Michael Bourdeaux – A Tribute to Mikhail Khorev

Mikhail Khorev – Russian Baptist leader who suffered three decades of persecution to live in better times

May 16 1966 was a glorious day of spring sunshine in Moscow, with tourists from all over the Soviet Union milling about the central streets. On Old Square, outside the drab walls of the offices of the Central Committee of the USSR, there was a noticeable swelling of the crowd. This would soon be the first-ever organised demonstration in a communist country, with some 500 participants having assembled from one hundred and thirty towns and cities representing almost every republic of the Soviet Union.

One of the organisers of this unprecedented event was Mikhail Khorev, registered partially sighted and working full time as an itinerant preacher in the unregistered Baptist Church. The “Initsiativniki” Movement, as it became known, took its name from the “initiative” of its leaders from 1961 to establish free elections to the central Baptist leadership which, they believed, had compromised itself by accepting renewed state restrictions imposed by Nikita Khrushchev’s regime.  He had inaugurated a period of more severe persecution, leading to the imprisonment of some 200 leaders of the ‘Reform Baptist’ movement, as it is sometimes called in English.

The demonstrators presented a petition to the Soviet authorities, but those who entered the Central Committee building to hand it over did not emerge. The demonstrators were cleared off the streets and dispersed in buses to railway stations to be sent back home, but Pastors Georgi Vins, the main organiser of the movement, and Mikhail Khorev evaded arrest and went back to Old Square to enquire about the fate of the detainees. They did not re-appear.

They would be tried separately. Vins’s sentence in November 1963 was to three years. In a later trial he was condemned to ten years, but was eventually exchanged in a ‘spy swop’ with the American Government before dying in Indiana in 1998. Khorev received a shorter sentence, two and a half years, but this was merely the first of four periods of imprisonment of increasing severity.

Mikhail Ivanovich Khorev was born to Baptist parents in 1931 in Leningrad but, because of his disability, he received only an elementary education. However, after his baptism as a young man, he educated himself to become an immensely respected preacher who travelled throughout the Soviet Union to present the cause of his church. When, at his trial, the prosecutor asked him in which towns he had preached, he replied, “It would be easier to list where I haven’t been”.

The core of his message was, “Everyone has the right to meet freely and to teach the Gospel, including to children.” It was over this very point that the Reform Baptists had broken away from the official, registered Baptist Church, whose Moscow leaders had, in 1961, accepted under duress an injunction to exclude minors from their services of worship. At his first trial, Khorev claimed several times that he never challenged believers to break the law, but only to exercise the right to “freedom of religious worship” which the Soviet Constitution allowed. These gatherings, perforce, had to be in the open air or crammed into apartments, because the authorities had closed down over three hundred registered churches.

The details of the trial became known shortly afterwards through the double smuggling of a 22-page summary of the proceedings. A fellow-believer who managed to elude the courtroom guards noted down the essentials; then the manuscript was brought out of the Soviet Union, where today a copy resides in the Keston Archive at Baylor University, Texas. It concludes by describing the scene outside the courtroom: “When they took our brother to the car, his friends greeted him and threw flowers, with the words, ‘Remain faithful to God, continue your work as a preacher, warm the cold hearts!’”

Denied any medical attention for his deteriorating eyesight, Khorev’s condition deteriorated, but on his release he continued his preaching. Later he wrote letters and smuggled them out of the strict-regime camp in Omsk, Siberia. In January 1980 he wrote: “I knew that I would be taken to the Kresty prison in Leningrad. I waited for this moment with an almost holy reverence… When my father was 48, he too was arrested for his service to God and brought to this same prison. I was then seven. Now I had become a father myself and was to follow his path through these same prisons.” Letters from a Soviet Prison Camp was published in London in 1988.

With the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev, conditions quickly began to ease for all Russian believers; prisoners were able to return to their families and resume their ministry. Khorev had moved to Chisinau in the 1970s, where, after Moldavian independence, he led his congregation to two decades of free worship. However, the movement in which he played such a large part has not reunited with the mainstream Baptist Church. He leaves a widow, Vera, and three children.

Mikhail Khorev, leader of the Russian Reform Baptist Church, was born on 19 December 1931 and died on 3 May 2012, aged 81.

(This text was published in The Times, on 9 May 2012

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