Oral History

Gulag and Exile

Even in the ‘golden era’ of the 1920s, Protestants were arrested, albeit in small numbers. Collectivisation, and the general onslaught of the first five-year plan, brought the first real attack on Protestant communities, followed by the purges of 1936-8. In contrast, the post-war period is normally presented as a time of relative leniency: the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (AUCECB) was formed; churches re-opened and registered. One of our interviewees spoke of the immediate post-war as an ‘awakening’ (probuzhdenie).1 (For more on the post-war awakening, click here.)

And yet, arrests and deportations did continue in the post-war years. Collectivisation was imposed in newly acquired territories, with the same destruction as had happened across the Soviet Union in the early 1930s. Here one of our interviewees, ‘O.’, from the city of Chernivtsi, Ukraine, describes her experiences as a child sent into exile. Moreover, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as the Cold War escalated, some Protestants found themselves arrested under article 58, charged with all sorts of anti-Soviet activity, including espionage for the US. Unlike the later repression under Khrushchev, these arrests were not accompanied by a propaganda campaign and so have often gone under the radar.

It would be easy to assume that arrest necessarily reduced the potential for religious activity and worship in the USSR. Certainly the threat of repression did restrict missionary work. And yet the Gulag could also act as a source of spiritual renewal. The camps were not infrequently a site of conversion. One case, which became known internationally through samizdat, was that of V. I. Kozlov. As a youth he had received three sentences for criminal acts (including theft), but during his time in the camps met believers who transformed his life. He returned home in 1954 a believer and became active in the Council of Churches (for more on the CCECB, click here), leading to further arrests, this time as a result of his faith. 2 As he wrote later in a letter to Soviet leaders, condemning the persecution believers faced: ‘Russian prisons and camps have become a site of spiritual revival and encounters with Christ!’ 3 Because of this, the authorities were frequently alarmed by the role played by returning prisoners, particularly in the mid-1950s when they contributed to the more assertive mood that was in evidence within some communities. Document 1 expresses particular alarm about the return of certain Pentecostal leaders, but the authorities were concerned about the influence of returning prisoners on unregistered religious groups more generally in these years. 4 (For more on the Pentecotalism, click here) Document 2 contains the opening pages from a 1975 issue of the Bulletin of the Council of Prisoners’ Relatives which was printed following the release of five women. The women had all worked for an underground Christian press prior to arrest. Following their early release, their letters – addressed to both ‘All Christians of the World’ and to various Soviet and international institutions – demanded fair treatment for Soviet Christians, but they also were a reaffirmation of their faith and a call to prayer. As such they have an evangelical quality which sets them apart from mainstream samizdat writing.

Overall, the arrest and exile of different groups had encouraged movement eastwards: if traditionally there was a concentration of Protestant communities in Ukraine and European Russia, the deportation of Germans, and others, to Central Asia strengthened Protestant communities there. 5 In her oral history interview, Eva Dyck describes growing up in Karaganda, Kazakhstan, and you can hear more of her in the second extract provided here. She explains how her family ended up in Kazakhstan as a result of the persecutions of the 1930s.