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The Modernity of a “Backward Sect”: Evangelicals in Dniepropetrovsk under Khrushchev and Brezhnev

Sergei Ivanovich Zhuk

In the early 1960s, KGB officials and Communist party ideologists became increasingly concerned over the growth of religion in the Dnepropetrovsk Region of Ukraine. In1962, 15,890 of the region’s children received Orthodox baptism, while in 1966 the number of baptized infants was 17,022. Some KGB officials estimated that between a third and a half of the entire region’s newborn infant population received church baptisms in the1960s.1

 During 1963, 120 Evangelical Christian-Baptist (ECB) preachers delivered sermons in 40congregations of the region. Three years later, despite the forcible closing of meeting houses,300 ECB pastors were preaching in 35 Baptist congregations. In 1959 at the beginning of the Khrushchev anti-religious campaign, only a few ECB congregations had an orchestra or band with guitar, but by 1966 every congregation had one performing during every service.2Khrushchev’s anti-religious measures led in August 1961 to the creation of the Initiative Group among Evangelical Christian-Baptist congregations. Dissent came as a reaction to new concessions made by church leaders to Soviet authorities, especially after 1959. While the officially recognized

 Evangelical Christians-Baptists followed Soviet laws and demonstrated their loyalty to state authorities, dissident Baptists confronted Soviet officials and cut their ties to the Soviet state. Dissenters provoked debates among the region’s evangelicals and sparked an evangelical awakening in the years 1961-1965.

KGB Concern Over Religious Youth

According to KGB reports, the main problem for the local police in Dniepropetrovsk was the proselytizing efforts of different churches among local youth. KGB operatives were surprised by the effective use of radio, musical instruments, record-players, and tape recorders, by missionary-minded Christian groups. The most active and successful in their missionary activities among Dnepropetrovsk youth were Pentecostals and Baptists. During one year alone,1961, Pentecostals involved 20 of the best local middle and high school students in their activities. These students had become Pentecostal activists by 1962 and later took an active part in various public ceremonies such as funerals and weddings, playing musical instruments and singing.3

 “Backward” Believers and New Technology

A 1963 KGB report identified unexpected forms of cultural adaptation among local Pentecostals: “Leaders of the Pentecostal sect recommend their co-religionists buy tape recorders to record their religious ceremonies, and then, during their leaders’ absence, to use the recorded tapes for worship. After these recommendations, more than 12 sectarians immediately bought tape recorders.”4 During1962-63, more young Christians in the region we’re buying tape recorders than were Komsomolyouth. Tape recorders were still considered expensive, but Pentecostals in the region bought more of them than did non-religious persons.

 As some contemporary observers noted, sectarians became real pioneers in tape-recording technology, inviting young specialist engineers to help, and using various advanced techniques(including Western ones) in their recording of religious services and performances.5 During1964-67, more than half of all new tape recorders in the region were bought by members of various religious communities.6

 Another popular item among sectarians was television. As one KGB officer reported, “To conceal their worship meetings from persecution(especially in the evenings), leaders of illegal sectarian groups advised their co-religionists to buy television sets to hold services using the pretext of collective watching of TV shows.”7

Ironically, during the 1960s and 1970s Soviet evangelicals were always associated in the Communist ideologists’ imagination with anti modern behavior. According to official Soviet propaganda, Christian believers were outdated,backward people who always rejected culturaland technological progress. But suddenly, KGB operatives had to admit that Christian evangelicals had become the most active participants in socialist cultural consumption.8

 Dissident Believers and Modern Music

Dissident Baptists not only used tape recorders but different combinations of musical instruments with amplifiers in new forms of outreach. Their on-compromising attitude toward Soviet authorities, their appeal to youth, and their organization of bands and choirs for children all attracted hundreds of registered Baptist church

members to new unregistered congregations. In May 1965, a bus with 30 dissident Baptists from Krivoi Rog arrived in a village near Dniepropetrovsk where local Baptists were holding worship. When the local minister their request to preach, the dissenters began an improvised worship service, preaching that conformist Christians had to remove themselves from “communities of traitors whose meetings were sanctioned by the state, and as a result, were transformed into loyal elements of the state machine.” The dissident Baptists had brought violins, guitars, mandolins, and some electrical equipment, including amplifiers. Their improvised meeting became an interesting religious concert with spiritual songs, the recitation of religious poems, and collective prayer. In addition to local Baptists, the music attracted non-religious neighbors who joined a growing crowd of people around the bus of these “musical guests.” A local Baptist minister sent for the police to arrest the “uninvited guests,” but it was too late.

The damage to his congregation already had been done. Before the police arrived, the dissenters left, but some local Baptists quit their old community to join a new unregistered congregation. They later explained to their minister that dissenters’ was “closer to them and corresponded better to their ideal of Christianity than their own community’s cautious traditional style of worship.” Three young preachers, Ivan Gorkusha, Anna Chaban, and Pavel Malyi, formed new dissident Baptist and Pentecostal congregations inDniepropetrovsk.9

 The popularity of new technology and musical forms used by dissidents had a strong impact on registered evangelical congregations as well. Young members now asked for more music and more singing during worship, referring to the success of dissenters to justify their request. In December 1965, young activists of registered Baptist congregations in Dniepropetrovsk prevailed upon church leadership to allow them to organize special rehearsals each Saturday

to prepare new hymns, play new musical instruments, and use new equipment and recording technology. Young activists argued that incorporation of modern musical forms in services would attract young people who loved modern music, as well as bring back young Baptists who were visiting dissident meetings. Registered Baptist leaders finally permitted these musical rehearsals. However, under pressure from Soviet officials who interpreted this as a violation of Soviet laws on religion, the ministers had to cancel these rehearsals. As a result, many young Baptists attended dissident meetings.10

 KGB Concern Over Western Radio broadcasts

In 1968 KGB officers reported that Christian believers of different denominations also listened to foreign radio broadcasts. As a result, more than300 local Christians tried to “establish written correspondence with leaders of foreign religious centers and their radio stations.” What especially bothered KGB officials were letters to the World Council of Churches and the United Nations describing religious persecution in the region.11In 1972, one Baptist dissident, Nikolai Marko, played audio tapes of foreign radio broadcast sermons on Dnepropetrovsk commuter trains. Also in the early 1970s, Venedikt Galenko, the new head of regional l registered Baptists, following the example of dissident evangelicals, used modern music, guitar bands, and youth choirs to attract more visitors to services. On New Year’s Eve, 1973, he organized a dinner with live

music and taped sermons, including recordings of foreign radio programs. Galenko also invited other evangelicals, especially dissident Baptists, to attend this dinner meeting. Loud music and free dinner, including sausages, cheese, buns, lemonade, tea, and sweets, attracted many young people. Soviet officials opposed “these new methods, because they included elements of Western modernization.”12 On 22 June 1973,

soviet authorities ordered Galenko to “stop this transformation of houses of worship into cafes” and banned “special music parties with dinners and concerts.” The order required that Baptist leaders remove all radio, music, and tape-recording equipment from their meetinghouses, and to remove from the yards of their meeting houses amplifiers, musical instruments, benches, and concert equipment. The city of Dniepropetrovsk banned all religious concerts and forbade children from attending religiousmeetings.13F

 Sergei Zhuk is assistant professor of history at Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana.

Editor’s note: The concluding section of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

Published with permission from Sergei Ivanovich Zhuk, “The West in the Closed City: Cultural Consumption, Identities and Ideology in Soviet Ukraine during the Brezhnev Era, 1964-1984,”forthcoming.


1 State Archive of the Dniepropetrovsk Region[Derzhavnyi arkhiv Dniepropetrovsk oblasti],

hereafter, DADO, f. 22, op.19, d. 2, 1. 143.

2 DADO, f.19, op. 51, d. 74, 1. 6-7.

3 DADO, f. 9870, op. 1, d. 48, 1. 21-22.

4 Ibid., 1. 22.

5 Interview with Eduard Svichar, 20 June 2002.

6 Author interview with Igor T., KGB officer, Dniepropetrovsk, 15 May 1991.

7 DADO, f. 9870, op. 1, d. 48, 1. 23. See also Ellen Proper Mickiewicz, Media and the Russian Public (New York: Praeger, 1981), 18-40, 73-74; Kristin Roth-Ey, “Mass Media and the Remaking of Soviet Culture, 1950s-1960s,”Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University,2003; Kristin Roth-Ey, “Finding a Home for Television in the USSR, 1950-1970,” Slavic Review 66 (Summer 2007), 278-306.

8 Author interview with Igor T., KGB officer, Dniepropetrovsk, 15 May 1991.

9 DADO, f. 19, op. 48, d. 146, and 202.

10 Ibid., 203-04.

11 DADO, f. 6465, op. 2, d.2, 1. 174-75.

12 DADO, f. 6465, op. 2, d. 4, 1. 4.

13 Ibid., 33-34.