The need for the gospel is greater than ever in the former Soviet Union. Although Vladimir Putin has verbally promoted the Orthodox Church, most people are still nominal Christians and seventy years of anti-religious propaganda are hard to erase.
On April 26, 1979, 50-year-old Georgi Petrovich Vins was woken up in his cell in the labor camp where he had been serving sentence for four years. He was asked to change into his own clothes, flown to Moscow, then told that he would lose his Russian citizenship and be sent to America.
It was a lot to process. Like his father Peter, he had been a Baptist pastor for most of his life, in spite of constant persecution and frequent imprisonments. His life was in Russia, where he still hoped to bring the gospel in any way possible.
He might have remembered his father’s radical decision to give up his American citizenship in order to join his destiny with the people of Russia. An American passport, Peter thought, made him different from the other pastors and acted as a constant reminder that he, unlike them, had a way out of persecution. Peter was executed in 1937, during his second imprisonment.
But Vins had no choice. His freedom was a result of international pressure in his favor and an agreement between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Vins was scheduled to be sent to America with four other dissidents in exchange for two convicted spies. It was the first exchange of this kind between the two countries.
Vins gave the authorities the names of his immediate family, so they could join him. These included his wife Nadezhda, their five children Natasha, Peter, Lisa, Jane, and Alex, his mother Lydia, and his niece. They met him six weeks later in the States and took residence with him in Elkhart, Indiana. Later, some members of his extended family were able to join him too.
The anti-religious propaganda in Russia started with Lenin, who believed that atheism was the logical outcome of a capitalism-free society. Realizing that an all-out attack to the churches would be counter-productive in a country that was still profoundly religious, Lenin focused on programs that could convince the people that God was a human invention.
These efforts intensified under Joseph Stalin, who promoted the League of the Militant Godless to “storm the heavens” and destroy any religious belief through a mass production of posters, booklets, and films that denied the existence of God.
Churches were turned into museums of atheism. In 1931, the government blew up the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow as a display to the world. While allowing some churches to stay open, they required all Protestants to join together into one denomination, the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (AUCECB).
Those who agreed to the union soon realized that this acceptance came with a long list of restrictions. The government kept the churches under strict supervision, forbidding all activities except for Sunday worship. A ban was issued on all catechism classes, study or prayer groups, and any type of evangelization, including the production and distribution of religious publications. Those who broke these rules were sent to prisons or work camps. Some were killed. Persecution reached an all-time high during the so-called “Great Purge” of 1936-1938.
These measures against churches were temporarily relaxed in the last years of Stalin’s rule and after his death in 1953, but became even stricter six years later, under the rule of Nikita Khrushchev.