Michael Bourdeaux – The Role of Religion in the Fall of Communism – 2

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4. In the 1970s examples of podvig were growing. The story of Alexander (Sasha) Ogorodnikov is one among very many. He was a bright young communist with a brilliant future. He was accepted into the Moscow Film Institute. There he studied the films of the Italian communist director, Pasolini, and he had access even to those which were banned in Russia. One was The Gospel According to St Matthew (a beautiful account of the life of Christ which I have seen). Sasha went into the private cinema a communist – and came out a believer. He called together his friends to see it, too – and they were all converted. They began to meet for regular discussions – for which Sasha was expelled from the institute. He could find work only as a night watchman in a hospital, but in his little room his friends gathered – the Christian Seminar was born. It spread to several other cities – a true youth movement. Occasionally priests helped them to guide their discussions and, very rarely, they acquired a Bible and other Christian literature. Of course, the groups were all broken up and the ring-leaders given prison sentences of up to ten years – but the “damage” was done – it was obvious that communism was no longer commanding the affection or even the loyalty of many in the younger generation. Sasha received appalling treatment in prison, but he would never renounce his faith in order to secure early release. Only when Gorbachev came to power was he freed.  The movement for religious liberty among younger Orthodox believers was never, of course, going to topple the Soviet regime. Indeed, it never became political in the sense of trying to overthrow communism – but it did have an effect – the “leaven that leavens the whole lump” in Christ’s words in St Matthew’s Gospel. Even more powerful, though, were events affecting the Baptist Church and Catholics in Lithuania.

5. In 1961 the Soviet State increased its interference in the internal affairs of the Russian Baptists. Putting pressure on the leaders, the atheist authorities made them pass an internal decree which banned children from church and limited evangelism. An opposition movement rapidly gained members, especially among those communities which the State had refused to register. The efficiency of the organization of these leaders was amazing. Baptists were spread over the whole vast expanse of the Soviet Union. Somehow the leaders of the opposition, the Initsiativniki or Reform Baptists, Pastors Georgi Vins and Gennadi Kryuchkov, contacted local believers in every Soviet republic. The movement rapidly gained strength and the increased persecution did little other than make the opposition even more determined. Hundreds of leaders were thrown into prison, but those who remained at liberty set up a Council of Baptist Prisoners’ Relatives. They gathered information from all corners of the Soviet Union, put it together in systematic reports and smuggled these out of the country. We at Keston College received them and passed them on to Amnesty International. An international campaign for the release of these prisoners began. Again, this contributed significantly to the democratic understanding of the true meaning of religious liberty.

6. What happened in Lithuania, though, was something altogether different in exerting a direct influence on the political system. Communism, in effect, collapsed in Lithuania long before it did in the rest of the Soviet Union. In a sense, the “liberation” of Lithuania began the day it was first occupied by Soviet troops in 1940 (and then again in 1944). Despite the Kremlin’s constant claims to the contrary, Lithuanians, like Estonians and Latvians, never accepted Soviet domination or becoming part of the Soviet empire. In Lithuania it was the Catholic Church which kept the soul of the nation alive. Oppression of religion had precisely the opposite effect intended: although some churches remained open, the heart of the church continued to beat strongly in secret. By 1974 soviet atheism had clearly lost the battle for the mind of the younger generation. After 30 years of occupation and indoctrination, a young man, Virgilijus Jaugelis, was refused permission to become a theological student at the one Catholic seminary. Instead, he threw himself into fighting for freedom for the Church. He was brought to court and tried. In his defence speech, Soviet officials heard these astonishing words (recorded in note form by some of his supporters who managed to get into the court room): “Is this what you understand by freedom – the closure of Catholic churches and their conversion into warehouses and concert halls?… How many have perished in the snows of Soviet Russia, how many have suffered hunger, disease and torture? They died as martyrs, enslaved but unconquered. Today, no less, our best hearts and brightest minds are rotting in prison… At this point he began quoting the banned national anthem, ‘Lithuania, land of our birth, our own dear country… How many times have the boots of foreigners trodden you down?… But you have always had many noble hearts fearless to suffer and die for you. There are such even today.” Jaugelis survived his  prison sentence, was secretly ordained as a Catholic priest but two years later Jaugelis was dead. He had never recovered his health following appalling treatment in prison. There were many other martyrs – but there was also the clandestine journal, Chronicle of the Lithuanian Catholic Church, which recorded their deeds. Copies produced on secret printing presses passed from hand to hand and strengthened the resolve of the nation. When the editors were caught and sentenced, others were already waiting and prepared to continue the work.  Before long, after the advent of Gorbachev, Sajudis” began. This means simply “movement” – but everyone knew it was not merely a movement to implement Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika (change), but really meant independence from Moscow. Sajudis was led by a Christian, Professor Vytautas Landsbergis. From the moment of its founding, Soviet power never even began to quell the uprising of Lithuanian demands for freedom and Christian solidarity (solidarity not least with neighboring Catholic Poland, which we shall shortly come to.

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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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