The American Dream of a Russian "Sectarian":
A story of religious immigration from the USSR.
The American Dream of a Russian Sectarian" is the working title of a soon-to-be-released book written by Lev Simkin, a renowned lawyer and professor. Essentially, the book comprises a collection of essays on the history of religious immigration from Russia throughout the 20th century, including the author's notes from conversations with members of various religious organizations who shared personal stories of their experiences and about their descendants after they emigrated from the USSR to the USA. At an event held on March 2 at the SCLJ Press Center, Simkin gave a presentation on the materials included in his book.
In his opening comments, the author remarked that the history of religious immigration from the USSR is a field that has been rather poorly researched. He emphasized for anyone interested in investigating this particular subject, that the crucial time to do so is now--while the witnesses of those events and the people affected by them are still alive. More often than not, the immigrants' descendants have only a vague understanding of how and why their families ended up settling in the USA, Canada or Uruguay. One of Simkin's main areas of focus was researching the motives behind the subsequent return of a group of Lubkovtsi to the USSR in 1927, where they started the agricultural cooperative called "New Israel," which was quickly renamed "Krasniy Oktyabr" (Red October). The author researched materials in the Manuscripts Department of the U.S. Library of Congress which shed some light on this story.
In the next segment of this brief seminar, Simkin drew attention to the correspondence between Lev Tolstoy's daughter, Alexandra, with representatives of the Dukhobors ("Spirit Wrestlers") and their children. These handwritten letters, which have escaped the attention of previous researchers, not only provide new insights into the everyday lives of the Dukhobors living in foreign lands, but also give a clear indication of their repeated attempts to return to Soviet Russia. It is obvious that, having immigrated to Canada as early as the late 19th century, they could hardly imagine the realities of the new Soviet times. In fact, their letters to Joseph Stalin showed repeated pleas to pardon and release fellow members of their faith from prison. Under these particular circumstances in 1927, Petr Petrovich Verigin Jr., the leader of the Dukhobors who was serving time in the Butyrskaya Prison, was surprisingly released for unexplained reasons and subsequently sent back to Canada at the request of the Canadian Government, which was interested in helping to facilitate a more settled life for members of the Dukhobor community in their new home country.
The most astounding story Simkin told was about a group of members of the Pentecostal movement who literally lived at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow for five years (from 1978 to 1983), awaiting an opportunity to leave the USSR. Seven members of the Vaschenko and Chmyhalov families had suffered various forms of state repression due to the fact that they were labeled "sectarians" (including having their children taken away from them and put into an orphanage). As a result, the two families made numerous attempts to apply to the U.S. Embassy for immigration and eventually managed to pass their collective petition on to an American diplomat. At some point, these people managed to sneak into the embassy compound and when found, refused to leave the premises, stating, "We did not come here on our own merit. God guided us here. We will leave only when He tells us to." For the next five years, sympathetic embassy workers fed the families and let them live in a tiny basement space. In 1983, all seven people were allowed to leave the USSR on an Israeli visa and, subsequently, emigrated to the United States of America.
In connection with some of the subjects addressed, a number of questions were raised about the scale of religious immigration from the USSR, especially among members of the Pentecostal movement. Simkin referred to the fact that, in the 1970s, the lists of known applicants for immigration alone included about 30,000 Protestants. From the moment the seven Vaschenko and Chmyhalov family members departed the USSR in 1983, the volume of applications to leave the country grew significantly, causing rifts in the Protestant communities. When the borders were finally opened in 1988, Protestants began leaving as "whole families and entire churches." Religious immigration then took place on a mass scale. According to estimates by Simkin, the numbers were as high as 500,000 people; however, his colleagues consider the number of people leaving the country for religious immigration was much greater - between 1 and 1.5 million people.
Vladimir Ryakhovskiy, the Co-Chairman of the SCLJ, emphasized the fact that the Soviet government at that time was basically "pushing" large families of hard-working, non-smoking, and non-drinking Protestants out of the country. "Do you get the feeling that history is once again repeating itself these days? Isn't it still the case that Pentecostal Church members are called 'second-rate people' and 'sectarians'? We would all very much appreciate if Russia would only learn some lessons from its past," noted Vladimir Ryakhovskiy.
Archbishop Sergey Ryakhovskiy, leader of the Russian United Association of Christians of Evangelical Faith (RUACEFF), also has a strong recollection of past events in connection with religious immigration, including the repression and prosecution of "sectarians" by the KGB. He drew participants' attention to the prophecies of the USSR's collapse, which were secretly spread amongst the members of the Pentecostal Church in the 1970s and specified the exact year the Soviet power would come to an end - 1991. Roman Lunkin, a theologian and the Director of the Institute on Religion and Law, added that such prophecies painted a picture of a country where a person holding religious beliefs could live freely, in specific reference to the essence of the "American dream" of many Soviet Protestants. "When emigrating, most people tended to think that they were leaving for the 'good life'; but for people of faith, they knew that, first and foremost, they were leaving for the opportunity to practice their religion freely and to realize it through ministry," commented Roman Lunkin.
Constantine Bendas, a representative of RUACEFF, noted that those Protestants who left the USSR proceeded to make contributions in the fields of economy, science and culture in the countries that became their new homes, emphasizing that those contributions were substantial. For instance, The Association of Full Gospel Businessmen, an international society founded by emigrants from Russia, has grown to over 100,000 members. The mission of this association is to help spread Christian values by demonstrating how they may also be applied in the secular world.
Upon closing the session, Lev Simkin clarified that his forthcoming book does not claim to be a scientific work. Rather, it will be a "lively narrative about the people who have built a connection between Russia and the USA through their own destinies."