During Soviet days the authorities arrested and imprisoned my father, a pastor. He was sentenced to be executed, but Russia was constructing something above the Arctic Circle, so Stalin sent him and other prisoners up there to work in the cold. When he returned home, aged and sick, after 19 years, he learned that his wife and two sons had died. So he remarried and started a new family—my family. My father was 54 years old when I was born.
I heard many stories like this on a recent trip to Eastern Europe, a region still emerging from the dark days of Soviet domination. Ukraine, Belarus, and Hungary sit alongside one another to the west of Russia, but there the similarity ends, as I saw on my visit to each country.
Ukraine has shed its communist past and is actively fighting Russian mercenaries, who seized the Crimean peninsula and are seeking to annex more territory. In the capital city of Kiev, empty pedestals mark where statues of Lenin once stood. Twice—in the Orange Revolution of 2004 and in a massive street protest in 2014—Ukrainians rose up against a corrupt, pro-Russian government.
A bearded guide named Oleg led me through memorials to the “Heavenly Hundred” (actually 130) killed by snipers firing from government buildings during the 2014 uprising. “This was an internet revolution,” he said. “As word spread online, taxis began offering free rides to protesters from all over the city. I set up a prayer tent in the midst of half a million protesters and spent 67 days there. We provided a place for prayer and distributed bread and hot tea to activists and police alike. And now I make trips to the front lines in an armored van, ferrying supplies of food and water to the soldiers and civilians caught up in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.”
In a striking contrast Belarus, Ukraine’s neighbor to the north, remains one of Russia’s closest allies. The KGB occupies one of the largest, most imposing buildings in the capital city of Minsk, and no one has dared remove statues of Soviet heroes. There, I spoke at a leadership conference of 600 young professionals who came from fourteen countries that were previously part of the Soviet Union. The conference was conducted in the language everyone understood, Russian, a holdover from Soviet days.
The attendees had gathered to learn how they could best use their Christian influence within societies steeped in a tradition of atheism. “Choose your words carefully,” my hosts advised, “for KGB agents will certainly be present, monitoring what goes on.” A tall blonde woman who works for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Belarus told me of her earlier arrest and interrogation, followed by four nerve-wracking court appearances, for holding unregistered meetings.
Hungary, my final stop, has always resisted Soviet domination. After an armed revolt failed in 1956, Hungarians reluctantly accepted a milder form of communism, which they called “Goulash Communism.” They now exult in freedom: knocking down statues of communist heroes, dressing in the latest fashions, and joining the West as a member of the European Union.
AMONG THE GYPSIES
In Ukraine I spoke at a Gypsy camp called Tabor. The Gypsies, or Roma people, have recently experienced a spiritual revival. I met one leader who oversees 55 Gypsy churches. Charities in Europe and the U.S. send a steady supply of aid to the Tabor camp, which needs the help. Located in a dusty field outside of town, Tabor is home to 10,000 Gypsies. The scene reminded me of villages in Africa or rural Latin America: slapdash mud houses, stick fences, horse-drawn carts, stray dogs, children playing in the dirt roads.
Gypsies are the most abused minority in Europe. Hitler tried to exterminate them along with the Jews, Stalin forcibly resettled them, and even now far-right groups target the camps with acts of violence. Gypsy families don’t see much point in sending their kids to school, where they are usually bullied, and as a result few manage to escape the cycle of poverty. They survive by trading goods in the local bazaar, combing through garbage for recyclables, or earning their reputation as thieves.
The church where I spoke had bare concrete floors and walls, with no hint of decoration. “See the building next door?” said one of the pastors, pointing to an identical concrete structure. “We heard about some homeless families living in the camp, so we built it—and ten families promptly moved in. They all live together in the same ‘house,’ Gypsy-style.”
The Tabor church looks for ways to improve life for the Gypsies. When the city cut off the water supply, the congregation dug a community well and ran plastic water pipes through the camp. The church also feeds several hundred kids a day, operates a clinic, and offers alternative education classes. Gypsy children have a native talent for music and art, and kids in a painting workshop were busily preparing for an exhibition of their work in a Parliament building.
Speaking to the Gypsies proved challenging, as they tend to get up and wander around, or look at their phones, and show few signs of paying attention. Still, there is indeed a kind of revival going on, and I heard stirring stories of deliverance from crime, drug addiction, and alcohol. I’ve rarely heard such vigorous singing as when the Gypsy band led the congregation in praise choruses.
A SHADOW OF DEATH
In all three countries I spoke on the topic of a book I wrote several decades ago, Where Is God When It Hurts. With good reason: this part of the world is an epicenter of suffering. Belarus lost one-fourth of its citizens to the Second World War. And 400,000 Jews in Hungary died in the Holocaust.
The capital of Ukraine alone suffered a million casualties—more than the total number of American casualties in the entire war. I stood on a hill overlooking the site where so many died in two fierce battles. Then I toured the Famine Museum, a memorial to the seven million Ukrainians who later died of starvation when Soviets took over their farms and confiscated their crops.
The following day I visited a gassy ravine at the edge of the city. Today Babi Yar is a park, a peaceful sylvan setting nestled in a neighborhood of shops and houses; but the very name conjures up scenes of horror. When the Nazis occupied Kiev, they ordered all Jews to report there to meet a train that would take them to a better place. “They are to bring with them documents, money, valuables, as well as warm clothes, underwear, etc. Any Jews not carrying out this instruction and who are found elsewhere will be shot,” the order read.
When the Jews reached Babi Yar, however, SS soldiers stripped them of all their belongings, even their clothes. Next the Nazis made the terrified, naked Jews run a gauntlet of soldiers with clubs. Finally, they lined them up at the edge of a cliff and machine-gunned them.
For two days, morning till night, the SS mowed down row after row of helpless civilians, including women, children, and the elderly. A clean-up crew strode among the bodies at the bottom of the gorge, firing into the necks of any who still showed signs of life. Around 22,000 died the first day and 12,000 the second. Twenty-nine Jews survived by jumping into the ravine atop the bodies and playing dead, then at night crawling out through the dirt that the Germans had spread over the corpses.
Babi Yar was Hitler’s first act of mass murder in his genocidal campaign against the Jews. Over the next few months the Germans used the same ravine as a killing ground for more than 100,000 Ukrainians, Gypsies, homosexuals, prisoners of war, and mental patients.
I walked the length of the park, trying to imagine the inhumanity that could execute such a deed. Among the memorials, one dominates: a huge bronze sculpture depicting the anguish of the captives herded together, awaiting their turn to die. We happened to visit two days after the 77th anniversary of the massacre, and a front-end loader was collecting the piles of wilted floral displays that the Ukrainian President and others had placed beside the monument.
OUT OF THE ASH HEAP
Despite the region’s dark past, under both fascism and communism, I saw signs of new life in the churches of Eastern Europe—from Gypsy camps to university halls to cathedrals. U. S. President Ronald Reagan had predicted in 1982, “freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history” ( reversing the famous phrase from Leon Trotsky). He could have added the resurgence of religion.
Many of the conversion stories I heard came from people raised in atheist homes. Tatiana, my interpreter in Belarus, recounted her mother’s conversion at age 13. “My mother’s parents, both Soviet doctors, were furious and embarrassed, thinking she had joined a sect. Their medical colleagues shamed them for raising a Christian daughter. My grandfather beat her mercilessly, but she never backed down. Once he attacked her in blind fury, beating her with a belt buckle. She prayed for a miracle—not that he would stop the beating, but that she would feel no pain. She said God answered her prayer: she felt like she was floating above the scene, watching her own face, which showed fear but no pain.”
Tatiana added, “I grew up awed by my mother’s faith, which remained strong in a time of oppression.” At that night’s meeting I met Tatiana’s mother, an elegant woman in her sixties. She was an exception, for most audiences I spoke to were full of young people, exactly the opposite pattern from Western Europe, where most of the faithful have gray hair. In the large, historic churches of countries like Spain, France, and Italy, tourists far outnumber the worshipers.
For decades in Eastern Europe, the church went underground. Soviets closed thousands of churches and emptied out others by their restrictive laws. An entire generation grew up with little knowledge of the Gospel. Yet the flame of faith never died out.
In Hungary I visited the site of a former Soviet labor camp, now a park with a modern chapel commemorating those who had been imprisoned. There, my guide told me the story of Barna, a prominent pastor she knew. “His mother was pregnant when the communists sent her husband, Barna’s father, to this camp. She gave birth to Barna and raised him as a single mother. She could visit the camp and see her husband through a window, but no communication was allowed. So she exhaled in the cold until a fog covered the window, then wrote the name, Barna, in the condensation. That’s how the prisoner knew he had a son.”
“Later she hid a photo of young Barna in a slab of bacon and cheese and smuggled it into the prison. The photo got torn in the process, and so for six years the father believed his child was missing one arm. He prayed that Barna would find a profession he could do with his apparent disability. Upon his release, he met his son for the first time and was overjoyed to find his son not disabled at all. ‘My father’s prayer was answered,’ Barna likes to say now. ‘I became a pastor, able to turn the Bible pages with one arm if I have to!’”
The same guide, a young woman in her thirties, recalled her own father smuggling Bibles from Hungary into stricter Soviet countries, such as Romania. “There were seven of us kids, and my father was the headmaster of a Christian school, so we had to be extra careful. Even in Hungary he was called in for interrogation several times. When we drove the Bibles across a border, each of us kids had an assignment to help distract the guards. My sister and I acted like we were sleeping, stretched out on a mattress that covered the Bibles. I learned to keep my eyes shut and feign sleep even when the guards shone lights in my face. If things got tense, some of my sisters would start crying on cue.”
I asked her how many of the seven kids were still active believers. “All of them,” she said, expressing surprise at such a question. Indeed, as I talked to young Eastern Europeans who were raised in Christian homes, almost all of them had followed the example of their parents. They had seen the cost of living openly as a Christian under Soviet rule—bullying, no admission to universities, employment discrimination—and concluded that their parents had something worth clinging to.
Now, with the religious freedom that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, churches are filling up again, this time with young, enthusiastic believers. Twice I spoke in historic churches packed with 1,300 in attendance, and very few gray-hairs among them. Some, disillusioned with the failures of Marxism, eagerly embraced the Good News. Others are carrying the torch of their parents, whose faith survived persecution.
Breaking out of stuffy traditionalism, their leaders look to the United States for inspiration in worship styles and ways of making faith more practical and relevant. “Only one thing worries us,” said one young pastor: “we don’t want our generation to follow the same path of self-indulgence and entertainment that we see in the West. We’ve already tried one system that failed us. We don’t want to try another.”
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