The Church in Northern Russia
THE CHURCH IN NORTHERN RUSSIA
In a recent edition of the Spectator (28 July 2001) Anne Applebaum describes a visit to Vortuka, north of the Arctic Circle where roses do not grow. There are no daisies or lilies; no sunflowers or geraniums, just a few wild flowers which spring up in the very short, very hot northern summer. The grow quickly, blossom quickly, and just as quickly they die.
They spring up in Vortuka, a city just seventy years old. Anne Applebaum describes its history thus: “its first 23 settlers arrived in 1931, by boat, via the waterways that run from the Arctic Sea, bringing their wooden picks and shovels with them. Although even the tsars had known about the region’s enormous coal reserves, no one had managed to work out precisely how to get the coal out of the ground, given the sheer horror of life in a place where temperatures regularly drop to -30° or -40° in the winter, where the sun does not shine for six months of the year, and where, in summertime, flies and mosquitoes travel in great, dark clouds.
“But Stalin found a way – by making use of another sort of vast reserve. Vorkuta’s 23 original settlers were, of course, prisoners, and the leaders of that founding expedition were, of course, secret policemen. Over the subsequent two and a half decades, a million more prisoners passed through Vortuka, one of the two or three most notorious hubs of the Gulag, the vast labour camp system which once stretched from the Finnish border to the Pacific Ocean. Among them were hundreds of thousands of political prisoners: the ‘enemies of the state’ condemned for telling jokes about party bosses, for joining anti-Soviet partisan movements in the Baltic states and Ukraine, or, just as often, for absolutely nothing at all.”
Vortuka was not shut down when Stalin died, and the convenient source of cheap labour dried up. Instead, the Soviet authorities built shops and swimming pools and schools. Those who flocked to work in the city in the 1960s and 1970s were not prisoners, but well-paid, highly praised Soviet heroes of labour, patriots who willingly endured the harsh Arctic conditions in order that the Motherland might have coal. The cost of heating shoddy Soviet apartment blocks for 11 months of the year is astronomical. The city’s infrastructure requires huge efforts to maintain. The construction of large buildings in permafrost is a risky and costly business. Yet the city how has 200,00 people and many of those inhabitants love to live there. One said, “I have been other places, but nowhere else is as good as our Vortuka.”
What is the situation concerning the gospel in northern Russia? This year from June 11 to 30 leaders of the Slav Lands Christian Fellowship visited western Siberia beginning with Labitnangi which is not many miles from Vortuka. In Labitnangi Yuri and Larissa Poltavets have been serving the Lord for the past ten years. This is the report of this visit found in the current magazine of the Fellowship (28 Hayesford Park Drive, Bromley, BR2 9DB) and quoted by permission.
Yuri and his wife felt God’s call to missionary work and He led them to this unevangelised part of northern Russia. Yuri was a member of the first mission “Christ to the people of Siberia” in 1991. The ship had travelled northwards up the river Ob for four weeks visiting eighteen Settlements on its missionary journey which ended in Labitnangi. The town grew with the discovery in the 1960’s of huge supplies of oil and natural gas drawing many thousands of people to the region from all over Russia. Most of the dwellings are two storey timber cabins divided up into flats so the place has a pioneer camp feel to it. The people who come to live here have to be hardy folk – it’s no place for faint hearts! The winters are long, very, very cold – (, 50c this year) and dark; in the Arctic Circle there is scarcely any daylight at all during December and January. Leisure facilities are minimal so people have to make their own amusements at home as best they can. Many days schooling are lost each year since children are not allowed out when the temperature drops below – 25C.
Pastor’s wives must find life very bleak and monotonous, confined as they are to their small flats for months on end, only going out to Meetings or occasional visits to other Christians.
When we first visited this family three years ago we were appalled at their frugal diet in such a hostile and unhealthy climate. Their missionary support was so meagre they simply could not afford to regularly buy milk products, meat, eggs or vegetables. This had a bad effect on their children’s health and they were often ill – it was the first time I had seen children with grey unhealthy looking teeth. Friends of the Fellowship have sought to supply this deficit with food parcels, vitamin tablets and money to buy fresh food.
It seems that pastors in Siberia have to be able not only to lead the work spiritually but also practically. In 1994 a timber church was opened after an eighteen months construction period during which Yuri and his helpers built the whole thing themselves from start to finish. This year found him doing extensive repairs to the floors; once again all by himself.
At present they have about sixty members but Yuri feels progress has been slow. He has opened a ‘Spiritual Centre’, converting an old wooden warehouse for youth meetings, canteen, library and games room, doing most of the physical work himself. In the summer months he visits the native peoples in their villages by boat – Hanti and Nentsi whose main occupations are fishing or herding reindeer. He also visits Komi settlements every two months on the other side of the Ural Mountains. There is far too much for one man to do, but workers recruited from other parts of Russia seldom stay long and he badly needs more and reliable full-time helpers.
In answer to our question ‘What are your family needs?’ He answered ‘We live by faith!’ Asking him to be more specific he mentioned help for the family (four children) to return home to the Ukraine for a summer holiday (1,400 miles), winter clothing, nutritious daily food and if possible a replacement for his ancient second hand car. The spiritual need was chiefly for more men to be converted and for another full-time worker to help him in the work of spreading the gospel. At the time we were only able to help him with the first of his requests and hope that in the near future funds will be available for the remainder.
We flew 600 miles due south to visit Pastor Timothy Oleinik and the two full time workers and one part-time we are supporting in this growing congregation (300 + members.) Their very large building is now fully operational for the tasks the Pastor hopes it will fulfil in the future, not only for Tobolsk but also for missionary work in the wider region of western Siberia. High unemployment especially among school-leavers has led to a drink and drug problem of near epidemic proportions. Perhaps two-thirds of the congregation are young people many of whom, being newly converted, come from the drink-drug scene where the problem not only affects them but is present also in their families. The three young men we are supporting, Pavel Sitchov, Artiom Sutiagin and Alexei Gulba, together with some of the twenty house-group leaders, are working at full stretch visiting families with these problems, holding Bible study and prayer meetings with groups of young believers and in every way seeking to meet an enormous pastoral need in a Biblical way. The need is for more properly trained full-time workers to cope with the ever increasing numbers who are coming to the church. As in the majority of Russian churches women outnumber men 3:1, an acute problem for young women of marriageable age. The small daughter church, worshipping some distance away in the old quarter of the city, had purchased an old dwelling as a Meeting Room and after extensive refurbishment we attended the official opening. The whole project was funded by the Fellowship and is yet another example of how we are able to help the Lord’s growing church in this region.
We made a point of visiting those families on the ‘Needy List’ who some of you are helping on a regular basis with small sums of money, food and clothing. Olga Popkova’s husband is unsaved and had been treated in hospital for alcohol dependency. For many months he had been working and appeared to have broken his habit, but the day before our visit he had been drinking again and, although pleased to see us, one could see the anxiety in Olga’s face. She has four young boys and when her husband starts drinking away his small wages the family suffer hunger and grinding poverty. She fervently believes that her prayers for God’s help have been wonderfully answered through the help that began and has continued to come from believers in Britain. We noticed that her lunch was only a small helping of boiled potatoes and a cup of black tea. The grace of God saved her from a dreadful background of domestic violence, sin and illegitimacy, and we trust that same grace to keep her and her children in the future.
This large and growing city lies 150 miles south west of Tobolsk where Pastor Sasha Boichenko leads a growing church, which has planted small fellowships in nine towns and villages around the city. After two years of bureaucratic delays seeking planning permission a start has been made on the building to house the soup kitchen, canteen and Sunday school rooms adjoining the main church building. Unfortunately the summer has been extremely cold and wet so progress has been very slow. Although two skilled bricklayers have been employed the other six ‘builders’ are the full-time Christian workers we are supporting who, having taught the rudiments of brick laying in a couple of days, are working hard on the construction of this new building. The long hours outdoors, the heavy physical work and the cold inclement weather has taken its toll on those unused to such conditions, and I thought many of them looked exhausted. However Pastor Boichenko, mindful of the short summer months, makes them press on with all possible speed to complete the building before the cold frosty weather returns in October.
Last year we bought a small cottage in the neighbouring town of BOROVOYE as a Meeting Room for the believers who have been converted there. When we visited it this year some brothers from Tiumen had gutted the internal partitions and put a new roof on the building enabling them to raise the internal ceiling level by a couple of feet. New windows have been added allowing more light into what is now a bright and commodious meeting room. Three services a week are held regularly with new people coming every week; the meetings are led by one of the deacons from Tiumen. The neighbouring village of YAR is now in need of a similar building where meetings can be held. A lady there was converted while visiting another small township where a Meeting Room had recently been opened, and curiosity led her to attend a service. She witnessed to her neighbours and now a number are gathering regularly led by visiting brethren from Tiumen. So the work continues to expand putting increasing pressure on the few full-time staff in Tiumen.
The eastern region of Tiumen is like a dormitory town with more than 150,000 people living in huge blocks of flats, or in Hostel blocks where the poorest people are accommodated. Sunday and mid-week meetings are held in a rented hall led by Pavel Boichenko assisted by Alexei Batchurin. We visited one of the meetings led by Pavel in a vigorous yet friendly manner and usually attended by 50 60 people. We have been asked to add his name to the list of six full-time workers we are currently supporting in Tiumen.
On Sunday there was the third baptism service this year when eight people were baptised including an Armenian family living in Tiumen. The church here and in Tobolsk are continuing to grow steadily but the labourers are few, please pray that the Lord will send forth more labourers and the means for their support.
This town lies 400 miles north of Tiumen and to reach it we were obliged to fly in very old and dilapidated twin propeller engine aircraft over thirty years old! Nikolai and Olga Redka came here four years ago to pioneer a new work for the Lord. They have about twenty members with twice that number attending the services. The single-storey timber building he bought and repaired himself has now developed serious structural problems due to ground subsidence. The simple answer would be to demolish the building, put in pile-driven foundations and put up a new building, but this would be very expensive. The alternative would be to sell the site and buy another building, but this might be equally if not more expensive. Renting halls is only a precarious short-term measure, because Government pressure against ‘Sectarians’ is such that it is difficult to find anyone willing to rent their premises. Please remember this important matter in your prayers. The rebuilding work, which began in the neighbouring town of PRIOBYE one year ago, is now almost complete apart from the brick facing to the outside of the building delayed by the wet weather this summer. We were very impressed with the large bright new rooms they have completed and are now using for meetings and other purposes. Nikolai’s estimate of building costs also proved very accurate (he once owned his own construction company) and the work will be completed for just over £10,000. A young man converted here three years ago, brother Ilia, is developing as a preacher and helping to lead the work in this town which is a great help to Nikolai. We have sent both of them spiritual literature to help them in their preaching ministry. Nikolia has had to both supervise and help the builders with his own hands which, together with all his preaching and pastoral responsibilities in Nyagen thirty miles away, has taken its toll on his health. We therefore gave him some financial help to have a holiday with his family in the south of Russia by the sea, where it will be warm and sunny, before facing another Siberian winter! Nikolai is a man of missionary vision and is wanting to open new meetings in neighbouring settlements. But to do this new labourers are needed to go into this new harvest field. Please remember this and the other needs we have mentioned in this report of the ongoing work of the Lord in western Siberia which you are helping to support.
NEEDY FAMILIES EXPRESS THEIR THANKS FOR OUR SUPPORT.
I greet you in the love of Jesus Christ. I received material support from you through our Pastor Timothy Oleinik, in the sum of 3,430 roubles (£121). My heart overflows with gratitude to you. Glory to Jesus for such concern for my family through you.
I have three children but my husband died (suicide). I am bringing them up alone but the Lord helps me through you, hallelujah! This is how I divided up the money; my eldest son and my middle daughter I bought shoes. They were very satisfied and send their thanks to you. My children were astonished that the Lord is helping us in this way. I have been diagnosed as having Anaemia and I bought myself some medicine for that. Many thanks to you, now I can improve my health. With the remaining money we bought food; flour; sugar, oil and porridge oats.
May the Lord Jesus abundantly bless you. Glory be to Him for ever! “The generous soul will be made rich, and he who waters will himself be watered.” (Prov.11:25).
With our love in Christ from sister
The peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you! Great and wonderful is the Lord, Hallelujah! With all my heart I thank you for the material help which was passed on to us by Pastor Timothy Oleinik. Tremendous thanks to you, may Jesus resolve and fulfil all your needs.
I have four girls, my husband is working but his wages are small. Therefore your support of 3,430 roubles (£121) is a great help to us. My children all attend the church; the eldest is Olga and goes to the young peoples fellowship, two others attend Sunday School and the baby, two years old, we show Christian books about Jesus at home, but already in prayer she bows her head and says ‘Amen’! For the two youngest daughters I bought underwear and my middle daughters some shoes. When they tried on the new things their eyes shone with joy, so once more I thank the Lord Jesus for you. Then I bought them a little fruit, my children thanked Jesus for caring for us. I looked at them and rejoiced that Jesus brought us all together. Even though you don’t know me you are showing us such great help, very many thanks. The remainder of the money we bought food, so now for the time being I have something to feed the children with.
Praise to Jesus that He inclined your hearts to help us, “He who has a generous eye will be blessed, for he gives of his bread to the poor” (Prov. 22:9) The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you!
With love in Christ,
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