Snow, Fire, and Gold
Russia—strange and wild stories of murder, villages burning, wheat fields ripening on the steppe, long trains of rickety wagons, and horses fleeing in the mud, winter in Siberia—even though we had heard them before, our wonder as children grew while we listened to the grandmother talk.
The grandmother lived far from Russia, in Canada. After the Bolshevik revolution and her husband’s death, she escaped from Borosenko, in the Ukraine, with her children. When she fell off a wagon she broke her back. Now she was tiny and stooped half over. Others of the family had stayed behind and fled east through Siberia to Blagoveschensk and Manchuria. There they crossed the Amur river on the ice into China. “They got so hungry,” the grandmother told us, “that they thanked God for the Chinese who let them drink their dish water.” Eventually those of the family who survived got reunited in Brazil.
As she grew older the grandmother began to forget where she was, in North or South America, in Asia, or Europe. But more often than not she would peer through her flower plants onto her Kitchener street and watch for the neighbours she knew—in Russia.
That, theoretically, would not have been impossible. Many Russian immigrants lived in Kitchener, Ontario. Several immigrant congregations met in the city and through them I became aware of more to the story.
That awareness involved my friendship, and eventually marriage, to Susan Krahn (with relatives in an unregistered congregation in Kazakhstan), the mission Licht im Osten, and a book given to us in 1972. The book, Christen unter Hammer und Sichel1 (Christians under Hammer and Sickle), became my first introduction to a strange new world—a world where Christian believers survived incredible opposition for a thousand years. More than that, where they have flourished, often numbering in the millions “under ground.”
How did they do it?
What to Expect
I took as a clue to the Russians’ secret what seemed the most obvious: One should expect to suffer while following Christ.
Both what Russian believers wrote and the story of their sufferings in snowy oblivion pointed to such a view of life. The “underground church” of the 1970’s was the child of an “underground church” of the early 1900’s. That church, in turn, descended from an “underground church” of the 1860’s that came from an “underground” tradition that took me like a subway train with only a few quick stops on the surface back to where Christianity began.
Georgi Vins, a Russian believer, wrote in the 1960’s:
The history of the Evangelical Christian and Baptist Church in Russia, except for a short period of time, has been the history of a people doomed to lifelong suffering, a history of camps and imprisonment affecting fathers, children and grandchildren. . . .
Persecution has become hereditary—our grandfathers were persecuted, our fathers were persecuted; now we ourselves are persecuted and oppressed, while our children are suffering hardships and deprivations.2
A young medical student, tried for Christian activity before a Soviet court in Odessa declared in 1967:
The church lives as long as it suffers. Looking at the history of Christianity we see how faith in Christ survived as long as the church suffered. On the other hand, when the church no longer walked with Christ its sufferings ended.3
All this I believed, but I soon found a more important clue:
What to Expect in Life to Come
My father has an adopted cousin (the six-foot-seven “giant” of our growing up years) who came from Russia to Canada. His parents owned a vast estate in the Ukraine. But they lost their lives in the Bolshevik Revolution and left cousin Andrey (we called him Henry) an orphan. He knew I liked to read. One day when I stopped in to see him he told me to take any book I wanted from his library. I chose the autobiography of a Russian believer, Ivan Prokhanov, published in 1933. In the book I found a “Call to Resurrection” addressed by Russian believers to “all Christians in the world” in 1928:
With the greeting Khristos voskrese! (Christ is risen!) we write to you. . . . Today, like in Christ’s time the power that transformed Zacchaeus and the thief on the cross still works! From its source (Christ) a stream of light, love and peace still flows into all the world. . . . Those who live by Christ’s Gospel still get the power to forget themselves and serve others for the healing of the human race. But by holding up a little parasol or drawing the curtains we can keep the sun from shining on us. In the same way, by making little changes to the Gospel, men have obstructed its radiant light and kept masses of people in darkness.
There is nothing wrong with the light! The Sun of the Gospel still shines! . . . He who has ears to hear, let him hear what God says to the church: Khristos voskrese! Let us rise and walk in the light!4
Resurrection and light from heaven. A fire of hope! When Christians suffer with Christ do they naturally become optimistic? Wherever I turned among Russian Christian writings I sensed their joy in springtime and the Resurrection of Christ. At first I supposed it was the counterpart—the “other side of the coin”—of suffering, and that it might be the secret to their survival under persecution. But then I discovered a third clue:
What “Conversion” Meant in Russia
In 1978 I began to teach school in northeastern Ontario. The fall colours, yellow and flaming orange, were coming on. Up from the log house where I stayed with the family of three of my students, I would climb over rail fences, cross a creek, and sit on lichen-spotted boulders high above a pasture where the lead cow with a bell grazed among her companions. Abandoned houses and barns, very small and wooden, stood among sunlit hills and land that had been farmed. On the upper side of that pasture a road led through the trees, down into a clearing along the Madawaska river and a Christian community at a place called Combermere.
The people with whom I stayed were friends of the community and soon took me for a visit. We bought used clothing at their second-hand store. But as I learned, little by little, the story behind them, I got unspeakably more from the people at Combermere than used pants and shirts.
Yekaterina Kolyschkin, once the Baroness de Hueck and later the wife of a famous writer had come to this place in the Canadian “taiga” to rediscover her Russian Christian roots. Many had followed her and from that the community had grown.
Yekaterina spent her childhood on the estate of her wealthy father near St. Petersburg, in tsarist Russia. At fifteen she married the baron Boris de Hueck. In 1917 she accompanied her husband, a Russian officer, to the German front and served as a nurse. After the Bolshevik revolution, penniless and starving, she fled with him and her infant son through Finland to Canada. Times were hard. Her husband turned sick and could not work. Yekaterina washed clothes, worked as a maid, and finally got a job as a sales clerk in New York City. There another woman discovered who she was, a “baroness in rags,” and arranged for her to tell a group of people about her experiences. So strange was her story that she soon got appointments to speak in many places and made three hundred dollars a week.
Yekaterina expected her return to wealth and good fortune to make her happy. But exactly the opposite occurred. Boris left her and died. The fine house and car she bought lay heavily on her conscience and made her miserable. Now that she knew the “fellowship of poverty” (life among the lowest classes) the world’s artificial pleasures disgusted her. Then she turned to the Gospels and remembered Russia.
In Russia it had not been uncommon for people to take the Gospel literally. Every so often it happened. A man or woman simply “left the world” and began to follow Christ. Yekaterina particularly remembered a very wealthy man named Pyotr.
One evening Pyotr came to her father and said, “Fyodor, I have been reading the Gospels and I have decided to follow Christ.” Her father listened and Pyotr went on, “I am going to take my money out of the bank and give it away.” It did not take long. Pyotr and Yekaterina’s father loaded the bags of silver pieces (there were many bags) onto a wagon pulled by three horses. They drove into the poorest section of St. Petersburg and started giving them away. When the wagon was empty they returned home. Pyotr, dressed in the rough linen of a peasant, with a stick in his hand, a loaf of bread and a little bag of salt kissed Yekaterina’s father good-bye and set off walking down the road. They stood and watched him disappear in the sunset’s golden light.
Now, remembering him, it became clear to Yekaterina what Christ wanted her to do. She bought her son what he needed, gave her own things away and moved into an apartment in a Toronto slum. It was 1931.
Yekaterina enjoyed immediate rapport with the poor as she lived among them and served them. She spent more time in New York and in 1947 she moved with her second husband (Boris had died) to Combermere, Ontario. There her testimony, and the community that formed around her, led me much closer to discovering the secret of Russia’s persecuted believers. But before it came to me I looked deeper into . . .
1 Winrich Scheffbuch, Christen unter Hammer und Sichel, Wuppertal: R. Brockhaus Verlag, 1972
2 Bourdeaux, Faith on Trial in Russia
3 Scheffbuch, Christen unter Hammer und Sichel
4 Prokhanov, In The Cauldron of Russia