Volume 13 Number 3
A Voice for the Unheard Believer
01 June 2000
An unexpected chance to study in Russia led to Michael Bourdeaux becoming an authority on the Church under communism. Mike Lowe meets the man who founded the Keston Institute.
Like many retired people, Canon Michael Bourdeaux doesn't let the grass grow under his feet. When I arrived at his Oxford home he was on the phone to The Guardian newspaper, negotiating to write the obituary of a Russian intellectual. Half way through the interview he was phoned to ask whether he would nominate X for the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion (the religious equivalent of the Nobel Prize). 'It's not always like this,' he said apologetically.
Bourdeaux himself won the Templeton Prize in 1984 for his work in highlighting the plight of those persecuted for their religious beliefs in communist countries. He has written several books and in 1970 set up the Centre for the Study of Religion and Communism, which later became the Keston Institute. In the 1980s he was one of a handful of academics advising Mrs Thatcher on her approach to the Soviet Union, and he continues to 'ensure that the perspective of religious liberty' is taken into account through his role as an advisor to the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
His interest in Russia started in 1953 when his place to study modern languages at Oxford University was deferred by National Service. He was drafted to the newly-formed Joint Services School for Linguists where he learned Russian, 'a most beautiful language'. This opened the door to Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin--'the world's greatest poet'--and not least to the extraordinary world of Soviet politics.
'It was the height of the Cold War, with the possibility that there might be another war. On our second day the instructor came in smiling and taught us our first complete sentence: Umer Stalin--Stalin has died. It was a time of great uncertainty in international relations and here were we being qualified to do something about it.'
Two years later he took up his place in Oxford where he dropped German in favour of Russian. There he felt a call to become ordained in the Anglican church and so stayed on to do a degree in theology. In the process he developed an interest in and love for the Russian Orthodox Church. Another influence was Bishop Trevor Huddleston who had just published Naught for your Comfort, which brought the evils of South Africa's apartheid to the world's attention. This gave Bourdeaux a perspective on human rights 'but it very soon came to my attention that there were things to be done in Russia--an area which hardly anybody knew or cared about'. It was his tutor, the émigré Professor Nicolas Zernov, who said, 'Michael, you have got to be the person who reports on Russia today.'
Although he spoke the language and had studied the Russian church and culture, the prospect of carrying out this task seemed hopeless. But then 'one of the miracles occurred'. In March 1959 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev signed a cultural agreement with Britain which called for an exchange of students. 'The word went out that they wanted to get this thing underway immediately and were looking for people who were free to go to Russia for a year.' Turning down a scholarship to Belgrade, Bourdeaux went. His theology degree was played down. As far as the Russians were concerned his subject was history.
Bourdeaux believes it was 'directly God's will' that he went to Russia at that specific time. The first ever issue of the Soviet periodical Science and Religion was published in September 1959, the month he arrived, signalling a new crackdown on religion. He made a point of surveying the Soviet press and meeting some of the people involved. 'Much was being made of how priests in the Russian Orthodox Church were renouncing religion and becoming atheists. One of the famous names was Alexander Osipov, who had been a lecturer at the Leningrad Theological Seminary and was going around the country lecturing on "Why I broke with religion". I went to hear him and somebody stood up at the end of the lecture and shouted out, "Judas received 30 pieces of silver. How much did you get?" Probably that person was arrested though I didn't actually see it, but you can imagine the atmosphere.'
Knowing that nothing of this was being reported in the West, Bourdeaux kept a diary. On his return to Britain he was ordained, and while working in a London parish used his diary as the basis of his first book, Opium of the People. He had a great struggle to get it published, for a variety of reasons. 'Partly it was a reaction to the excessive anti-communism of Senator McCarthy in America, but there was also a tremendously clever and successful propaganda campaign by the Soviet government at that time.'
In 1961 the Russian Orthodox Church, with government backing, joined the World Council of Churches. This gave Orthodox Church leaders a chance to claim before the world that religious people were not persecuted in the Soviet Union. 'With good motives, no doubt, Western church leaders believed them,' said Bourdeaux. He remembers a senior British Baptist leader arguing that the only Baptists in trouble were those who were basically trouble-makers anyway and who wanted to split from the Baptists' Union. 'There were hundreds of people like him in the West who were justifying the Soviet line. The next step was to criticize me personally because I was rocking the boat. So my name was besmirched, something which continued in one form or another right up to the collapse of communism.'
What kept him going was a clear sense of commission. In 1964 he received a letter from a group of Ukrainian Orthodox Christians recounting their persecution. A few months later, by extraordinary coincidence, he met them outside a recently-destroyed Moscow church. They asked him to 'be our voice where we cannot be heard'. Bourdeaux made this his business through lecturing, preaching, writing articles and broadcasting weekly on Radio Liberty. His information came partly through analyzing the Soviet press and, more importantly, through samizdat--underground documentation smuggled out to the West. 'This has been a lynch-pin of Keston's work over the years.'
Opium of the People won good reviews and began to win friends--in particular Sir John Lawrence, head of the Great Britain-USSR Association, who informed the Foreign Office of the importance of Bourdeaux's work, and Leonard Schapiro, Professor at the London School of Economics, 'who said the work was justified academically'. Bourdeaux's work started to be attacked in the Soviet press, with some unexpected results. 'The great Russian Baptist leader Georgi Vins said to me, "Michael, I first read your name when I was in prison. We were allowed access to the prison library where there were all the Soviet publications and I read an article attacking Michael Bourdeaux for writing lies about me." '
As Bourdeaux's name became known inside the Soviet Union, the flow of information increased 'to the point where I could no longer handle it'. This was the impulse for setting up what became the Keston Institute. Funding was through private individuals and was always a struggle.
When Bourdeaux won the Templeton Prize it 'highlighted our work in a way nothing else could have done'. In his acceptance speech before 900 in a packed Guildhall, he predicted that the Soviet Union would fall through a combination of religion and nationalism. He was thinking of Lithuania, about which he had recently written a book, Land of Crosses. 'I thought that if the communists could not crush religion and nationalism in a tiny nation where they had had absolutely everything under their control for 40 years, then at the end of the day it was just not going to work.'
In January 1991 events proved him right. A massacre of civilians in Vilnius by Soviet troops heralded Lithuania's slide from communist rule, and within months the Soviet Union had collapsed. 'In general I admire Gorbachev, but he did not understand the regions. This was his Achilles heel.'
These events found the world unprepared. Since 1983 Bourdeaux had been advising Mrs Thatcher on Eastern Europe. 'Although she was sympathetic to human rights, she was strangely unsympathetic to the collapse of communism. As a result when it happened there were no policies in place.' Keston itself found the next years difficult, despite being one of the few organizations prepared for these changes. 'We set up a Moscow office in 1990--as far as I know we were the first Christian agency to do so--and this became the centre for our news gathering.' But in the West, with a perception that the battle had been won, funding dwindled.
In the final chapter of Gorbachev, Glasnost and the Gospel, published in 1990, Bourdeaux made various recommendations for supporting the best streams of Russian Christianity in their work to create an open, tolerant and just society. He is extremely disappointed that these recommendations were largely ignored. 'Instead Western Christian groups went in with their own agenda. Consequently the Russian Orthodox Church has set up a wall of hostility.' Even Keston got tarred with the same brush and it is only recently that Bourdeaux has started to enjoy better relations with the Orthodox hierarchy.
Recent events--such as justifications of Russia's war in Chechnya by Orthodox bishops and the renewed persecution of non-Orthodox believers since the 1998 law on religion--support Bourdeaux's belief that it is vital that the West continues to try to understand the situation of believers in the region.
Bourdeaux's successor as director of the Keston Institute is Larry Uzzell, an American journalist who is himself an Orthodox convert. 'The calibre of our information today is better than ever,' maintains Bourdeaux. I left him catching a train to London with minutes to spare, 'A book launch this afternoon and the opera in the evening.' Despite retirement, the work goes on.