I Found God in Soviet Russia
Chapter 11:Into the Land of the Godless
By John Noble
For background information go to the Introduction
"My God, my God GOD, why hast Thou forsaken me?”
During that terrible journey into the Soviet Arctic in the sealed and crowded Stolopinskis (railway cars hideously designed for prisoner transportation), those words came often to my mind. There was comfort in them, knowing that Our Lord, too, had undergone complete despair. They are perhaps the most compassionate words He ever said, embracing as they do all men’s agony.
Later, even while that journey lasted, I could say those other words which follow: “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit.” For me this did not promise death; I was supposed to go on living until this unspeakable ordeal was completed and I could give my witness. Before the trip was over, I was reconciled.
It was August when the trip began, October when we finally reached Vorkuta, the slave-labor camp [described in Solzhenitsyn's book, The Gulag Archipelago], which was our destination, a name more to be feared than any other but which came to have another meaning than horror to me, for it was there I found that the Russians, too, want Christianity. This I could not know, however, as at last... we came to the border of the Soviet Socialist Republics....
Through its few carefully guarded gateways pass only such Soviet citizens as the government trusts to have contacts with foreigners, and into the U.S.S.R. come only such visitors from abroad as the Communists think it to their advantage to admit. No newspapers, magazines, books, or personal letters can come into Russia over this border without first passing the rigid communist censorship....
The purpose of this incredible barrier placed between the Russian people and the rest of the world is to permit the master-minds of the Kremlin to impose the ideology of Communism upon their subjects, and to lead them through all the twists and turns of the “party line.” The Soviet leaders try to keep the carefully conditioned minds of the Russian people free from contact with any other political ideas; especially, they want to keep from their people a true knowledge of conditions in the outside world so that they will believe that under Communism life is better than anywhere else in the world.
This barrier is designed not only for political purposes but to protect the cult of atheism in Russia by shutting out the concept of God from one-sixth of the world’s surface! The Russian government, committed officially ... to the proposition that God is a myth and religion an opiate for oppressed working classes, fears the Christian religion above all others.
As our prison car passed through the barricades, we were going into the Land of the Godless. Here, then, was the nation which had tried to outlaw God. But can God be outlawed?
After the October Revolution of 1917, the Communists had ruthlessly persecuted the Christian, Jewish, and Moslem religions until two-thirds of the clergy had been liquidated and four-fifths of all church buildings had been closed or turned into museums for instruction in “scientific atheism.” Here was a country in which for thirty years not a single Bible had been allowed to be printed, where children were taught in the schools that God is a mythical deity invented by capitalists and exploiters, and where suspicion dogged every Russian who dared attend public worship.
Can God be kept out of a nation? Can the Christian faith be completely exterminated in a land where once it was held dear? Can a barrier of barbed wire, censorship, and radio jamming keep a knowledge of God from the residents of a vast area of this planet?
I was happily to learn the answer to these questions in my years of captivity, but at the moment when I passed through that last inner door of the Iron Curtain, it was with a feeling of foreboding and despair. I tried to comfort myself with the words of Our Lord, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” For this seemed, indeed, to be the end of the world. And God was with us still.
In the crowded prison vans, there had been no opportunity for anything but quiet inner prayer. But as soon as we were released from our cars in the city of Orsha, near Moscow, to spend several days there in a prison which served as a marshaling point for arriving slave laborers, I noticed that many of the men got down on their knees in their cells the very first thing to thank God for having preserved them during the terrible trip.
No; God had not stayed behind at the Iron Curtain. The channels of communication were still open and God is as close to the believer in Russia as anywhere else in the world.
Of course, there were those cynics and skeptics among my fellow prisoners who asked how anyone could give thanks to a God who was permitting us to suffer as we did. If there really were a God, they argued, He would deal with these Russian Communists who for years had openly sneered at His very name. Many people who were not stable in their faith would have their beliefs shaken after hearing such remarks.
I always answered to such criticism that while I did not know what purpose was being served by the suffering we were enduring, I was sure that there was a reason. I felt that God would deal in due time with the atheists of Russia and that meanwhile the world must see by the suffering of the victims of communist tyranny. what an evil system it is....
The Russians themselves see the evil of their system. I noticed, as we were marched through the streets of Orsha, that the people averted their eyes when they saw us being led by, with the MVD men and their ever-present Tommy guns marching beside and behind us. No one looked at us, not even the children. The tenor of the slave-labor camps was too close to all of them, for there was probably not a single family that did not have at least one relative who had disappeared into the hands of the secret police.
At Orsha, too, I encountered the first of those experiences that were to show me profoundly shocking evidence of the impact of atheism on the morals of Soviet society....
As we entered Orsha prison where we were to be lodged temporarily, we marched past a cell block which harbored a number of women prisoners. These were Russian women, judging from their appearance and the Russian phrases they shouted at us. When they saw 200 new men prisoners being marched in, they stood at their cell windows and greeted us with loud calls, smiles and laughter. Some raised their skirts and made the most obscene gestures I have ever seen. Although we could not understand what they shouted in Russian, there was no mistaking their meaning. Like the unbridled behavior of the Russian men during the rape of Dresden, I found the lewdness of these Russian women utterly incomprehensible.
While a few of our men at first made some ribald reply to the women thus exhibiting themselves, the actions of these wretched creatures soon became so revolting that scarcely a man among us could avoid an expression of disgust. At first, I supposed that these Russian women must have been prostitutes, swept up from the dregs of the city in a clean-up drive against vice, or perhaps they were the victims of mental illness who did not know what they were
doing. Before long, however, I learned that there is no such thing as a professional prostitute in Russia, the situation in Soviet society being such that thousands of ordinary working girls regularly barter their sexual favors without moral scruples or social disapproval.
Where there is general atheism there can be no moral standard, and where there is no moral standard promiscuity is not regarded as a sin. These poor women whom we saw, degraded still further by their prison experiences, were neither insane nor, by Russian standards, particularly immoral. They were typical of millions of Soviet women.
As we left Orsha, we found we had new company—very unwelcome company—in the persons of a number of Russian criminals who had been jammed in with us. There are two classes of prisoners in the Soviet penal system, the “criminals” and the “politicals.” The criminals are those who would be sent to jail in any society, murderers, thieves, black marketeers, and incorrigible scoff-laws. The politicals are those whose offense is jeopardizing “the security of the state” by holding views deemed at variance with the current party line. Criminals are put in with the politicals whom they terrorize with their arrogance, fighting, and thieving. The guards encourage the criminals in this because it makes the tenor-stricken political prisoners easier to handle....
Vorkuta slave-labor camp
Up in the Arctic tundra fifty to one hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle [see map], veins of coal had been discovered in 1944. The area is about fifty miles south of the Arctic Ocean and the same distance west of the Siberian border. The Ural Mountains fork as they reach the sea and the Vorkuta mines are in the valley between the two ranges, technically part of European Russia but geographically part of the Siberian Arctic, one of the coldest, harshest regions in the world. Since few Russian workers could be induced to go to such a climate to sink mine shafts into the perpetually frozen tundra, the Soviet government dragooned thousands of slave laborers for the work. The toll in human suffering and loss of life was appalling, but the coal was being dug. This was the remote spot to which I, an American, was on my way!
It was on this last lap of the journey that a new menace appeared like a specter before us when we learned from the Russian prisoners that the Korean War had broken out several months before, in June, 1950. There was considerable talk among the Russians that a full-scale war between the United States and the Soviet Union would soon be inevital)le. In that case, we would be in imminent danger of starvation in Vorkuta, they said. Everything had to be brought in over the single-track railroad line on which we were traveling and, in the event of any trouble back in Moscow or any enemy action that would disrupt rail service, we would be cut off in the Arctic from our thin life-line to civilization.
This added to our gloom as we reached the end of the Iine and were herded through the grim barbed-wire fences toward the bleak barracks half sunk in the tundra soil. It was October and... the cold Autumn wind was whipping down from the polar sea.
In spite of the depressing future that lay before me, in this forsaken spot near the frozen roof of the world, my own personal feeling was again one of quiet confidence. I did not share the panic and despair that gripped the other prisoners. Nothing could happen to me here, I reasoned, that would be any worse than what I had already experienced. Ever since that day in the midst of the starvation period at Dresden when I had given my soul to Christ, I had noticed a gradual improvement in my condition. The Lord had not saved me merely that I might die here. Of that I felt certain.
My faith was in the Lord with all my heart, but I must confess, that, as we left the train and marched down a mud road toward the great concentration camp stretching for miles across snow snow-covered hummocks as far as the eye could see, I did not understand how any human being could possibly survive. To work in these mines and to live through a winter that would bring temperatures as low as 700 to 800 below zero, I told myself, was going to require another miracle. Could I hope for such a miracle here?
“But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.“ Acts 20:24
Index to all posted chapters
See also Brainwashing and Education "Reform"