Christians in the USSR have persevered in preserving the gospel. Now they need the right kind of help.

Guest editorial by Canon Michael Bourdeaux, founder of Keston College, now known as Keston Research at Oxford, and author of The Gospel’s Triumph over Communism (Bethany).

After nearly 74 years hidden in the wings, the church in Russia has emerged to play a leading role in full support of the democratic process. That is what our television screens—and indeed, some commentators—told us during the few days after the failed coup. But this is far from a complete, or even an accurate, representation of the reality.

While it is true that much of the essential Christian activity pre-perestroika was found well below the surface, it was never correct to imply that the only true faith was underground. Certainly there was persecution, but despite this, Soviet believers took the risk of seeking contacts as best they could. For those visitors who could both get visas and speak Russian (the list was not a long one), the experiences were rewarding indeed. Soviet believers have long memories; they reserve a special place for those who befriended them when times were difficult. Today, in easier days, there is a danger they will be overwhelmed by a multiplicity of visits and initiatives from the West. More than ever before, it behooves the church in the West to examine the complex history of its sister in the Soviet Union.

As early as the 1920s, there were many clergy who sacrificed not only their careers, but also their lives in opposing compromise with Joseph Stalin. They are the spiritual fathers of those who have succeeded in breaking the shackles on the church in recent years.

After regaining some of its freedoms and buildings during World War II, the church again fell victim to persecution under Nikita Khrushchev. But in 1961, when regulations instructed church leaders to prevent evangelism and ban children from church services, a group of Russian and Ukrainian Baptists demanded religious liberty. Though the KGB attempted to muzzle the movement and imprisoned hundreds, a true defense of believers’ rights had begun.

Isolated voices made similar pleas for justice within the Russian Orthodox Church. In November 1965, Fr. Gleb Yakunin, with his friend the late Fr. Nikolai Eshliman, compiled a systematic defense of religious liberty. Rather than defend religion, however, the patriarch of the time (Aleksi) removed the priests from office. Yakunin was later imprisoned.

Protests over the 1966 trial of Andrei Sinyavsky, a devout Christian, and Yuli Daniel, a Jew, who published their fiction abroad, brought worldwide attention to the human-rights movement in the Soviet Union. At the same time, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was becoming a cause célèbre, and he proclaimed deep commitment to the traditional faith of the Orthodox church.

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The story of the emergence of the churches to play an open and social role in the period of perestroika is destined to form an outstanding chapter in Christian history. Mikhail Gorbachev received Orthodox church leaders in the Kremlin in April 1988, where he talked, astonishingly, of the “common cause” between communism and Christianity. In return for help in making his policies effective and for involvement with social work in hospitals, prisons, and the many other areas where the church’s access had been forbidden, Gorbachev promised believers freedom under a new law.

In fact, the churches, especially the Baptists and other evangelicals, had already seized the initiative and had begun ministering in those areas, lest the opportunity be short-lived. For example, Moscow Baptist Church members began systematic visiting of the Kashchenko Psychiatric Hospital, where earlier political activists had been under enforced detention. The hospital doctors were astonished at how effective this Christian ministry turned out to be. The atheist director went to the church to express his thanks, saying that two elements were necessary to cure patients: “We now supply the chemistry, you the love.”

Gorbachev fulfilled his side of the bargain and the new laws guaranteeing virtual freedom of religion were finally passed in October 1990. The Russian Republic under Boris Yeltsin passed laws that were even more liberal. Yakunin, released from prison less than three years earlier, was by then an elected member of the parliament and was a key figure in drafting the new laws and seeing them through the legislative process.

The Tasks Ahead

In the bad old days, Russian was often misused by journalists to cover a hundred nationalities, which caused not only confusion, but sometimes offense. The events of the last few months, if nothing else, have shown how ludicrous it was, even under Stalin, to portray the Soviet people as conforming to some universal stereotyped communist ideal. The churches, having played such a sterling role in counteracting this misperception, are now essential players in the emerging democratic system.

They do not need to be taught the gospel. Miraculously, they have preserved it against all odds. What they do need is “know-how.” In the European Community there are now endless discussions about how to aid the Soviet economic system—“they have the grain, but they don’t know how to harvest it.” Those words can be applied almost verbatim to the Christian scene. There are millions of unreached souls who could be part of the harvest, but the technical equipment and experience for re-establishing the life of the churches in a free society are absent. Christians in the First World can supply that assistance, but they must not assume that they hold the key to interpreting the Scriptures. This is a task to be undertaken by Russians—and Ukrainians and Armenians and Balts—themselves.

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The opportunities are endless. There are no limits to the funds that could be expended, if they were available. At Oxford University we have established a plan for bringing over theological students who have been deprived of the finest teaching in their own countries, and of course many other countries will also be involved in similar programs. Among many other needs are these: training resources for Christians who wish to do hospital or psychiatric work; the establishment of Christian publishing houses equipped with modern presses; aid for untrained teachers to introduce moral and Christian values into the curricula of public schools and universities—head teachers are crying out for such guidance, but there is no one with the experience, though some clergy, already overworked, are doing their very best.

It is clear, among the welter of need and opportunity, that detailed study and undergirding prayer, as well as close contact with Soviet believers, are essential as the church is reunited.

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