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October 1983  ·  Vol. 12 No. 4  ·  pp. 3–14 

The Suffering Church in Russia

Hermann Hartfeld

SUFFERING FOR THE CAUSE OF CHRIST

A Word of Caution

In a land of wealth and prosperity Christians have immense difficulty in identifying themselves with the suffering church. The exhortation “remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated” is difficult to practice. Our “easy” and “comfortable” lifestyle distracts our attention from those who desperately seek our prayers and words of consolation.

There is another hindrance to understanding and identifying with the suffering ones, namely, the conflicting information we receive concerning religious liberty in Russia. In his speech in London, May 10, 1983 Solzhenitzyn deplored the fact that some Western Christian leaders who had visited the Soviet Union had announced that they had not seen any Christian persecution. 1 He was referring to Billy Graham who had not been aware that with such a statement he had unwillingly supplied fuel for the Communist propaganda machine. People were confused, and the Soviet Christians disappointed.

There, is, however, a third reason why Christians have difficulty believing that the church in Russia genuinely endures hardships for Christ’s sake. The Soviet government has either deported or allowed many Germans to emigrate to West Germany, and even some Russians have been able to emigrate as well. These people, and among them a considerable number of Christians and former prisoners, have experienced enormous problems in integrating into the West. Being uprooted from their homeland, culture, and tradition, former Soviet Christians often do not know how to integrate their faith into new cultural settings. These people had learned to get along with humble means in Russia, but they did not know how to live in prosperity when they settled in the West. They make mistakes, quarrel, offend each {4} other, split local churches and even slander one another because they have encountered a life-style for which we as Umsiedler, (émigrés) have become confused while often misunderstanding each other completely. We have drifted apart in this pluralistic Western society. Observing our battles and disagreements the Western Christians have taken offense. They are not able to grasp how formerly suffering Christians can behave as they do. Hence they have inevitably gained a very gloomy picture about the suffering church in Russia.

However, a word of caution should be spoken to those who measure the character and quality of the suffering church by the behavior of the emigrated Christians. Formerly persecuted Christians are not part of the suffering church in Russia any more. Those of us who pretend to represent the persecuted Christians are not able to do so genuinely, because our present situation, cultural setting and the political environment are incomparable with what we left behind. The new circumstances require from us new adjustments but we try hard to remain as we were in Russia. This attempt creates a caricature of the Russian church. Therefore, the former prisoners should never be compared with the real martyrs of our age. Only if we were again in the situation of suffering would the actual picture be restored. Nonetheless, the suffering church of Russia does not consist of super-Christians. They are not heroes. They are “merely disciples trying to emulate Christ—held up by His grace, fed by it, warmed by it, and led to our final goal by it.” 2

For what do Christians suffer? I met a Russian pastor who was on vacation in a Western country. He frankly admitted to me that for this vacation he reimbursed the secret police with information. He suffered mental anguish in the process. Another pastor told me about his ministry in a registered Baptist church. He signed an obligation not to permit Sunday Schools, youth meetings and women fellowships. Nonetheless, he encourages these activities. Yet he suffers awfully because of his signature and his deception of the authorities. A third Russian recognized minister confessed to me in Europe that he suffers considerably because he has to report every church activity to the Communist authorities. He suffers, because he knows that the authorities use his reports to incriminate believers.

Recently I conversed with a former unregistered minister who told me about his failures, and how his memories torture him. He needed a counsellor who would help him to forget.

Thus, we all suffer sometimes from our deficiencies, failures, and inconsistencies. But there is yet another suffering—a suffering for the witness of Jesus Christ.

Alexander Merkulov was conscripted to serve in the military forces {5} in the city of Fergana on October 30, 1982. Alex refused to take up oath and weapons, explaining that his love to God and people is incompatible with killing. He told his officers that he would pray for all governments in the world so that peace might prevail over injustice and malice. Alex was severely beaten. Subsequently an officer of the secret police (KGB) put a dagger to Alex’s throat and demanded that he choose between God and weapons. Alex chose God. The officer threw his dagger on the floor, exclaimed: “I knew, it would happen!” and left the room. The young Christian was not imprisoned but assigned to work in another military unit. 3

A Christian, Vitaly Varavin, was put in a cell with criminal homosexuals so that the latter might rape him. Raped men are treated worse than beast by the prisoners themselves. This injustice is inexplicable. For Varavin it could even mean death. He protested, indignantly, perceiving the goal of the secret police. The Lord miraculously got him out from the cell.

Rumachik, a member of the Council of Evangelical Christian Baptist churches was falsely accused of being a homosexual so that he could be sexually abused in the labour camps. 4

One could mention hundreds of other Christians who endure hardships either in prisons or in “freedom”. Some have to suffer as all of us do, because of failure to live by the word of God; others suffer for contrary reasons—for preaching and living out the word of God.

Therefore, a Russian evangelist Peter Peters writes in the “Herald of Truth,” an illegal Christian magazine published in Russia:

For a Christian suffering is not a strange thing nor sadly inevitable. Suffering is a blessed prescription for a genuine, godly life (2 Tim. 3:12). Sorrows on our path are foreordained by God, which we are not able to avoid without the risk of losing eternal life (Acts 14:22, Matt. 10:38). Next to the invaluable gift of saving faith, suffering is a happy right and an inestimable privilege of all upright children of God (Phil. 1:29). 5

Peter does not preach that Christians should seek suffering. On the contrary he observes that only that suffering is for the sake of Christ which results from our Christian witness in this world. 6

THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN PERSECUTION IN RUSSIA

The American president, Ronald Reagan, reminded his audience on January 31, 1983 that “all of us as Protestants, Catholics and Jews have a special responsibility to remember our fellow believers who were {6} being persecuted in other lands. We are all children of Abraham, all children of the same God . . .”

This reminder is biblical, yet it raises and leaves open questions concerning the reasons for the persecution of Christians in Russia. We have learned from history that Christians were often accused of crimes which they did not actually commit. Nero accused them of arson; 7 the Roman Catholic church established the whole machinery of the Inquisition in the 12th century to persecute the Catharers and the Waldensers, accusing them of heresy; 8 the Russian Orthodox Church brought similar accusations against the Russian evangelical Christians at the turn of the century. 9 Thus, Christians were seldom indicted for their Christian convictions or practices. Arson, heresy and undermining of political systems were only a few of the accusations of which Christians have been falsely accused.

Similarly, the political, scientific and religious representatives of the Soviet Communist regime have boldly denied that there is any Christian persecution in their country. The basis for such a denial is rooted in the particular philosophical and political structure of the Communist ideology and the Soviet state.

Already in 1905 Lenin defined religion as ‘an opiate of the people,’ a tool which was used by the rich to exploit masses of wage-earners. The proletariat were promised a paradise in the after-life, and thus the attention of the poor was diverted from their real condition. 10 Marx, and later Lenin, derived their approach to Religion from Feuerbach who in his book, Das Wesen des Christentums (1841), summarized religion and theology as the projection of the human essence, one’s self, and of the human desires after completeness. Feuerbach concluded that religion is man’s alienation from himself. 11 Therefore, for man to become fully man, he must get rid of religion.

Lenin was fascinated with such a conclusion, so he announced an uncompromising war against any religious belief. After the October Revolution had done away with the “bourgeois government,” the new rulers under the leadership of Lenin passed a decree (Article 10) in which all religious entities were declared as private communities. 12 This separation of church and state entailed certain consequences especially for the Russian Orthodox Church: its privileges were annulled and nearly all monasteries and convents were nationalized. Similar action was taken against the Christian school systems as well as theological seminaries, academies and missionary schools. 13

Present but undefined in the decree which came into operation in August 1918, was the separation of state and church. The church was not allowed to interfere in the affairs of the state but the state reserved all its right and “privileges” to meddle in the affairs of the church. This {7} was clearly codified in the governmental ordinances which were passed on October 1, 1929. Herewith all religious activities, including the election of clergy, were put under the control of the Communist authorities. 14 Since religion was considered a factor of man’s alienation from himself, it has been regarded as a philosophical, psychological and political threat to the communist system.

Prior to the publication of Article 10 Lenin had claimed that religion “cannot be a private and personal matter for the party members of the Socialistic proletariat . . . We demand (he wrote) an entire separation of church and state in order to fight effectively the religious obscurity with sheer intellectual weapons and only intellectual weapons: with our press and word.” 15 Therefore, the regulations of the Communist party have stipulated that every communist is “obliged to conduct a battle against any religious prejudices and any remnant of the bourgeois past” (cf. § 2.d.). As the re-worked and ratified Soviet constitution, passed in Oct. 7, 1977, announced that the leading and ruling power of the Soviet society, the essence of its political system is the Communist party of the Soviet Union, it has also herewith legalized a centralized battle against “religious prejudices.” 16

The ideological war against religion was launched almost immediately after the communists came to power in Russia. But the “intellectual weapons” employed to fight and eradicate the religious conscience have never been clearly defined. According to Major Litenkov (1966), the state secret police officer of the city of Tashkent, the ideological or intellectual weaponry of the communist party includes not only the propaganda of atheism but also the undermining of the authority of clergy, recruitment of Christian workers as agents of the KGB (the Communist secret police), 17 blackmailing, harassments, exiles, imprisonments and expulsions from the home land to a foreign country. Thus, the starting point of Christian persecution has become the Soviet constitution itself. It does not guarantee religious freedom, but confines the religious activity to worship services and to representation abroad, so that the clergy might present and defend the political global stance of the Communist regime at various international religious conventions and conferences. 18 Consequently, an analytic, attentive and inquisitive reader is able to detect that the Soviet constitution embodies latent legal means for the gradual extermination of religion.

THE THEOLOGY OF SUFFERING

The Dilemma of the Suffering Church in Russia

Since the victory of the October revolution all religious communities found themselves in a dilemma. Thousands of clergymen, Christian workers and ordinary believers have constantly struggled with {8} the problem of whether they should comply with the Soviet regulations concerning religious practices or whether they should resist. When resistance has been chosen, it has resulted in severest persecution matching anything known in human history. Total submission to the law on the other hand, has visibly contributed to the communist ideological objective of annihilating belief in God, while at the same time it has secured certain privileges and relative freedom for those who demonstrated flexibility and obeyed. 19 The issue of resisting or complying with the communist law has plagued the Christian conscience. The Romans’ text, “let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (13:1) has been the most crucial biblical passage in the related disputes and conflicts. Some have pleaded for literal fulfillment of Romans 13, 20 others have taken a different stance. 21 This has led to painful disagreements between disputing parties, and eventually to a split in many Christian denominations.

Disagreement concerning theological interpretations concerning subjection to the communist authorities caused splits in the Russian Orthodox Church in 1922 and in the Seventh Day Adventist Church in 1924. Only the Catholics in Lithuania have tried to solve the problem differently: while ministering to the church publicly they have remained in “catacombs.” 22 Religious instruction of children, relief work and printing the “Chronicle of the current events” have been done secretly.

The Evangelical Christian Baptist (EChB) were not able to reach consensus on the crucial question of the relationship between the church and state. Therefore this issue provoked a schism within the brotherhood of the EChB in 1961, and led to the creation of a Council of EChB Churches of the USSR headed by Gennady Kruchkov.

The Vision of a Church and Attitude to the State

One of the crucial questions which formed the agenda of the new Baptist movement was the character and nature of the church. Indeed, this issue was not confined to the Baptists. There have been undoubtedly thousands of other Evangelical Christians and former Mennonite Brethren who have joined the evangelical movement. Even Pentecostal Christians have often profited from the production of the illegal printing office “Christian.” They supported it financially and prayerfully. Many of them have left their churches, abandoned their theology, and joined the Baptists. The variegated Christian family has often expressed different approaches to the church structure and attitude to the state. This has probably been the reason why Kruchkov depicted his vision of Christian Church in the following terms:

The Church of Christ glorifies its Lord alone, and it lives in obedience to Him—it does away with the monopolized {9} hierarchy; the highest are those in the church who have become servants for all. In this Christian community all have the same privilege—to be in communion with Christ; all have only one true happiness—redemption; all have been granted only one name—the saints; all have only one grandeur—humbleness, one completeness—love, one constant concern—the redemption of unbelievers; one activity—witnessing about Jesus Christ; all have only one enemy—sin; one fear—the fear of God. In this church there is no differences between sexes, nationalities or social status. This church shines forth like stars in heaven, being the salt of earth, the light in darkness, Christ’s ambassadors in this world to call people to repentance. 23

He then proceeds to define the church’s attitude to the state by stating: “we don’t beg anything from the world (read, state), and while losing everything, we wish to retain the right to be separated from the world, be free from collaboration with outsiders (read, KGB, Communist secret police) be a genuine church and faithful Christians . . .” 24

We appreciate the authorities. We recognize their vocation. We think that each citizen is responsible to submit himself to the governing authorities. But nowhere do we find in the Bible that the church should live in submission to them. We believe that the church is accountable to its head Jesus Christ alone. We are loyal to the authorities, nonetheless, our loyalty should not be demonstrated at the expense of religious liberty. 25

This statement has been reiterated by numerous Christians during judicial hearings in court. One of the printers Tamara Bystrova said to her judges:

We as believers feel obligated to submit to civil authorities, except in issues of faith, since in questions of faith we are accountable to the Lord alone. On behalf of our Lord Jesus Christ we profess and maintain our faith even amidst the trials which we are to endure. 26

As the reader might see, the representatives of the persecuted church do not deny submission to Communist authorities. They do not call for resistance to the civil responsibility of each citizen. But they wish to obey God more than men when the liberty for the proclamation of the Gospel is at stake. Here the resistance begins! So, when Bedrik, the district attorney of the city Dnepropetrovsky asked the defendant, Bublik, to describe the differences between the recognized and nonrecognized churches in Russia, the latter replied: “The legislation prohibits children from attending worship services, and educate them {10} religiously.” 27 This, then, is one of the many reasons why Sergy Bublik refuses to comply with the communist legislation, and marches consciously into labour camps, because the communist state would not even tolerate Christian dissenters. Resistance to this law which is aimed at eradicating all religious activity is carried out consciously, and in the name of Jesus Christ.

Another “illegal” printer of the secret printing-office “Christianin,” Lyuba Kosachevich, said boldly in court:

The ministry for our Lord is dear to me. Therefore, I am ready to sacrifice my life for Him if necessary. I do not wish that you (the judges) might perceive it as beautiful phrases—I really mean it! 28

This assertion shocked the judges. They were confused, recognizing that Lyuba’s activities were determined by her dedication to Christ. Such declarations have made the Soviet communist ideologists furious. But the resurgence of Christianity has demonstrated to the communist authorities that the sixty year effort to brainwash the Soviet people into accepting the “atheistic religion” has been a fiasco.

The Christian Approach to Suffering

The theology of suffering of Russian Christians begins with dedication. That is the essential element of their faith. Integrally linked to it is their love for God. This love shapes their interpretations and application of Romans 13 and other scriptural passages which refer to the Christian attitude toward the state. It is unjust to label the determination of Russian Christians to obey God more than men as sheer stubbornness, as has sometimes been done by Western Christians. The Christian conscience which is formed through circumstances and perception of the word of God is the most strict and relentless judge of believers’ behavior.

When Heinrich Loewen refused to take up oath and weapons, he substantiated his decision with reference to his conscience. Heinrich was prosecuted and subsequently (1982) sentenced to four years in labour camps. He is presently serving his term in the Ryasan region, settlement Stenkino, p/ya 25/6-3. Heinrich did not actually refuse to stay in the army; he insisted on being involved in humanitarian activities and not in killing. His efforts were refused, he was tried and sentenced. 29

A thorough analysis of Heinrich’s decision would reveal his desire to live out his understanding of Christ’s teaching. There is hardly to be detected any stubbornness in him, since he knew that his determination would result in trials, hardship and isolation from relatives and friends.

It is also not true that Russian Christians have set up political goals {11} to pursue. However, it is true that the Communist authorities perceive the Christian objectives as political, as an attempt to undermine the communist ideology. For instance, while pastor Skornyakov served his term in a labor camp he was obsessed with the notion of preaching the Gospel to the Moslem nations of Middle Asia. In 1981 he wrote:

But another thing plagues and does not give me rest. The Gospel is being proclaimed to Africans, Indians and to Japanese people; but are the Uzbeks, Kirghises and many others not the same unchanged sinners as the before-mentioned ones? Are they not going to hell while dying? Where could we find New Testaments in their languages? How could we preach them Christ today? 30

While the communist ideologists are putting forth every effort to annihilate religion (this is one of the pivotal Marxist philosophical and political objectives) the imprisoned pastor has been concerned with the condition of the unsaved souls of the Soviet Moslem nations! He is imprisoned for his evangelistic and missionary activities, but his heart is not deterred from desiring more and more ministry. One should not be surprised that the Soviet authorities characterize such intentions as an attempt to undermine the state ideology, and as an act of contempt toward the legal regulations concerning religious cults. That is why Christians have been considered as anti-revolutionary forces in Russia since the October Revolution.

But pastor Skornyakov is convinced that slander, accusations and imprisonments have never been able to stop the proclamation of the Gospel. He writes as follows:

Now I am to tell those who are afraid of suffering for the cause of Christ: I have already served three years in prison, and I have come to the conclusion, as I already wrote to my friends lately that if the godless persecutors knew which service they perform while persecuting us, they would have stopped doing so. 31

In the prisons and labor camps Skornyakov and other ministers have always had the opportunity for witnessing. Their circumstances have usually turned out for the greater progress of the gospel. Thus, they consider suffering for Christ’s sake as a means which God uses to advance the proclamation of the gospel. This is an essential aspect of their theology of suffering. 32

Deficiencies and Needs

The suffering church in Russia has often lacked experienced shepherds. The elders are elected after their dedication to Christ and {12} willingness to suffer for His cause have been tested. Their dedication to bringing sinners to Christ has a higher priority than their Bible knowledge when they are being considered for election as elders. They are to manage their own household well and their wives must demonstrate readiness to sacrifice their husbands for Christ’s ministry.

However, these elders have hardly ever read a brochure about counselling. Their theology is mostly based on the tradition and experience of their fathers. Any deviation from this tradition might even be considered as a step toward apostasy.

Thus there is a desperate need for theological education. This could be assisted by radio ministry in Russian and other spoken languages. Some Western churches would surely find other opportunities to help as well.

Discipline is exerted in all churches. Adultery, drunkenness, and sexual deviations are disdained along with uncovered heads of married women. Since a lack of preventive ministry plagues many churches, believers often fail because they have not known how to deal with certain issues. In my opinion, the Russian churches desperately need literature on Christian counselling and ethics.

The communist ideology has had a profound impact on Russian culture. The latter has tremendously influenced the approach to Christian leadership. Lack of knowledge of pastoral theology has made many leaders autocratic. This is surely a cultural phenomenon which has entailed intolerance to criticism and admonition. Even constructive criticism of the leader of a denomination has sometimes been understood as hostility toward the whole movement. Such traits have brought much pain to the Russian Christianity, resulting in many factions. These problems could be reduced if the Russian church leaders had access to pastoral literature.

It is true that the communist ideologists use such deficiencies in the church as a tool to oppose church growth. But Western Christianity should be concerned about the needs of the Russian church, trying to fellowship and interact with them whenever and wherever possible.

CONCLUSIONS

Along with deficiencies and needs, the Russian church has demonstrated many qualities which we often lack in West. Firstly we can learn dedication from many martyrs of our age. The uncompromising service of the suffering Christians to our Lord and Savior fascinates {13} not only believers but also the enemies of the Gospel. Secondly, their attitude towards evangelism may teach us how to integrate our faith in different settings in order to remain faithful witnesses to Christ in any circumstances. I am aware that we Umsiedler have failed to apply our experiences in our newly experienced cultures because we were shocked by its permissiveness. But Western Christianity which struggles for the survival of Christian values could learn from the suffering church how to preserve them amidst difficult circumstances. Thirdly, we could learn from the suffering church concerning its attitude to the state. In the West we have too often been involved in politics. Such involvements have distracted us from the primary purpose of glorifying our Lord Jesus Christ. Western Christians seem rarely to ask whether political policies and practices are compatible with the teachings of Christ. I have never promoted exclusiveness nor a ghetto mentality, it is my conviction that the church itself should abstain from any political involvement except relief work and pursuit of the commandment of Jesus Christ.

The suffering church teaches us, fourthly, that imprisonments, demolition of churches, confiscation of Bibles, harassments of clergy and ordinary Christians will never destroy love for God and the freedom that burns in believers’ hearts. They will triumph over any hostile power in the world.

NOTES

  1. A. Solzhenitzyn, Templeton’s Speech in London on May 10, 1983, p. 19.
  2. H. Hartfeld, Faith Despite the KGB (London & Glasgow: Pickering & Inglis, 1981), p. 248.
  3. Pismo Soveta Rodstvennikov Usnikov (PSRU) (Feb., 1983), p. 19.
  4. Ibid., p. 9.
  5. P. Peters, “Vsyo sie preodolevaem” in Vestnik Istiny 2 (1982): 27ff.
  6. Ibid.
  7. dtv-Brockhaus Lexikon, Band 13. Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, p. 13.
  8. Ibid., Band 8, pp. 297-8.
  9. S. Liven, “Spiritual Revival in Russia” in Vestnik Istiny, 3 (1980): 27-31: 2 (1981): 32-35; 1 (1982): 41-43; 2 (1982): 38-40.
  10. cf. Otto Luchterhandt, Die Religionsgesetzgebung der Sowjetunion (Berlin Verlag, 1978), pp. 11 ff.
  11. dtv-Brockhaus, Band 5, pp. 233-4.
  12. Luchterhandt, p. 13.
  13. Ibid., p. 12. {14}
  14. Ibid., pp. 19-20.
  15. V. I. Lenin, “Sozialismus and Religion”, in Werke, Band 8, p. 569.
  16. Ed. Gert Meyer, Das Politsiche and Gesellschaftliche System der UdSSR: Ein Quellenband. (Koln: Pahl-Rugenstein Verlag, 1980), pp. 44-45.
  17. Eugen Voss, Die Sowjetische Religionsgesetzgebung and deren Konsequenzen fuer das Volk Gottes. (Vortrag anlasslich der Konferenz “20 Jahre Erwechungsbewegung in der UdSSR”, veranstaltet vom Missionswerk Friendesstimme, Hamm, BRD, 6.-7. November 1981). Unpublished. Pastor Voss writes: “Der erste Bereich ist die Kollaboration zwischen Kirchendiener and Staatssicherheitsdienst. Sie hat vom Staat aus gesehen den Zweck, die Kirche zu kontrollieren and mit Hilfe dieser Kirchendiener das Endziel der Religionspolitik, die Vernichtung der Kirche, zu erreichen.”
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Cf. statements of the former general secretary of the Allunion Council of the Evangelical-Christian Baptists of USSR in the article “16 years Ago” in Vestnik Istiny 1 (1982) Russian edition, pp. 22-32; especially the conclusions made by the Council of the Ev. Chr. Baptist Church on pp. 31-32.
  21. Cf. Kruchkov’s address in Bratsky Listok, 4 (1981): 1-4.
  22. Cf. Eugen Voss.
  23. Kruchkov, Bratsky Listok, 4 (1981).
  24. Ibid.
  25. Vestnik Istiny 1 (1982): 26.
  26. Bulleten Soueta Rodstuennikou Usnikou EChB, 92 (1981): 26-30.
  27. Ibid., p. 39.
  28. Ibid., p. 37.
  29. Pismo Soueta Rodstuennikou Usnikou (PSRU), February, 1983.
  30. Yakov Skornyakov, “The poor and needy are looking for water” in Vestnik Istiny, 2 (1981): 29.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Oskar Rivinius, “Weihnachtsklaenge aus dem Kerker” in Nachrichten von den Feldern der Verfolgung, (Nov/Dez, 1980), pp. 4-6.
Hermann Hartfeld spent seven years in Russian labor camps as a result of his ministry in an “underground” Baptist church. He records faith and suffering for Christ in Faith Despite the KGB and in the realistic novel, Irina. In 1983 he completed the M.Div. program at the Mennonite Brethren Seminary, Fresno, California, and is currently engaged in ministry and preparing for further studies in Europe.

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