The Lion and The Bear
On November 20, 1910, Lev Tolstoy died as he would have liked—a Russian believer “on the road.”
Conflict between his and Sofya’s ways of life had grown until he quietly left the house before daybreak, on a cold morning in the fall. His daughter Aleksandra and one disciple (a doctor) left with him. He put a note of apology on the table and wished Sofya well.
That Lev Tolstoy had become one of the world’s most famous men no one any longer denied. Messages of support, after his excommunication, had poured in from every country to where his books in French, English, German—all major European and even African and Oriental languages had gone. Thomas Edison had sent him a phonograph to record him reading I Cannot be Silent! Literally millions of books and tracts either quoted him or consisted entirely of what he wrote. Russia censors saw to it that most of his later writings did not get circulated, except in the “underground,” but a journalist commented: “We have two tsars, Nikolai II and Lev Tolstoy. The difference is that Nikolai cannot do a thing with Tolstoy and Tolstoy is all the time shaking Nikolai’s throne.”
All over the world, lives were being changed.1 But Lev Tolstoy felt his work was done and all he longed for was “the desert,” a place where he could be quiet and disappear. With this, he longed to return to his Christian roots and talk with a starets: the old celibate, Yosef, at Optina. But he did not get there.
On the train from Tula to Ryazan where he had watched the soldiers years before, Lev turned sick. The doctor said he had lung infection (pneumonia) and advised him to get off at the Astapovo station. A railroad official gave him a bed where he died a week later.
A New Age
By the time Lev Tolstoy died, the evangelical movement in Russia (Stundists, baptised Molokans, Christians according to the Gospel) had grown very large, both “above” and “underground.” Yet as it grew, it became apparent that not all of it was evangelical nor directed by the Spirit of Christ.
Aleksey Shchetinin, the son of a Caucasian peasant became converted in the early years of Tsar Nikolai II’s rule. He met with believers in the Caucasus and tried, for several years, to live what he believed was a pure moral life. But like Kondratiy Selivanov of the Belye Golubi he found the struggle with his passions overwhelming and began to look for a way out.
He found it, not in castration, but in “holy passionlessness.” Only when a man is incapable of sinning morally, Aleksey came to believe, does the white dove of the Holy Spirit alight on him. And it stays with a man, only until his capacity returns.
The immersion of baptism is not in water, Aleksey concluded. Nor is it a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Baptism is immersion in sin, and takes place over and over. Every time a person “goes under” in sin, and recognises it, God’s grace saves him. A group of followers gathered around him and spread quickly through Russia. They called themselves the Novyi Vek (people of the New Age) and by 1910 Aleksey lived in St. Petersburg to direct the movement there.
The Novyi Vek lived for a day or more in unlimited debauchery. Then, for as long as they could, they lived “in the Spirit,” praying, worshipping God, fasting, and helping the poor. They trusted in their own visions and prophecies and professed the gift of healing. One of them, a man from Siberia named Grigory Yefimovich, became especially known for his healing powers.
Grigory had gotten converted at eighteen. A year later he married and lived with his wife until they had four children. But his search for the truth and his struggle with himself did not end. For some time he felt total continency was the only way for him to please God. He travelled to Mount Athos in Greece and to Jerusalem. But it did not work. Then, on his return to Russia he met the Novyi Vek.
Recognised by now as a starets (even though he was not old) Grigory became the friend of an Orthodox bishop in St. Petersburg and through him got a call to a place he never expected to see: the bedroom of Tsar Nikolai’s only son.
Trouble for Everyone
The tsarevich, a six-year-old named Aleksey, was a special child. The first son born to a reigning tsar since the 1600s, he had haemophilia. When he started to bleed, nothing it seemed would stop it, and his mother—a lonely woman, not well liked at court but passionately fond of him—would turn hysterical. Tsar Nikolai, in tears himself, now consented during a bad bleeding spell to call for Grigory. He came and stopped the bleeding.
The relief of the royal family knew no bounds. Was this the cure to Aleksey’s problem? The hope of the Romanov dynasty? Grigory Yefimovich assured them that it was, and that the child’s life depended on him. But relatives of the royal family, and all St. Petersburg society looked on with horror.
“The man is evil!” they whispered among themselves. “He is a sot, too filthy for words to describe!” Rasputin, “the debauched one,” they began to call him. But Nikolai and his wife would not hear of it. Discontentment led to rebellion, and when war broke out with Germany in 1914, the situation grew serious.
Grigory “Rasputin” did not like the St. Petersburg believers and the more his influence grew the more complicated their situation became. In 1913 they were able to begin a full term Bible School with Ivan Prokhanov and Adolf Reimer as teachers. Nineteen students enrolled: Latvians, Mennonites, Georgians, Ossetians, Ukrainians, and one Byelorussian. But its days were numbered.
After Tsar Nikolai left for the front and put his wife, with Rasputin as her closest advisor, in charge of Russia tougher laws against refusal to bear arms sent believers to Siberia, to jail, or to the firing squad. Khristianin and all other Raduga projects got shut down. When Adolf Reimer’s wife Sara wrote a letter to her mother on the Molochna, describing the disorder in Petrograd (St. Petersburg’s new name since the beginning of the war) and expressed her joyful hope for the prompt coming of the großer König (Great King) Rasputin’s men intercepted it. They took what she wrote as a reference to Kaiser Wilhelm and threw the Reimers into jail. Ivan Prokhanov also faced a court hearing, but a new development kept it from happening.
Prince Feliks Yusupov, the young husband of Tsar Nikolai’s niece, and a number of his friends believed the time had come to save Russia. On the evening of December 16, 1916 they invited Rasputin to Prince Feliks’s home for a friendly visit. They served him poisoned tea cakes and wine. But Rasputin did not die. Only the glitter in his eyes told that he knew what they had done. Frightened, Prince Feliks drew his revolver and shot him. Instead of dying, Rasputin lunged for the prince with a terrible cry and chased him outside. On the courtyard other conspirators shot Rasputin, but the bullets seemed to have no effect. In desperation the men fell on him, tied him up and pushed him through a hole in the ice on the Moyka Canal.
Aleksandra, fearing the worst for the tsarevich, went wild with grief. But her own days were numbered.
For two months following Rasputin’s murder, the people of Petrograd lived in fear and hunger, until on March 8, 1917, thousands poured into the streets crying, “Bread! We want bread!” Tsarist officials ordered troops to fire on the people, but they refused to obey and Petrograd fell into the hands of Bolshevik revolutionaries. Tsar Nikolai abdicated his throne and the Bolshevik (later communist) leader, Lenin, took charge.
Workers’ soviets--communal organizations somewhat patterned after Pyotr Kropotkin’s ideals--took over factories, schools, and stores. But they did so in a violent godless way, and all of Russia’s problems continued or got worse. The hungry wanted food. The poor wanted jobs, and peasants shouting “peace, land, and bread” (the Bolshevik slogan) went wild. Terrible looting and murders took place in Russian cities day and night.
With Tsar Nikolai’s fall, Orthodoxy as a state religion ended and Russians, for the first time in their history, rejoiced in complete religious freedom.2 In St. Petersburg, believers rented the Ternichevsky Hall, with seating room for a thousand. But it could not nearly hold the multitudes who came. After a few weeks Ivan Prokhanov led a crowd, singing, from there to the Chineselli Circus where he spoke to three thousand people.3 Even that did not suffice and they began to meet at the Marine Horse Drill hall in the city. It held ten thousand people.
Those who believed, like Lev Tolstoy, in the reality of the Kingdom of Christ also rejoiced in Russia’s “new day.” Since 1909 a two-story building on Newspaper Lane in Moscow had served as their meeting place. It housed a vegetarian restaurant, a library, a large meeting room, and a publishing house. After the Revolution every one of its rooms buzzed with activity. Lev Tolstoy’s writings, censured for years, now appeared in cheap Russian editions. Everywhere young people helped to collate, staple, and pack them. Shipped to all provinces of Russia, with the periodicals Renewal of Life and True Freedom, their influence changed thousands of lives.
Immediately following the Revolution “Societies of True Freedom” (groups of seekers committed to living like Christ) sprang up in Kiev, Tsaritsyn, Vitebsk, Vladimir, and other places throughout Russia. Those who belonged to them did not worry about particulars of Christian theology. They had no time for issues of “orthodoxy” or sectarian disputes. Only conscious of their inner call to walk with Christ and with one another they sought to bring all Russians back to living in peace with creation and Christ in simple community. When fighting broke out again in October, 1917, members of these “Tolstoyan” societies risked their lives to rush out among the soldiers of both sides with the tract, Brothers, Stop Killing One Another!
Conviction on Trial
Evangelical Christians, Molokans, Mennonites, and Tolstovets all hoped for a speedy end to the revolution and the opportunity to live in peace. They all wondered: Would the Bolsheviks be more kindly disposed to Christ’s defenseless example? Lenin, it was said, spoke well of Lev Tolstoy.
They got their answer promptly. Five young believers fell before Bolshevik firing squads for refusing military service. In another case, three who said they could not fight were ordered to dig their graves. The Bolsheviks then took them out individually. They stood the first boy to the wall. “This is your last chance,” they said. “Change your mind now or we will shoot.”
The boy calmly told them, “Go ahead. I will die but I will not kill.”
The Bolsheviks told him. “Alright, if you are that convinced you may fill up your grave and go free.” Then they brought the second boy.
“Look,” they told him. “Here we buried your companion. Shall we bury you too? Now is your chance to decide.”
With the calmness of the first he also stood for what he believed. They told him to fill up his grave and go. Then the third one came. When he saw the mounds of earth above what he supposed were the dead bodies of his companions he began to waver. “Perhaps I will serve in the army,” he told the officials.
“Then you are a hypocrite,” they shouted at him. “You believe what you do only as long as it suits. We have no use for the likes of you!” They shot the third boy and filled his grave themselves.
For some time Lev Tolstoy’s best known disciples (Vladimir Chertkov, Ivan Gorbunov-Posadov, and others) could influence the Bolshevik government to make it easier for believers to get conscientious objector status. But by 1920 around one hundred Christian boys had fallen to the firing squad for not bearing arms, and the true nature of Russia’s new government had become apparent.
A Trip in War
From their home near the Ministry of the Interior in Petrograd, Ivan and Anna Prokhanov heard shooting nearly every night (usually from between one and two in the morning) as revolutionary tribunals executed people in groups of a hundred or more. Within its first year, Russia’s Communist government officially executed one million eight hundred thousand people, including the tsar and his family. Then, under threat of death himself, Ivan decided to send his wife and sons, Yaroslav and Vsevolod, to the south.
They left on the train for Moscow and Kharkov on May 13, 1919. Yaroslav was seventeen and Vsevolod fifteen. From Kharkov they took another train to Aleksandrovsk (Zaporozhye) and the Molochna River colonies.
Everything had changed. Heavy shelling during World War I had destroyed factories and farms. Fields stood empty in the spring with no grain to plant nor horses to plow them—nor young men left to work. In the cities old people and children in rags sat among emaciated corpses, calling for bread. Worse yet, by the time the Prokhanovs reached Alexandertal on the Molochna colony (where the Adolf and Sara Reimer lived) the whole region was in the throes of civil war.
From the south White (tsarist) troops fought the Red (communist) army, and bands of anarchists attacked wherever they could. The Molochna villages, in a terrible state of destruction and famine, teemed with soldiers. Adolf and Sara Reimer welcomed the Prokhanovs but they had never seen Adolf so busy, or so earnest about his calling. “The time is ripe,” he told them. “There is a great harvest. We must work fast for the night is coming!”
Every Lord’s day Adolf spoke two, three, or four times. He spoke to distressed and thoroughly confused colonists. He spoke in peasant villages and in army camps. When the White front moved back over the Molochna he got permission from a general to speak to over a thousand soldiers at once, many of them standing to listen in tears. Then when the Red army approached he got permission to speak to them too. A contemporary reported that he gave the soldiers “the simple Gospel of Christ the Crucified One.”
On the Molochna, Anna Prokhanov and her sons learned about another group of believing young people: the “tent evangelists”: Andrey Ivanovich Enns (a soldier who had gotten converted), Sergey Yushkevich (a Latvian), Yakov Dyck from the Crimea, Yekaterina Fehderau, Rosina Rosenberg (a converted Jewish girl), Luise Hübert Sukkau, Vladimir Golitsyn, and Danilo Astakhov.
After the revolution these young Christians had conducted street meetings in Moscow and visited military camps. Red Cross workers had given them five tents and they now travelled from village to village, holding meetings to call men and women everywhere to Christ. With the help of a youth group from the Molochna village of Rückenau they set up a tent at Panyutino, a railway junction northwest of the colonies. Large numbers of Russians, Germans, and even Jewish settlers from the area came to their meetings night after night. But the Prokhanovs could not attend.
Amid the hunger and disease at Alexandertal, Yaroslav had turned deathly sick. With many prayers Anna watched him pull through. When the front moved back over the colony and the White army was again in control, they escaped by train to Rostov on the Don, and from there south to the Caucasus.
The escaped just in time.
The White army soon lost control and the anarchists, under a young man named Nestor Makhno, took over with a vengeance. Flying a black flag they rode from village to village plundering, raping, and killing without mercy. Two months after Anna and the boys left, they fell on Dubovka (Eichenfeld). A number of Mennonites from this village had taken up arms to defend themselves, but a great longing to return to Christ had overcome them. They had called for the “tent evangelists” and the anarchists found them in their schoolhouse, having a meeting after dark.
For a little while the Anarchists listened to Yakov Dyck speaking. Then they locked him into a room with Sergey Yushkevich, Vladimir Golitsyn, and three other men. They told the women to make them a big meal. After they had eaten they called the men out to the barn one by one. Their bodies were found, recognizable only by their clothes. Eighty three people, including Regina Rosenberg and Luise Hübert Sukkau, lost their lives in Dubovka that night. Danilo Astakhov was one of the few men that escaped.
Murder and Chaos
On their arrival at Vladikavkaz, Anna and the boys found the Caucasus in no better shape than the Ukraine. Muslim mountain tribes, forbidden before the revolution to have guns, had taken to fighting and plundering again. Long before they reached the city they saw the ruins of burned buildings and farms grown up in weeds. When they got there it was dark. They had eaten nothing. After his sickness, Yaroslav was a “walking skeleton” and the boys suspected that Anna herself felt sicker than what she let on. They arrived at their grandmother’s house (Stepan Prokhanov had died nine years earlier) and Anna lived until three in the morning. It was July 30, 1919.
They held a quiet funeral among their Molokan relatives and friends. The boys traveled further, across the mountains to Tiflis, to other relatives. There Red soldiers shot Martin Kalweit when he came to speak to them. They also shot his son-in-law Abram Reimer and grandson Jakob Reimer. Adolf, his other grandson, died from typhus in Kiev where he and Sara had gone to minister to four large congregations of believers. Adolf’s last words were, “Lord Jesus, how simple is your Gospel, and your grace how large!4
The winter of 1919-1920 was cold but little snow fell. In Petrograd Ivan slept all winter without heat in a small rented apartment. He slept with his boots, overcoat, and fur cap to keep from freezing. He considered himself fortunate to have dry bread and tea made from frozen carrots to eat once a day. Twice he fell unconscious while speaking to believers in a meeting, but to remain in Christ awareness had never been easier and the Kingdom of Heaven grew rapidly.
At the close of 1919 a group of “Stundist” leaders managed to hold a meeting in Petrograd. Not many could come. The fighting had drawn so close they heard volleys of cannon throughout the day and, with a curfew at six, those who attended simply spent the evening in prayer and slept on the floor in the room. At this meeting the brothers drew up a statement on their feeling about war:
Because the shedding of human blood for any civil or military reason is a crime against our consciences and against the teaching and spirit of the Holy Scriptures, and because it is impossible for Christians to carry arms or to make them for military purposes, or to study military affairs . . . we believe it our sacred duty to openly refuse military service in all its forms.
Committed to walking with Christ—the King David Christ who, though he may have to suffer for a time and flee, overcomes the lion, the bear, and all giants that arise—Russia’s believers walked bravely on toward a . . .
1 Outstanding among them the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi, a young East Indian lawyer in South Africa.
2 The new Bolshevik law stated: “Freedom of religious and anti-religious propaganda is guaranteed to every citizen of the republic.”
3 The title of his message was “Spiritual Resurrection.”