailing arm and asked him please to slow down and lower his voice. Each time Basil apologized, looked down at the floor, and began again in a pianissimo that within seconds crescendoed to a fortissimo. His voice had no volume control, and the reason traced back to that early morning scene in the labor camp.
Basil preached daily to a truly captive audience. Typically, he had about two minutes before the guards arrived, and as a result it often took him two weeks to deliver a single sermon. He had to shout to be heard by several thousand prisoners, a strain that made him hoarse until his voice adapted. Over the years—ten years in all—of speaking outdoors to thousands, he developed the habit of speaking at top volume and breakneck speed, a habit he could never break.
Released from prison in 1972, Basil devoted his energies to building an unregistered church in his village. Now, after 19 years, opposition had faded away and he had just laid the last cement block and covered the church with a roof. He had come to Moscow, he said, to thank us for all we were doing, to bring us fresh fruit from Moldavia, and to ask Alex Leonovich to speak at the dedication of his church.
“There were many years when I had no encouragement,” Basil said. By now he was weeping openly, and his voice cracked but did not drop one decibel. “The words of this man, Brother Leonovich, I carried in my heart. He was the one who encouraged me when my hands were tied behind my back.” He then reached over, grabbed Alex by the shoulders, and kissed him in the Russian style once, twice, 15 times—one for each year, he said, that he had waited for Alex to return to Russia.
“And now, such changes, I can hardly believe them,” Basil said in closing. “When Billy Graham came in 1959 they let him appear on a balcony but not speak. To think that you are here, able to talk with the leaders of our country. Brothers and sisters, be bold! Where I come from the believers are praying for you at this minute. We believe your visit will help reach our country for God. God bless you all!”
Suddenly, I burned with shame. Here we were: 19 evangelical professionals who made a good living from our faith, sitting in a luxurious hotel. What did we know about the kind of bedrock faith needed in this nation of people who had endured such suffering? What gave us the right to represent the Basils of the USSR before Gorbachev and the Supreme Soviet, let alone the KGB?
We stood and prayed with Basil, and then he left. Our group went off to be feted in grand style with a banquet at the Ukrainian embassy, and we did not see Basil again until later in the evening.
Basil And The Journalists
I looked forward to the Event scheduled for that evening: a visit to the Journalists’ Club. The inordinately polite reception we had been receiving was making me nervous. I knew that an entire atheistic state had not warmed to Christianity overnight, and I longed for a dialogue of true substance. I wanted us to be challenged with hard questions about what difference Christianity could make in a country coming apart at the seams. I could count on cynical, hard-bitten journalists to render such a challenge, I thought.
I thought wrong. This is what happened at the distinguished Journalists’ Club of Moscow. First, we North Americans, seated on a spotlighted stage in a small theater, introduced ourselves. When Ron Nikkel of Prison Fellowship told stories of prisoners who had found Christ, the room fell silent, and then these “cynical, hard-bitten journalists” did something I would not have predicted in a thousand years. They broke into loud, prolonged applause. These are the probing questions they tossed at Ron: “What is this forgiveness? How do you get to know God?”
Evidently, the journalistic elite of Moscow would not be the ones to challenge our Christian beliefs. They seemed far more intent on grasping after them, as if grasping for rare secrets of life that had been concealed for 70 years. After we had introduced ourselves, the journalists themselves spoke.
A tall, stately gentleman introduced himself as an editor of the Literary Gazette, a prestigious Soviet journal. “No doubt you know of the problems in our country,” he said. “I tell you, however, that the greatest problem is not that we don’t have enough sausages. Far worse, we don’t have enough ideas. We don’t know what to think. The ground has been pulled out from under us. We thank you deeply for coming to our country and holding before us morality, and hope, and faith. That’s exactly what we need.”
The next speaker was his polar opposite, a dissident who specialized in writing political satire. Slovenly dressed, ungroomed and passionate, as if he had stepped straight from a Dostoevsky novel, this character spoke in a voice almost as loud as Basil’s. He had a bad stutter—odd to hear in a foreign language—and just as he reached a climactic point he would hang up on a word. “You are our salvation, our only hope!” he shouted. “We had a lawful country, a society with religious beliefs, but that was all destroyed in 70 years. Our souls were su-su-su-sucked out. Truth was de-de-destroyed. In the last stage, which we have just lived through, even the c-c-c-c-c-communist morale was destroyed.”
“Let me be honest with you—I am an atheist,” Gorbachev told us in a private meeting. “Even so, … I value solidarity with religion.”
A beautiful, blond-haired woman wearing a red silk blouse and a leather skirt made her way to the aisle, her hands clutching a designer purse. I had not seen such fine clothes in Moscow. Mikhail Morgulis whispered to me that she was a popular newscaster—something like the Connie Chung of Russia. “I am so shaken to be here tonight,” she said, and then paused a moment to control her voice. “I am shaking! I feel so blessed to learn that American leaders are concerned with spiritual and moral problems. I am a person educated in religion, and yet I am only on the first step in understanding what is God. So many visitors have come here to make a profit in our country, but I am so thankful that the American intelligentsia care enough to come and meet with people at such important levels over these issues.”
She was followed by others who gave similarly embarrassing overassessments of our importance as a delegation. As in previous meetings, we tried to point out flaws in American society and in the American church, but the journalists seemed altogether uninterested in apologies or critiques. They seemed, rather, starved—grievously starved—for hope.
I thought of the reception our group might get at the Press Club in Washington, D.C., the questions we might prompt from the editors of The New Republic or Esquire. I tried to imagine Connie Chung or Barbara Walters being vulnerable before her peers, as this woman had been. As I was mulling over these thoughts, I noticed in the audience a familiar figure in a funny green suit.
The theater lights had been dimmed for our introductions, but now that the audience was responding, other lights were switched on. Sitting in the back row was Basil, he of the foghorn voice and the two-minute church in the gulag. From then on I kept one eye on Basil, wondering how a pastor and ex-convict from Moldavia felt in such an environment, among the celebrities of Moscow.
Whenever someone mentioned the words God or Jesus, Basil raised both fists over his head, and even from the stage I could almost see the gleam in the gap between his front teeth. On the back row, out of view of the audience, Basil was acting as our one-person charismatic cheerleading crew.
For the first time that day, I glimpsed our group as Basil saw us: his ambassadors, going where he would not be invited, speaking words he could not always follow, opening doors he had thought sealed shut forever. We, too—those of us who felt so unworthy in his presence that morning—had a role to play. It was to do our part to help guarantee that Basil stay free to worship inside or outside the camp.
Basil stood for millions of Soviet Christians who had lived out their faith in fear and trembling. Incredibly, the tables had turned. Now the journalists of the Soviet Union applauded when they heard stories of converted prisoners, and they craved news about God as a dying patient craves a miracle cure. They hung on our words about Christianity as Russian economists hung on words about capitalism, as if we were smuggling in a secret formula from the West that might salvage their land.
We were not bringing imports from the West, however. The God we served had been in the Soviet Union all along, worshiped hungrily in the camps and in the unregistered house churches and in the cathedrals the Communists had not razed. These journalists, all masters of Moscow’s cock-tail-party circuit, had never met a simple saint like Basil. It was our job, quite simply, to introduce them.
Interlude In Zagorsk
We had one Sunday on our own in Moscow, and our delegation scattered to different churches across the city. Partly because of comments by the journalists, I wanted to attend a Russian Orthodox church service.
In almost every meeting with our Russian hosts, questions about the Orthodox church had surfaced. What did we think of the Orthodox? Did we intend to cooperate with them? Some thought the powerful Orthodox church had been fatally compromised by its history of coziness with the Communist party. One government minister put it bluntly: “The Orthodox church has taken over the very worst aspects of communism.”
Within our group, Ron Nikkel, president of Prison Fellowship International, was the most vocal advocate of cooperation. “The Orthodox priests already have the respect of the people,” he insisted. (Polls show that Soviets are eight times more likely to trust a religious leader than a political leader.) “They have resources, the loyalty of 50 million members, and a long tradition of spiritual authority.”
Ron said he had met many priests with a genuine compassion for the people, and I asked if I could see an example of this compassion at work. He arranged a trip 50 miles northeast of Moscow to visit two sites: the Zagorsk Monastery, richest jewel of the Orthodox church, and the Zagorsk Prison, possibly the worst prison in the Soviet Union.
We got up early on Sunday. The route through Moscow led us alongside the Kremlin complex. It was a startlingly clear day, temperature in the low twenties, and the gold onion domes of the Kremlin cathedrals, glittering with ice crystals, shone like miniature suns against a deep blue sky. In Red Square, long lines were already forming by Lenin’s tomb and the fairy-tale spires of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Our driver pulled to the curb to allow us to take in the view, one of the most breathtaking manmade sights in the world.
I noticed an elderly babushka kneeling before the cathedral in prayer—an act that would have required immense courage a few months before. A chorus of bells rang out in the clear morning air. Church bells were silenced after the Revolution; a decree by Gorbachev had made it legal for them to sound again. The irony struck me: Within the walls of the Kremlin—officially atheistic until 1990—stand five separate gold-domed cathedrals. Is there another seat of government in all the world so crowded with churches?
Zagorsk offered an even greater feast for the eyes. A cluster of 50 magnificent buildings that includes two cathedrals, numerous chapels, a czar’s palace, and a wood-frame hospital, the monastery showcases the finest architectural styles from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century.
Brother Bonifato, a red-bearded priest dressed in flowing, black robes, met our car at the gate and ushered us into a cathedral where a service was under way. Ducking in a private side entrance, we immediately found ourselves on the front row of a small, vaulted chapel attached to the main cathedral. Before us loomed a wall that appeared covered with solid gold, inset with the five-tiered iconostasis. Ensconced candles, the primary source of light in the chapel, lent a soft, eerie glow to the room, as if the walls were the source, rather than the reflection, of light.
We stood beside a 150-voice choir composed entirely of young monks in training. The air hummed with the throaty, bass-clef harmony of the Russian liturgy, a sound that seemed to come from under the floor. After the choir had sung for a few minutes, they were answered antiphonally by another choir of equal size, hidden from view in another chapel. The vaulting caused sound waves to bounce down on us again and again in harmonic overtones. That, combined with the scent from melting candle wax and burning incense, made for a very sensuous service.
An Orthodox service lasts three to four hours, with worshipers entering and leaving at will. The audience has little participation; a concept like “the priesthood of all believers” is utterly foreign. No one invites congregants to “pass the peace” or “greet the folks around you.” They stand—there are no chairs or pews—and watch the professionals. I caught a glimpse of the main cathedral area, packed with over 2,000 worshipers, many of them younger than 30.
The service had undeniable power, and it gave me an understanding of both the praise and criticism I had heard regarding the Orthodox church. Admirers commended its spirit of reverence and worship. By carrying on a ritual virtually unchanged in a millennium, the church had given the Russian people a sense of stability and permanence unavailable elsewhere in their turbulent society. It had preserved the message of the gospel by enfolding it in pictures, songs, and imagery that any illiterate peasant could comprehend. Critics, on the other hand, pointed out the irrelevance of the church. By adhering to a form based on liturgy dispensed by distant professionals, the church was perpetuating the vast societal gulf that had always divided Russia. The people had no model of how to apply Christianity to daily life. Dostoevsky made this complaint eloquently in The Brothers Karamazov. The church relies on “miracle, mystery, and authority,” said the Grand Inquisitor: the three temptations rejected by Christ in the wilderness, but embraced by the church ever since.
The Belly Of The Beast
Bonifato, However, as well as Nikodim and several other brothers from the Zagorsk Monastery, were breaking the stereotypes of the “Church of Irrelevance.” From that sublime service Brother Bonifato led us straight to one of the bleakest settings imaginable. Zagorsk Prison, oldest in the Soviet Union, was constructed in 1832. The builders set its stone walls below ground to cut down the need for heating. To reach the prisoners’ quarters, we went through four steel gates, down, down, down worn stone steps that led progressively toward the source of an oppressive stench, the prisoners’ cells on the bottom level.
The first cell we entered was 10 feet by 12 feet, about the size of my bedroom in Chicago. Eight teenage boys—the youngest was actually 12—jumped to attention when the door opened. The room held only four beds, so two boys shared each bed. There was a rickety table, but no other furniture. A thin, soiled blanket covered each bed, but there were no sheets or pillowcases. In one corner of the room was a ceramic-lined hole in the ground, with two footpads marked out for squatting. This hole, open to view on all sides, functioned as both toilet and “shower,” although the only water came from a single cold-water spigot an arm’s length away. The basement cell had a single six-inch window, which was frosted over and did not open, at the very top of one wall. A bare bulb hung on a wire from the ceiling.
We tried to point out flaws in American society and in the American church, but the Soviet journalists seemed altogether uninterested in apologies or critiques. They seemed, rather, starved—grievously starved—for hope.
I saw no board games, no television or radio sets, no diversions of any kind. For security, Zagorsk observes a permanent 24-hour lockdown. All day every day for a year, two years, maybe five, these boys will sit in their tiny dungeon cell like animals and wait for freedom. Most of them are serving time for petty thievery.
The room had one bright spot of color: a crude, arched altar fashioned out of tinfoil hung on one wall, home for some tiny painted icons that Brother Nikodim had donated. He had also given each boy a Christian book. Brother Bonifato introduced us to each youngster. He moved easily among them, resting his hand on their shoulders as he talked.
The warden of the worst prison in the Soviet Union turned out to be a dedicated, even courageous, man. Two years before, when the government cut off his supplies of food, this warden approached the monks at the monastery for help. Out of their own storehouses, the monks supplied enough bread and vegetables to feed the prisoners throughout the winter. Their selfless response impressed the warden, a Communist at the time. In 1989 he authorized the monks to rebuild a chapel in the prison basement—an act of remarkable boldness for a Communist functionary in the atheistic state prevailing then.
Just before leaving Zagorsk Prison, Ron and I asked if we could see the chapel. Located on the lowest subterranean level, the chapel was an oasis of beauty in an otherwise grim dungeon. The priests had installed a marble floor and mounted finely wrought candle sconces on the walls. The prisoners took pride in their chapel—the only prison chapel, we were told, in all of the USSR. Each week priests traveled from the monastery to conduct a service there, and for this occasion prisoners were allowed out of their cells, which naturally guaranteed excellent attendance.
Brother Bonifato mentioned that the icon for the prison chapel was “Our Lady Who Takes Away Sadness.” Ron commented that there must be much sadness within these walls, then turned to Brother Bonifato and asked if he would say a prayer for the prisoners. The monk looked puzzled, and Ron repeated, “Could you say a prayer for the prisoners?”
“A prayer? You want a prayer?” Brother Bonifato asked, and we nodded. He looked thoughtful, then disappeared behind the altar. He brought out an icon of the Lady Who Takes Away Sadness, which he propped up on a stand. Then he retrieved two candleholders and two incense bowls, which he laboriously hung in place and lit. Ron and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes. We were already an hour late for a meeting back in Moscow. “Sorry,” Ron whispered. “I guess extemporaneous prayer isn’t in his repertoire.”
Brother Bonifato was far from finished. He removed his headpiece and robe. He meticulously laced gold cuffs over his black sleeves. He placed a droopy gold stole around his neck, and then a gold crucifix. He carefully fitted a different, more formal headpiece on his head. Before each action, he paused to kiss the cross or genuflect. Finally, he was ready to pray.
Prayer involved a whole new series of formalities. Brother Bonifato did not say prayers; he sang them, from a liturgy book propped on another stand. Finally, 20 minutes after Ron had requested a prayer for the prisoners, Brother Bonifato said “Amen.”
Watching the procedure in the chapel brought back for me the inner conflict I had felt while standing in the magnificent cathedral in the monastery. Reverence, submission, awe, mysterium tremendum—the Orthodox church conveyed these qualities superbly in worship. But God remained far away, approachable only after much preparation and only through intermediaries such as priests and icons. I thought of the teenagers back in their basement cell. If one of them asked for prayer, for the strength to endure or for a sick family member outside, would Brother Bonifato have followed the same ritual? Would the boys in the cell dare to think of approaching God themselves, praying in the casual and everyday language that Jesus used?
Yet there is no Prison Fellowship staff person to assign to Zagorsk—not yet, anyway—no paid chaplains, Young Life or Youth for Christ volunteers to send into the dungeon. There is only the monastery of the Orthodox church, which, next to the government, remains the most powerful institution in Russia. When the need arose, the monks had responded: with bread, with their incarnational presence, with the reinstitution of worship in the unlikeliest of places. I had seen the best and worst of the Soviet Union in one morning in Zagorsk, and for just a moment, they had come together.
The Last Marxist In Moscow
The Challenging Confrontation I had anticipated at the Journalists’ Club finally came our way when we visited the Academy of Social Sciences. The name is misleading: until the August coup, the academy functioned as the pre-eminent finishing school for Marxist-Leninist leaders. Raisa Gorbachev once taught there, and many world leaders from the former socialist bloc have studied at this elite school.
In a week I had grown accustomed to the shabby look of most Russian buildings. The Academy of Social Sciences, in sharp contrast, looked as if it had been helicoptered in intact from a graduate school of Scandinavian architecture. Enormous crystal chandeliers hung from a 40-foot ceiling. An enclosed courtyard dominated the foyer, designed so that the eye moved immediately to a huge, imposing statue of Lenin carved out of gleaming, white stone. A free-standing marble staircase curved up toward plush offices and the auditorium where academy professors awaited us.
In its scramble to survive, the Academy of Social Sciences was now reaching out to Christians, who still had some credibility with a restive populace. In fact, the academy discussed with us the possibility of establishing a department for the study of Christianity.
As the dialogue with academy professors proceeded, I sensed none of the respectful awe that had characterized our meeting with the Journalists’ Club. I sensed mainly confusion. Of all people in the Soviet Union, these were true believers. Fed communist theory practically from birth, they had devoted their lives to the propagation of it. One could still see relics of that intense devotion in the quasi-religious signs posted around Russia: “Lenin Lived. Lenin Lives. Lenin Will Live.” They were not ready to substitute Jesus for Lenin.
The professors recognized they had lost the battle of ideas in the Soviet Union. They wanted to appear open to new ideas, like capitalism and a free press, but the changes they had seen so far hardly seemed like improvements to them. Capitalism flourished mainly on Arbat Street, where teenagers employed by the Russian mafia exploit foreign tourists, the only people with hard currency. The soft-porno magazines springing up —Playboy had just inaugurated a Russian edition—as well as American television programs now available chilled them. Their daughters were talking about becoming hard-currency hookers; their sons were scheming for profits on the black market. Where were the ethics in this new freedom? they asked us.
In the midst of our discussion, one of the Marxist professors, a specialist in philosophy, asked for the floor. Blotches of red appeared on his face, and as soon as he began speaking, anger spilled out. Others in the room looked around anxiously, concerned that he was straying from the tone of mannerly dialogue. But there was no stopping this man. He had come to deliver a speech—a diatribe, really—not to exchange pleasantries with the enemy.
The academy translator struggled valiantly to keep pace for a while, waving for the professor to slow down, then finally gave up entirely. Russian-speakers in our group did their best to fill in, but the philosopher never paused.
We managed to hear enough to get the drift of his argument. “We need not have God to have morality!” he said. “Erich Fromm developed a fine morality based on Man with a capital M. God is not necessary. Why pretend there is a God?”
The philosopher’s volume rose, and his face grew even more flushed. He punctuated the air with his finger as he made each point, and I thought of the paintings of Lenin addressing the workers. I thought, too, of stump preachers in the South where I had grown up. Of course! This man was a fanatic evangelist, the last true-blue, dyed-in-the wool Marxist in Moscow. He was out to gain converts, and it mattered not at all if he was the last person in the world to believe these things. He was a bitter, wounded atheist, and he seized the chance to strike back at the unbelievers.
“Marxism has not failed!” he shouted. “Yes, Stalin made mistakes. Yes, even our beloved Lenin made mistakes. Perhaps even Marx made mistakes. But go back to the young Marx, not the old Marx. There you will find the purity of the socialist vision. There you will find a morality based on Man with the capital M. That is what we need. As for Christianity, we have tried that in Russia—for one thousand years we tried it.”
We members of Project Christian Bridge were fidgeting in our seats. Being yelled at by a fanatic is not a pleasant sensation, I realized, and I tucked away the thought for further reflection. A few members of our group were whispering to their seatmates, and still others were clearing their throats, ready to jump in with a rebuttal.
The philosopher went on for 10 or 15 minutes until finally the emcee forced him to stop. I sensed in the atmosphere of the room an odd mixture of revenge and embarrassment. The professors waited for us to respond, and I cringed at the possibilities. Some of us weren’t far removed from stump preachers ourselves, I knew, and the last thing the academy needed was a wounded evangelical doing battle with a wounded atheist. By the providence of God, it was Kent Hill, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, who got the floor.
Kent Hill looks more professorial than the professors. He wears glasses, has a scholarly demeanor, and speaks in soft, measured tones, the epitome of rational discourse. He also has a Ph.D. in Russian studies. I did not envy him the spotlight he had just stepped into, but I could not imagine a finer representative to respond on our behalf.
“First, I want to affirm your right to your beliefs,” Kent began, and waited respectfully for the translator to plug in his microphone and resume his work. “I am concerned about intolerance in the Soviet Union today—intolerance of atheists. I recently learned of an incident where a group allowed a Christian to speak, but shouted down an atheist. We have not come in that spirit. We support freedom of religion, and that includes freedom for those who do not believe in God.”
Almost overnight the Soviet Union has moved away from an official position of atheism and hostility to become perhaps the most open mission field in the world.
Tension rushed from the room as if someone had opened an air lock. The professors nodded approval, and even the philosopher gave a curt nod. Kent continued.
“The issues you have raised tonight, sir, are important. In fact, I cannot think of more important issues to discuss. You have touched on questions of ultimate meaning for humanity and for the universe. Our group has thought long and hard about these questions. We have reached some conclusions, and we would love to discuss those with you. “But one night’s discussion would hardly do justice to these issues. Could I make a suggestion? My family and I are moving to Moscow in December, and I will be teaching a course in Christian apologetics at Moscow State University. I will gladly return to your academy with Christian friends and set up a forum in which we can consider these important matters.”
Again, nods of approval all around. Kent resumed, “But since I have the floor, I would like to mention why I believe the way I do.” At this point, Kent shifted into fluent Russian. The professors, some with looks of astonishment on their faces, removed their headphones, and now we Americans were the ones listening to the simultaneous translation.
Kent told of a time of doubt in his life when he was tempted to abandon his Christian beliefs. He began reading Dostoevsky’s great novel The Brothers Karamazov—at this mention, more nods—which deals with many of the issues raised by the academy philosopher.
“At first I found myself attracted to Ivan, the agnostic. His arguments against God were powerful, especially those concerning the problem of evil. I sensed in him a sincerity and a brilliant mind. As I read Dostoevsky’s book, I found myself gradually losing faith. But to my surprise, I was eventually won over by the love shown by Ivan’s brother Alyosha. Ivan had fine arguments, but he had no love. He could reason his way to a morality, but he could not create the love necessary to fulfill it. I came to believe in Christ because I found in him a source for that love.”
With that, Kent Hill sat down, and our meeting with the Academy of Social Sciences was transformed.
It occurred to me as we drove away from the ghostly marble buildings that Kent Hill had done far more than defuse one awkward confrontation. He had given us a model of evangelism for the Soviet Union, perhaps the only model that will authentically work. First, he had begun with a genuine respect for their own beliefs, even those diametrically opposed to his own. Unlike the philosophy professor, he had listened with courtesy and compassion before speaking.
Next, by moving to Moscow, Kent had committed himself to incarnational ministry. No groups of evangelicals visiting the Soviet Union for a week or 10 days or a month will bring long-term change to the country. But a sprinkling of dedicated people who share the hardships and the turmoil, people willing to stand in bread lines every day, could perhaps become the salt that savors the whole society.
Finally, Kent pointed to the source of truth latent in the Russian culture itself. His use of the Russian language and his reference to Dostoevsky communicated far more to that audience than if he had quoted an entire epistle from the New Testament.
What Went Wrong?
I Arrived Back in the U.S. on the seventy-fourth anniversary of the Bolshevik takeover, an event that has defined much of the history of this century. Television news reported that, for the first time, no official parades were held in Moscow. Later that week, Boris Yeltsin banned the Communist party from the Russian republic, thereby writing what may be the final chapter of the grand experiment that failed.
What went wrong? Every day the news media report symptoms of a fatally flawed economic system. Curiously, I have not seen one mention in the media of what every Soviet leader insisted to us: The grave crisis in the USSR is not economic or political, but rather moral and spiritual. The failure of Marxism, we were told again and again, is above all a theological failure.
In the Templeton Address in 1983, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “If I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God.’ ” At the time, the USSR was still a world power, and Solzhenitsyn was widely assailed for his old-fashioned views. But less than a decade later, I heard almost the identical assessment from top leaders of the nation.
Above any other nation, the Soviet Union tried to get along without God. The League of Militant Atheists and later the Knowledge Society organized “Godless shock brigades” to drive out any vestige of belief in God. “Religion will disappear,” Marx flatly predicted, its quaint beliefs made obsolete by the New Socialist Man. But religion did not disappear, and no New Socialist Man emerged.
Since returning to the U.S., I have reread an article published in the Atlantic in 1989. “Can We Be Good Without God?” asked Glenn Tinder in the cover story, echoing a famous line from Dostoevsky. Tinder’s conclusion was no. A society without God will gradually but inevitably tilt toward chaos on the one hand, or tyranny on the other. The USSR has had its fill of tyranny. Now what will keep it from chaos?
In this century, a morality play has been conducted on grand scale, with catastrophic consequences. No one knows how it will end. I tend toward realism, and hope does not come easily for me. I can hardly envision what a restored, much less redeemed, Soviet Union would look like. Only one thing gives me hope. Jesus’ parables about the kingdom and the fig tree and the great banquet make one truth explicit: God goes where he is wanted. He does not force himself on an individual or on a nation, whether it be first-century Jews or twentieth-century Americans. And as I reflect on my visit to the USSR, one impression lingers: Never in my life have I been among people with a more ravenous appetite for God.
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