Michael Bourdeaux – The Role of Religion in the Fall of Communism – 1

michael_bourdeaux

Iasi: Public Lecture   –   24 May 2012

1. When a small group of British “academic activists” established Keston College in 1969, our leader, Sir John Lawrence, coined a memorable phrase: “one day communism will collapse like a house of cards”. None of us ever forgot his words. 25 years later (1984) I was awarded the ”Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion”. In my acceptance speech I said of the Soviet Union, “I see an empire in the process of decay. The Red Army, not Marxism-Leninism, provides its cement… The subject peoples retain their individuality, they retain their hopes… Religion strikes the deepest chord of all in the hearts of people who will never accept Moscow along with enforced atheism.” But already there had been much movement since John Lawrence’s words – and the very next year Mikhail Gorbachev would become Soviet leader. Four years after that the Berlin Wall came down and communism did indeed collapse like a house of cards, with remarkably little bloodshed. Two years, almost to the day, after the death of Ceausescu, the Soviet Union was no more.

2. These were remarkable times, which we followed daily at Keston College. We had 25 researchers looking at 350 journals in 19 languages – as well as huge quantities of samizdat and many books. Almost daily we put out news releases concentrating on the role religion was playing in feeding the flames of anti-communism. In every single communist country (except possibly Albania, with which there was no communication) religion was playing a role in destabilizing communist society. I am not going to claim that in any single country – except the Catholic Church in Poland – was it the major factor, but everywhere brave men and women, priests and lay-people, were overthrowing atheism – and atheism was one of the major props of communist ideology. In the Templeton speech to which I referred, I quoted the Russian word podvig. This does not have a ready or simple translation. It means something like “heroic spiritual deed” – but it was not new and certainly did not originate in the 1980s. I lived in Moscow as an exchange student 1959-60 and at that time Nikita Khrushchev was starting a campaign to close churches again – all churches, not just Orthodox. Stalin had permitted quite a number – perhaps 20,000 – to reopen during World War II so that believers would help the war effort. Closing down these churches again caused widespread offence. For example, Alexander Solzhenitsyn managed – just once – to publish a defence of the churches in an essay called “Along the Oka” (a tributary of the Volga). “When you travel the by-roads of Central Russia you begin o understand the secret of the pacifying Russian countryside – it’s in the churches… But when you reach the village you find that not the living, but the dead greeted you from afar… The dome has been stripped and there are gaping holes between its rusty ribs.” The author approaches the church and is horrified to find that it’s being used as a store for agricultural implements. When he looks inside, there is a youth group dancing where the altar used to be. This was published in 1963 – just as believers were reeling from the closure of the churches and imprisonment of believers. There were countless acts of podvig as believers defended their churches and were punished for doing so.

3. Then came two priests, Frs Gleb Yakunin and Nikolai Eshliman, who in December 1965 wrote a series of open letters to the Soviet Government and to the Patriarch, in which they fully documented the whole persecution of the previous five years. These letters had a huge social effect and, of course, brought the persecution to the attention of the world. The Patriarch – dominated by pressure from the KGB – banned them from office for ten years, but immediately after this Fr Gleb Yakunin carried on his campaign for religious liberty. He founded a Christian Committee for the Defence of Believers’ Rights, for which he received a ten-year prison sentence in 1979. When Gorbachev came to power he began releasing political and religious prisoners. Fr Gleb was freed after eight years (1987) and has continued his fight ever since – for which the compromised church leaders cannot forgive him, even today.

* * *

The Revd Canon Dr Michael Bourdeaux , M.A., D.D.

Michael Bourdeaux was born in 1934 in Cornwall. After attending Truro School he did National Service, training as a Russian interpreter. Five years at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, reading Modern Languages, then Theology, followed.

A decisive moment in his life occurred in 1959, when the British Council selected him as a member of the first-ever exchange programme with the Soviet Union. During his year at Moscow University persecution of religion recommenced under Nikita Khrushchev. Therefore his life’s devotion to studying the Church in Russia was originally based on his personal experiences.

There was no university, though, which offered courses in this subject. This led Michael Bourdeaux, after ordination in the CofE, to found Keston College in 1969, aiming to institute systematic study of all aspects of church-state relations in the Soviet Union. His work highlighted the survival – and then the revival – of religion during these years. This soon expanded to cover church-state relations in all communist countries and at one time Keston College employed 25 people. As well as over 30 books, the College produced a journal, Religion in Communist Lands.

In 1984 Michael Bourdeaux received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He became an honorary canon of Rochester in 1989 and in 1996 the Archbishop of Canterbury awarded him a Lambeth Doctorate of Divinity. He retired in 1999, but has continued a worldwide programme of lecturing and writing. His completed memoirs await publication.

The archive of Keston College is now at Baylor University, Texas – the ‘Michael Bourdeaux Keston Center’.

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The Revd Canon Dr Michael Bourdeaux , M.A., D.D.

 

Michael Bourdeaux was born in 1934 in Cornwall.  After attending Truro School he did National Service, training as a Russian interpreter.  Five years at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, reading Modern Languages, then Theology, followed.

A decisive moment in his life occurred in 1959, when the British Council selected him as a member of the first-ever exchange programme with the Soviet Union.  During his year at Moscow University persecution of religion recommenced under Nikita Khrushchev.  Therefore his life’s devotion to studying the Church in Russia was originally based on his personal experiences. 

There was no university, though, which offered courses in this subject.  This led Michael Bourdeaux, after ordination in the CofE, to found Keston College in 1969, aiming to institute systematic study of all aspects of church-state relations in the Soviet Union.  His work highlighted the survival – and then the revival – of religion during these years.  This soon expanded to cover church-state relations in all communist countries and at one time Keston College employed 25 people.  As well as over 30 books, the College produced a journal, Religion in Communist Lands.

In 1984 Michael Bourdeaux received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.  He became an honorary canon of Rochester in 1989 and in 1996 the Archbishop of Canterbury awarded him a Lambeth Doctorate of Divinity.  He retired in 1999, but has continued a worldwide programme of lecturing and writing.  His completed memoirs await publication.  

The archive of Keston College is now at Baylor University, Texas – the ‘Michael Bourdeaux Keston Center’.

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Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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