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Oral History

Living with an Atheist: One Believer's Story

Z. was born in 1925 in Drezna, Moscow region. Like many childhoods of the Soviet 1930s, hers was one characterised by upheaval. In 1930 her parents moved to Voronezh but things did not work out well for them there. Her father regularly went on drinking binges, selling her mother’s belongings to fund them. Z. was unable to attend schools because she had nothing to wear, and her father couldn’t see the point in educating her anyway: she’d be better off working in the fields or collecting mushrooms in the woods, he said. Within two years, he had drunk his way through everything, Z.’s parents divorced, and her mother sold her overcoat to cover the train fare back home. They moved in with her aunt who lived in a village on the outskirts of Moscow and Z. started school. There is no further mention of her father in Z.’s life-story. To hear Z. speak about her early childhood, listen to the first extract.

In the early classes of school Z. excelled academically but she found the final years harder. Her mother, who had only herself two years of schooling, found it hard to help with Z.’s homework and by the time Z. had finished the seventh class (in 1942) the small family needed an extra wage. Her dreams of training to be a doctor were shelved and she went to work in a nearby factory. Here she caught the attention of a foreman who soon proposed to her. He was a little older than Z. – nine years he said; but he was well-educated and he didn’t drink, and Z.’s mother and aunt thought he was too good a catch to let slip. Persuaded, Z. married when she was 19 and her first child soon followed. Only then did she discover that her husband had ‘deceived’ her. He was in fact 19, and not 9, years her elder. Incensed, Z. wanted divorce but again her mother and aunt counselled her to be prudent. How would she look after the child on her own in those years? ‘There aren’t many men left now after the war,’ they reminded her. Her mother who had struggled so much to raise Z. alone didn’t want the same experience for her daughter. Z. stayed in the marriage and a further two children followed. She continued to work on the factory floor, moving to a plant producing refrigerators in the mid-fifties. It was heavy labour, but the satisfaction she gained from this work comes through clearly in the interview.

Z.’s mother was, she says, Orthodox if anything, and during Z.’s childhood they would sometimes go to Church for the major holidays such as Easter. At the end of the war, however, her aunt gave her life to Christ (уверовала). The aunt prayed for Z. and her mother, urging them to attend services with her at the Moscow Central Evangelical-Christians Baptist Church. At the age of 23 Z. began visiting the church on Malyi Trekhsviatitel’skii lane and was baptised in 1948. To hear Z. describe her experiences in this period, listen to the second extract.

At first Z. went to Church twice a week, but her husband made it increasingly difficult, and – pregnant with her second child – she began to attend services only rarely. Her colleagues at work were unaware of her faith. Z. is now very self-critical and sees her silence as a sign of spiritual weakness.

What is striking in her account is that for Z. it was not the Soviet state which put obstacles in the way of her spiritual life, but her husband. I asked whether this was because of the constraints on religious practice or his own beliefs, and she confirmed the importance of his personal atheism. Towards the end of the interview I asked her if she ever experienced any discrimination or persecution from the state as a result of her faith. ‘No,’ she replied. ‘But when I lived with my husband I was very weak and didn’t say anything to anyone about my faith, I didn’t try to persuade anyone [никому не агитировала]. No one knew I was a believer.’ It was only after his death in 1976 that she began to attend church regularly, told everyone about her faith, and joined a charitable group based at the Moscow Central Church.

At the end of the interview, I asked whether she could articulate how life before and after 1991 was different. Z. did not immediately understand my question, even when reformulated by my Russian colleague. The question seemed alien to her. ‘No, no, there was no difference,’ she replied firmly. It was true that life for her had been transformed dramatically in the late 1970s and 1980s, but perestroika has nothing to do with it, she said. It was the death of her husband which had liberated her spiritually.