I Found God in Soviet Russia
Chapter 17:An Unexpected Opportunity
By John Noble, 1959
For background information go to the Introduction
and read about the arctic Soviet slave-labor camp, Vorkuta
"...a great and effective door has opened to me, and there are many adversaries." 1 Corinthians 16:9
How would you like to work upstairs?”
This was the question that opened the door to a new opportunity for me. As I look back upon my experiences at Vorkuta, I marvel at the extent to which my life there fits into a pattern. Step by step, God’s plan in sending me to Russia was unfolding.
The question was put to me by a foreman down in the mine who explained that there was a job open as an attendant in the locker room, if I wanted it. If I wanted it! Not only did I want to get out of the mine where I had been for over a year, but the locker room—up in the mine tipple—was where the “free Russians” change their clothes before going down to work. The chance to talk to these men seemed the final step in my journey of discovery.
My own faith had been tested again and again; I had experienced what I had come to accept as miracles; I had found among the slave laborers a vast yearning for God. Now I was to meet and know the free Russians themselves, to speak to them about God and learn from them directly what was in their hearts.
This was in February, 1953, when I had been at Vorkuta for two and a half years. For the first fourteen months, I had pushed the cars of slate [in the freezing arctic climate]. Then in January, 1952, I was pronounced physically fit enough to go down into the mines to work. I was assigned to the mine transportation brigade, taking loaded railway cars down the narrow winding tunnel to the elevator where they were lifted to the surface.
“We have no automatic switches here, Amerikanetz,” the brigade boss told me, as he put me aboard the first string of little cars loaded with coal that I was to take down to the elevator shaft. The coal at Vorkuta lies in slanting seams deep beneath the [frozen] tundra. The seams are two or three feet thick, hundreds of yards long, and thirty or forty feet apart. A shaft is sunk and then long, winding tunnels go up into the seams at various levels. The force of gravity pulls the cars loaded with coal down to the elevator where they are raised, two by two, to the surface. A string of empty cars is then pushed back up to the diggings where the miners, lying on their sides, drill holes into the narrow seams and then, after blasting, shovel out the coal.
As the coal is dug, the roof of the mine must be progressively shored up with wooden timbers. These are supposed to be placed every two feet, but in the interest of getting the coal out quickly, the Russians are constantly cutting corners. As a result, cave-ins are frequent, and more than once only a timely shout of warning enabled us to run to safety as overburdened timbers began snapping like match sticks, and tons of rock came crashing down from the tunnel ceiling.
My job was to stand on the bumper at the head of a long string of cars, peering into the darkness with the aid of a searchlight on my cardboard helmet and, when I saw an open switch ahead, to jump off and throw it, then to leap back aboard. Sometimes, if I didn’t make it in time and the cars careened down the wrong track, headed for a collision or a pile-up, I would flatten myself against the mine wall and pray that I would not be crushed.
One day I saw a switch break open, just as my lead car passed over it. I leaped off, reached down and held it together with my hand, taking my fingers off just as the rear wheels passed over it. Between each two sets of wheels, I reached back and held the switch together again. If I had not done so, the cars would have derailed, overturned, and crushed me under tons of coal and slate. Praying desperately, I reached back and forth, keeping that switch closed while thirty cars passed over it. A slip of a fraction of a second and I would have had my fingers severed or been crushed by a derailed car. After such narrow escapes as that, I felt more certain than ever that the hand of God must be protecting me or I could not have survived unscathed.
Now I was to be transferred to a job as locker-room attendant where I would be on duty for an entire twenty-hour shift, then off for twenty-four hours. In that long on duty, there was plenty of time for conversation, especially when men on the night shift would come up to washroom to pass a spare half-hour. The net result would be an opportunity to discuss philosophy, politics, religion with men who for thirty-five years had lived society dominated by atheism.
All of the responsible jobs in the mines were held by Russians” who were at Vorkuta voluntarily and not result of penal sentences. They were the engineers, electricians, elevator operators, section foremen, and gang bosses. The prisoners, regardless of ability (and we had one man, for example, who had been Professor of Mathematics at Leningrad University), were at the mine for common labor only. They were treated with contempt and the Russian word for them was rab or, literally, “slave.” I was often so addressed by a Russian engineer stepping out of his shower when he ordered me contemptuously to spread white sheets on the floor for him to walk on.
Despite their overbearing attitude they were, on the whole, an educated, intelligent, and relatively youthful group of Russians. They had come to Vorkuta not only because of the relatively higher wages offered there (Communists copy such capitalist devices as incentive pay boosts), but also due to idealism. Many had graduated from the Communist Youth Movement of the 1930’s and 1940’S imbued with the idea of building up Russia, particularly her untapped Arctic resources.
While they were an above-average group, in many respects, I think it fair to say that they were typical of Russia as a whole, since they came from nearly every part of the Soviet Union....
Anyone who wants to understand the religious situation in Russia today must try first to realize what happens to people under a government which for more than four decades has denied that God exists, has taught its children that Christianity is an old-fashioned superstition no longer acceptable to progressive scientific minds, and has set up the immediate, expedient objectives of the State as the only standard of morality.
From my observation of the personal lives of the Russians whom I came to know there in Vorkuta, I can say that the results are utterly tragic. Some of the things I saw will seem to people in the Western world almost unbelievable. It is difficult to report the truth about the moral conditions of Russian life without giving offense, yet if we are to know why the Russian people hunger for a better way of life, we must know first the kind of lives they have been living.
"I know your works. See, I have set before you an open door, and no one can shut it; for you have a little strength, have kept My word, and have not denied My name. ... He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God.... And I will write on him My new name." Revelation 3:8, 12
Index to all posted chapters of this book: Table of Contents