When the Walls Came Down

In 1979, the year I graduated from college, Georgi Vins was expelled from the Soviet Union. Georgi Vins was a Russian Baptist pastor persecuted for his involvement with a network of Baptist Churches in the Soviet Union. His father, Peter Vins, had been an American citizen and a Mennonite who had traveled to Siberia in 1928 as a missionary. He was arrested in 1930, freed three years later, and then arrested again in 1935. Following that arrest, he was executed barely a year later.

Georgi Vins was raised by his mother. Following the end of World War II they moved to Kiev, where Georgi Vins became involved with the Baptists. Beginning in 1959 Khrushchev imposed new regulations on the Baptists. Georgi Vins became one of the leading figures in the campaign to resist that state pressure. When his pastor accepted the new restrictions, Vins publically opposed him and formed his own breakaway congregation that began meeting in the forest outside Kiev.

In 1965, he helped organize the Council of Churches, an underground body made up of the Baptist congregations that refused to accept government interference. Hundreds of Baptists wound up in prison. Vins was the General Secretary of the movement when hundreds of Baptists converged from all over the Soviet Union for a mass demonstration outside the Central Committee building in Moscow. Many were arrested and when Georgi Vins and the Chairman of the Council of Churches visited the Committee to inquire about the fates of those who had been detained, they too were arrested. Vins was sentenced to three years imprisonment.

After his release, he continued his work as a pastor and organizer for the Council of Churches but soon had to go into hiding. He was arrested again in 1974 and sentenced to five years in a labor camp to be followed by five years of internal exile. There were international protests regarding his arrest and he became the Soviet Union’s most famous religious prisoner, though he was only one of many hundreds of others jailed for their faith.

In 1979 he was expelled from the Soviet Union in exchange for two Soviet spies held in the United States. He and his family settled in Indiana, where he continued working for the persecuted Christians in the Soviet Union.

I began teaching part time at the small Baptist college that I had graduated from in 1979. Not long after my wife and I had gotten married, Georgi Vins came to the campus to speak. Afterward, my wife and I signed up to receive a monthly publication from him: the Prisoner Bulletin. It was a small newsletter, usually no more than twenty pages, that listed all the Christians imprisoned in the Soviet Union for their faith, along with articles detailing why they had been arrested. There were also stories about how the churches managed to survive in secret, despite the persecution.

In the fall of 1989 the world began changing in an unbelievable way. The countries of Eastern Europe that had suffered forty years and more under the domination of the Soviet Empire suddenly started slipping away. The barbed wire fences started dropping and the dictators started resigning. President Ronald Regan had given in speech in 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin where he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Twenty-three years ago, on November 9, 1989 the Berlin Wall came down. And communism was collapsing with it.

One by one, all the former communist nations of Eastern Europe became free. Finally, on December 25, 1991 the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist. The hammer and sickle came down from over the Kremlin, to be replaced with a red, white and blue tricolor flag. The constituent republics of the Soviet Union, such as Russia, the Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and Kazakhstan all became independent and non-communist nations.

It was hard for me to wrap my head around what had happened. All my life the Soviet Union had been there. All my life, the nations of Eastern Europe had been satellite states oppressed by a totalitarian dictatorship. And now it was gone? Could it be? Had communism actually been defeated? Was the Cold War over? Were these countries finally free?

I hoped so. Some of my friends were skeptical. But then something very interesting happened. I got a letter from Georgi Vins that he sent to all the subscribers to his Prisoner Bulletin. He announced that there would be no more issues published.

Why? Very simple. There were no more prisoners. They’d all been set free. He was planning on going back to Russia to help build new churches and to preach. In place of the Prisoner Bulletin, he was going to publish a newsletter about his new missionary outreach and tell about all the new churches being built, the schools being established, and the Christian books being published.

Sometimes impossible things do come true.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm a deacon at Quartz Hill Community Church. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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