THE title of Michael Bourdeaux’s autobiography is taken from the speech that Alexander Solzhenitsyn composed but was not able to deliver in person when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. In a new era of fake news and media manipulation, Solzhenitsyn’s clarion call is profoundly resonant. He declared that “The simple step of a simple courageous man is not to partake in falsehood, not to support false action.” It was in that spirit that Bourdeaux established the Centre for the Study of Religion and Communism, later better known as Keston College.
In his mid-eighties, reviewing a life that has taken him from an idyllic Cornish childhood in Praze-an-Beeble, Bourdeaux tells the story of how he came to be the voice of believers oppressed by State Atheism.
It is hard not to see the hand of Providence in the various chances that led, first, to his studying Russian during his National Service and then to spending a formative year, 1959-60, as a British Council student in the Soviet Union, just at a time when the active persecution of Christian believers had been renewed.
He was ordained in December 1960, having been instructed in those unenlightened days to shave off his beard before becoming a curate in Enfield.
Having been alerted to the persecution of the monks of the Pochaev monastery in the Ukraine, he went to Russia in 1964 in search of further evidence. Visiting the site of a recently destroyed church in Moscow, he fell in with three elderly women believers, babushki. He was interrogated about his purpose in visiting Russia and he told them about the Pochaev documents. It was an extraordinary moment. They proved to be the authors of the appeal describing the torture of the Abbot and the use of drugs and imprisonment in mental institutions to break some of the other monks. Their appeal was simple: “Be our voice and speak for us.” With this call, the course of Bourdeaux’s subsequent life was set.
Eventual publication of further documents from Pochaev prevented the closure of the monastery. It was a valuable lesson about the potency of international publicity in influencing the Soviet regime at a time when the preference of so many official bodies was for quiet diplomacy.
Bourdeaux’s first book, Opium of the People, was published in 1965 and serialised in the Church Times at a modest ten guineas an extract.
The self-publishing of material banned by the State is known as “samizdat”, and, as the flow of such material increased, Keston College was established in 1969. The next 20 years were the heyday of Keston, which became a trusted source of information on religious persecution, a subject on which most Western “experts” were ill-equipped and often little interested to comment.
Inevitably, there were also attacks on Keston, whose objective reporting attracted close and hostile attention from the Soviet authorities and from elements in the Ecumenical Movement. The Russian Orthodox Church had joined the World Council of Churches in 1961, and its representatives proved remarkably successful at keeping Soviet persecution of believers off the agenda.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is seen by many as the turning point when the Soviet Empire began to unravel, but Bourdeaux believes that the crucial year was really 1988, when the Russian Orthodox Church was permitted to celebrate in public the Millennium of the Baptism of Prince Vladimir the ruler of Kievan Rus.
He decided to retire in 1999 after three decades creating and leading Keston. Fortunately, the Keston Archive was preserved and is now at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Some of its treasures are presented in a handsomely produced, illustrated volume Voices of the Voiceless: Religion, Communism and the Keston Archive. The collection includes the extraordinary transcript of the trial of a Leningrad Baptist, Aida Mikhailovna Skripnikova. It is written in ballpoint pen on linen bedsheets cut into long narrow strips.
As well as descriptions of some of the original documents preserved in the archive there are brief essays on significant events, such as Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland in 1979, and also on lesser-known individuals who contributed to the struggle for religious freedom in Eastern Europe. One of the most moving illustrations is of a list of more than 17,000 signatures of the courageous people who in 1971 protested against Soviet oppression of religion and signed “The Memorandum of the Lithuanian Catholic Church”. It has since become a treasure of national significance. Bourdeaux travelled to Kaunus in 2007 to restore it to the keeping of the church.
Work at the Michael Bourdeaux Research Centre in Texas continues. New materials are being acquired and under the direction of Xenia Dennen, who has overseen the move to Baylor and whose association with Keston goes back to 1967, a new Russian edition of an “Encyclopaedia of Religion in Russia Today” is being prepared for publication.
When the 50th anniversary of Keston was celebrated last year, a message came from Alexander Ogorodnikov, one of the Orthodox voices enabled to communicate to a wider world through the work of Bourdeaux’s creation. “You were the champion of our suffering voice that was being smothered by the heavy burden of Communism.”
The Rt Revd Lord Chartres is a former Bishop of London.
One Word of Truth: The Cold War memoir of Michael Bourdeaux and Keston College
Church Times Bookshop £18
Voices of the Voiceless: Religion, Communism, and the Keston archive
Julie deGraffenried and Zoe Knox, editors
Baylor University Press £28.99
Church Times Bookshop £27.89