In Search of "The Blasphemers"
IN 1982 The Christadelphian published "Salute to our Russian Brethren", in which Brother Alan Eyre recounted some of the experiences of our ecclesias in the Ukraine during the Stalin era. In Brethren in Christ, also published in 1982, in Chapter 8, "Eastward into Russia", he described the encouraging expansion of the Brethren into the Ukraine in the early 17th century and the persecution this provoked at the hands of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches. In July 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and as Christadelphian witness again moves swiftly into Slavic lands, Alan Eyre and Victor Sluczewski made a 2,000 kilometre journey through the Ukraine in search of "the blasphemers", as those of our persuasion were stigmatized. Here is the story of a heart-stirring experience, and a powerful exhortation.
WITH the discrediting of Marxism, and the relaxation of thought control and censorship in former Communist countries, millions of people there are intellectually and spiritually bewildered and hungry.
Go to any city centre in former East Germany, or Romania, or Poland, even in the former USSR, and you will see the fierce competition for minds and hearts. The historic mainline churches, long suppressedCatholic, Orthodox, Protestantare busily regilding their rundown shrines, used for decades as warehouses or museums of atheism, and taking their message to the streets in colourful processions. The Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, Pentecostals and others are there in force too, preaching at street corners and offering huge quantities of their literature from makeshift stalls and book centres. They are reporting mass conversions. In our own small way, we Christadelphians are now preaching too, in fact almost in the shadow of the old KGB building in Moscow, and the response, according to our more modest and deeper expectations, has been most encouraging. At this moment, many hundreds of people in the former Soviet Union are seriously learning about the Bible and its message from the Christadelphians.
Suddenly, from being officially described as "a vile book", the Bible has become a best seller in the very lands where, for as long as anyone can remember, it was banned and where the slave labour camp, or worse, awaited those who possessed or tried to distribute it. Indeed, we have come across instances where a consignment of Bibles has been deliberately given preference by the authorities over needed material import needs.
Russian and Ukrainian Literature
A small notice in The Christadelphian earlier this year requested help in tracing our "lost" ecclesias in the former Soviet Union. The appeal was answered, and this story is the result. A big need at the present time is for literature in Russian and Ukrainian. Victor Sluczewski has presently one booklet ready for the printer, but more than sixty years ago there was a Christadelphian publishing house in the Ukraine, which printed many of our classics such as the Declaration, the Ecclesial Guide, Finger Posts and various other items in Ukrainian and Russian. We know that the translation of Robert Roberts' Christendom Astray in its entirety into Ukrainian/ Russian was completed in 1929. However, was it printed before an unholy alliance of Russian Orthodox priests and Stalin's NKVD (later KGB) closed the place down and dispersed the ecclesias? If not, what happened to that precious manuscript?
Many years ago. Brother Alan Hayward, when Secretary of the Bible Mission (UK), mentioned in The Bible Missionary that the log cabin which served as the Ukrainian publishing office and the humble home of Brother Vladimir Doubrovsky was "burned down one night, but he managed to save his precious books and manuscripts (especially valuable because the Iron Curtain was even then in operation) by dragging the comers of the tablecloth on which his books were laid as he escaped through the window". What happened to those "precious books and manuscripts" after that? What happened to the ecclesias, and the fifty or more brothers and sisters who composed them? Victor and I took to the road to find out.
The Land of Fallen Idols
The consequences of rapid change are sometimes quite bizarre. It is a mere thirteen years since the Communist Community Council Chairman of my village in Jamaica, heady with new power, berated me for my loyalty to Jesus Christ rather than to Lenin. "You fools", he said with a tone of menace, "the future belongs to Lenin and to us. No power on earth can stop us". Maybe not, but there is a God in heaven "that liveth for ever: and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay his hand" (Daniel 4:35). Fool in his heart himself (Psalm 14:1), for this man the eclipse of Marxism was a shattering experience.
In the Ukraine the idols are falling. The Museum of Lenin is being advertised as a Convention Centre: we can use it if we pay for it in hard currency! Strangely, while Lenin's images topple like Lucifer, a gigantic symbol still towers over my hotel window proclaiming "USSRPOWER!" The focal point of Kiev, the immense and in its stark way beautiful stainless steel arch overlooking the Dnypr river erected not long ago to confirm the "eternal and indissoluble union of the peoples of Russia and the Ukraine", is an acute embarrassment now that the two nations have gone their separate ways.
My first night in the Ukraine was in the unbelievably drab and dirty city of L'vov. I parked in a slot which, though unmarked, was apparently reserved for police vehicles. A payment of US$45 was the only solution to that one. The Ukrainian police are learning their capitalist lessons quickly. With Victor beside me to help out, the maximum number of times we brushed with police in one day was five. But each time we were informed of the traffic violation with smiles; today the Ukrainian police must really be the friendliest guardians of the peace in the world.
The 500 km motorway from L'vov to Kiev looks like any other four lane divided highway: that is, until you drive it. The lanes are much wider, as befits a superpower with military priorities. But U-tums are made from the fast lane, and at some intersections vehicles are permitted to use the fast lane in the "wrong" direction to reach a side turn! There are enforced 30 km/h restrictions in wide open country, and yet 90 km/h city streets in Kiev! Motor bikes may, and usually do, drive against the flow of traffic, but those with sidecars must move with it. Smaller places are well signposted; big cities usually not.
I passed many huge industrial plants, closed and silent, victims of economic change. Often at the side of the motorway, were vendors offering potatoes and apples the size of ping pong balls. Many of the vendors were clearly victims of the Chernobyl disaster. Curiously, the closer to the great city of Kiev, the sparser the motorway traffic. It was a bit eerie, until I realised with some apprehension, that all the petrol stations were either closed or empty. One attendant told us that she had not had petrol for a month. Victor had to deal with that problem. By patient negotiations, diplomacy, and the surreptitious display of a few dollars, he managed to keep the car on the road, though we had few companions.
I settled in the 17-storey Libid Hotel in Kiev. An excursion to the restaurant revealed the dimensions of the Ukrainian food crisis. There was an abundance of waiters, sitting around with that highly satisfied feeling of being useless, but the most they could rustle up was a dry cheese and salami sandwich. To my amazement, the hotel cashier did her sums on an abacus. Victor got me out of there very quickly, and we both stayed with his friends Anatolij and Zina Filipov, whose hospitality and interest were just too wonderful to describe in words.
In Kuchinovka and Tsepeleff
There had been ecclesias in Kuchinovka, Shchors and Tsepeleff, all rural communities about 380 km northwest of Kiev, not far from the Russian border. It was while living in Kuchinovka that Vladimir Doubrovsky, keen Esperantist, acquired from Christadelphians in the UK and Australia some literature which revolutionised his life. This much I knew. We were to learn much more. It was to Kuchinovka that we went first.
Kuchinovka is a large farming village. We were told that there were indeed Brethren in Christ there, and given the address of the home where they met for worship. Momentarily elated, we checked them out. We were received very suspiciously by their elderly leader and his wife. The interview was relatively brief. They were Baptists, not any kind of Brethren. They believed in heaven-going at death, and the trinity. We were quickly categorised as blasphemers. The wife was sure that our very presence defiled the sanctity of God's house, and we were shown the door. Deflated, we moved on.
In Tsepeleff, it was totally different. The former party boss, transformed chameleon-like into a smiling democratic mayor, was just delightful, and assisted us beyond the call of duty. His fascination with our quest in fact rivalled our own. He chauffeured us around the place, introducing us to various people. Sixty-year-old photographs of leading Christadelphians in Tsepeleff were eagerly scanned by excited groups of citizens, as they quickly recognised grandparents, relatives, neighbours and friends of long ago. "That's Vladimir and that's Antonina" (we had not before known Sister Doubrovksy's name). "Look, see Feodor Danilchenko, and there is Agafia" (his wife). Piece by poignant piece, the remarkable Christadelphian story unfolded.
Dmitri Doubrovsky was a Russian Orthodox priest in Kuchinovka. He died in a gulag, a slave labour camp. He had four sons: Vladimir, Alexander, Anatolij and Victor. Vladimir became a priest too, and after he married Antonina from Tsepeleff, he took over the church in Kuchinovka from his father. Anatolij married Veramore about her shortly. While Vladimir was a young priest in Kuchinovka he came across a two-year old copy of the international Esperanto newspaper Heroldo. It contained a very tiny classified advertisement offering the Declaration in Esperanto. He mailed a postcard to Britain, asking if there were any left. He was sent the last remaining copy.
This simple presentation of Bible truth turned the religious world of this village priest upside down. He was baptized, so was Antonina, and other members of the family. He changed the church's basis from the Russian Orthodox liturgy to the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith and taught that faith to his flock, building up a sizeable ecclesia in Kuchinovka. As might have been expected, the Russian Orthodox hierarchy did not take kindly to this revolutionary development. Labelled "a blasphemer", our Brother Vladimir was expelled from Kuchinovka, but he only moved a few kilometres to his wife's native village and proceeded to work the same miracle there.
The Doubrovskys started Bible Classes in their home, and the popularity of these created quite a stir. Feodor Danilchenko was the Orthodox priest in Tsepeleff. He was ordered by the local church authorities to attend the Classes, spy and report back. His interruptions were distracting, so Brother Doubrovsky asked him to keep away. He did, but instead of reporting back he began to preach the truths he had learned openly in his church! Some startled members of his congregation reported the matter to his bishop, who arranged an enquiry and summoned Feodor to appear. He was permitted to have another priest speak for him, and at the enquiry he called on Brother Doubrovsky to do this on his behalf!
Feodor and Agafia were baptized, and the two former priests transformed the Orthodox Church in Tsepeleff, built in 1906, into the largest Christadelphian Hall in the Brotherhood. It is bigger than the Christadelphian Temple in Adelaide. With the BASF as the basis of worship, at least thirty, and probably more, of the congregation were instructed and baptized. Brother Feodor became "chairman" (the word our informants used) of the growing ecclesia.
This old ecclesial hall is still there in Tsepeleff, shaded by a grove of trees. After they had destroyed the ecclesia, the Soviet authorities turned the hall into a flour mill and grain store, which it remains today. We were told that the renascent Orthodox Church in the Ukraine intends shortly to renovate and reconsecrate the building for its own services.
Feodor and Agafia had nine children: Gregori, Gerasim, Mikhail, Olga, Tatyana, Hannah, Anastasia, Serafina and Pelagia. We talked with Gregori's son. Vastly. "/ am sure my father was a member, but he disappeared when I was six years old ... The church members? They all perished. My grandfather Feodor survived the purges, and the war, and died in 1949. When I knew him, he had a beard, not like in the photograph... My grandmother Agafia was the last to fall asleep, in 1954".
It was evident, before long, that brothers and sisters in Tsepeleff, under intense persecution, had witnessed faithfully to the Gospel of grace through a turbulent period of at least twenty-eight years. "Antonina Doubrovsky and her son were sent to Siberia", another lady told us; "So were many others. Some died in labour camps in the Arctic. No one ever came home".
We mentioned the burning down of the log cabin. An old lady waxed eloquent, and sixty-four years fell away as she vividly narrated how she had helped the Doubrovskys vainly endeavour to extinguish the fire.
The mayor took us to the site. "The building was right there", he said, "and that is the cottage that the family built afterwards". It remains there by the roadside, a small cottage unoccupied today, a silent testimony to a giant of faith, beloved leader of others of like steadfastness and courage. About the literature that was saved from the blaze, and the translation of Christendom Astray, neither relatives nor mayor could tell us anything.
A Search in Shchors
We went to the town of Shchors, another ecclesial centre of those times, searching for Brother Vladimir Doubrovsky's sister-in-law Vera. We almost located her, for young citizens of the towna much larger place than the big villages where we had beenwere incredibly helpful, accompanying us for hours, even braving guard dogs to try and wake up the sick and the sleeping. In Shchors, so many people are ill from the Chernobyl disaster, it was chilling. The entire population, there seems no doubt, is slowly and painfully dying or becoming disabled.
We finally located Natasha, a young relative of the Doubrovskys. She knew little about their fate, and less about the literature that we sought. Her lovely eyes are cruelly dimmed by Chernobyl. But as Victor quietly told her about the faith of the Brethren in Christ, those deeply tragic eyes glowed. She was eager to know about the faith that had sustained her relatives through such tragedy and enabled them to live triumphantly. I parted from Natasha with difficulty, and her Chernobyl eyes continue to haunt me with their challenge.
We have not found any books, or manuscripts. Not yet. Victor wonders if the government archives, now partially unclassified, will yield anything. Our earnest prayer is that the "precious" translation of Robert Roberts' God-blessed book will yet appear to work more wonders in His Name.
The Academy of "The Blasphemers"
The drive from Shchors to Kiselin was long 650 kmbut we had much to think and talk about. The task this time seemed more outlandish. We had been blessed in tracing believers who lived only a generation or two ago, in our own century. Now we were seeking evidence of fellow-believers who lived three and a half centuries ago.
I knew that there had been faithful Brethren in the little Ukranian towns of Dazhva and Kiselin in the early 17th century (see "The Most Truly Apostolic Church", The Christadelphian, 1981, pages 93-96). But after so long, in a land with such a troubled history, what hope was there of finding anything now? As the hours of the journey passed, I began to wonder hard if this time I had brought Victor, so keen, willing and sacrificial of his scarce time and money, on a foolish wild goose chase.
Before we even reached Kiselin, we had sniffed out clues. "Yes, there are some ruins there", we were told. The mayor of Kiselin was absolutely marvellous. His knowledge of the history of his town was encyclopaedic. His interest in our quest was deep and genuine.
"Yes, the meeting hall of the Brethren in Christ is still here, and their Academy, which was famous all over the western Ukraine. The regular churches called them 'the blasphemers' because they rejected the trinity and heaven-going and infant baptism, and wouldn't fight the Tatars and the Turks. So they had to school their own children, and they did so well that hundreds of people all over the Ukraine and beyond sent their youngsters to school here. They had a printing press and published their religious literature and school books and even Bibles in Ukrainian and Lithuanian."
We were conducted down an unpaved lane and shown a huge complex of buildingsmajestic even in ruins. Instantly I recognised the characteristic architecture of the Brethren in eastern Europe. There was no doubt at allthis was their centre. I believe that the Assembly Hall of the Kiselin ecclesia is the largest building ever raised for the proclamation of the Faith as we believe it, and the worship of the One God of Israel and His Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the middle of the 17th century the western Ukraine was a fief of the Polish crown. Immensely rich barons known as "magnates" in Ukrainian history, some native Ukrainians, some Polish and Lithuanian, were the landowners. Richest of all were the Lithuanian Radziwills, Roman Catholics whose immense palace of Olyka was only 70 km from Kiselin. On the other hand, the Polish Potockis, not far to the south, and the Nemyrych family who were Ukrainians, were very favourable to the Brethren, offering them sanctuary on their vast lands (see Brethren in Christ, page 136). The Nemyrychs in fact largely funded the buildings in Kiselin.
During the reign of Ladislas IV the Roman Catholics gained the ascendancy that they had plotted for a century to achieve, and the relative religious toleration for which the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was renowned came to an end. The papacy ordered its religious Orders to extirpate heresy by any means. It was the Carmelites who came to Kiselin. They killed or expelled many of the Brethren, despite the efforts of the Nemyrychs to "save them from annihilation" by dispersing them through their vast estates. Just recently a Ukrainian scholar has discovered one of their refuges in the town of Beresko. Then the Carmelites simply took over the Brethren's Assembly Hall, Academy and farms. The classrooms they turned into monks' cells, the Assembly Hall became an abbey church.
"We have no idea where the surviving 'Arian blasphemers' went", the mayor told us, "but recently some documents were found in the city of L'vov. Petr Kralyuk in Lutsk is the man who is studying them. He knows more about the Brethren than anyone else in the Ukraine."
We toured the ruined complex of buildings from which the Word of truth had gone forth four centuries ago. "These buildings which the Brethren built survived intact until the Great Patriotic War" (our World War II), our guide explained. "In those days Kiselin was a big town and several races lived in peace and harmony. Besides Ukrainians and some Poles, there were 2,500 Germans here, and 2,000 Jews. In July 1941 the Nazis came. There was bitter and bloody fighting, and the buildings here were blasted into ruins. Come, let me show you where they took all the Poles, nearly fifty Jews and a couple of Ukrainians and machine-gunned them all into mass graves. All the rest of the Jews were taken to Auschwitz and Sobibor."
Close to the wall of the Academy where our Scriptural faith was taught are burial mounds where Jews, Poles and Ukrainiansmen, women and babes in armslie side by side, victims of the racial hatred and fanaticism that have so blighted our century.
We visited Dazhva, where Piotr Morzkowski, gentle guide of the Brethren in the 17th century, lived, worked and wrote The Agenda, his moving testimony to the faith and life of the Brethren. We could picture, from his description, a typical baptismal ceremony in the 1640s:
"Baptism is administered when the candidates have reached that awareness of the Divine will that they are able to acknowledge the first principles of the Faith. He who must do the baptizing speaks at the beginning, disclosing from the Holy Scriptures the purpose of baptism; and at the same time forcefully reminds alike the members and the candidates of their duty. Then next he walks into the water. The candidates follow him; each kneels in the water and having been taken by the head in such a way that the baptizer places one of his hands on the face and the other on the back part of the head, thoroughly immerses him in the water."
As with us now, the receiving-in followed:
"On the next day, when communion is ordinarily to be celebrated, before the faithful begin to approach the Table of the Lord, those baptized the day before are ordered to stand in the sight of the ecclesia. Then with solemn words of the president, they are grafted into the ecclesia, they are warned of their duty, then vows and prayers are undertaken for them that they might grow in the knowledge of God and the fear of the Lord."
The BrethrenAre They Coming Back Again?
Lingering within the roofless shell of the Kiselin Assembly Hall, we were easily able, with the help of Morzkowski's description, to visualise the Breaking of Bread meeting which, he wrote, "(we) hold in extreme reverence":
"(We) count it a disgrace to be forbidden it, and a misfortune to be prevented otherwise from being present at it. Loaves and wine poured from bottles are partaken of by the faithful, seated sometimes in shifts at the communion table. The solemnity of the rite stems from the feeling that after the penitential preparation on the Saturday before, a kind of renewal of the baptismal vows is affirmed in recalling the death of Christ."
Like the mayor of Tsepeleff, mayor Gregori Miszok of Kiselin was curious: "Are you Brethren going to come back to the Ukraine?" What does one say?
While we were in the big city of Lutsk, the capital of Volhynia province, 70 or so km from Kiselin, the Museum of History put on an exhibit in the foyer. There, captioned clearly, was an enlarged photograph of the Academy of the Brethren in Kiselin. We met Vasily Sokol, who told us about his researches in Kiselin and vicinity. "We are going to make sure", he said, "that the contribution of the Brethren is given its proper place in the new history of the Ukraine that will be studied and taught here. You can be assured of that."
How strange, and heart-stirring. While increasingly scorned and ignored in the affluent "free" West, here in this new nation, struggling to rise again from a century of terrible tragedy, everything we cherish is understood and valued. It keeps worrying me; it will not be brushed aside: Are you Brethren going to come back? (Read about the Ukrainian campaign of 1993 in The Christadelphian and The Bible Missionary.)
(The Christadelphian No. 1541 November 1992, pp.409-414)
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