Written by: Open Doors
Article source: www.opendoors.org.za
The Rise And Fall Of Communism
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) existed as a socialist/Communist state from 1922 to 1991.
All union republics became independent countries throughout the last two years of Communist rule, ending 70 years of sometimes brutal repression of religion and of Christians.
Although the fall of Communism heralded a new era of religious freedom, change has been painfully slow in taking place for some former Soviet Union countries, such as Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan.
In these countries, the presence of Religious Committees, the never-ending influence of the security services, the emphasis on registration, the introduction of restrictive religious legislation, omnipresent bureaucrats and local family pressure make life difficult for many Christians.
Soviet memorabilia in a Kazakh market.
The Soviet Era
Lenin In Power: 1917 – 1924
The Soviet revolution was ushered in by the Bolsheviks led by Vladimir Lenin following a bloody civil war which included the execution of Tsar Nicholas II and his family in 1917. Lenin’s new socialist state confiscated Church property, land and assets. Many Russian Orthodox Church leaders were murdered or simply ‘disappeared’. Hundreds of Roman Catholic Churches were forcibly closed although Baptist and Pentecostal congregations actually grew from 150,000 to 700,000.
During Lenin’s time in power, the USSR was birthed in 1922. It was a Union of Soviet Socialist Republics with Russia as its largest and most populous constituent state.
Despite all his religious reforms during his seven years in power, Lenin concluded:
“We have separated the Church from the state, but we have not yet separated the people from religion.”
Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin ruthlessly vowed to stamp out Christianity during their terms. Photo taken from a carpet in a Turkmenistan market.
Stalin In Power: 1924-1953
Lenin died in 1924 and was eventually succeeded by Joseph Stalin, who systematically did all he could to continue to destroy Christianity for more than 30 years until his death in March 1953.
All churches suffered during a massive nationwide attack upon every form of religion. Tens of thousands of churches were closed down and/or demolished. All religious activities except worship within registered, state-controlled churches were banned. Any known church leaders were sent into prison or labour camps, were tortured, disappeared and often died.
Ordinary believers were also singled out for punishment and annihilation. According to Soviet historians 40 million Soviet citizens suffered from the Stalin terror. Approximately 20 million people vanished in labour camps, the majority of whom were Christian believers.
During this time a Leader of the League of Militant Atheists described the attitude of those times:
“In the course of 1930, we must turn our Red capital into a godless Moscow, our villages into godless collective farms… a collective farm with a church and a priest is worthy of a comic strip… The new village does not need a church.”
Joseph Stalin’s monument in Turkmenistan
Khrushchev In Power: 1954 To 1963
Nikita Khrushchev took over power from 1954 until 1963. For 11 years, he continued the Stalin legacy, and gave particular attention to instructing school children and students in atheistic philosophy and in rooting out any kind of religious belief amongst the young. He closed down two-thirds of the remaining Russian Orthodox Churches, most of the remaining monasteries and all theological colleges. Evangelicals, Baptists and Pentecostal believers came under particular pressure.
One agitator summed up the general policy:
“The responsibility of every Communist is to be a militant atheist, an active fighter for the purity of Soviet ideology, for the complete eradication of religious prejudices.”
Breshnev In Power: 1964-1982
Khrushchev was ousted from power in 1964 and was succeeded by Leonid Brezhnev, who held power for 18 years, until 1982. Brezhnev continued the campaign of destruction of the church not just through outright attacks, but via manipulation and continued infiltration of her leadership. Christians actively working among children or in evangelism were particularly persecuted.
The newspaper, the Kommunist Tadzhikistana, described the situation on 23 March 1972:
“Two opposed ideologies, two opposed views of life, two opposed moralities, they are as incompatible as freedom and slavery, as light and darkness. One of them brings man happiness, the other puts fetters on his heart and mind, trying to persuade him that he is only God’s slave.”
Gorbachev In Power: 1985-1991
In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and by 1987 had introduced political and economic reforms, now known as Perestroika – literally “restructuring”.
He also instituted the concept of ‘Glasnost’ which made the Soviet leadership much more open to scrutiny and public debate. It also allowed much greater freedom of information and speech for the media and ordinary citizens.
These reforms led to demands for free elections in many Eastern European countries and by the end of 1989, Communism had collapsed in Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Romania. In 1990, East and West Germany were reunited for the first time since 1945 and free elections were held in Bulgaria.
In 1991, Gorbachev’s government was overthrown. The Soviet Union was disbanded and replaced by 15 independent nations. After more than 40 years, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and United States superpowers had come to an end.
Gorbachev’s reforms were significant factors in his own demise, however, during his time in power the situation for Christians improved dramatically.
Olga Has Lived Through The Era Of The Soviet Union And Witnessed Its Fall In 1991. Here, She Recalls Family Life, Christian Life, And Church Life In Those Days.
As Christians, we always felt the tension of persecution. It was like being a fish in an aquarium – everything you did or said was monitored. Even your own apartment could be bugged; you did not feel free anywhere. You continually felt the hot breath of the KGB. When I was married, my brother and I discovered at a certain moment that our apartments had been bugged. We were walking on eggshells constantly.
We also felt that we were not considered full citizens of the Soviet Union. We were second class people, enemies of the communist ideology, so we were enemies of society, of the country. Enemies of the state! Many things happen to you when you are a second-class citizen.
A woman from Central Asia.
“You continually felt the hot breath of the KGB.”
I saw the list of the martyrs of the Underground Evangelical Christian Baptists (ECB) brotherhood. They started the list during the sixties, and it had more than twenty martyrs on it. Some of them had died in prison, some in unknown circumstances which nobody seemed to know anything about. But we all knew who might be behind those killings.
For some people in our churches the fear was overwhelming. We knew that in almost every big church of the ECB there were informers; we never knew who you could trust. The KGB made sure that division and mistrust were sown. Even with your own brothers and sisters you’d be very cautious. You can still see that same fear and mistrust among Christians nowadays in countries where there is persecution.
For me, personally, that period in my life has made me stronger. We were sustained by prayer; communication with the Lord Jesus was absolutely vital to us. My father used to say that prayer was your spiritual breath, your life, especially in prison and during persecution.
A Russian Orthodox Church in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
“My father used to say that prayer was your spiritual breath, your life, especially in prison and during persecution.”
We all prayed that God would cause a change in the situation so that we’d have more freedom to preach the Gospel. We never prayed for a collapse of the communist system; we put it in a much milder form, but God gave us more than we asked. He knew our hearts and the prayers of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers. The changes that came were His response to our prayers, our tears, to the blood of the people who never came back from the Gulag.
God was doing something new for us.
Secret believers meet in Central Asia.
The biggest challenge for us as a church under Communism was ‘to be or not to be’. It was a matter of survival, of existence. There was a spiritual battle going on for the survival of the church.
The challenge of finding the right position towards the authorities was always there. The position of the leadership of the official churches which were under state control was that you had to compromise with the authorities in order to survive. Otherwise the church would disappear; otherwise your own personal safety would be endangered. I think that about one third of the Protestant churches rejected this cooperation with the state and went ‘underground’.
An underground church meeting in Central Asia.
There was always the challenge of actual persecution for your faith: fines, harassment, discrimination, imprisonment. Even in the beginning of the sixties, when a new wave of persecution swept our country under Nikita Khrushchev, the authorities had the right to take children away from Christian parents and put them in an orphanage so they could be raised by the state.
A young boy in Kazakhstan.
Then there were the challenges of ‘being a fish in the aquarium’, of being a second-class citizen and facing ostracism from society, coping with the restrictions of your rights which severely hampered the development of your career. Entrance to university was almost impossible; involvement in politics or government functions was out of the question. It was all part of the package we had to deal with as Christians during the Soviet times.
Winds Of Change
Before the Berlin Wall fell, we as Soviet Christians felt that the time of freedom was coming. My father was still in prison. He had been sentenced to five years in a labour camp in 1983 and was far away in Siberia. But once he wrote in a letter these rather prophetic words: ‘Soon, very soon God will do something! He will show His victory in our country and we should be ready for it!’
Two years after Gorbachev had become the leader of the Communist Party, he signed a special amnesty for the remainder of prisoners of conscience and political dissidents who were still in detention. On 18 June 1987 the Soviet government published a decree about the amnesty. The active waves of persecution had come to a halt. The list was by family name. I heard the rumour that my father’s name was on it. He came home in August 1987 after four years imprisonment. It was a time of great rejoicing! Finally, he was reunited with us, never to be imprisoned again! I still get emotional when I think of that time of great joy and happiness. It was a very special time for us as a family.
A spiritual spring was coming to our both physically and spiritually cold country. We felt the spring; we enjoyed it and we were waiting passionately for the Iron Curtain to fall. We all wanted to do something to hasten its fall.
1988 was of special significance because it was the Millennium anniversary of Christianity in Russia. In the year 988 Prince Vladimir embraced Christianity and he, his servants and many others were baptised. The Russian Orthodox Church and also some Evangelical and Baptist churches asked for permission to celebrate this special Millennium year. I later heard that Open Doors had the opportunity then to send one million New Testaments to the Russian Orthodox Church as an anniversary gift!
Brother Andrew with Russian Orthodox Church leaders after presenting them one million bibles for Russia. Danilov Monastery, Moscow, 1988.
Little by little we saw changes in the attitude of the authorities. I think God gave Gorbachev that role and used him somehow to open that curtain, that Iron curtain which was around the Soviet Union.
It wasn’t till 1991 that I had the opportunity to visit Berlin; I only had a few hours as I needed to change trains. So, I went to see the remainder of the Wall and took part of it with me as a souvenir. But I remember I had this feeling of irreversibility; this process will not stop. It is not temporary; the period of communism has gone for good.
We compared communism to the statue which is described in the book of Daniel: the one with the golden head, the iron arms, but with clay feet. And now we saw this statue falling… we had not expected it to happen. It was even more than we had prayed for!
We started to breathe again. Little by little the feeling disappeared that we were constantly being monitored. Instead of swimming in an aquarium, we began to swim in the ocean! We had that incredible sense of freedom. We had freedom to preach the Gospel. Especially in the first years of the nineties, we had so much freedom. In Yakutsk we could go to any school, any kindergarten, any prison and all doors were open to us to preach the Gospel. Nobody would stop us.
Believers studying the bible in Central Asia.
Throughout much of the former Soviet Union, an indigenous church has been steadily growing in Central Asia since 1991.
Open Doors have helped translate and produce Bibles and Christian literature in the language of the people, helped Christians start small businesses to support themselves and their families, and provided training and support for Christian leaders and evangelists.
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Date published: 28/09/2021
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