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Obituary: Canon Michael Bourdeaux

16 April 2021

Canon Andrew Lenox-Conyngham writes:

IN TWO letters to Canon Michael Bourdeaux in June 2019, it was written: “You were the champion of our suffering voice that was being smothered by the heavy burden of communism!” and “In the bitter years of our struggle against communist oppression, you raised your voice in our defence, your work lightened our burden, and your true compassion shaped our fates.” All of this came about through an event that happened to Bourdeaux 55 years earlier.

He had received a copy of documents, written “in semi-legible and uneducated hands”, by two women, describing the attacks upon the Pochaev Monastery in Ukraine. This was in the “black quinquennium”, the five years of religious persecution initiated by Khrushchev, and also at the time when several Western ecclesiastics were eagerly lapping up the assurances of Russian religious leaders that everything was perfectly “normal”, and would they kindly mind not rocking the boat?

Shortly after receiving these documents, Bourdeaux, who had been a student in Russia earlier, returned to Moscow and went to visit for himself the site of a church that had been recently destroyed by the communists. Two women were also there, looking at the site. He approached them and asked them about the state of religion in the country. They told him to follow them.

Once in a flat, where they were staying, they questioned him further on his interest. Bourdeaux mentioned the documents. They asked, who wrote them? With some hesitation, he mentioned the names, Feodosia and Yefrosinia. As Bourdeaux describes it in his memoirs, One Word of Truth, “Their faces turned white. There was a stunned silence, then a cry, muffled in tears: ‘We wrote those documents. I’m Feodosia and this is Yefrosinia.’”

From this extraordinary beginning sprang Bourdeaux’s life work. The women gave him further documents and said: “Take these documents back, then be our voice, and speak for us.”

“Speaking for them” led to the founding of the Centre for the Study of Religion and Communism in 1969, which soon moved to the village of Keston, in Kent, and became known as Keston College. Sir John Lawrence, Professor Peter Reddaway, and Professor Leonard Schapiro were all instrumental in helping Bourdeaux in this work. The speciality of the College was receiving and analysing documents, mostly samizdat (self-published) material, on the state of religion — including the situation of Muslims in the Soviet Union — in communist countries, and publicising them in the free world. When there was good news, that was reported just as zealously as the highlighting of the numerous cases of repression and persecution which occurred. There was no other organisation in the world which undertook so enormous a task on such slender resources.

Total academic objectivity of the highest standard was the characteristic of the College’s work. All this was made possible by the team of devoted supporters and workers of Keston, among them Xenia Dennen, who had worked with Bourdeaux since 1967 and is the current Chairman of Keston Institute (as it is now known) — Keston’s debt to her is incalculable — also, Jane Ellis, the founder of Aid to Russian Christians (now ChildAid), Alyona Kojevnikov, Victoria Watts, Malcolm Walker, Roland Smith, Philip Walters, and many others. The 50th anniversary of the College’s foundation was celebrated in November 2019, with an outstanding address by Bishop Rowan Williams on “Why Religious Freedom Matters” (Features, 29 November 2019).

I know from my 12 journeys to Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Romania between 1974 and 1988 how much Christians of those countries, Catholic, Orthodox, and Baptist, wanted the actual situation of their religious life — not the anodyne version given out by their leaders — to be publicised in the West. They especially wanted people to know of the growth of defiance of their communist rulers which increased after the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978. Of this new spirit, Keston was one of the leading channels of publicity. It was an extraordinary achievement.

Michael Bourdeaux was born on 19 March 1934, and died on 29 March 2021, aged 87. He studied Russian as part of his National Service. He began concentrating on what became his life’s work shortly after finishing his curacy. In 1983, his work was recognised by his being awarded the Templeton Prize, and his work was further commemorated at a reception at which Margaret Thatcher delivered the main speech.

With the collapse of communism in 1989, there was inevitably a change in the direction of the College’s activity. The College was based for a time in Oxford, and then the invaluable archive of its materials — probably the most extensive collection of samizdat and similar material in the world — was moved to Baylor University, in Texas, where it is maintained under the expert directorship of Professor Kathy Hillman. Some of these archives are reproduced in the volume Voices of the Voiceless: Religion, communism and the Keston archive, extensively described by Richard Chartres, a former Bishop of London, in his review of Bourdeaux’s memoirs in the Church Times (Books, 12 June 2020).

Bourdeaux’s first wife was Gillian (née Davies), who died in 1978, when she was only 44. In 1979, he married Lorna (née Waterton), who followed Gillian in supporting Bourdeaux in his work and especially in the writing and editing of his memoirs, One Word of Truth. The title comes from Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize speech, in 1970, “One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world.Bourdeaux’s memoirs were the last of his many publications, which began with The Opium of the People in 1965 and covered a vast range of religious topics in the communist world of the time. Gorbachev, Glasnost and the Gospel (1990) was one of the most outstanding.

One Word of Truth is a vital document for anyone studying the years of the Cold War. In his review of Bourdeaux’s memoirs in an article for the Center for European Policy Analysis of 20 April 2020, Edward Lucas, the Times columnist who knew Bourdeaux well, wrote of the contrast that the memoirs drew between the East and the West. “On the one hand there was moral clarity, the belief that the truth matters above all; that freedom is not on a spectrum with slavery, but fundamentally different from it. On the other side of the East-West divide was woolly language and thought, cowardly evasions, and bureaucratic buck-passing.”

No study of the tense period of the Cold War, especially of its last 20 climactic years, could be complete without a study of the experience and insights of Bourdeaux as recounted in his memoirs. For that, his name will remain in history.

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