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From Communism to Christianity

Two former Soviet citizens are using their faith, education, and experiences to help their homelands, despite the obstacles

Oleg Voskresensky at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minn. Jim Mone/Genesis

From Communism to Christianity
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On Nov. 2, 1937, Soviet secret police forcibly seized Oleg Voskresensky’s grandfather, a Russian Orthodox village priest, from his home and family, saying he was under investigation. Instead, that night they led him into nearby woods and shot him.

The murder was part of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s anti-religious campaign beginning in the 1920s and lasting until 1941, a time during which the state executed more than 100,000 Russian Orthodox clergymen. Raised in Moscow during the Cold War, Oleg Voskresensky, 65, grew up knowing his grandfather’s story but never allowed to talk openly about it.

Paul Gavrilyuk is 15 years younger than Voskresensky and grew up more than 500 miles south of him, in Soviet Ukraine. He remembers the day his dad returned from work and told him about a woman—a Baptist—who in public had handed him a children’s Bible to bring home to Gavrilyuk. This was after Stalin’s brutal reign but at a time when the state still outlawed religious proselytizing and persecuted Christian leaders. His father—who was not a believer—had to decide whether he would report the woman to authorities or risk being reported himself for not turning her in. He decided to quietly acknowledge her gift and say no more.

People gather at Levashovo Memorial Cemetery to commemorate the 45,000 people who were executed and buried there during the Soviet repressions.

People gather at Levashovo Memorial Cemetery to commemorate the 45,000 people who were executed and buried there during the Soviet repressions. Dmitri Lovetsky/AP

Two men: both born and raised in the Soviet Union during the Cold War—one in Moscow, the other in Kyiv. Each took a different path leading to Christ, then across the world to Minnesota and teaching professions, to friendship, and finally, to outreaches back to their homelands. They both say Christ alone saved them, while they continue to worship and practice in Eastern Orthodox churches. These men, Oleg Voskresensky and Paul Gavrilyuk, have independently found ways to help their former countrymen. Since Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, their zeal to help has only grown.

Their stories illuminate the forces they’re up against: brutal, repressive, national histories; corrupt governments; spiritual darkness; ongoing propaganda; and now, war. But these problems have given each of them a heightened awareness of God’s providence and work.

VOSKRESENSKY’S LIFE followed a circuitous path from Communism to Christianity. His mother, a women’s magazine journalist covering women’s rights globally, from the Soviet perspective, and his father, a road construction engineer who traveled widely, were Communist Party members and part of the intelligentsia. They attended Communist meetings and toed the party line. But they were living dual lives.

Officially, they embraced Communist ideology, but years later Voskresensky learned his father secretly attended church and took Communion in small villages far away from Moscow when he traveled. Although his parents spoke somewhat more openly around the dinner table than in public, they hushed their son whenever he raised questions about God, faith, or his grandfather, saying, “When you grow up, you will discover it by yourself.”

Stalin had considered all forms of religion, except atheism, anathema and a danger to the state. Under his crackdown, the number of Orthodox churches—the predominant churches in the Soviet Union and later Russia—fell from nearly 30,000 to under 500. Only a twelfth of the priests survived. As the state killed or sent to labor camps millions of Orthodox Christians, Soviet propaganda proclaimed no religious persecution occurred and that the state was removing only people who broke laws or resisted. Some historians estimate that of the 20 million to 40 million victims of the Soviet regime, between 12 million and 20 million were labeled Christian.

Voskresensky says many men, including his father, served in World War II to prove they were not enemies of the state, as the state had deemed his grandfather. They called this “washing their guilt with their own blood.” After World War II, during the Cold War’s almost 45 years, fear of persecution dictated why many, including Voskresensky’s parents, hid their faith, and why many others abandoned it.

Oleg Voskresensky

Oleg Voskresensky Photo by Jim Mone/Genesis

So, in the 1970s, when Voskresensky encountered a high school teacher who dared speak openly about God, as if God was personal and existed, Voskresensky was shocked.

He remembers thinking: “‘You mean God is not a fairy tale, not an ancient myth?’ I started thinking of God as reality for the first time and started to look for Him.” Voskresensky calls this teacher the genius responsible for pointing him in the right direction. The state called the teacher a dissident and kicked him out of the country when he was 74. He still lives today in Germany.

Voskresensky remembers engaging in dissident activity himself: climbing a cabin roof with childhood friends and their shortwave radios, trying to hear snatches of Voice of America broadcasts that the Soviet state tried to jam. “We didn’t automatically believe what we heard,” he explains. “But we at least could consider whether it was true or not. We could start to think critically.”

Differing worldviews competed for Voskresensky’s soul. Classic Russian authors, like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and beautiful art drew him toward the Biblical God, yet for years he followed Zen Buddhism. Looking for advice, one day he motorcycled out of Moscow to an Orthodox village priest. After both determined the other wasn’t secretly KGB, the priest prayed for him and gave him a Bible.

Perestroika—radical political and economic restructuring—and glasnost—increasing openness in Russian society—arrived in the 1980s, during the time Voskresensky met his future wife, Oksana. When he saw how she applied Christianity to everything she did, Voskresensky knew God could change him, too: “Christianity became more than just a philosophy.” The smile in Voskresensky’s voice broadens whenever he mentions Oksana.

Soon, he worshipped regularly at her Orthodox church where services were in the Russian language, instead of the usual Church Slavonic no one could understand. Within two years, he says, he professed faith in Christ. His life’s work slowly began to emerge, centered on his newfound faith.

Paul Gavrilyuk

Paul Gavrilyuk Photo by Jim Mone/Genesis

PAUL GAVRILYUK also recalls the state’s religious suppression, but not to the same extent. With a strong Eastern European accent like Voskresensky’s, he, too, speaks articulately—and I can almost see cogs turning as he remembers the past and connects it to how God works.

He tells me his mother and grandmother were devout Christians. His great-grandfather had been an Orthodox priest who survived the purges. But his father, a civil engineer who helped build Chernobyl’s steel and concrete sarcophagus to contain radiation after the nuclear power plant’s disaster in 1986, was a sympathizing humanist—he respected his wife’s faith but did not embrace it.

An enclosure covers the destroyed reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station.

An enclosure covers the destroyed reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station. Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Gavrilyuk’s childhood was marked by years of what Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev later dubbed “The Era of Stagnation”—a time of failed Soviet political, economic, and social policies under Leonid Brezhnev in the early 1970s and continuing under Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. In 1985, Gorbachev became the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union until its dissolution in 1991 into 15 separate nations.

That meant Gavrilyuk enjoyed the emerging perestroika and glasnost during his formative high school and college years. With society’s new openness, he started to explore Christianity. He got hold of a Bible and read it from cover to cover. When he was 14, a Jewish math teacher at summer camp piqued his interest more with Old Testament stories.

President Ronald Reagan (left) and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev meet in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986.

President Ronald Reagan (left) and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev meet in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 1986. Peter Turnley/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

At 15, he and friends started jamming on guitars and singing songs from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. He spent class time pretending to listen to teachers while translating and scribbling the lyrics into Russian. “It wasn’t a profound turning to Christ or conversion yet,” he recalls, with a quick laugh. “But it was a step.”

He was 18 when the presence of Christ became real to him, thanks to a teacher—similar to Voskresensky’s experience. Father George was Gavrilyuk’s university humanities teacher who opened the Bible and explained it. “It was like when the Apostle Philip opened Scripture to the Ethiopian eunuch,” he recalls. The teacher talked nonstop about a personal encounter with Christ.

When Gavrilyuk woke one morning and found his desires had completely changed, he wondered if something supernatural was happening to him. Throughout college, he and friends had played a game similar to bridge where winning competitions became quite lucrative. Gavrilyuk had even written a popular book about probability on it. But on that memorable morning, he no longer had any interest in making money from the game or even playing it again.

He realized he believed the Jesus of the Bible and wanted to pursue Him. He repented of his sins and was quietly baptized, desiring to live Biblically. He met Eugenia, his future wife, who simultaneously was growing in faith. Gavrilyuk started devouring Christian books and began to see how Marxism stifled the human spirit and suffocated history and politics.

As Soviet society became less restrictive, especially after the country’s 1991 disintegration, Voskresensky, too, began voraciously reading Christian works—many by C.S. Lewis, as well as sermons and books by Orthodox authors.

While on a work visa pursuing journalism in America, he first encountered evangelicalism: A young family on a Minneapolis playground invited him, Oksana, and their daughter to their home, and then to their Bible church.

Voskresensky loved the church’s systematic theology and strong Bible teaching. Soon his new community of believers helped send him to Bethel Seminary in St. Paul. He tells me some describe him as an evangelical Orthodox—he both believes in a personal relationship with Jesus and loves the traditions of his church. He continues to worship as an Eastern Orthodox.

After seminary, he eagerly began translating Christian materials into Russian, developing presentations to take into Russian-speaking countries. He traveled to Ukraine, Belarus, Bulgaria, Poland, and Finland, but mostly Russia. His goal: to teach the historicity and veracity of the Biblical Christ.

Initially, some Russians listened to his presentations with suspicion because his evidence was only from Western sources. A priest kindly chastised him: “All this is made in America. Make it look like it’s made in Russia—in Moscow—and people may listen.”

The lightbulb went on. Voskresensky changed all his source material, using only works from Russian historians, theologians, scientists, artists, and writers to support Christian truths.

Listeners could now check references and primary sources they understood and were comfortable with. The rational, historical information and evidence appealed to the educated Russian-speaking audiences. Floodgates opened. Soon, Voskresensky got invitations to teach all over the country. The most unlikely came from Russia’s Ministry of Education.

His materials became part of a nationwide fourth grade curriculum throughout Russia called “Introduction to Christian Culture,” part of a religious culture education project the state was developing. “I never even prayed for this opportunity,” says Voskresensky. “God just gave it to me.”

He began training teachers nationwide on how to present his Christian material to children, then enhanced his local credibility more by getting a doctorate in education from a Moscow university.

The Russian Federation has reprinted his curriculum for 10 years now. Children and their teachers from Siberia to St. Petersburg and Moscow use it. Voskresensky’s training talks have led to speaking engagements at Orthodox and Protestant churches, colleges, army bases, and prisons.

Paul Gavrilyuk at his home in St. Paul, Minn.

Paul Gavrilyuk at his home in St. Paul, Minn. Photo by Jim Mone/Genesis

AFTER GAVRILYUK earned his undergraduate degree in physics, he pursued a theology doctorate, arriving in the United States with Eugenia to study at Southern Methodist University. He discovered later he was one of the first scholars from the former Soviet Union to formally study religion in America.

Again, a teacher inspired Gavrilyuk, this time a Northern Irish Methodist, professor William J. Abraham, with a bushy white beard and welcoming smile. His intellectual rigor, tireless evangelism, love for children, and investment in students offered a model for Gavrilyuk to emulate. “He was like Paul, and I, Barnabas,” he says. Together, they traveled to Kazakhstan and Costa Rica on missions trips. But Gavrilyuk remained Eastern Orthodox.

For 20 years, Gavrilyuk has taught theology and philosophy at the University of St. Thomas, a Roman Catholic university in St. Paul, Minn., where Eugenia also teaches. He and Voskresensky became friends shortly after he moved to Minnesota.

Like Abraham, his former mentor, Gavrilyuk’s labors don’t end at the classroom. He most recently has been working with Rebuild Ukraine, a nonprofit he began, to bring supplies into Ukraine. It has provided thousands of military-grade tourniquets for the country’s Territorial Defense.

Volunteers and staff transport tourniquets and other items—prescription and first aid drugs, camouflage gear, boots, protective goggles, neck warmers, and raincoats—across Poland’s eastern border to a distribution center in Ternopil. A network of 70 volunteers within Ukraine moves these goods to 60 locations throughout the war-torn country. The network is similar to one Gavrilyuk used to evacuate his elderly parents and about 100 families from Kyiv, shortly after Russia invaded.

“We deliver what people need, not what donors are willing to contribute,” says Gavrilyuk, referring to problems some organizations have when piles of donations arrive that refugees can’t use. Gavrilyuk’s brother owns a social media intelligence company to track and verify supplies get to the right people, all of whom are vetted, so items don’t end up on the black market.

Rebuild Ukraine also funds teacher salaries, facility rentals, and supplies for a refugee school in Montenegro. “We had to do something for these children and their mothers who had to flee Ukraine while their fathers and husbands stayed to fight,” explains Gavrilyuk, getting emotional. “We need more schools for these psychologically shocked kids.”

When we spoke, he was in Washington, D.C., en route to Europe, in part to check on Rebuild Ukraine’s supply distributions and school efforts.

Both Voskresensky and Gavrilyuk vehemently condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian war. They also decry Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill’s support of Putin. But they aren’t surprised; the love of power, both say, rules each man.

What does surprise Voskresensky is how many of his friends in Russia believe the state’s version of the war. These are the same childhood friends who would clamber up a roof with him to listen on their shortwave radios for foreign news transmissions, then critically compare them with Soviet propaganda. Now, he says, they seem to have abandoned all critical thinking.

And it troubles him that the same Russians who were concerned about the sources he used for his presentations no longer seem to evaluate their own sources. Instead, they blindly accept the state’s claims. Voskresensky was in Russia when the war began, and when he pointed out tanks were rolling south toward Ukraine, friends told him he’d been brainwashed by the West and no invasion would happen. When the invasion did occur, even his former newspaper boss denied it was war and simply said Russia wasn’t afraid of Western sanctions.

Since then, Russia has closed or blocked at least 10 independent media outlets over their war coverage. Television controlled by the Kremlin is the main source of news. Yet, many Russians, including government officials themselves, circumvent the government’s internet censorship with VPNs (virtual private networks) to get information from abroad. Despite this, recent reports say most Russians continue to believe the war is just.

“Many Russians believe, like Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century,” Gavrilyuk adds. He recalls Putin’s popularity skyrocketed in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea despite Ukraine’s protests.

“Putin is now destroying two countries,” says Gavrilyuk. “Ukraine, of course, but also Russia.” He says Russia is already losing politically, and believes it ultimately will lose militarily and economically.

Voskresensky wanted to return to Russia in May, but the war precluded travel. He hoped to talk with friends there, trying to find some common ground. When he resumes training Russian teachers, he will try to help them guide children on how to think about the war from a Christian perspective that doesn’t publicly denounce the state. “I know at least we’ll be able to agree that war and killing is terrible and causes pain. And pain should alert us that something is wrong and must be changed,” he says.

“And then,” he adds, “I want them to understand that means God’s Spirit is showing us the reality of sin and evil that only Christ can conquer.”

—WORLD has corrected this story to reflect that Rebuild Ukraine funds a refugee school in Montenegro and not Poland, and to clarify that Gavrilyuk’s brother owns a social media intelligence company.

Sharon Dierberger

Sharon is a senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate and holds two master’s degrees. She has served as university teacher, businesswoman, clinical exercise physiologist, homeschooling mom, and Division 1 athlete. Sharon resides in Stillwater, Minn., with her husband, Bill.


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