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An Open Door to Russian Prisons

Jeff Thompson

Editor’s note: In 1991 Dutch human rights activist Andre Ceelen contacted Jeff Thompson, executive director of East European Outreach (EEO), sharing with him a letter he had received from the Russian Red Cross requesting food for inmates in Russia’s youth prisons. As a result, in December 1991, Jeff Thompson traveled to Moscow to meet with Yuri Zapadalov, president of the Russian Red Cross, and two colonels of the Russian Ministry of the Interior.

Successful Negotiations

Our meeting took place in Yuri Zapadalov’s office, a small room with heavy burgundy curtains and a larger-than-life painting of Lenin. Everyone except me smoked, and the fumes hung oppressively in the air, creating a lazy haze against Soviet red walls. I introduced myself as we shook hands. No pleasantries were exchanged, and nobody offered small talk. Silently I prayed. I somehow had expected a warmer, friendlier reception.

 “How can we help you,” Mr. Zapadalov said in a matter-of fact-voice, opening the conversation. 

“I received your request for food, and I think we can help you. I don’t know if you received my list of questions, but once we know how many prisons there are and where they are located, then we’ll be able to develop a plan. We have concerns about how the food will be distributed. We will need full access to verify that the food shipments are indeed delivered to each prison. This is a primary condition of our agreement to help.”

They were attentive and discussed the point of verification and providing access to the prisons. What was on my heart, however, was to offer spiritual food for the prisoners.

“We can help you with food for the body, but we would like to help you with another need as well - food for the soul.” They looked at me attentively, yet seemed puzzled.

“I would like to propose a type of spiritual rehabilitation program for your youth prisons. It would be based on biblical principles of ethics and morals that would help prisoners in their daily lives.” There was a long silence. I was uncomfortable and felt very out of place. It had only been 20 months since I had been allowed into Russia, and here I was proposing cooperation with the same police who had denied me entry for so many years.

 Finally, one of the colonels said, “Okay, please give us your proposal.” I continued to share my thoughts about how we could help, though nothing was written on paper. When the meeting was over, one of the colonels handed me a letter. “Here are the answers to your questions.” I opened the envelope, and there was a typewritten list of all 59 youth prisons in the new Russian Federation.

 The document was the answer to my faxed list of questions, including prison addresses, telephone numbers, names of prison directors and their assistants, prison populations, ages of inmates, and the number of beds in each prison. I found out later that this information was considered secret, and they had never given this information out before. At the same time, they were going to consider my proposal, and pass it along to their superiors.

Mapping Out a Strategy

I bought a map of Russia and highlighted each city with a youth prison, including those in Siberia, the Russian Far East, and the Urals. I began to analyze how we could distribute food to all these prisons. The task seemed impossible, yet exciting.

After Christmas, I sent a fax saying I would like to have a follow-up meeting, visit some prisons, and begin the rehabilitation program. In January, EEO recruited a team to preach in Russian prisons, and in April 1992, our group of 17 left for Moscow and Russian youth prisons.

 There was a problem, however. I did not actually have permission to go into prisons yet. Mr. Zapadalov had not answered any of my faxes and his silence was something I had not expected. When people signed up to go, I informed them that we did not know if we would actually be allowed into prisons, that we were going on faith.

More Negotiations

Upon arrival in Moscow, our translator called the Red Cross office and left messages. On the third day, I decided to go to the Red Cross office to try to see the director myself. As I turned the handle of the door to walk in from the street, I literally bumped into Mr. Zapadalov, who was on his way out. With surprise and embarrassment on his face, he accompanied me into his office and gave me the telephone number and name of the officer I should ask for at the Ministry of Interior. That was it. No small talk, no explanation. The next day I called the Ministry of Interior and was given an appointment for 3:00 p.m. that very afternoon. Three o’clock came quickly. Nervously I climbed the stairs of the three-story building with my translator. An officer greeted us and led us into a large, well-appointed office.

 At the conference table, sitting erect and in uniform, were 11 generals and colonels from the Ministry of Interior. I felt like a lamb being led to the slaughter. I had no idea this was to be such a high level meeting. The chairman of the entire Russian prison system was there, with all the men who were in charge of the various regions and departments, including the colonel over the 59 youth prisons.

 Yuri Ivanovich Kalinin, the prison department chairman who is today the Vice Minister of Justice, sat at the head of a long conference table. Not knowing what prior information they had, if any, I started from the beginning. I shared from the heart that we wanted to offer far more than just food, we wanted to offer food for the soul - a spiritual rehabilitation program for their youth prisons. Mr. Kalinin was warm, articulate, and friendly. My previous proposal had already been discussed, and then he asked me, “Well, Mr. Thompson, when would you like to implement  this program?”

Colonel Alexander Nikolayevich Dolgich

He had no idea that we had a team waiting and praying for this very moment. “If it is possible, sir, this week. I have brought a group with me from America,” I said. He looked me in the eye, as if to determine whether I could be trusted or not, then glanced at the director for the youth prisons, Alexander Nikolayevich Dolgich, and said, “Colonel Dolgich, what do you think?” Dolgich said, “Well, it should be possible.”  Because I had plotted out all the youth prisons on the map at home, I knew which youth prisons were closest to Moscow. My plan was for our team to stay in Moscow, making day trips to each prison. I had already worked out our travel schedule on paper and had brought it with me. This was a Tuesday, and I said, “If it is possible, on Thursday, we’d like to go to the prison inIksha.”

 The chairman looked at Colonel Dolgich, and he nodded, “Yes, it is possible.”Mr. Kalinin said, “OK, what else? ”If possible, we would like to go to Mozhaisk on Friday. “The generals were looking at one another and half smiling, taking their cue from the chairman. He smiled and said, “Mr. Thompson, what is the rest of your plan? “Forging ahead and sensing boldness from the Lord, I decided I should just give them the whole plan I had made up in California. “If possible, on Saturday we could go to Tula, and perhaps on Sunday we could go to Kaluga.”

 He looked at Colonel Dolgich again, who nodded affirmatively. Finally, Chairman Kalinin responded and said, “I’ll let you two works out the schedule. You have my complete approval. I would like a report at the end of this time, and I want our representatives to accompany the group.”

 “We would like to perform small concerts and then teach the young men from the Bible. Is this acceptable?” They all nodded their agreement. What I did not realize during the meeting was that these were the generals who had authority over the entire Russian Federation. They had responsibility over hundreds of prisons and tens of thousands of prisoners. God had moved in almighty way. Little did I know that in the next five years I would be meeting them all again under very different conditions: When there were hardships, when the Russian Orthodox Church was pressuring the Ministry of Interior to close prisons to foreigners, and for less serious times at birthday parties or celebrations as these men rose in rank and power.

 EEO developed a track record with these men, and in later years we were able to continue ministry in Russian prisons while others were being barred by political pressure. I had absolutely no idea at that moment that God had thrown the prison doors wide open to us, as he had done for Paul and Silas in Philippi in Acts 16.But in our case, we were not getting out of prison, we were on our way in.

 The Gospel in Youth Prisons

With awe and humility, we boarded a bus two days later for the first youth prison in Iksha,a suburb of Moscow. That first meeting was a prototype of hundreds to come. Three hundred boys gathered in the prison auditorium, all 12to18 years of age. Guards stood quietly on the outskirts while we sang and gave testimonies of God’s love. I gave a 30-minute message focusing on God’s love and a relationship with Him. Since they were in prison, these boys were very aware of their sin. And they knew about church. But they had not heard of “a personal relationship with God through His son Jesus.” This was anew concept and one that had to be explained. In that first meeting, about 50 boys came forward to express an interest in giving their lives to Christ.

 The next day we traveled with Colonel Alexander Nikolayevich Dolgich, director of Russia’s youth prisons. I felt completely unequipped to be dealing with colonels and generals in the Russian military. At the same time, however, it was evident the Holy Spirit was leading.

“Your group likes to sing. Let’s hear them! ”Dolgich commanded. I turned to the group and told them the colonel had given the order for us to sing. Within moments, God’s presence was tangible as we began to worship. Dolgich did not understand the words, but he knew something different was happening. As we sat together and talked, I knew I liked this man. He was not anti-American, but he did have his preconceived ideas about America, its politics, and its desire for world domination. In the message that day, I spoke of mankind’s need for forgiveness. No one could argue with this concept. Even as an atheist, deep down in his heart the colonel knew he needed forgiveness, for none of us is perfect. As I urged all those in the room – guards, administrators, and boys alike, to see if God’s Word and promises are true, over 200young prisoners responded to the challenge. In addition, in the front row of the auditorium, stood highest-ranking official in the room, arm raised high, asking for forgiveness.

 Unparalleled Access

I did not realize it at the moment, but this was the beginning of a spiritual revolution in the Russian youth prison system. It became Colonel Dolgich’s mandate to make sure we shared this message of God’s love and forgiveness with every one of the 25,000 teenage inmates in 59 youth prisons under his authority. One prison director after another desired to speak with us concerning spiritual matters, and many of them put on wonderful dinner banquets in our honor. Longtime political enemies were now sharing meals and music together.

 It was time to celebrate. Alexander Nikolayevich (as I referred to Colonel Dolgich in formal Russian), arranged follow-up meeting with Chairman Kalinin at the end of our trip. At that meeting, we signed a protocol that authorized Colonel Dolgich to assists in our ministry in the prisons, including the distribution of food and supplies. While Alexander Nikolayevich was already a believer in God, our ministry did re-awaken his interest in spiritual matters. Whether he became born-again Christian that day or not, I cannot say. But I do know that he was God’s appointed man for that period in the 1990s when prison doors were opened wide for the ministry of EEO.

 By 1994, we had teams ministering in prisons regularly. I was making frequent trips to inspect our deliveries of food and supplies. From 1992through 1998 we had unparalleled access to preach the gospel in Russian prisons, and this was all because of the man God had appointed over Russia’s youth prisons, Alexander Nikolayevich Dolgich.♦

Editor’s Note: The conclusion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-WestChurch & Ministry Report 15 (Fall 2007).

Jeff Thompson is executive director of East European Outreach, Murrieta, California. Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Jeff Thompson, Leaving the American Sector (Hemet, CA: Theatron Books, 2007).