I want to tell you a story. It is a glimpse into a totalitarian world. It is also part of my own story, a sliver of my life as a young Christian traveling in foreign countries, visiting believers living under brutal, authoritarian rule.
I share my story with you because of an insight often quoted but frequently ignored: Ideas have consequences.
What follows is a record of the consequences Christians encountered because of an idea nearly half a century ago in a far-off place. They are also consequences we are encountering now in our own country and in our own communities.
In the summer of 1976, just after my 26th birthday, when I was not quite three years old in Christ, I journeyed to Europe with three others—Lance, fresh out of seminary, and Jeff and Donna, a young married couple contemplating long-term missions work on the Continent.
Our goal: make contact with Christians in the Soviet bloc countries of Hungry, Romania, the Ukraine, and Poland who were suffering persecution behind what was then called the Iron Curtain. Bible smuggling was not our project, but we did pack Russian Scriptures in with our belongings.
We’d purchased a small station wagon in Switzerland, bought sleeping bags and camping gear so we could sleep on the cheap, then entered “the East” south of Vienna, meeting contacts in Hungary and Romania without detection by the state. Veterans of such trips told us the Soviet Union would be different, though. They were right.
Leushen, Moldova, USSR—Friday, July 23
Leaving the Romanian checkpoint behind us, we traversed east, crossing an arching causeway over the Prut River and “no man’s land”—a barbed wire barricade stretching for miles with machine gun towers watching the frontier—to the Soviet side two kilometers away.
Once in the USSR, the Soviet guards glanced at our passports, fumbled superficially through our belongings, checked quickly under our car from a pit made for that purpose, then directed us inside for paperwork and customs declarations. Things were going smoothly, and I expected we’d be out shortly.
When I asked if I could change money before we left, the customs officer said there would be time “after operations.” I soon found out what he meant.
Three men sat at a long table next to the building. One mentioned something about literature and told us to empty the entire contents of our car onto the table. A quick chill went up my spine. They’re looking for Bibles, I thought. I silently prayed, Not my will, but Thine be done. Whatever happened next was in God’s hands.
We dumped most of our luggage, still wet and soggy from the prior night’s rain, onto the table and allowed the guards to go through the rest of the car as they pleased. When one of them discovered a Bible, he held it up triumphantly as if to say, “Aha! I knew it.”
The team then went into overdrive checking everywhere for Christian contraband. They took the seats out, the battery out, and also the back panels on the inside of the car. They looked down the window slots with flashlights, removed the spare tire, and positioned our car over the pit two more times. They went through all our clothing down to every sock and handkerchief four full times. They unrolled our wet tents and our sleeping bags, checked the linings of our suitcases, and asked us repeatedly about secret compartments in the car. They body-searched us thoroughly, even making Jeff undress.
When they’d made a total shambles of our stuff, they told us to put it all back and come into the station.
Once inside, the questions began. Where did we get the Bibles? Why were we bringing them across the border? Who were they for? Did we know such a trafficking was illegal? It went on for hours.
When Jeff explained that the Scriptures were for believers in the Soviet Union, for different churches and their pastors, they asked for the names of the Christians. Jeff told them we planned to look up churches in the phone directory and locate Christians that way.
“But we don’t have churches listed in our phone directory,” the young translator said.
Well, we didn’t know that. We pointed out that in the United States, where there was freedom of religion, all churches were listed in the phone directory. Wasn’t there freedom of religion in the Soviet Union?
“Yes, of course we have freedom of religion,” she said, “but we have separation of church and state.”
That was to be her blanket justification for virtually every intrusion we experienced that afternoon. We never understood exactly how that applied to us since our conduct wasn’t interfering with their “separation.” Lance’s definition was probably the most accurate. “They’re trying to separate the church right out of the state,” he quipped quietly.
“It is forbidden to bring Bibles and other religious material into the Soviet Union,” she continued. “In the schools we teach the children from when they are young that there is no God. Only old people believe in him. Our people are taught Marxist Leninism, that man will solve his own problems and build a wonderful society here on earth. Our Department of Atheism spends large amounts of money each year teaching them these things. We don’t allow any other propaganda.”
“But you do print Bibles here in the USSR?” I asked.
“Yes, we do,” she answered. “Our believers get all the Bibles they need, but they’re given out only through the church and we must have all the names.”
“But you do have religious freedom?”
“Yes, we have religious freedom.”
“Yet we can’t bring Bibles into the USSR?” I asked.
“No, we don’t allow that propaganda in our country.”
“The Bible is propaganda?”
“But you print Bibles in your own country.”
“Now I’m confused,” I remarked. “You say you have religious freedom, but we’re not allowed to bring Bibles into your country because they are propaganda. Yet you say you print Bibles right here in the Soviet Union.”
She nodded in agreement to each statement. I was surprised she didn’t see what was coming. “Then that means you’re printing anti-communist propaganda right in your own country,” I concluded.
Her reply was the cryptic, “But we have separation of church and state.” Then she added, “We teach our children there is no God. We don’t want them to believe in God.”
“But these Bibles are for believers, not nonbelievers.”
“Our believers have all the Bibles they need,” she repeated. “Even if I took your word that you’d only give Bibles to believers, what if one little booklet got into the hands of our young people and they read it and became believers? What then?” She was clearly worried about that possibility.
“Do you mean to tell me,” I answered, “that you can spend all that money every year on atheism, that you can teach your people in school from when they are very young that there is no God, and one little book could change all that? You’re awfully frightened of such a small thing, aren’t you? It must be a very powerful little book, then.”
“Big things start small,” she replied. As master propagandists, communists understood such things. She was determined not to be intimidated.
Jeff took the lead then and fought to get anything across the border we could. First, he petitioned for our Russian Bibles on the basis of the alleged religious freedom in the Soviet Union. When they gave no ground, he asked for one Russian Bible for each of us, reasoning that we were all Bible students and were learning a bit of Russian. One Russian Bible was supposed to be allowed. They wouldn’t budge. Finally, he asked for one Bible for himself because he was a seminary graduate and could speak and read Russian. They wouldn’t allow that, either.
They cleaned us out, allowing only one English Bible apiece. They even took the English song books I’d brought from my church, a Baptist newspaper in Romanian given to us in Bucharest, and a propaganda booklet about Romanian history printed in English by the Romanian government for tourists.
That was a chuckle. The border guards had been so shaken by the Bibles, they grabbed anything that looked suspicious, even communist literature printed by their neighbors.
Feigning surprise, I asked if their government was still on good terms with the Romanians. They assured us they were. They were visibly embarrassed by their mistake, though, and returned the booklet to us.
Our reaction to our ordeal followed three stages. When the guards first found the Scriptures, we were frightened. We didn’t know what would happen to us. Would they detain us? Would they lock us up? Would we be expelled from the country at the border?
After our initial anxiety wore off, we were a bit amused. It was comical how shaken up the officials were over Bibles in our luggage and what ridiculous lengths they went through searching for more contraband.
During the interrogation, though, we got annoyed at the way we were being treated and the questions we were expected to answer, even questions about activities in countries we’d visited before theirs. This, I felt, was none of their business.
Their audacious statements about religious freedom angered us, as well. Detaining us for more than six hours at the border because we had a few Bibles belied their words.
After signing a document acknowledging we had been officially warned it was illegal to bring Bibles into the Soviet Union, we were finally allowed to enter the country and continue on our itinerary to Kiev.
Kiev, Ukraine, USSR—Monday, July 26
In Kiev, we made our way carefully to our contact’s home. There we met Lydia Vins, the mother of imprisoned Georgi Vins, a Baptist leader in the Ukraine and an important Christian dissident in the Soviet Union.
Georgi had been found guilty of “damaging the interests of citizens under the pretext of religious activity.” He was sentenced to five years in a Siberian labor camp followed by five years of internal exile.
Jeff translated while Lydia shared the plight of Christians in Kiev. Young people had it especially hard, she said. They weren’t allowed to go to university because of their Christian testimony but rather were consigned to jobs of hard labor. Because of their long hours, they had little time for Christian activities.
Even believers with advanced degrees—doctors and engineers—worked the lowest manual-labor jobs alongside the young people—sweeping streets with hand brooms, shoveling coal, cleaning public buildings and public toilets, for example.
Georgi’s daughter, Natasha, had been kicked out of medical school because of her faith, then went underground working on Christian publications (all religious literature in the USSR was printed “underground”). She saw her family once every nine months or so.
Lydia told us there were 86 believers in prison for their faith in the Ukraine at the time. Life was hard for them, and many never survived their terms. Fear of arrest and prison hung over the head of every believer living what we would consider an ordinary Christian life.
Teaching children about the Bible, for instance, was a particularly egregious offense. Violators earned three-year prison sentences and sometimes had their children taken from them. Letters sent to prisoners were rarely received.
As Lydia spoke, there were certain words she wouldn’t risk speaking aloud— words like “prison,” “underground,” and “suffer”—but instead used sign language to communicate.
In the background, the short wave radio we’d given them as a gift had been playing. One of the older men located a Christian broadcast where the Bible was being read. All was quiet as the announcer read Scripture in Russian.
I had a strange sensation watching the scene. The Christians hung on every word coming from the shortwave. It was as if they were under siege, anxiously listening to news from the front of an imminent invasion bringing rescue. They longed for Christ, yet at the same time had great joy in the Holy Spirit in the midst of suffering.
Rovno, Ukraine, USSR—Wednesday, July 28
We pulled up to our “first class” hotel—or the Soviet version of it—tired and happy to get out of our tents for a night. We quickly set up in our rooms on the fourth floor.
Though the rooms were adequate, it was hard to relax. Jeff, in particular, felt uncomfortable. We’d been warned in the West that our lodgings would be on the fourth floor. All Americans were billeted there since all those rooms were bugged. Everything we said was being monitored, and that made us uneasy.
When Jeff and Lance first tried to connect with our Christian contact in Rovno, the old woman who answered the door didn’t respond well to their greeting. We learned later that the other Christians were away at a secret gathering, leaving the elderly lady behind. She wasn’t taking chances with strangers at her door.
We fared better the next day. We made for the home just after breakfast, arriving in pairs at different times by different routes to avoid detection. We were ushered into a small apartment with a tiny kitchen and a medium-sized living room just large enough for three beds against the wall, a few chairs, and a small table. I never saw a bathroom. These were by far the poorest Christians we’d visited.
Three women shared the living space with their three well-behaved children. There were no men. The husbands were all in prison—three, five, and 10 years—for the crime of sharing the gospel.
As we talked, an older Christian man came to the door. When he entered the room, Jeff quickly warned Lance and me, in English, to prepare for a kiss…on the lips. Russian Christians took literally the scriptural admonition to greet each other with a holy kiss. Our new visitor threw his strong arms around each of us, gave us a robust bear hug and the Christian greeting Jeff had promised. After those initial “formalities,” he told us his story.
He’d become a Christian in 1918 during the Russian revolution. Though now over 65 years old, he was still stout, full of life, and full of the Holy Spirit. His head had been completely shaved, and his broad smile displayed a complete set of silvery teeth.
He told us he’d been at a Christian meeting in the country when someone betrayed him. The authorities took him outside and beat him mercilessly on his hands, on the back of his neck, and on his head and face. They knocked out every one of his teeth and left him in the road to die.
While he lay there in the dirt, though, a wonderful thing happened. Jesus came to him in a vision, he told us, and personally ministered to him, assuring him his suffering was not in vain.
Hours later, someone found him and took him to the city, where he was hospitalized for two months recovering from his wounds. His crime: sharing his faith.
The old man’s story was gripping, but what amazed me most was his attitude. He wasn’t angry or bitter. Rather, he could barely contain his excitement as he gave us the details of his ordeal. He spoke standing up, talking rapidly, hands moving around his head indicating where the blows had landed. He sat down just long enough for Jeff to translate, then he was on his feet again, continuing his story. His face beamed, and sometimes he couldn’t hold back his laughter.
I was awestruck. Here was a man who could talk about severe suffering for Christ and still laugh with joy.
As we talked, we learned more about the economic struggles of Christians in the Ukraine. Working the lowest jobs, earning two rubles (about 40 cents) a day, many could barely keep their families fed. Those in that home were short on clothing, especially the children, but they thought the believers living in the country had it worse. Those were the poor ones, not them.
As we readied to leave, we circled together while these Soviet believers prayed for us. I couldn’t understand their words, but their tone and manner were unmistakable. They prayed like they were in God’s very presence, tears streaming down their faces, interceding as if pleading with God for their very lives. Maybe they were.
Saturday, August 21, 1976
I was up early and at the train station in Prague by 7:00 a.m. My companions had commitments in Munich, so they drove west while I traveled solo by train south towards Linz, Austria, happy to leave the Iron Curtain countries behind me.
While struggling at the platform to decipher the train schedule, a friendly Bohemian university student named Ava came to my rescue. She was traveling on the same route, so I followed her lead, and we both settled in together in our coach.
Since my own paternal forebears were Bohemians from Prague, we shared a common bond. When she invited me to stay with her family overnight at her village home in South Bohemia, I accepted.
It meant a slight change in my itinerary—which was verboten in the East—but I did have an extra day on my visa, so I threw caution to the wind, hopped off the train in Czeske Budejovice, and headed east with Ava by bus.
We arrived at Třeboň—a small town whose basic layout was virtually unchanged since the 14th century—and walked a kilometer or so to Ava’s modest family cottage. Though an unexpected guest, I was welcomed with open arms. Ava’s home was a cozy dwelling, and her parents were warm and genial. They couldn’t speak English, but Ava did an amazing job translating given her limited English.
Ava’s mother prepared a delicious meal for us, and after dinner we chatted casually around the table. When I happened to mention I’d been to Poland weeks earlier, Ava’s father asked if I’d visited Auschwitz. I told him I had. He then began to recount his remarkable experiences there as a concentration camp prisoner during the war.
Ava’s dad had survived nearly two years in Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1943 to 1945. He escaped when the Russians attacked and the few German guards who were left fled south.
With Ava translating line for line, her father then unburdened himself of his painful memories, describing unthinkable activities he was forced to participate in under Nazi totalitarianism. I was transfixed, gripped by the continuous, cathartic flow of information. It was the first time Ava had heard his story, too.
As he recounted his experiences, he took out a paper napkin and methodically sketched from memory the details of the camp’s layout, adding numbers for body counts for different time periods.
When he finally finished, I asked if I could have the napkin as a keepsake, a memento of our meeting together. He was unwilling, afraid it would be found and bring him more grief, even after 30 years had passed. Instead, he destroyed the sketch right at the table. Czechoslovakia still had extermination camps, and Ava’s father still lived in fear.
I share my account here not as a mere reminiscence of past adventures. Rather, I mean it to be a warning for the present.
I learned firsthand what it’s like for people to live in a truly oppressive society. What I saw there then is what I’m beginning to see here now. Former Soviet bloc émigrés also see it clearly. Do any of these sound familiar to you?
- “Separation of church and state” used to justify shutting Christian ideas (and sometimes people) out of the public debate
- Christians rejected from university programs or fired from their jobs because of their “subversive” convictions
- Primary level public education used to indoctrinate children spiritually and politically, promoting a secular morality unrelated to God—and often contrary to God—and not allowing any other “propaganda”
- The academy vigorously promoting Marxist Leninism with the promise that man will solve his own problems and build a wonderful society here on earth, free of oppression
- Willingly surrendering our privacy to tech companies for the sake of convenience as millions install listening devices in their own homes
- People whispering words like “homosexual” in conversations for fear of attracting censure
- Arguments made against religious freedom on the grounds that Christians are, shall we say, “damaging the interests of citizens under the pretext of religious activity” (e.g., “You can’t use ‘freedom of religion’ as a cover for hate!”)
Yes, it’s already happening, not in far-off places, but here in our own country and in our own communities.
Never forget: Ideas have consequences. In the next issue of Solid Ground, I’ll give more detail on ideas that are permeating our communities, corrupting our freedoms, and corroding our souls.