Risen and Forever alive

Seeing the signs of spring after long, snowy, winters, no Russian could doubt that life springs from death. Tikhon Zadonsky wrote:

Winter comes, the earth is covered with snow, lakes, rivers and marshes freeze, opening highways on water that one needs no bridges to cross. This is the Lord’s kindness. He serves our need. Let us bless the maker of snow .

But winter passes and spring comes! All nature that died in the cold comes back to life. Let us bless the Lord of Resurrection! Spring breaks out. Spring opens up a treasurehouse of gifts from heaven. The sun shines and it gets warm. Delightful scents fill the air. The womb of the earth brings forth life. The fruit of seeds and roots appears for the benefit of all. The grass, fields of wheat, and the woods put on new garments of green. They adorn themselves with flowers and the fragrance of life. Springs flow again and rushing streams gladden our ears as well as our eyes. The singing of birds, a great harmony of all voices, rises about us. Cattle, out of the barn, spread through the meadows to rejoice in what the Lord sets before them. They frolic and feast to thank him for his mercy. All things under heaven change. All become new! All living things, both plants and animals, shine with the beauty of the one who made them.

In the winter every tree looks alike under snow. In the spring, they break out in different blossoms and leaves. So with us when we will arise. Now it is hard to know who is good or evil, but in the Resurrection all will be clear. Like trees getting leaves in spring the goodness concealed in the hearts of the saints will show in their bodies. Their bodies will awaken in glorious vestments. They will be like the body of Christ. But just like dead grass and branches stay dead and ugly, so sinners will stay dead. Whatever we were inside will be known.

Now is not the time to praise or judge men. It is time to look forward to the Resurrection promised by God. Then the bodies of the faithful who have slept like seeds from the beginning of the world, will sprout. They will arise and clothe themselves with beauty. The Lord will crown them (marry them). They will radiate like brides and blossom with the promise of bearing much fruit. Corruption will put on incorruption. Looking to this, let us sow in faith and hope so we may reap with unending joy!

Christ the victor over hell, cold, and darkness, brought life out of death in Russia. At the beginning of Stalin’s purges there were several hundred thousand nonconformed believers in the Soviet Union. Ten years later there were half as many. Forty years later there were five million, or more.

From Darkness to Dawn

By 1952, when Yosef Stalin died, Russia had gotten deeply involved in a “Cold War” with western non-Communist countries. Communication with the West, already bad during Stalin’s rule, further disrupted by the war, now became unthinkable for most Russians who simply “disappeared” from Western sight behind what some began calling the “Iron Curtain.” But isolation for Russians was nothing new, and in their silent suffering unknown to the rest of the world, more and more found Christ.

One generation in Russia, during Stalin’s rule, had grown up virtually without seeing or hearing about the Bible. But deep in the “underground” a seed remained to sprout after his death in a springtime of revival.

Little by little the news began to leak out. Here and there someone pulled a Bible from its hiding place. Neighbours learned of it and came walking long distances from surrounding villages to hear it read. In the dark, crowded into small houses where someone read in hushed tones by candle light, they marvelled at the simple, beautiful words of Christ.

Walter Sawatsky describes what happened in one Siberian village as typical:

A young man had spent the winter working in Vorkuta on the Arctic Circle in order to collect the extra salary paid for working under severe climatic conditions. In Vorkuta he encountered believers who had just experienced a dramatic awakening. The young man heard the preaching and was converted. Before returning to his home in the spring, he managed to obtain a Bible. Although no announcement was made on the day he returned to the village of Waldheim, that evening curious neighbours gathered in his home until all three rooms were packed to overflowing. Young Jacob rose to his feet, opened his Bible, and laboriously read a few verses. Closing the book, he managed another two or three halting sentences that scarcely hinted at a sermon. Then, his thoughts exhausted, he suddenly fell to his knees and uttered a simple but staggering prayer: “Lord, I pray to you that each person gathered here will be converted tonight. Amen.”

In the silence that followed, a woman from the adjoining room pushed her way through to young Jacob and asked him tearfully, “Help me to pray.” Without further ado he dropped to his knees again and she began calling out to God to be merciful to her, a terrible sinner. Within a few seconds all in the house were on their knees and screaming to God for mercy. Jacob found himself calming the people and telling them that God could hear them without their screams.

Jacob’s prayer was answered literally. In fact, herdsmen in the pasture heard the shouting, came to see, and stayed to experience their personal conversion. Others ran home to awaken relatives with the words, “Come quickly, the entire village is getting converted tonight.”1

Soviet restrictions could not curb the power of the evangelical revival. From Siberia to Kazakhstan to central Russia, the Ukraine and Moldovia the movement spread like a fire. Unordained evangelists speaking the words of Christ and people praying simple prayers rediscovered forgiveness from sins. But with the joy it brought came the trial of persecution.

More of The Antichrist?

During Wold War II, when Stalin relaxed his pressure on Russia’s churches to win their co-operation against the Germans, he allowed (or perhaps forced, as many believe) the evangelical leaders who remained, or whom he had just released from jail, to meet in Moscow. Among them were leaders both of the “Evangelical Christians,” the group to which Ivan Prokhanov had belonged, and Baptists. Beginning with Martin Kalweit, Baptist missionaries from Germany had been active in Russia before the revolution with good results. Now, in this remarkable meeting, the two groups merged to become the “Evangelical Christian Baptists.” The Stalinist government provided them with an office, a large central meeting place in Moscow, and the necessary funds to re-establish their publishing work and eventually a minister’s training school. The “Christians According to the Gospel” joined the union and so, eventually, did most of what was left of the Mennonites.

This new government supported union of churches, together with a suddenly rehabilitated Orthodox church, flourished. Stalin’s officials helped congregations to register and install legally approved pastors and regional leaders. Throughout Russia thousands of meeting places (many of them Orthodox churches) opened their doors again.

For some time, spiritual revival and this new church organisation seemed to go hand in hand. But a significant minority of believers did not trust it. Small congregations throughout Russia either failed to get their registration or else did not want it. Then, when Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, attempted to check the revival and church authorities co-operated with him, it suddenly seemed like Russia had slipped back three hundred years—to Nikon, Tsar Aleksey, and the “year of the beast.”

In 1960 the state-recognised leaders of the Evangelical Christian Baptist church sent a letter from Moscow to all congregations admonishing people to comply with the 1929 laws forbidding the religious education or baptism of minors. The letter discouraged “unhealthy missionary tendencies” and counselled leaders to “terminate decisively” the drive to make new members by keeping baptisms to a minimum. It stressed the duty of Christians to support their rulers and stated that obedience to these instructions would be the “measuring stick of loyalty” to the church and to the government.

Reaction to the letter was immediate and as deep as Russia itself. Thousands of believers, from old men with beards to young parents and teenagers, responded with holy zeal. The clash was total. Those who left the “church” considered its leaders agents of Antichrist. Those leaders in turn said nothing as Soviet police closed down hundreds of meeting places, beat up the faithful, set dogs on them as they worshiped, took their children, banished their leaders, or interrogated, imprisoned, and tortured them to death.

Yet even greater than this wave of persecution, in which Nikolai Khmara died, was the wave of joy that came with it.

Back Into The “Underground”

On August 13, 1961 a group of brothers met in secret in the village of Uzlovaya near Tula. They began to co-ordinate the work of the unregistered, illegal, and consequently “underground” groups of evangelical believers in the Soviet Union. In a few years that movement involved more than three thousand secret congregations.

It all came back. To descendants of the Spirit Christians, Old Believers, and Stundists, it seemed more than familiar. Somehow, it seemed right and brought with it a strange kind of joy.

Playing cat and mouse with the police, believers met in basements, in barns, and in the woods by night. They gathered like their grandparents, in small houses in rural areas. The “Stranniki grapevine” revived and top secrets flashed—no one said how—from one end of the Soviet Union to the other. More than this, they published literature. A leader in the movement, Gennadi Kryuchkov described how they did it before a Soviet court:

The method of doing it is very simple—I knew it while I was still a child. You take gelatine, glycerine and glue, mix them together and pour the solution on glass. Then you make an impression. Any boy or girl who wants to do something for God can do it. There are dozens of believers using this method to publish literature . . .

Some believers used ingenuity even further. With the wringer rollers off washing machines and bicycle parts they made real printing presses. One of them, designed for quick disappearances, fit into five suitcases for transport. Young people stripped bark from trees to make ink and entire congregations helped to buy small quantities of paper in bookstores, to avoid detection. On thick stationery (the only thing available) one secret press the believers called Khristianin produced a newsletter for the “underground” congregations—along with the Gospels, Pilrim’s Progress, Ivan Prokhanov’s hymnals, and forty thousand New Testaments laboriously stitched together and bound by hand.

One of a steadily growing number of imprisoned believers, N. P. Khrapov, wrote in the mid 1960s:

Now blood flows again, Siberia is another Coliseum. . . . Long ago they used to build churches over the martyrs’ graves. And what have persecutions given us now? Everywhere new congregations stand as a result of them!2

Called to Walk on Thorns

During the 1980s, while harassment of believers in the Soviet Union continued, a friend sent me a recording. It sounded strange in the peaceful Russian Mennonite village in Mexico where we lived. Someone had secretly recorded a meeting broken up by the police and a house search in Siberia. One heard the believers singing, a high-pitched wavering Russian song, while the police kept interrupting, barking orders on a megaphone, telling them to disperse at once. During the house search one heard the same shouted commands, the sound of furniture moving, scuffling, rumbling and when they began twisting arms to extort information a child began to cry.

The crying of the child (his father had already spent years in a prison camp and his mother got arrested shortly afterward) quickly rose to unmasked screams of terror—continuing on and on, but gradually weakening among the babble of angry voices, loud knocks, and excited conversation as he grew hoarse.

The cries of this child raised serious questions for me—and for Christians throughout “the West.”

Were they necessary?

Is it ever necessary to refuse to conform and bring such suffering upon one’s companion and little ones? Could not the Christians of the Soviet Union have made the few “minor adjustments” necessary to avoid it? (Most Evangelical Christian Baptists did, and lived through the post-war Communist period undisturbed.) On the other hand, is it necessary to live in peace like the rest? Must we live where the “right” to our personal freedom and to believe what we choose is guaranteed?

How do Christians best point the world to Christ—by identifying with the world as far as possible, or by standing in stark contrast to the world even in “nonessentials”?

As I saw how my fellow Christians in the west faced the predicament of Russia’s believers—some with sentimentalism and scandalous fund-raising propaganda, and others with cool scepticism, thinking they were probably “fanatical”—it became obvious that we had no clear answer to this question ourselves. Yet our survival as Christians may depend on it.

In 1966 a leader of the unregistered “underground” believers, Georgy Vins,3 stood on trial in Moscow. After two grueling days of standing in court and suffering interrogation most of the night he finished his final address (guaranteed to him under Soviet law) with a poem:

Not for robbery, nor for gold

Do we stand before you.

Today here, as in Pilate’s day,

Christ our Saviour is being judged.

Once again abuse resounds,

Again slander and falsehood prevail.

Yet he stands silent, sorrowfully

Looking down on us poor sinners.

He hears the sorry threats.

He sees the trepidation of those

Whose hands have gathered tears,

Of children, wives and mothers.

Forgetful of history’s lessons,

They burn with desire to punish

Freedom of conscience and of faith

And the right to serve the Lord.

No! You cannot kill the freedom of belief,

Or imprison Christ in jail!

The example of his victory

Will live in hearts he saves!

A silent guard binds round

The friends of Christ with steel ring,

But Christ himself inspires us

To stand serene before this court.

No rebel call has passed our lips,

No children offered as a sacrifice.4

We preach salvation constantly,

Our message leads to holy thoughts.

We call upon the Church of Christ

To tread the path of thorns.

We call men to a heavenly goal,

We challenge perfidy and lies.

And so we stand before you

Or rather, have been forced to come.

So you may learn the ways of God:

That sons of his stay true to Him.

Fresh trials now and persecution

Will serve alone to strengthen faith,

And witness God’s eternal truth

To generations still to come.

With Georgy Vins, numberless believers in Russia stood on trial for their faith after persecution increased in the 1960s. Like him, they discovered the shock and loneliness of having the whole world turn against them—even “respectable” friends, relatives, and Christian churches. They learned how it feels to be considered “fools for Christ’s sake.” But they knew the secret of the Old Believer Avvakum, of Matvey Dalmatov, the Shore Dwellers, Nil Sorsky, the Strigolniki, and Nikolai Svyatosha, and like them walked . . .

1 Soviet Evangelicals (reference to be completed)

2 N. P. Khrapov spent a total of twenty-six years in jail. This is an excerpt from his song: “Greetings! Radiant people of Christ!”

3 During the trial, at which he suffered constant mockery and abuse, his mother stood outside on the steps of the court building, praying for him. From Blagoveschensk on the Amur River east of Mongolia, she was a sister of Pyotr Sharikov, tortured to death for his Christian beliefs in 1938. Her father also spent years in prison. Her husband, Pyotr Vins, with whom she lived in exile several years, had died alone--of starvation--in a prison camp on Siberia’s Magadan coast, two thousand kilometres northeast of Japan. Her father-in-law, Jakob Wiens, (Georgy’s grandfather) had grown up among the Brüdergemeinde at Blumenau on the Molochna.

4 Shortly before this, the Soviet paper Izvestiia published the story of a woman who murdered a child in ritual sacrifice as a result of the “fanaticism” inspired by the evangelical believers.