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Aida and the British Public

Aida Skripnikova was a young Christian Leningrader, arrested in 1962 for distributing her poetry on the city’s streets. Despite this, she continued her involvement in the orgkomitet (forerunner of the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists), wrote and circulated samizdat, and made contact with foreign Christians in order to pass on material (including transcripts of believers’ trials). She was herself put on trial in 1968 and received a three-year sentence.1

The Council of Churches was always keen to let the rest of the world know of the repression its members experienced at the hands of the Soviet state. And it seems that the fate of Aida Skripnikova particularly caught the imagination of British Christians in 1972. A long article in the Sunday Telegraph about the treatment of Soviet Baptists was certainly influential; so too the publication of Michael Bourdeaux’s The Story of Aida Skripnikova.2 A flood of letters were sent by constituents to their Member of Parliament, texts which are now preserved in the National Archives. The letter-writers came from all corners of the UK. Some referred to the arrest of Lidiia Vins, leader of the Council of Prisoners’ Relatives, others to the fate of N. P. Khrapov, a pastor who experienced repeated prison sentences. But it was particularly the treatment of Aida, a young Christian woman, which seems to have gained most attention, fuelled by rumours that she had been re-arrested. A Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) internal memo noted that many of the letters were ‘almost identical’ and posited that the original source might have been Mr Noel Doubleday, who published a pamphlet ‘Open Doors’ about the religious situation behind the iron curtain.3 In fact, aware that the letters might appear formulaic to their readers, one Glaswegian correspondent offered a post-script: ‘I appreciate you will have received quite a number of letters from the stereotyped copy but I wish to say that we are all individuals and speak from a deep seated concern and conviction. I personally am teaching at Clydebank High School.’4

With the Aida Skripnikova letter-writing campaign in full swing in the autumn of 1972, how did the British government respond? In terms of their public statements, the government response was very moderate: an example of a standard letter that was sent to constituents is provided in the document section. Behind the scenes, at the FCO, the East European and Soviet Department recognised that their answers were inadequate. One memo stated: ‘We have not been able to be more forthcoming in our replies to MPs, because HMG [Her Majesty’s Government] have not recently made any statement about religious intolerance (for example in any UN body) to which we could refer. Our present position in Northern Ireland precludes us from doing so.’5 Despite the rather bland responses given to constituents, however, the campaign was certainly taken seriously, and by the end of the year memos from within the FCO’s East European and Soviet Department suggest a growing sense that they should be doing more to help Christians behind the iron curtain. Some felt that the kind of intervention that had been taken to defend the rights of Jews in the USSR should be extended to Christians. One memo noted: 'We have drifted into the habit of responding to Jewish pressure more than to Christian pressure, simply because the first is so much more vigorous and persistent’. 6