Those of us who worry about such things today see Islamist supremacism as the greatest threat to freedom in general and to religious freedom in particular. Not long ago, though, that particular honor belonged to Soviet-style Communism. The Soviet Union seemed unstoppable. And freedom for those who languished in the Gulag? Many prayed for this, but when freedom came it was still quite a shock.
I still remember the shock of joy I felt at the news of the release of one such prisoner in February of 1987. Christian dissident Alexander Ogorodnikov had spent almost nine years in the Gulag for his leadership of the Christian Seminar, an underground movement that had sprung up in answer to the needs of young Christians of many denominations who had found faith in Jesus Christ and were hungry for a way of following Him in their daily lives that the institutional churches could not offer. It was because of this authenticity and practicality that the movement, which encompassed thousands across Russia, so threatened the Communist authorities that they arrested and imprisoned its leaders.
For years advocates had prayed, written letters to Congress, and sent “Return Receipt Requested” missives to Soviet government authorities and Gulag officials on Ogorodnikov’s behalf. At conferences and special gatherings we all added our names and personal messages on letters to Ogorodnikov himself – which he rarely received, but of which the Soviet authorities kept meticulous track.
In late 1986, I was one of a few dozen participants in a conference at Princeton University, hosted by Dr. Ernest Gordon, retired dean of the school’s chapel, and founder of the Christian Rescue Effort for the Emancipation of Dissidents (CREED). Rolling his R’s in disgust as only a Scotsman can do, Gordon read aloud a letter that Ogorodnikov had written to his mother in May, but only now had reached the West. As a former Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders infantry regiment officer and prisoner of the Japanese during WWII, on the Burma Railway, Gordon understood Ogorodnikov’s agony.
Ogorodnikov was in the depths of despair. He had already been in Soviet prison camp for seven and a half years. We were heartbroken as Gordon read how Ogorodnikov begged his mother to appeal to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet to order his execution by firing squad. As an Orthodox Christian, he would not commit suicide. “This is the only way for me to end the prospect of lifelong, painfully slow torture,” Ogorodnikov explained.
Soviet authorities intended to break Ogorodnikov because of his refusal to compromise, be silent, or even leave the Soviet Union rather than be sent to the Gulag as they had suggested when he was arrested in 1978. He suffered from malnutrition and related diseases. As a result of beatings and other mistreatment he was left partially paralyzed in his face and arm. His eyesight was also damaged because of the deliberate darkening of his cell.
Frequently Ogorodnikov was thrown into the shizo, punishment cell, where the temperature was below freezing. He wrote to his mother that he was “systematically deprived of books” and “constantly tortured by hunger and cold.” He revealed that he was forbidden to pray and that his cross had been brutally torn from his neck 30 times.
“I have spent a total of 659 days on hunger strikes to protest their refusal to let me have a Bible and a prayer book,” he said. Forced feedings were often administered brutally during hunger strikes. The Soviet government had destroyed Ogorodnikov’s marriage to Yelena Levashova, the mother of his son, Dima, pressuring her to leave him by indicating that he would never be free. And they made him feel alone and forgotten by the world and his fellow Christians by keeping from him all the letters that had been sent to him over the years.
There was deep concern over Ogorodnikov’s fate in the notorious Perm Camp 36 if the United States and the world community did not intervene. And the United States and the world did – including President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who successfully linked human rights to national security in their foreign policy. On February 14, 1987, Ogorodnikov was informed that General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had personally ordered his release. Later that year, I met Ogorodnikov – the flesh-and-blood answer to prayer – when he was the surprise guest at Dr. Gordon’s next CREED conference.
After his release, Ogorodnikov never rested. He fought for justice for other dissidents and raised funds to take care of those who had been physically and/or mentally broken by the Gulag. He also ministered to Armenian refugees who had fled from Islamist-dominated Nagorno-Karabakh. Even in freedom he was constantly harassed by the KGB, but he continued his work. He founded a new political party, the Christian Democratic Party, and an associated organization, the Christian Democratic Union of Russia (CDUR) that established the first private school in the Soviet Union.
In January of 1991, I was part of church two-week mission team to Moscow to encourage and help Ogorodnikov as he prepared to open the first soup kitchen in the Soviet Union. Ogorodnikov took us to see the building that would serve as the new soup kitchen, and he took us to see orphans in State custody that would soon be taken care of in a private, Christian orphanage. Our team provided hundreds of pounds of food to Ogorodnikov and his helpers who were already feeding the homeless on the streets and in the train station and feeding the old-age pensioners in their own flats. Our presence was also a declaration to the Soviet authorities that Ogorodnikov had friends and supporters of all that he was doing for Russia.
My meeting with Sasha.
A new biography Dissident for Life: Alexander Ogorodnikov and the Struggle for Religious Freedom in Russia, by Koenraad De Wolf (English edition 2013, Eerdmans) is a tribute to Ogorodnikov and all of those steadfast believers – in freedom, in human dignity, in God – “crushed, but not destroyed” by the Soviets. Their oppression and persecution was eloquent testimony, exposing the lies at the foundation of the Communism system and helping to bring down its edifice.
Dissident for Life brought back all the memories of my own experience of Alexander Ogorodnikov. But it also made me reflect on the significance of that experience as I had never realized while it was happening and wonder what experiences, what relationships in today’s ongoing cosmological fight for our freedom may ultimately be those that will make a similar difference.
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