Oral History

Children, the State and the Church

The upbringing of children was highly contested. For the Soviet establishment, ensuring that the outlook of its next generation was atheist was of huge significance. But it was no less important for Christians to raise their children with a strong sense of faith. This meant, in the words of historian Olena Panych, that children from Evangelical Christian-Baptist families were ‘at the centre of a political struggle’.1 Whether congregations should allow children to participate in worship was one of the core issues at the heart of the split between the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (AUCECB) and what was to become the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (CCECB).

At the height of the anti-religious campaigns under Khrushchev, state propaganda depicted Protestants as wild and depraved ‘sectarians’ who abused children, even laying charges of ritual sacrifice against them.2 Even if such charges were rare, the many children of Protestant families found themselves singled out for discrimination at school. In the recording included here, you can listen to Eva Dyck’s memories of school in the early 1960s. (To hear more from Eva Dyck’s interview, click here.)

Following the arrest of one or both parents, children were sometimes removed from their parents and transferred to state orphanages; in cases of divorce, the courts invariably found in favour of the father if he was a non-believer. Even after the end of the excesses of the Khrushchev era, the removal of children was a tactic used to intimidate believers, particularly active members of the CCECB. Document 1, dating from 1971, shows the case made against one couple and their struggle to retain custody over their children. The second document takes the form of a petition letter by a distressed mother. Addressing a range of different bodies including the Committee of Soviet Women, the editorial board of Izvestiia, and the General Procurator, she describes the anger and pain she felt when her former husband, a non-believer, was awarded custody of their son. Following the mother’s petition is a letter from her son.

Although children’s attendance at church services was discouraged by the state, many congregations organised some kind of activities for children, sometimes simply gathering them together for birthday celebrations. The Council of Churches organised regular children’s camps in the summer months. Document 3 gives an official view of one such camp. In the Baltic states, it was not only the unregistered churches which organised children’s camps. To hear what it was like as a child to participate in one of the camps, listen to the recollections of a Latvian pastor. (For an extract from Edgars Godins’ interview, click here.)