Oral History

Pacifism and Military Service

One of the defining characteristics of early non-conformist groups, or ‘sectarians’ to use the Soviet lexicon, was their pacifism. The refusal of Dukhobors and Molokans to serve in the Imperial Army had been one major cause of their conflict with the Tsarist state.1 Within the Protestant circles that had emerged by the beginning of the twentieth century, there were also pacifists. In 1919, the early Bolshevik state took the unexpected step of allowing conscientious objection, but over the course of the 1920s the Evangelical Christian and Baptist unions were put under pressure to renounce pacifist positions which they did, respectively, in 1923 and 1926.2

In the post-war period, the AUCECB actively encouraged church members to serve in the army. In the first edition of Bratskii Vestnik, Ia. I. Zhidkov, the chairman of the AUCECB, wrote: ‘To be a warrior like the centurion from Capernaum (Matthew 8, 5-10) or the centurion Cornelius from Caesarea (Acts of the Apostles 10, 1-2) should be the genuine desire of every Christian warrior.’3 But how much was pacifism still a feature of evangelical life? Official reports give a mixed picture. In February 1947, a memo sent to the party’s Central Committee by the deputy chairman of CARC noted optimistically that within the ECB community ‘so-called “anti-war moods” [i.e. refusal to bear arms in the Soviet army] which previously predominated have now been almost entirely eradicated’.4 But this assessment may have been premature. In 1950, the Ukrainian branch of CARC reported that whilst most Evangelical Christians-Baptists now accepted military service, some congregations were known to take a radical stance; it also noted that Pentecostals were more inclined to refuse to bear arms.5 Files from the Soviet criminal justice system includes cases of young male believers charged, under article 58, with anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda during the late Stalinist and Khrushchev eras: the very act of verbalising a pacifist position was deemed an act of sedition.6

It is difficult to locate precise figures for the numbers arrested for refusing to carry out their military duty. A report from Ukraine, dated September 1963 – at the height of Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaigns – suggested that in that republic, over the course of the preceding 18 months, 20 people had been sentenced for conscientious objection, most of them Pentecostals or Jehovah’s Witnesses. More young men had initially refused, but then been ‘dissuaded’ from their pacifist positions.7 The convictions of young men who were convicted for their conscientious objection – and their brutal treatment within the Soviet prison complex – helped to feed into the emigration movement, particularly amongst Pentecostals. The first document here is a letter from the family of a young Pentecostal incarcerated for refusing the military oath and to bear arms; the authors appeal to the UN organisation International Association of Democratic Lawyers, asking for support in their quest to emigrate. (For more on the emigration movement, click here.)

But a majority of young believers did serve. The death of one young soldier, Ivan Moiseev, became something of a cause célèbre both within Soviet Protestant circles and abroad. In July 1972, the young recruit died: the authorities claimed he drowned at sea; his bruised and swollen body suggested a very different story. His life and death became the subject of the Canadian Myrna Grant’s widely selling book Vanya: A True Story. The second document we include – a poem entitled ‘Shame’ [Pozor] – circulated in samizdat in the USSR. The poem suggests that some believers were aware of the international scandal surrounding the case. It was clearly intended as an inspiring text, establishing a stark contrast between Moiseev – who is truthful and radiant – and the atheists responsible for his death who are invited to repent.

Such levels of violence were in fact rare, but the military call-up was a difficult time for young male believers, both because of the spiritual dilemmas (whether to take the military oath, whether to bear arms), and because of the experience of army service itself. We include here extracts from two oral history interviews. Both men agonised over their decision but ultimately did serve. Otherwise, their experiences were rather different. The first interviewee explains how, once classified as a believer, he was demoted to the construction battalion, serving alongside young men who had done stretches in prison; it was a very hard time. Our second interviewee explains how he was able to deflect attempts to convert him to atheism, and if anything his education made him well-respected.