Remembering a heroic Russian dissident who challenged Communism and the Orthodox Church.
Father Gleb Pavlovich Yakunin, 80, former Soviet Prisoner of Conscience who became a member of parliament in the first post-Soviet legislature, died on Christmas Day in Moscow. He is survived by his wife, Iraida, his children, Maria, Anna, and Alexander, and six grandchildren.
Born in Moscow, March 4, 1934, Yakunin was an iconic figure in the fight for religious freedom and democracy in the Soviet Union. With the same integrity that he risked his freedom – and even his life – speaking against the Communists, he also spoke against the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) leadership’s collusion with both Soviet and post-Soviet governments. Yakunin’s courageous confrontation with a co-opted Church was largely ignored by churches in the West, even after his accusations proved true – and just the tip of the iceberg, at that!
Ordained in 1962 during Khrushchev’s virulent antireligious crusade, Yakunin saw mass closures of churches and monasteries, and the shameful silence of the Church authorities in the face of Communist oppression. His spiritual mentor and inspiration for entering the priesthood was Father Alexander Men. Men, who was murdered in 1990, was “one of the spiritual giants of Orthdoxy,” according to Russia expert Dr. Kent R. Hill in his book The Puzzle of the Soviet Church: An Inside Look at Christianity & Glastnost.
Yakunin’s first public confrontation with State and Church was in 1965. He and another priest, Nikolai Eshliman, sent an open letter to ROC leader Patriarch Aleksy and to the Soviet government. The 40-page letter decried “not only the persecution of believers but de facto church collusion in this persecution,” according to a memorial tribute by Cathy Young in The Daily Beast.
Kent Hill reveals that this “bold action by the brave priests” was supported by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who said:
I had been delighted to read the protest written by two priests, Eshliman and Yakunin, a courageous, pure, and honest voice in defense of a church which of old had lacked and lacks now both the skill and the will to defend itself. I read, and was envious. Why had I not done something like this myself, why was I so unenterprising?. . . I must do something similar!
Yakunin and Eshliman’s actions were not supported by Orthodox leadership, though. They were defrocked by Aleksy in May 1966, “until they repented their criticism of church leadership.” Eshliman left the priesthood and Yakunin found odd jobs to avoid the charge of “parasitism” until he was reinstated. Anatoli Levitin-Krasnov writes in Letters from Moscow: Religion and Human Rights in the USSR that Yakunin got a job as janitor/watchman in a Moscow church. The KGB realized that the church supervisor, their agent, could not make life as miserable for him as they desired, so Yakunin was fired. Oddly enough, the tiny church became the very first in the whole USSR to have an electric alarm installed, eliminating the need for a night watchman!
Yakunin again began challenging the ROC leadership around 1974, participating in a series of well-publicized letters to the Church, the government, and the world community. In November 1975, Yakunin and a church layman, physicist and mathematician Lev Regelson, appealed to the delegates of the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches (WCC), meeting in Nairobi, challenging them to intervene on behalf of their persecuted brothers and sisters.
KGB agents sought influence in the WCC. Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin’s The Sword and The Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB details the way that the ROC and WCC promoted Soviet front organizations such as the World Peace Council and the Christian Peace Conference that were attempting to “mobilize worldwide Christian support for the ‘peace policies’ of the Soviet Union.” The books says that in 1955 Aleksy had declared, “The Russian Orthodox Church supports the totally peaceful foreign policy of our government, not because the Church allegedly lacks freedom, but because Soviet policy is just and corresponds to the Christian ideals which the Church preaches.” This went over well with the Religious Left that saw the West, and particularly America, as the threat to world peace.
In December 1992, Stan De Boe and Kent Hill wrote for The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) that a July 1983 KBG report revealed that 47 of the delegates sent to the WCC Sixth General Assembly in Vancouver were “agents of the KGB who are religious authorities, clergy, and technical personnel.” No wonder there was no effectual response to Yakunin and Regelson’s letter from the Nairobi Assembly.
In 1976 Yakunin founded the Christian Committee for the Defense of the Rights of Believers in the USSR, a counterpart to the Moscow Helsinki Watch. According to Religious Diversity and Human Rights, the committee’s “interdenominational concern with the rights of all believers, not just Orthodox, reflected the extent to which the Orthodox rights movement had been shaped by the general human rights movement.” The Sword and The Shield adds that the Soviet regime considered the committee “the most serious act of public defiance within the Orthodox Church” and the KGB reported, “Yakunin and his associates are . . . in a struggle with the existing order in the USSR. . . proclaiming a national religious revival in Russia as an alternative to Marxist-Leninist ideology.”
By 1908, the Christian Committee collected over eleven volumes (1189 pages of Russian text) documenting human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. These documents reached the West, were published, and used for advocacy and education. Yakunin was arrested for this dissident activity.
Fellow Orthodox Christian, Alexander Ogorodnikov’s biography, Dissident for Life, tells that the trials of Yakunin and others took place the day after the Moscow Olympics closing ceremonies, August 3, 1980. On August 28, Yakunin was convicted under “the notorious Article 70, of ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’” and sentenced to 5 years strict regime camp and 5 years internal exile. “I rejoice that the Lord has sent me this test,” Yakunin told the court. “As a Christian I accept it gladly.”
Yakunin was first imprisoned at the KGB Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, then in Perm Camp 35, deep in the Ural Mountains. Solzhenitsyn wrote in 1983 that in this gulag Yakunin was held in a “freezing stone cubicle without bed, clothes or food.” And the late New York Times editor, A. M. Rosenthal, wrote of his visit to Perm 35 in December 13, 1988:
Perm 35 is part of the chain of prisons, labor camps, insane asylums and frozen villages of exile where Soviet governments locked away those who opposed them in word or thought – sometimes for decades.
Finally, Yakunin was exiled “to a remote village in the Republic of Yakutia,” a region under snow for two-thirds of the year, with temperatures as low as -60C degrees. But his exile was cut short in March 1987 by peristroyka under Mikhail Gorbachev, and in 1990 he was elected to the first genuinely-elected Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation. He was deputy chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for the Freedom of Conscience and co-authored the “freedom of all denominations” law that was used to reopen churches and monasteries throughout the country.
Yakunin visited Washington, DC in March 1992 with fellow parliamentarian Lev Ponomaryov. Ponomaryov, a physicist and human rights activist, led the commission to investigate the KGB files. At a Capitol Hill press conference, he and Yakunin formally released the secret documents that confirmed the link between the KGB and the Russian Orthodox Church.
IRD reported of the press conference:
Father Gleb knows the names of collaborators with the KGB, but does not want to name them publicly. It is his wish that the church deal with this matter internally, and that those who worked with the KGB will openly confess their sins. Father Gleb wants to see repentance in his church.
Church leadership once again dealt with the issue by defrocking Yakunin, ostensibly for holding political office. He had again won election in 1993, this time to the first parliament of the new independent Russia. He was excommunicated and anathematized in 1997 for “anti-church activities” and for the continued defiance of wearing priestly vestments in spite of being defrocked. He was also condemned for associating with a breakaway Ukrainian church, the Kiev Patriarchate, and for creating another breakaway church, the Apostolic Orthodox Church.
In her tribute, Young explains, “In this new Russia where belonging to the church has become a badge of loyalty to the state, Yakunin remained as much of a rebel as he had been under the Soviet regime in which loyal citizenship required militant atheism.” Father Gleb said that it was a missed opportunity for a “post-Communist spiritual revival” in Russia.
The neglect of Soviet Christians and other dissidents like Yakunin should have taught Western churches not to ignore the global persecution of fellow believers. The penetration by the KGB of the Orthodox and other registered churches in Russia, and of the World Council of Churches, should have served as a cautionary tale of how easily churches and organizations can be infiltrated by enemies of the Gospel and how that infiltration can have ramifications far outside the churches. Instead, both of these circumstances seem to have foretold even more dire circumstances today.
Today there are “Father Glebs” in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, Sudan, and elsewhere, self-sacrificially speaking out for the persecuted. When they hear these voices, does the Western Church care?
There are messenger today who are warnings churches and organizations who compromise Scripture in order to create false similarities between Jesus Christ and the Isa of the Koran. When met with these warnings, some church and organization leaders seem to wish they could send the annoying messengers to a gulag for the “intolerant”!
How different the churches in the West could be today if they truly saw persecuted believers as their brothers and sisters, and if they understood that naïve submission to syncretism is as dangerous to the world as was the WCC’s naïve, one-sided focus on threat of nuclear weapons. Transforming Western churches is not impossible. The lesson of Father Gleb Yakunin is that changing the churches, like changing the world, takes courage, hard work, self-sacrifice, and most of all, not missing the opportunity for spiritual revival.
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