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The Russian Conference, St Petersburg

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Category Articles
Date October 11, 2017

For the last four Septembers I have been scheduled to travel to a Reformed Conference in St Petersburg with a number of other men.  The initiative for this event came from Dewey Roberts, the long-standing pastor of the PCA congregation in Destin, Florida. The Russian people have been on his heart since 1999 and it was in that year that he began travelling there and making contact with a growing number of churches whose pastors have begun to grasp the doctrines of grace, so clearly revealed in the Bible.

His desire was to start a conference like the Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference, which he had greatly appreciated upon visiting some years ago. To that end, he has not only raised money tirelessly, but been personally generous and hardworking too and has sought to stir up prayer support for this cause. He has the speakers’ travel costs to meet– their Russian visas from England can cost more than their air fares. He underwrites the cost of the conference, the food, the publicity, and the travel of men from places like Belarus and Siberia. To achieve this he even works on the Destin church’s grounds, mowing the lawn in the Florida summer heat to raise money for his beloved Russian brothers. All this is done with maximum effort and minimum fuss. Dewey has also written two major books, one refuting the claims of Federal Vision and the New Perspective on Paul, while the other is the first full length, hardback biography of the great American preacher and hymn writer, Samuel Davies.

Joel Beeke spoke at the Russian Conference once, and I believe I replaced him when he could no longer attend. Tony Lane of the London School of Theology has also been lecturing at this conference for six years (he has just brought out a new book, an introduction to Systematic Theology). I began to attend in 2014, and this year, Terry Johnson, the long time pastor of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Georgia, joined us. He is the author of two excellent Banner of Truth books, Catechizing Our Children and The Case for Traditional Protestantism, and has just completed another book on the attributes of God, which we hope to see in print in the next year or so.

So what did we four men speak on this year during the three days of our conference? In the past, we have dealt with the order of the application of salvation, and also lectured on the work of the Holy Spirit. Being it the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the theme had to be on the great achievements of the 16th century movement. Dewey Roberts introduced the conference and gave everyone a copy of the Russian translation of his book Historic Christianity and the Federal Vision. Then he spoke on ‘Scholastic Theology and the Need of the Reformation’, ‘Advocates of Reform and the Reformers’, ‘John Calvin and the Extent of the Atonement’, and ‘Calvin and the Counter Reformation of Rome’. Tony Lane spoke on ‘The Reformation in Germany — Why or Why Not?’, ‘The Bible and the Church, Then and Now’, ‘Justification by Faith, Then and Now’, and ‘Faith and the Sacraments, Then and Now’. I spoke on ‘Biblical Infallibility, Not Papal’. ‘Heaven or Hell, Purgatory no Option’, and ‘Christ All Sufficient: No Need for Mary as Mediator’. Terry Johnson spoke twice on ‘The Bible, Theology, and Worship’, and then on ‘Reading, Praying, and Preaching the Scriptures’, and ‘Singing and Administering the Sacraments’. This last talk was most relevant to the Russian scene as the music of the conference was in some need of reformation and the one disappointment of our days there.

Each time I go on my Autumn visit to the conference in St Petersburg, I try to read some Russian history. This year my eyes caught a review in the Spectator of a new book called Red Famine: Stalin’s War on the Ukraine by Anne Applebaum. It has also been reviewed in many other publications and tells how millions of peasants all over Ukraine died of hunger in a massive, man-made famine deliberately unleashed by the Soviet State. It is comprehensively chronicled by Anne Applebaum in this wrenching, vivid, and brilliant book. The famine is known by the Ukrainians as the Holodomor, literally the ‘hunger death’. Famine had become the main weapon of war unleashed by Stalin on both the reactionary peasant class and on Ukrainian national identity itself.

Many peasants managed to crawl to Ukraine’s cities but at night, they were rounded up by special trucks, the living and the dead, and by morning there was no trace of them. Today , for Ukrainians, the Holodomor was a genocide unleashed against them, so that year by year it is still being commemorated as a day of national mourning akin to Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel. For many in Russia, is is sadly dismissed as some natural disaster. Anne Applebaum draws on a wealth of witness accounts and Soviet archives to show that there was nothing natural about it. She writes that from the earliest days of the Marxist Revolution ,’ the link between food and power was something that the Bolsheviks understood very well…Constant shortages made food supplies a huge significant political tool. Whoever had bread also had followers, soldiers, loyal friends.’

Owen Matthews records,

It took Stalin’s ruthless genius to fully weaponise hunger as a tool of total war against the enemies, real or imagined, or the Soviet regime. The first Five Year plan of 1928 called for peasants’ private land to be confiscated and all herds and grain to be turned over to the new collective farms. All over the Soviet Union peasants slaughtered their livestock and gorged themselves rather than give them up to the Soviet state. Eyewitnesses from the Red Cross reported seeing peasants drunk on food, their eyes stupefied by their mad self-destructive gluttony and the knowledge of its consequences. Harvests from the new collective farms fell disastrously. By the summer of 1932 it was clear that Ukraine — for centuries the grain basket of the Russian Empire thanks to its fertile black earth and twice yearly harvests of winter barley and summer wheat — had catastrophically failed to meet the production quotas set by the Kremlin. Stalin reverted to violence and theft. Requisition gangs were sent to seize grain reserves, seed reserves, animal fodder, and, ominously, daily food supplies. The secret police rounded up wealthy peasants who had resisted collectivisation and shipped them off to newly built gulags in their tens of thousands. The guards dubbed the trainloads of humanity ‘white coal.’

The Politburo [policy making committee of Communist parties] member, Nikolai Bukharin, wrote, ‘during the Revolution I saw things that I would not want even my enemies to see. While in 1919 we were fighting for our lives in 1930-1933 we were conducting mass annihilation f completely defenseless men together with their wives and children.’ A telegram from Stalin demanding judgement on farmers alleged to have hidden grain was a signal for mass searches and persecutions, arrests, executions, and the confiscation of the rest of their food.

Boris Pasternak wrote that the result was ‘such inhuman, unimaginable misery, such a terrible disaster, that it began to seem almost abstract, it would not fit within the bonds of consciousness.’ Arthur Koestler found ‘the enormous land wrapped in silence,’ and the young English socialist, Malcolm Muggeridge took a train to Kiev where he found the rural population starving to death. He returned to England convinced that he had witnessed ‘one of the most monstrous crimes in history, so terrible that people in the future will scarcely be able to believe it ever happened.’ The enduring tragedy was that it left five million people dead.

The impact of such an event, still in the living memory of the elderly Ukrainians, joined to other such horrors as the Second World War, the siege of St Petersburg, the pressure of living in a police state with the threat of the Gulag for dissidents, and the earnest atheism of the forces of government and education — all have combined to bring a hardness, a grimness about modern Russian life.

This came home to roost in the lives of the four of us the first morning we set out in the underground, travelling across St Petersburg at rush hour to the Korean Presbyterian church where the conference is always held. Terry commented to me on the downcast appearance of many of the people around us and there was a terrible crush to get on board the train. People were packed in and a crowd outside were rushing to push in. We were separated from one another and Dewey was laboring with some cases full of books. A powerful, hairy man with biceps bigger than my legs pulled the doors of the carriage open as they closed so that Dewey could squeeze in. He had two other men, just as wild in appearance, who appeared to be with him.

Dewey just made it but within seconds, he called across to us that there were pickpockets on the train. Terry checked his pockets to find his wallet (containing his credit cards and driving license) had been taken. We two Brits had been mercifully spared. Dewey knew it to be the man standing with his back to him who had slipped his hand into his trouser pocket and robbed him but what could we do? They had such hard demeanors and the thief would already have passed his prize on to someone else.

Soon, feeling quite demoralized, we reached our stop. Terry got in touch with his bank at once and told them of the loss of his cards but it was the middle of the night in Savannah and he was unable to reach one of the banks so the hasty thieves were able to take $1000 from his account. Dewey needed to go to the American Embassy and purchase a new passport and it was difficult for him to get money for the next few days without his cards but everyone helped.

Though they had been told that night to go to the police station and report the robbery, the police gave them no joy, ignoring them for forty minutes before waving them on to another police station, and then to another until, after 11pm, they were frustrated with seeing no one, and they walked away, disgusted at the indifference of the ‘crime fighters’.

I told them that this event was a fiery dart from the evil one, concerned that this conference was going to do good and shake the gates of hell. Christians on the frontier of evangelism are often in danger, sometimes from robbers, as it was for the apostle Paul. But we have a Sovereign Protector who gives us peace in our souls at such times. God did bless the conference and our friendships, as well as many a conversation with the men and women present.

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    Description

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