Speaking Without a Tongue

The sun set in gold on a treeless ocean of snow, the Kulunda Steppe, at the end of Christmas, 1963. Here and there a dry weed stood in the snow. Snow had blown across the frozen river Ob. It had whirled down the streets of Barnaul, filling the gaps between small houses and piling itself on their back window sills. Smoke curled from the houses and from a square cement-block building in the middle of town. But in those houses and in that sparsely lit building the snowy evening produced no coziness, and Christmas it was not supposed to be.

In their over clothes, Vasily and Nikolai Khmara, and one woman, Lyubov Khmara, stood before the Altai Regional Court.

One year earlier no one would have found this surprising. The Khmaras were wild living people. Nikolai, an incorrigible drunkard, had gotten into so many fights no one kept track of them all. The Khmaras stole and got into trouble with the law. But now, at the end of 1963, those who knew them felt differently. In­stinctively they felt that something wrong was taking place—that the Khmaras should not be in court—and they feared.

The Khmaras had become “believers” and changed their ways. No one doubted that it happened. Nikolai, whom no one knew apart from his drunkenness or periods of grouchy irrespon­sibility had become a new man. His face shone. He wore clean clothes. He smiled and helped the neighbours. In the summer of 1963 a visiting believer had taken him and his wife Mariya down to the river and baptised them.

Now they stood before the court.

“Why must you tell others what you believe?” one of the judges, a woman with a knitted cap and a red nose, asked Nikolai. “Why can’t you keep your nonsense to yourself and stop contami­nating the town?”

Nikolai answered gladly, with a smile, “I was a drunkard. I came to know Christ. He rescued me from my bad way of life and gave me hope and joy. It is so good with Christ I cannot help but share what I have found!”

Cries of disgust and impatience rose from around the room. “We don’t need your preaching! Hush him up comrades, judges! Give him a week in solitary confinement and we’ll see whether Christ gives him hope and joy!”

It was time to close the court anyway. The prosecutors had said what they planned to say. The judges had listened to the de­fendants long enough. After a brief recess and the defendants’ last address their verdict came: Vasily, Nikolai and Lyubov Khmara, three years in a labour camp after processing in a local jail.

Three years. Without Nikolai, the chief encouragement in their new way of life, the time looked long to Mariya and their four children. But it turned out short.

After two weeks the police asked Mariya to pick up her husband’s body. He had died, they said, and would come home in a sealed coffin.

Neither Mariya nor the other believers of the Kulunda Steppe could believe that Nikolai had died a normal death. He was not old. Since he had stopped drinking he had enjoyed excellent health, so they pried the lid off his metal coffin to see him.

Their imagination could not have prepared them for what they saw. Bruises covered his body. People in the prison had burned the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet. They had torn out his finger and toe nails. They had taken a sharp, heated object to puncture his abdomen and his legs were swollen and blue.

Already horrified, Mariya noticed his mouth stuffed with cotton. When she removed it she saw they had pulled out his tongue.

Piece by piece, the believers at Barnaul learned the story of Nikolai’s death in jail. Other prisoners told how he had spoken fearlessly to everyone about Christ. They told how he had com­forted the downhearted and warned the godless to repent until they fell on him in senseless rage.

Nikolai’s funeral was sad, but not hopeless. Many other believers were in prison at the time. Some of their wives and children could attend. But the fu­neral, as young people sang and those who had known Nikolai spoke to the crowd, turned strangely from grief and horror into an atmosphere of other-worldly joy. “Do not weep for Nikolai,” Mariya admonished her friends through tears. “He is with the Lord. Weep for those still in darkness!”

All over Russia, in secret meetings in back rooms, brothers and sisters cheered one another with the words: “Brother Nikolai lives! Like Christ he overcame the devil and hell. They cut out his tongue and killed him, but like Abel he still speaks!”

What does he speak?

Russia’s believers have not found it easy to put into words. Thirty years have passed. Situations in Russia and elsewhere have drastically changed, but more people than ever are anxious to hear what he says. Nikolai, and numberless Russians who like him re­mained true to what they believed in the face of the devil’s worst opposition have something to say.

Shall we listen?