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An Open Door to Russian Prisons

Jeff Thompson

Editor’s Note: The first portion of this article appeared in the previous issue of the East-West

Church & Ministry Report 15 (Summer 2007):5-7.

A Critical Conference

In October 1994, Colonel [Alexander Nikolayevich] Dolgich, [director of Russian youth prisons], advised me, “There is an important meeting next week. The Ministry of Interior and the Orthodox Church are going to be exploring cooperation. I would like you to speak about our cooperation and your work. General Sheriayev is the moderator. You have met him before. Just tell him I sent you.”

The general was the colonel’s immediate boss. I arrived at the conference, which was being co-sponsored by Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship, on a chilly overcast day and wondered what I was supposed to do. Was I to just walk into the conference and tell the general I was to speak? At the morning break, I approached General Sheriayev. I had met him only briefly at that meeting in Moscow with Chairman Kalinin

Two years earlier. He shook my hand warmly as he greeted me. “Excuse me, sir,” I said, but Alexander Nikolayevich asked me to speak to you. He felt that I should speak at the conference about the official cooperation that has existed between East European Outreach (EEO) and the Ministry of the Interior (MVD) for the last two and-a-half years. He said you would understand.”Sheriayev looked perplexed. “I am sorry, Mr. Thompson, but we have a schedule. The time is already filled up.” He stared at the schedule in his hand and said, “We must get started, but see me at the lunch break. Maybe I can find a little time. “I sat down and listened as each speaker spoke of what might be possible in the future. Some gave excellent theories on prison rehabilitation. Others spoke of their desire to help prisoners. None had any real experience in Russia. At lunch, I found General Sheriayev. “Jeff, though you are not on the schedule, I will shorten the afternoon break and can give you 4 to 5minutes at 3:45. Okay? I am sorry but that is all I can do.” While the general was apologetic, he was firm. It was a difficult situation, and I felt uncomfortable. I wondered what was happening behind the scenes.

 “We now will have a special guest from America, not on the schedule, who will report tours of his work in prisons,” Sheriayev announced. He glanced at me and held up four fingers, as if today four minutes. I understood that it was my turn to give a very brief report, and it had better be good, both for the sake of our future ministry, and for the relationship of Colonel Dolgich with his superior.

 Nervously, I looked at the crowd of 200people, mostly Russian military officers and Orthodox priests clothed in flowing black robes. I introduced myself as the director of Eastern European Outreach from southern California, and proceeded to list our accomplishments in the prisons up to that date. I noted the number of 40-foot shipping containers with bulk food supplies we had distributed; the number of Bibles and Christian literature we had given to prisoners; and the number of meetings and spiritual seminars held. I also praised Colonel Dolgich and General Sheriayev for their cooperation and effort to assist our ministry. I closed referring to, “our joint agreement, an annual protocol that we have as a partnership already in its third year with the Ministry of the Interior. Thank you, General Sheriayev, for these few minutes to share this report. “As I stepped down from the podium, several hands shot up with questions. The general asked me to stay. “With what church are you affiliated?” a priest asked. I knew the religious questions would be a minefield, and I asked the Lord for wisdom, “None in particular, we are an independent mission organization supported by many different churches.”

“Why don’t you give your support to our church and allow us to distribute it? After all, these prisoners are Russian. ”Because our partnership is with the MVD and they have requested us to work with them.” I answered. General Sheriayev beamed and then asked me a question. “How many prisons have you been to, Jeff?”

“Our teams have been to 38 prisons so far, and we have a team visiting prisons in the Tula regionals we speak. I have personally been to about 30prisons,” I added.

 The questions kept coming, and I spent another 20 minutes elaborating on our official cooperation. The people in the room were stunned. The realization was sinking in that the MVD was serious about spiritual transformation in its prisons. The Orthodox priests clearly were not happy that a Western, non-Russian Orthodox organization had such access to the prison system. The staff from Prison Fellowship was shocked as Well. As I stepped down, the general winked tame, then shook my hand.

 The Prospect of Restrictions

In the mid-1990s the Duma, influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church, was proposing new law on religion. By the summer of 1995,details emerged that this law was designed to restrict missionary work. The Orthodox Church was alarmed at the number of new churches being planted by foreign missionaries and wanted to protect its “sheep” by restricting the influx of new religions. New cults and pagan groups had made the news with their strange rituals, and this information was enough to cause the Duma, under the heavy influence of the Orthodox

Church, to protect the Russian people from the evils of “non-Orthodox” religions. My relationship with Colonel Dolgich was still strong and together we had already planned the itineraries for EEO prison teams. Now, however, he could do nothing to help since it was out of his hands. “Jeff,” he said, “everything may be

cancelled. I cannot help you. I cannot give the final approval. General Sheriayev is on vacation, so you must meet tomorrow with General Orlov.”“But Alexander Nikolayevich, this new law hasn’t even been voted on yet. There is no new law. It is simply a proposal. We have an agreement.” My protest seemed in vain. The MVD was very sensitive to the changing political situation, and if the Orthodox Church was going to win this battle, the MVD did not want to be found on the wrong side.

 By the summer of 1995, the Russian Orthodox Church felt it was under a well-funded attack by religious groups from the West. It saw various new private ministry activities as a monolithic invasion. American evangelists were now on television, school teachers were attending CoMission meetings arranged by Campus Crusade for Christ and others, and EEO was helping extensively in the prison system. New Bible-believing churches were being planted and pastored by non-Russian speaking foreigners and were advertising their presence on radio and in newspapers.

 The next day, as our summer teams were literally in the air, which meant over 50 people would be arriving that afternoon, I prayed while riding in the taxi to the Moscow headquarters of the MVD. I nervously walked down the bare hallway and down the stairs to the executive offices reserved for generals. As I was seated in General Orlov’s office, I remembered that we had met on a few previous occasions. The general shook my hand, and without smiling, pointed tithe chair across from his desk. “What can I do for you?” he asked.

 I sensed this meeting was to be all business. There were no “How is life in California?” type questions. “General Orlov, thank you for seeing me today. Alexander Nikolayevich instructed that I should see you regarding our cooperation agreement with the MVD, which was approved by Chairman Kalinin. We have teams arriving today with itineraries already planned under our agreement with the MVD, and I want to be sure there will not be any problems.”

“We are the police,” Orlov said, “and if this law is passed we must enforce the law. That is our job. We cannot break the law on behalf of our agreement.”

“Yes, sir. However, the law has not been passed yet, and our teams are not acting solely as missionaries, but as partners in our agreement. I believe we will be within the law.” I said. He looked at me and thought for a moment. I felt as if the Lord had given me just the right words today.

“Okay, I agree, but we cannot guarantee the future of the agreement until we see this new law,” General Orlov said. “Anyway, we know you, and since we have worked together well for several years, everything should be okay.” I stood up. “Thank you, sir.” We shook hands and our ten-minute meeting was over. I thanked the Lord under my breath.

 To Siberia and the Russian Far East

With the approval and help of Colonel Dolgich, we planned a journey across Siberia to distribute libraries of Christian books and videos to youth prisons. Our group of four, with two translators, carried 4,000 pounds of books. From15 August to 14 September 1995 we became pack mules, carrying, loading, unloading, and distributing books, but we also experienced real joy in preaching the Gospel in this remote part of the world. It was truly an epic journey across Siberia and the Russian Far East.

 We had our first prison outreach atAngarskaya, near Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. Prison camp officials were friendly and hospitable. Some 350 boys aged 12 to 20 filled the darkened auditorium. Pastor Bob Clay camp, an EEO board member, played the guitar and sang. After the message 90 percent of the boys stood and prayed to receive Jesus. They all stood in threadbare blue cotton uniforms with shaved heads and tattoos and prayed in unison, asking for forgiveness for their sins. The prison officials were both amazed and proud of their boys.

 We gave the prison a complete library of500 books including Bibles, New Testaments, study books, biographies, and an assortment of Christian videos in Russian, such as “The Crosland the Switchblade.” A local church group taught a Bible class in this prison and provided follow-up with the boys.

 Inhumane Conditions

In Chita, prison barracks built before the Bolshevik Revolution were surrounded by 12-foot walls, barbed wire, and guard towers. An officer told us that the prison was extremely overcrowded. “Moscow won’t do anything about it,” he said matter-of-factly. “Come with me.”

 Our destination was the high security section of the prison. Iron doors slammed behind us in the corridor. One guard struggled with the key to open one of the windowless steel doors. The men’s groaning’s could be heard through the door.

 The guard succeeded, allowing a little fresh air into the cell. We were not prepared for the sight. On the far wall, the cell window was boarded up. Prisoners had broken the wood and the lucky ones, or appropriately, the strongest ones, were able to get close enough to stick their face next to the opening for a breath of fresh air.  Seventy men occupied 300 square feet of space, a little like stuffing 70 people into a kitchen. Men leaned on one another because there was no room to lie down in this cell that was built for 12 people.

 A bucket for human waste stood in the corner. The stench was nauseating. The men, wearing underwear or ragged shorts, just stared at us with empty eyes. One prisoner told us to tell people what conditions were like, because it was against the law to treat people as they were being treated. We gave out some literature and talked a little about the reality of God. One older man said, “I don’t believe in God.

 My father was put in prison during the revolution. I received ten years in prison under Stalin for my father’s crimes. I remember Christians in prison during those years. They always shared their parcels and letters with the rest of us. They should never have been put in prison.”

Our trip included stops at Birobidjan, Kharbarovsk, Vladivostok, Sakhalin Island, and the peninsula of Kamchatka. Sometimes the reception by prison officials was warm, but at other times it was chilly. Nevertheless, after we announced we had an official agreement with the Ministry of Interior signed by Chairman Kalinin, General Sheriayev, and Colonel Dolgich, we always received cooperation.

On several occasions, we learned of local Russian or American missionaries who visited the prison camps. It was great to know that follow-up teaching was available and our visit was not the prisoners’ only exposure to Christianity. Everyone was impressed with the variety of books and we felt certain that they would be put to good use.

 The Open Door Narrows, Then Closes

By summer 1996, one could sense the political climate was changing in Russia. Each year it became increasingly more difficult for Colonel Dolgich to push through our joint agreement. He made sure that I made appearances at birthday parties for Generals Sheriayev and Orlov, and that gave appropriate gifts to each. Each agreement had to be signed by Chairman Kalinin. Colonel Dolgich refused invitations to the United States to visit prisons. Prison Fellowship, however, brought Chairman Kalinin over a few times to meet White House dignitaries and others.

 This, I believe, also indirectly helped our ministry to continue in the prisons, as Kalinin remained very positive about our ministry and that of Prison Fellowship. Where EEO was active teaching and preaching inside the prisons, Prison Fellowship worked on a political level. It also encouraged greater cooperation between the Orthodox Church and the Ministry of Interior. This was, of course, the purpose for their co- sponsoring the October 1994 conference where I spoke. I could see the proverbial handwriting on the wall. The Russian Orthodox Church was asserting its power, and it did not want Evangelicals on the religious scene. Our agreement lasted through the end of 1998, long after other Western groups were no longer welcome in Russian prisons.

Today, Pastor Sergei Danielenko, our EEO representative in Moscow, sits on the board of council set up by Prison Fellowship to coordinate the ministry of churches and religious groups working in prisons. Pastor Sergei, himself anex-prisoner, has helped establish 34 rehabilitation centers for ex-prisoners who have confessed Christ as their Savior, but have nowhere to go when released from prison. Our prison ministry has changed, and Russian national pastors and workers now do most of the outreach. Ironically, most of them are prisoners whose lives have changed and who have found purpose by returning to prisons top reach the Gospel. Generous EEO sponsors support these men as they visit prisons providing Bibles, Christian literature, and other supplies. Instill personally minister in Russian prisons, but its no longer on the same scale as during the days when we had an official agreement. F

Jeff Thompson is executive director of East European Outreach, Murrieta, California(www.eeo.org).

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Jeff Thompson, Leavingthe American Sector (Hemet, CA: Theatron