Excerpts from

I Found God in Soviet Russia

Chapter 15: Russia's Religious "Freedom"

By John Noble

For background information go to the Introduction

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"Jesus said... 'If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." John 8:31-32

Every time I hear Soviet propaganda about freedom of religion in Russia, I think of the thousands of political prisoners in the slave-labor camps whose chief and frequently only “political’ offense is that they believe in God and worship Him by trying to live Christian lives in keeping with the teachings of the Bible.

The Soviet state has democratically made no distinction among religious groups: it has had as its objective the extermination of them all. And while the Lutherans, Baptists, and Roman Catholics were the most active in organizing underground church activity at Vorkuta, the smaller groups were by no means more ready in yielding to persecution.

I think, for instance, of the elderly Mennonite bishop there and of the sufferings his people endured in the Soviet Union. This bishop was in charge of issuing work clothes, selected for the job because of his age and his reputation for unwavering honesty. He was a little too honest for the blatnoi, the young criminals, who found that they could not get anywhere by trying to bribe him into giving them an extra issue of clothing. But though they threatened and muttered, the Lord protected him, and the hoodlums never raised a hand against him. Apparently even they had some respect for his scrupulous fairness.

One regulation of life in Vorkuta that this old Mennonite disliked more than any other was having to shave, for the religious principles of his group require the wearing of a beard. He had been forcibly shaved when arrested and his official identification picture showed him clean-shaven.... The bishop constantly complained about this, however, feeling that because the camp authorities would never let him raise a beard they particularly had it in for him because we did have a full-bearded Ukrainian Orthodox priest in camp.

The Mennonite bishop, by virtue of his position in the clothing department, knew almost every one of the 4,500 prisoners in our compound and took a personal interest in us all. He seemed to be everywhere at once and was always offering comfort and advice. Often he would talk with me about religious life in the United States. Thousands of his fellow Mennonites from Germany and Russia had emigrated to America many years ago where they became the dominant group among the “Pennsylvania Dutch” farmers, and he was eager for word of these communities....

His co-religionists in Russia had suffered terribly under the Soviet regime. Most of the Russian Mennonites were farmers. They were noted for their agricultural skill, which was why they had been invited to settle in the Volga region in the time of Catherine the Great. But badly as the Soviet Union needed the food that they produced, the Politburo authorities could not sanction the tranquil survival of a Christian society in the midst of state-sponsored atheism, and orders were given that the farms be collectivized despite their high productivity and the Mennonite communities broken up. Many of the men were deported to forced labor in Siberia and Arctic Russia, and the women were pressed into work in the factories. The rest were deported to the “new lands” of Soviet Turkestan.

Despite the terrible fate which had befallen his people, the Mennonite bishop had not become embittered. Though forced to work for the Communists, he made his principal task that of helping others. The regulations demanded that a prisoner could have a new shirt or jacket only when the previous one was completely worn through. In general, we got a shirt every six months. The bishop, however, knowing the extremely bitter cold to which we on the surface crews were exposed, was lenient in his judgment as to when our clothing was worn too thin. He reminded the others who worked down in the mine that warm air was blown down into the shaft and that even though it was bitterly cold down there, it was warmer than on the surface. Many of us were saved from serious frostbite by the bishop’s generous interpretation of the clothing regulations.

Several other Mennonite men were in this compound. They were not able to arrange formal worship services but each worker got one day off out of ten, and that day he would spend resting and visiting. Since the bishop was always around the clothing-supply room, it was easy for them to meet with him for prayer. In this way, they kept up an active spiritual life. Their homes were gone, their communities dispersed, their families in want, ahead of them lay perhaps endless years of slavery but they still kept their faith and confidence in God....

Soon after it was known that I was a Christian, I was asked to what denomination I belonged. This was natural enough since I would be seen here at a Lutheran service and there at a Baptist, trying to attend any meeting conducted in Our Lord’s name. I had to explain that I had earlier fallen away from religion and could not count myself member of any denomination...

A Ukrainian Orthodox group was another body which met regularly for services, both in the barracks and in the mine below. Not all of the Ukrainians were religious; in fact, a majority of them had been raised in areas where religion had been all but stamped out by savage Soviet persecution which characterized the early post-revolutionary days....

The Reds particularly favored churches as storage places for munitions in the Ukraine, he told me, because they knew that the Ukrainian underground was reluctant to blow up its own church buildings. His father had been killed during the war and he recalled that when the body was being lowered into the grave, a man who wore the robes of a priest under a civilian overcoat appeared and said a few words about God, the Father. But, raised as my friend had been in atheist schools, he was not sure at the time that the priest had not been referring to Stalin! This had been his only contact with religion before his arrest.

Subsequently, he met the same “underground” Greek Orthodox priest at Vorkuta. He had been apprehended while conducting rites in secret and was condemned to hard labor in the mines. My friend had by this time heard about Jesus from me and now he heard about this same Saviour from the priest from his home town who had risked death to say a prayer at his father’s funeral. Thus the young Ukrainian, raised under atheism, learned that Jesus was worshiped in many lands. Before long the priest was able to receive him as a member of the Church Underground.

The Creek and Russian Orthodox believers at our camp had been terrorized so long in their homeland and had been so miserably treated in prison that they did not have quite the same spirit of resistance as did the Latvians, Poles, and Ukrainians. They did not worship together as often, although one group did have a little Church sanctuary set up in an abandoned coal gallery deep in the mine, complete with two-by-fours on which they knelt, and an altar with a rude crucifix cut of tin sheathing.

The Ukrainians conducted their services in the Ukrainian language but when the meeting broke up and they returned to their bunks, they began speaking Russian again, using all the curses common to the Russian vernacular. I did not see how they could worship God one moment and revile His name the next, even though they explained that these phrases in Russian are never taken literally....

With so many religious services going on, we were obviously not able to keep all of them secret. Despite precautions, we were bound to be caught by surprise once in awhile. I was at a Lutheran service one night when it was broken up. A whole squad of guards was conducting a systematic search of the prisoners’ barracks in our compound as they did from time to time, confiscating all letters, papers, books, writing materials, and anything else that might make it possible for the slaves to get in touch with the outside world....

We knew, that night, that such a search was going to take place but, since the guards were still in the other barracks some distance away, we hoped to finish our service before they had reached us. However, they skipped the other buildings and came striding in well before we expected them. We broke off in the middle of the final prayer and tried to look as though we had merely been chatting together.

However, they began searching us and in the pocket of one of the Latvians they found a Bible which had been smuggled to him in a food package from home. In the pockets of others they found religious tracts. Seeing that there were a number of us there from other barracks, they surmised that some religious observance had been going on and demanded to know who was conducting it, We refused to give away the identity of the Lutheran pastor and the commandant ordered everyone present to do two hours’ extra work the next day.

This might not seem a severe punishment but, tired and hungry as we were when we got in from our regular day of pushing cars or digging coal, it seemed like a long stretch.... Several prisoners had taken no part in the service but just happened to be sitting in that corner of the building, yet not one of them, even among the unbelievers, would disclose the identity of the Lutheran pastor, who was laboring there beside us on hands and knees cutting the weeds.

Many of the guards, however, had a tolerant, even cordial attitude toward religion; we noticed an interesting fact that, if a Russian guard walking his rounds alone came upon a group of us kneeling in prayer, he would generally walk right on and we could count on it that he would not make a report, but if two guards came in together, they were certain to report the incident. Neither could trust the other not to report it, and so they vied with each other in denouncing the prisoners. If either one failed to make a report he might well find himself joining the laborers in the mines....

I was increasingly certain that many of these Russians respected the courage with which prisoners held to their faith in God and that they would have liked to join us if they could....

"...though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all... to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you." 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

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