Oral History

The Emigration Movement

Tired of living in a hostile environment some believers ultimately decided there was no hope of being able to pursue a Christian life in the USSR and instead sought to emigrate, often simply hoping to go to any ‘non-communist country’. Some Pentecostals articulated their wish to emigrate as early as the 1940s: following a prophecy, a group settled in Nakhodka, near the city of Vladivostok, in preparation for their exodus.1 One of the first actions that gained potential emigres wider attention, however, occurred in 1963: a group of about thirty Pentecostals from the city of Chernogorsk presented themselves at the US embassy, hoping to gain a visa for entry to Israel or the USA.2 By the 1970s the emigration movement gathered momentum under the leadership of pastor N. P. Goretoi. Some Evangelical Christians-Baptists also petitioned for the right to leave. In 1979 Goretoi estimated that 2000 Christians had applied for emigration.3 The movement drew strength from the example of the Jewish ‘refuseniks’ and from ties forged with wider dissident circles, including the Moscow Helsinki Group.4 A number of these factors are mentioned in the oral history extract included here.

One of the most common tactics amongst believers petitioning the Soviet state was to remind its readers of the regime’s own laws – which promised freedom of conscience – or of international agreements it had signed (such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, brought into force in 1976). But as the first document, a letter from Akhterov family, demonstrates, local officials did not always pay such laws much attention in their dealings with would-be emigres. One official told them that the state needed to ‘create the kind of order which had existed until 1953’ [the year Stalin died].

By the late 1970s and 1980s, some petitioners had become openly confrontational. In the second letter, the author takes issue with Soviet laws themselves and the government’s refusal to grant all citizens the right to leave the country. N. A. Cherkov attacked Soviet cruelty, lawlessness and aggressive foreign policy. The third document, a letter authored by N. P. Goretoi and addressed to the, 12th World Conference of Pentecostals held in Vancouver in 1979, was similarly unequivocal. Goretoi was wholly dismissive of Soviet legislation referring to the Constitution as a ‘fig leaf to cover up the outrages committed [bezobrazie]’. He was also critical of Western Christians who believed in the myth of ‘freedom of conscience’ propagated by the regime. In another letter, addressed to Jimmy Carter, the authors again challenged Western Christians who thought they should remain in the USSR to conduct missionary work. An impossibility, they claimed, for they lived ‘where Satan has his throne’ and it was simply impossible to live ‘honestly’ in such conditions. In this fourth document, we find Pentecostals embracing the language of ‘human rights’ and warning its readers that the Soviet government was committing a genocide of Christians.

It was not until the Soviet state was dismantled that emigration became possible on a mass scale, however. Paradoxically, just as the obstacles to free religious life were being removed, large numbers of Protestants departed, leaving their churches depleted. As one interviewee told us: ‘In about 1934, there were 4 million Baptists in Russia. In 1937 the repressions began. In 1985 Gorbachev’s thaw started and let out those who were in prison. Now there are only 120,000 Baptists. Can you imagine?! 120,000 of us! Out of 4 million… There should be far more.’ Whether these figures are accurate or not is less significant than the speaker’s emotion. In this account, the exodus which began in the late 1980s ranks alongside the Stalinist repression in terms of the decimation it wreaked on the evangelical church.