I had the honor of doing research in the Keston Archive while I was at Baylor University from April 19th to May 17th, 2014. My interest in documents from the Soviet era was productive in responding to the practical needs of developing post-Soviet missiology and social theology for Evangelical churches.
But observing the tendencies in the lives of post-Soviet evangelical churches, it was hard to get rid of the feeling that the mistakes of unlearned lessons from the Soviet past were hindering full-scale development and decisive change. There is still a lack of balanced social teaching in missiology, which is fraught with unprincipled dissimulation or stubborn isolationism. There is still a lack of brotherly ties between the successors of the All-Union of Evangelical Christians – Baptists (AUECB) and Union of Churches of Evangelical Christians – Baptists (UCECB). History is still used as a tool for self-defense and leveling accusations against others.
Leaving questions of historical truth and justice to others, I believe that a wider perspective on the relationship between the AUECB and the UCECB would be both justified and useful as a dialectic for different church models. In a certain sense they were truly a single brotherhood, in different formats. Documents from that era convey a sense of unity, the pain of separation, efforts at dialogue, and an understanding of the incompatibility of approaches, and speculation regarding their complementarity.
I am thankful to the leadership of the Keston Institute for the opportunity to once again immerse myself in original sources and release some of them into academic circulation, but most importantly – for the opportunity to touch the past, to partially experience history, and partially decode its paper trail. The Keston Archive is a unique collection of materials on the lives and survival of the church in Soviet society. A majority of the documents and publications are united, it seems to me, by one theme – a dialectic of dominant and subdominant, official and oppositional, government and catacomb forms of religion, adaptational and reformational processes in Soviet society. In an article that I will write based on my research in the Keston archives, I intend to show demonstrate dialectic using the example of Baptist churches. I planned to find in the documents various models of missions and missiology, but such data is buried in the mass of douments on repression and a fight for survival of churches. Therefore the topic of missions is secondary, written into the general plan of church ministry – adaptational, in the case of the AUECB, and defensive, in the case of UCECB.
Today’s look to the past for models of churches and survival strategies cannot be considered merely an expression of curiosity. Totalitarianism was not totally cut off, but has rather found new means of expression. As before, Evangelical churches experience pressure from the government and the state-approved church. Some days they choose accommodation, fitting in, and a policy of compromise, while other days conflict, division, and war with the world. Studying the history of division and unsuccessful dialogue between various evangelical movements can provide a good basis for working on fixing mistakes and renewing relations. I discovered two interesting documents: “A Call to Christian Ecumenists, 1972” (USSR/Bap 22) and “Brotherly suggestions from leaders of independent Baptist churches to fellow workers in Baptist unions, 17 October, 1988 (Kuksenko Y.F., Shaptala M.T., Shumeiko F.A.)” (SU/Bap 22). One of them was prepared in the back rooms of the AUECB, while the other by leaders of the formerly “separate” independent churches. It is noteworthy that both for various reasons and in various circumstances came to the same conclusion about the complementary nature of dominant and subdominant forms of religion and suggested new formats of unity – not in a single structure, but in a single missionary and socio-theological vision.
These documents are worthy of attention and discussion by church leaders. Unfortunately, the development of church unions after the fall of the Soviet Union did not follow a path of demarginalization, culture building, theological analysis, and historical evaluation, but instead it followed a path of qualitative and political competition, further divergence one from another and adaptation to an up-and-down market and immature democracy (as before, some conform, fitting into the new order while others are driven into even further isolation).
I am grateful to the Keston Institute for gathering these materials and for affording me the opportunity to work with them. Your careful and responsible treatment of history helps researchers and those who read these texts (experts, church leaders, politicians, journalists, teachers) to remember and gradually evaluate it.
As I wrote in the archive’s guest book, working with these documents not only helps illustrate working hypotheses, but also formulates a whole picture of that epoch, and gives a living feeling of that time, its questions and events.
Some documents – letters of children of Christian parents to their mothers – I showed to my own children, to help them remember the price paid by believers in the Soviet Union for their faith: arests, fines, firings, and discrimination against children in school. This was experienced by my own parents and to some degree by my brothers and sisters. Now this history has been archived, and it is the task of some to store it and others to make it known and instructive.
My hope is that the collection will continue to grow, and to include documents of the post-Soviet period as well, to allow, through documents, comparison of Soviet and post-Soviet religion and history.