Oral History


The birth of Pentecostalism is often associated with a revival inspired by William Seymour at the church on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, USA, in 1906. Revivalist movements in the USA were not uncommon, of course, but the denomination that became known as Pentecostalism has been distinguished by its very rapid and far-reaching expansion over the course of the twentieth century.1 Already by the 1910s and 1920s it had reached the Russian Empire. Under the influence of American missionaries, a church established itself in Helsinki, its followers known ‘smorodintsy’ (after one of its leaders) or ‘edinstvenniki’. The bigger Pentecostal community had its origins in Odessa, the city to which I. E. Voronaev – a Baptist who had emigrated to the USA to escape persecution – returned in 1921. Now an active Pentecostal missionary, Voronaev established the Union of Christian Evangelical faith [KhEV] in 1927.2

The Soviet authorities were opposed to an independent Pentecostal movement, however, and when the AUCECB was established in 1944, Pentecostals were urged to join. In August 1945 KhEV leaders signed an agreement.3 Not all those who identified as Pentecostals were willing to relinquish what they considered key worship practices such as speaking in tongues and the washing of feet during church services, however. As the registration of congregations slowed in the late 1940s, some grew disillusioned with church life within the AUCECB. More groups started to meet independently, without registration. The first document, dating from 1957, reports that over the previous two years these informal, clandestine meetings had increased in number. The report attributes this development to the influence of leaders who had recently returned from the prison camps. One of the much-commented paradoxes of the Khrushchev era is that at the same time as lifting repressive measures (and vastly down-sizing the Gulag), the regime also inaugurated new campaigns against religious believers. Perhaps one factor was the new lease of life given to ‘undesirable’ religious groups by the mass exodus from the camps.

Certainly Pentecostals were singled out for particularly vicious treatment in the media in the late 1950s and 1960s. Stories of Pentecostals who committed grotesque acts, including the ritual murder of children, were a staple of anti-religious propaganda.4 The first oral history recording includes one believer’s account of how a local atheist lecturer claimed that she had been sacrificed. As explored in the ‘emigration movement’ section, some Pentecostals became convinced that it was no longer possible to be a Christian in the USSR. One of the first signs of this new more militant mood was the 1963 attempt by a group of Pentecostals from the city of Chernogorsk to gain visas by presenting themselves at the US embassy.5 This is the subject of the second document. Its authors, the CARC leaders, sought to explain why those involved had taken such a drastic step. Their report offers a detailed, and in fact critical, account of the kind of mistreatment which local authorities inflicted on this religious minority at the height of the atheist campaigns.

Until the end of the Soviet Union, the AUCECB continued to pursue the goal of unity between the different evangelical groups under its care. The third document dates from 1961 but is typical of the kind of discussions that went on between AUCECB representatives and Pentecostal congregations throughout the period. Despite these efforts, conflict between members of the ECB mainstream and Pentecostals continued. The second recording testifies to one believer’s hostile attitude to the Pentecostals he encountered as a youth in Moscow.