Oral History

A Church Divided

In 1944, the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists was formed. Over the following two years, the leaders of the two Pentecostal branches also agreed to join. In fostering such initiatives, the Soviet state hoped to amalgamate different Protestant traditions and create a unified ‘centre’ which could be more easily controlled and regulated. The goal of unity proved elusive almost from the outset. As discussed in the section on Pentecostals, there were those who felt that membership of the AUCECB meant relinquishing important parts of their worship. With time, new divisions also emerged. Already in the 1950s, a small number of ‘Pure Baptists’ [chistye Baptisty] who practised the re-baptism of Evangelical Christians began to meet separately. But it was particularly with the new pressures put on the church by the anti-religious campaigns of the Khrushchev era, that frictions came to the fore.

In December 1959, the AUCECB had approved the ‘New Statutes’ and ‘Letter of Instruction’ which included the following proscriptions: no baptism before the age of 30; no children at services; no visiting preachers; no gatherings at home; no charity; and no reading of verse.1 In protest, the ‘Initiative Group’ was formed under the leadership of G. K. Kriuchkov and A. F. Prokof’ev. In August 1961, in the first ‘message’ to the evangelical community, Kriuchkov and Prokof’ev claimed the documents approved by the AUCECB were ‘Satanic regulations’ which would bring about the ‘spiritual disintegration of the church’. 2 They were angered by what they considered an embargo on free discussion within the church and called for a congress to be convened. In 1962 the Initiative Group was renamed the orgkomitet (organising committee). Three years later the orgkomitet became the Council of Churches of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (CCECB) and the schism within the Protestant church was cemented.

The first document shows how, in 1963, Kriuchkov’s attempt to speak to the congregation at the end of a church service in Moscow failed. The second and third are petition letters written by congregations affiliated to the CCECB and angered by the arrest of leaders Kriuchkov and G. P. Vins: the two men were held responsible for a gathering of between 400 and 600 Baptists who congregated at the headquarters of the party’s Central Committee in May 1966 demanding a meeting with either L. I. Brezhnev or A. N. Kosygin. Witness statements in the subsequent trial of Vins and Kriuchkov said that the believer prayed on their knees throughout the night, and sang as they were forcibly herded into special buses.3

With varying degrees of intensity over the next quarter-century, the Soviet state tried to neuter the CCECB by arresting its activists. Such repressions only served to reaffirm its members’ belief that Christian life was impossible without fundamental reform. The CCECB developed an extensive underground press to publish Christian literature and to inform believers of the persecution inflicted on their brothers and sisters. In particular, a women’s group called the Council of Prisoners’ Relatives played a key role in publicising injustices committed against CCECB members. Document 4 is a long report composed by a Council for Religious Affairs official in 1980, describing CCECB activities and the measures taken against them. Document 5 demonstrates how AUCECB life continued to be affected: here the new senior pastor for the RSFSR, V. E. Logvinenko, is accused of having affinities with the CCECB.

For many believers the schism was highly painful. Congregations, even families, were now divided in their worship. Attempts were made to reunite the two churches, both at national level and within local communities. In the oral history extract, one Tambov pastor speaks of his attempts to heal the rift. He also highlights the differences that began to emerge: in his view, the CCECB was more hierarchical and strict than AUCECB-registered congregations. He describes, for example, the practice of CCECB congregants publicly confessing their sins. (One of the charges made in Document 5 against Logvinenko is that he also encouraged this practice.)