The Modernity of a “Backward Sect”: Evangelicals in Dniepropetrovsk under Khrushchev and Brezhnev
Sergei Ivanovich Zhuk
Editor’s note: The first half of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report 15 (Fall 2007): 3-5.
Despite police measures, the evangelical movement in Dniepropetrovsk not only became more modernized but also more radicalized. In 1976 young Baptists became active participants in “Resurrection,” a special theatrical production performed in all Baptist congregations of the region. During the 1970s, youth (25 years of age and younger) made up 25 percent of all evangelical congregations in the Dniepropetrovsk Region. At first, some youth joined bands or choirs without any serious involvement in other religious activities. But later they became interested in the religious content of lyrics. Noting this tendency, Soviet officials commented on the gradual evolution of interest from mere musical and theatrical forms to the religious substance behind these forms.
In 1968 KGB officers reported that Christian believers of different denominations also listened to foreign radio broadcasts. As a result, more than 300 local Christians tried to “establish written correspondence with leaders of foreign religious centers and their radios stations.” What especially bothered KGB officials were letters to the World Council of Churches and the United Nations describing religious persecution in the region.1
“Jesus Christ Superstar”
The rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Andrew Lloyd Webber, released in England in 1970, appeared on the black market in the Soviet Union that same year. By 1973, this two-record opera album had become the most popular item of cultural consumption among Soviet intellectuals. The jazz-rock band “Arsenal,” formed by Soviet jazz musician Alexei Kozlov, began its career in 1973 with a cover of the most famous arias from this opera. Webber’s opera, according to Kozlov, expanded the cultural horizons of Soviet youth. Young people began to discuss not only the music, but also the forbidden religious themes of the lyrics. Tapes with music from the opera played everywhere, while in Dniepropetrovsk local rock bands such as VIA performed some of the arias from “Jesus Christ Superstar” in dance halls and restaurants.2
The biblical story behind the opera triggered an interest in the history of Christianity among thousands of rock fans. They went to local libraries in an attempt to learn about the Gospels and Jesus Christ. Since the Bible was officially banned from Soviet libraries, young fans of Webber’s opera could use only atheistic books to read about the Gospels. Suddenly, dusty and boring pieces of atheistic propaganda became best sellers in local book stores and were put on
waiting lists in libraries. Old issues of Nauka i religiia [Science and Religion], a Soviet atheistic periodical, became very popular among young readers who spent hours in the reading rooms of local libraries looking for information about the Gospels, Jesus, crucifixion, Judas, and Mary Magdalene.3 This Jesus hysteria also resulted in new fashions: besides long hair, jeans, and t-shirts, big crosses worn around the neck became an important element of the new image of young rockers.
The new religious interest of rock fans resulted in visits to Orthodox and Protestant churches, especially during major Christian holy days such as Easter. While many young people, out of curiosity, were onlookers at Easter services, police harassment lent a sense of adventure to attempts to participate in Easter celebrations at St. Trinity Cathedral in Dniepropetrovsk.
Rock Fans Versus Police at Easter Services
Mikhail Suvorov, later a prominent figure in the discotheque movement, recalled that on Easter Eve, 28 April 1973, he and friends who had just made tape recordings of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and who were fascinated with this music, came to St. Trinity Cathedral to observe the service. They met hundreds of other young rock fans, recognizable by their long hair, jeans, and metal crosses. They whistled tunes from Webber’s opera and showed each other their crosses. But they could not break through police cordons. Instead, police arrested rock fans, some of whom were very drunk. By such strong arm methods, Soviet officials were able, over time, to reduce the numbers attending Easter services at the cathedral. The police recorded 11,400 young people visiting the church, Easter, 1972, but only 8,500 people managed to get through police lines to the church at Easter, 1973.4
New Converts Through the Medium of Music
Many young people whose interest in the Gospels was stimulated by Lloyd Webber’s opera later became Christian believers: Orthodox, Baptist, and Pentecostal. As Mikhail Suvorov and Eduard Svichar noted, those who were involved in the Jesus hysteria eventually discovered the real text of the Holy Scripture either through Christian relatives or friends. Young rock fans tried to compare the biblical description of events with their portrayal in “Jesus Christ Superstar.” They made hand-written copies of the opera lyrics, read the Gospel of St. John word for word, and compared the Russian text with the English lyrics. Many students of English from Dniepropetrovsk University spent hours of
their free time doing translations of the opera’s lyrics and checking this translation against the biblical text in Russian.5 Some of these students later entered church schools and became either Orthodox priests or Baptist ministers.6
Alexandr Gusar recalled that classmates from his high school in Pavlograd met at his house to compare the text of the Gospels, which belonged to Alexandr’s grandmother, with two Russian translations of “Jesus Christ Superstar” lyrics. They listened to these records every evening during the entire year of 1974. Interest in the biblical stories led some of Alexandr’s friends further than the rules of Soviet schools permitted. Two of his friends joined the local Baptist community, two others became active in the local Pentecostal church, and one friend later became a prominent Adventist preacher.7
A similar development was the case in a neighboring town when close friends of Vladimir Solodovnik began their biblical studies by comparing Webber’s opera with the Russian translation of its lyrics. Five of these friends converted to the Baptist faith by the end of the 1970s. All of them began as ordinary participants of the Jesus hysteria, but eventually substituted purely Christian symbols for images of Western popular culture. New elements of religious piety and a Christian ethos, rather than rock and roll music, came to shape their identity.8 Causing officials additional concern, in January of 1980, the KGB discovered an underground Christian printing press with thousands of audio tapes of religious preaching and stacks of religious literature, some of which was used for instruction in an underground Bible school.9
As we see, despite official criticism and prohibitions, young people of the Dniepropetrovsk Region linked prohibited music and religion together in such a way that it contributed to a new style of life and cultural identification. Paradoxically, by the end of the 1970s, songs from Webber’s opera were included in Soviet mainstream popular culture. Even Soviet TV aired Soviet musicians performing songs from “Jesus Christ Superstar” in Russian.10 The initial enthusiasm of 1972 and 1973, which led to the so-called Jesus hysteria, emphasized anti-Soviet and anti-atheist elements in local popular culture. Later, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” despite its partial incorporation in Soviet establishment entertainment, contributed to a rising interest in popular Christianity and Western religion among Dniepropetrovsk youth.
Faith Resilient Despite Odds
Neither Communist ideologists nor KGB operatives were able to annihilate religion in the region. In 1984 organized religion held basically the same position and infrastructure it had had 20 years before. In 1982, among 146 new converts to the Baptist faith in the region, 44 were young people between 18 and 30 years of age. In 1984, among 165 new converts, 53 were young people.11 Despite various restrictions and prohibitions, more than a third of all new evangelical converts in the region were young people. As KGB interviews attested, the increasing number of young evangelicals in the region resulted in part from appealing new ways of disseminating the gospel story, in contrast to Komsomel meetings which were regarded as boring by comparison.12 As a result, under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, neither official ideological indoctrination nor police persecution were able to destroy popular religiosity and organized religion in the Dniepropetrovsk Region. F
Sergei Zhuk is assistant professor of history, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana.
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 Dnipropetrovsk Region [Derzhavnyi arkhiv Dnipropetrovsk oblasti], hereafter, DADO, f. 6465, op. 2, d. 4, 1. 239, 242-45; author interview with Mikhail Suvorov, 1 June 1991.
2 Author interview with Aleksandr Gusar, 4 May 1990; author interview with Mikhail Suvorov, 1 June 1991.
3 Author interview with Eduard Svichar, 20 June 2002; author interview with Mikhail Suvorov, 1 June 1991. My mother also confirmed the fact of this growing interest in Christianity among youth.
4 Author interview with Mikhail Suvorov, 1 June 1991. Compare with official description in DADO, f. 6465, op. 2, d. 4, 1. 23.
5 Author interview with Sergei Pulin, 15 April 1990; author interview with Mikhail Suvorov, 1 June 1991; author interview with Eduard Svichar, 20 June 2002.
6 DADO, f. 6465, op. 2, d. 37, 1. 235-36.
7 Author interview with Aleksandr Gusar, 4 May 1990.
8 Author interview with Vladimir Solodovnik, 21 June 1991.
9 Compare Alexei Kozlov, Dzhaz, rok i mednye truby (Moscow: EKSMO, 2005), 278-80, with author’s interview with Eduard Svichar, 20 June 2002.
10 DADO, f. 6465, op. 2, d. 42, 1. 33.
11 DADO, f. 6465, op. 2, d. 23, 1. 175-76.
12 Author interview with Igor T., KGB officer, Dniepropetrovsk, 15 May 1991.