Special Theme Edition on the Current Ukrainian Crisis:   Volume 22, No. 3  (Summer 2014)

The East West Church &  Ministry Report has issued a special theme edition examining the impact of the current Ukrainian crisis on the church and ministries in Ukraine and Russia.

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Mark R. Elliott

Editor’s note: Previous sections of this article were published in the East-West Church and Ministry Report 20 (Spring 2012): 9-11; and 20 (Summer 2012): 8-10.

Orthodox Dissidence

Significant Orthodox and Protestant dissident movements began to emerge in the

early 1960s. On the one hand, the Kremlin instructed the Russian Orthodox Church and some of its other churches to join the World Council of Churches (1961-62), requiring these captive bodies to extol abroad the peaceful intentions of Soviet foreign policy and “freedom of religion” in the U.S.S.R. On the other hand, opponents of state manipulation of religion began speaking out. Among brave Orthodox souls who decried the passivity and compromises of the Moscow Patriarchate (with their year of arrest) were: Anatoly Levitin-Krasnov (1949, 1969, 1972), Archbishop Yermogen (forcibly retired to a monastery, 1965), Father Nikolai Eshliman (forcibly retired, 1965), Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1974), Alexander Ogorodnikov (1978), Father Gleb Yakunin (1979), Lev Regelson (1980), Father Dmitri Dudko (1980), and Irina Ratushinskaya (1982).

Baptist and Adventist Church Splits

Similarly, opponents of state domination of Protestant church life began to defy church and civil authorities. In 1960 Soviet officials pressured cowed Evangelical Christian-Baptist (ECB) leaders to issue a Letter of Instruction to local congregations barring children from worship and advising against “unhealthy missionary tendencies” (Sawatsky 1981: 139). The reaction was an outright revolt leading to a denominational split in August 1961 (Bourdeaux 1968). Dissident Baptists, also known as Initsiativniki (the Initiative Group), faced fierce state persecution and prison for its leaders and activists including (with the year of arrest): Peter Rumachik (1961), A.F. Prokofiev (1962), Aida Skripnikova (1962), Georgi Vins (1966), Gennadi Kriuchkov (1966), and Lydia Vins (1969). Seventh-day Adventists experienced a similar schism with identical results, including imprisonment for its leaders, with Vladimir Shelkov (1895-1980) becoming particularly well known for his courageous defiance and 25 years of total imprisonment (Beeson 1982: 96-97; Elliott 1983; Pospielovsky 1988: 158; Sapiets 1990: 68-134).

Pentecostal Persecution

Most Pentecostals had long since refused legal recognition under the umbrella of the state-recognized ECB Union. As a result, they too regularly suffered harassment, arrest, imprisonment, and church closures during Khrushchev’s antireligious campaign, but before and after it as well. Representative of the Pentecostal plight was the persecution endured by the “Siberian Seven”(Peter and Augustina Vashchenko, their daughters Lida, Lyuba, and Lila, and Maria Chmykhalova and son Timothy). Various members of these longsuffering families fell victim to arrest, imprisonment, forced psychiatric treatment, even state abduction of children. In 1978, in desperation, eight members of these Pentecostal families traveled to Moscow, with seven managing to break through Soviet guards to enter the American Embassy compound. There they remained in limbo until their ultimate emigration to the U.S. in 1983 (Hill 1991: 25-40; Pollock 1979).


One remarkably successful form of dissent, employed not only by the Siberian Seven but by all Christian confessions, especially from the 1960s on, was samizdat, “self-published” protest literature produced and distributed by clandestine means. Outstanding examples include Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s April 1972 Lenten Letter to Partriarch Pimen, the long-running Chronicle of the Catholic Church of Lithuania (1972-88), the 1975 protest of Father Gleb Yakunin and Lev Regelson to the World Council of Churches, and the prodigious production of dissident Adventist Vladimir Shelkov and the dissident Baptist Khristianin Press (1971-), which printed over one million books and brochures by the late 1980s (Nikol’skaia 2009: 289-91; Rowe 1994: 172).

“Carrot and Stick”

Soviet religious policy under Leonid Brezhnev (1964-82), Yuri Andropov (1982-84), and Konstantin Chernenko (1984-85) may best be described as a mixture of “carrot and stick.” This differentiated strategy meant token concessions to legally recognized church bodies, such as state permission for Orthodox to appoint additional bishops, the launching of a seminary correspondence course for Baptists, and the printing and importing of some Bibles and hymnals for both. At the same time, the Kremlin was unyielding in its repression of catacomb Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants. State recognition, however, provided scant protection as the number of legally registered Orthodox parishes fell from 7,600 in 1964 to 6,754 in 1985, and the number of Orthodox priests dropped from 6,800 in 1966 to approximately 6,000 in 1988 (Davis 2003: 126 and 131-32. See also Sawatsky 1992: 247-48).


In March 1985 leadership of the Soviet Union passed to 54-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev. His campaigns of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) introduced a new day, not only in the political and economic realms, but in church-state relations as well. New freedoms to celebrate the millennium of Christianity in Ukraine and Russia in 1988 were accompanied by the release of all prisoners of conscience (1986-89), an end to religious censorship, large-scale importations of Bibles, an end to jamming of shortwave religious broadcasts, and permission for some persecuted believers to emigrate (Elliott 1989 and 1990). In 1989 the Eastern-Rite Catholic Church gained legal status. In 1990 the Soviet Parliament (October 1) and the Russian Republic Parliament (October 25) adopted laws on freedom of conscience as generous as any worldwide. And in 1991 the Kremlin abolished its malevolent Council of Religious Affairs (Ellis 1996: 157-63 and 166).

Restrictions Renewed

However, just as Nicholas II’s Edict of Toleration shortly gave way to renewed restrictions upon non-Orthodox believers, so too in the 1990s did Orthodox, nationalists, and Communists make common cause to impinge upon the free expression of faith by non-Orthodox churches and missionaries. As early as 1992 Patriarch Aleksei II called for legislation to curtail foreign missionary work in Russia (Elliott 1997b).

Finally, in 1997 the Moscow Patriarchate’s concerted efforts to restrict the activities of missionaries and “non-traditional” faiths were rewarded in legislation that, if enforced as the Orthodox hierarchy hoped, would have dramatically reduced religious liberties previously granted by the 1990 laws on freedom of conscience. However, an unintended loophole in the legislation permitted churches to join “centralized religious associations” that exempted them from the law’s most onerous provisions. In addition, a 1999 Russian Constitutional Court ruling set aside other discriminatory provisions of the law. However, the intent of Russian law and court rulings has never meant as much as the bias and whim of administrators charged with their implementation. As a result, the climate of suspicion of non-Orthodox faiths, fueled by the Moscow Patriarchate and the press from the 1990s on, spelled harassment and arbitrariness on the part of federal and local officials in their dealings with Catholics and Protestants (Elliott 1997a; Elliott 1999; Elliott 2000).

In the early 21st century non-Orthodox believers must once again suffer increasing infringements upon freedom of conscience. The Orthodox Church, the state, and the press charge that the loyalty and patriotism of non-Orthodox believers are suspect and that they and their missionary friends harbor spies working for foreign powers (Uzzell 2003). Current assaults on the religious liberties of Russia’s non-Orthodox citizens–with a familiar ring from times past—include frequent difficulties in purchasing, renovating, and renting property for worship, increasing impediments to missionary residency, discrimination in employment, and, increasingly, the exclusion of Catholics and Protestants from the public square, the military chaplaincy, and from ministry in orphanages, schools, and homes for the aged (Elliott 2005).

Varying Levels of Restrictions

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 all 15 former Soviet republics adopted constitutions and legislation guaranteeing freedom of conscience. However, while some successor states have for the most part honored their citizens’ civil liberties (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine), many others have not. The most egregious violators of freedom of conscience have been Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, and Belarus, with persecution of unwelcomed faiths comparable in many respects to some of the darker days of Soviet repression. Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Moldova occupy a middle ground: for the most part not as oppressive of out-of-favor faiths as was common in the Soviet Union, but in practice falling far short of their own domestic and international commitments to protect the religious liberties of their citizens (Forum 18; Lunkin 2011; Marshall 2008).

The persecution of Christians in Russian, Soviet, and post-Soviet experience has been so vast and, despite occasional respites, so persistent that sympathy can be muted by the numbing statistics. Individual believers who faced oppression with courage or who perished holding fast to their hope in Christ may move us more than the martyred millions beyond our capacity to comprehend.

“Only Those Who Are Pure of Heart See God”

In 1967, the antireligious journal, Nauka i religiia [Science and Religion], complained of the case of a stubborn second-grader from a Christian home. Her teacher had explained in class that Soviet cosmonauts had traveled 300 kilometers into space with no sign of God above. This educator singled out her believing pupil, asking her if this evidence from the cosmos convinced her that there was no God. In a most intimidating setting, standing by her desk as her classmates looked on, this eight-year-old child had the God-given presence of mind to respond, “I do not know if 300 kilometers is very much, but I do know very well that only those who are pure of heart see God” (Powell, 1975b: 155; Matthew 5: 8). Need we ever wonder again how little children will teach us?

Lydia Vins

Lydia Mikhailovna Vins endured over three years of imprisonment (1970-73) for her role in founding and managing the Council of Prisoners’ Relatives, a remarkable enterprise that kept the West abreast of all manner of Soviet violations of the religious rights of dissident Baptists. The weight of suffering for her faith that she was forced to bear can hardly be comprehended: Her husband, Peter, a Baptist pastor, was arrested three times (1930, 1936, and 1937) and died in a Siberian labor camp in 1943; her son, Georgi, a leading dissident Baptist pastor, served two terms of imprisonment for his faith (1966-69 and 1974-79); her daughter-in-law, Nadezhda, with a university degree in philology, could find employment only as an ice cream vendor; and her grandchildren, because of their faith, faced harassment in school and unemployment afterwards. Notwithstanding her “three generations of suffering,” Lydia Vins could write her son in prison (4 October 1967): “Believe in man. Believe that everyone has a place beneath the surface of evil feelings where the true face of their divine origin can be seen. People feel this to be impractical and often…laughable and stupid, but it is a fine thing to remain unembittered by life’s sufferings” (Vins 1975: 90-91. See also Vins 1976: 89-97).

Nijole Sadunaite

In 1974 the KGB arrested Nijole Sadunaite for typing carbon copies of the underground Chronicle of the Catholic Church in Lithuania. Interrogated, tortured, and convicted in a closed trial to three years of strict regime labor camp followed by three years of Siberian exile, she never surrendered the names of fellow Catholic dissidents. Her spiritual autobiography, smuggled to the West and aptly published under the title Radiance in the Gulag, provides profound testimony to indomitable faith. Broken in the flesh but with undaunted spirit, she confounded her captors with longsuffering love: “This is the happiest day of my life. I am being tried for the truth and the love of my fellow man…. My sentence will be my triumph!... How can one not rejoice when Almighty God has guaranteed that the light will conquer darkness and the truth will overcome error and falsehood!” After Nijole’s trial her young Russian guards, who could not understand Lithuanian, said to her: “For two years we have been escorting those on trial, and we have never seen anything like it. You were the prosecutor, and all of them were like criminals condemned to death! What did you speak about during the trial to frighten them like that?” (Sadunaite 1987: 57-58).

Patriarch Aleksei I and Metropolitan Nikolai

On 16 February 1960 at a Kremlin-sponsored international “disarmament” conference, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksei I gave a speech that very likely was written for him by Metropolitan Nikolai. In it the Patriarch, in the first throes of the dire Khrushchev antireligious campaign, declared boldly that “the gates of hell will not prevail against the church of Christ” (Fletcher 1968: 188; Matthew 16: 18). Rather than wreak its wrath upon the all-too-visible Aleksei, the Soviet regime instead inflicted its retaliation on Nikolai, the Patriarch’s first lieutenant. The Metropolitan was not seen again in public after February 1960. Nikolai “resigned” his post as chairman of the Russian Orthodox Department of External Relations on 21 June 1960. Then the church accepted his “request” to be relieved of his duties as metropolitan on 15 September 1960. His death on 13 December 1961 followed hospitalization in isolation so strict that not even his sister, an Orthodox nun, was permitted to see him. Suspicions of an unnatural death have persisted ever since (Fletcher 1968:199-201).

Stalin and his League of the Militant Godless are history. Khrushchev, who failed in his promise to parade the Soviet Union’s last Christian on TV, and his antireligious Znanie (Knowledge) Society are also history. But the Church (Russian Orthodox, privileged to its detriment, and Protestant and Catholic, restricted to no good end), nevertheless, endures. Indeed, the gates of hell have not prevailed.♦


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Uzzell, Lawrence. Review of Ekspansiya [Expansionism] by Nikolai Trofimchuk and M.P. Svishchev (Moscow: Akademiia Gosudarstvennoi Sluzhby, 2000) in East-West Church and Ministry Report 11(Winter 2003): 12.

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Vins Georgi. Three Generations of Suffering. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1976.

Reprinted with permission from Sorrow and Blood: Christian Mission in Contexts of Suffering, Persecution and Martyrdom, ed. by William Taylor, Tonica van der Meer, and Reg Reimer (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2012).

Mark R. Elliott is editor of the East-West Church and Ministry Report, Asbury University, Wilmore, Kentucky.