Priest in the Russian Orthodox Church who campaigned on human rights issues.
The article is written by Dr. Michael Bourdeaux who is the founder of Keston Institute in the UK, which played a key role in defending religious freedom in the Soviet Union. Dr. Michael Bourdeaux is a patron of Mission Eurasia.
Incredible as it may seem, there were three times as many churches open in the Soviet Union on the day that Stalin died in 1953 as when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. The reason for this was simple: Stalin allowed churches to reopen during the second world war; Nikita Khrushchev systematically closed them between 1959 and 1964. The man who first exposed the enormity of this persecution was Father Gleb Yakunin, who has died aged 80.
In 1965, with a colleague, Father Nikolai Eshliman, he wrote two lengthy and detailed open letters, one to the Soviet government, the other to Patriarch Alexy I, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, setting out the nature of the anti-religious campaign in precise detail and furnished with hundreds of examples. They wrote: “The mass closure of churches, a campaign instigated from above, has created an atmosphere of anti-religious fanaticism which has led to the barbaric destruction of a large number of superb and unique works of art.”
These words resounded around the world and undoubtedly persuaded Khrushchev’s successors to discontinue the church closures. Yakunin, however, became an isolated figure. The punishment meted out to him came not from the KGB, but from Patriarch Alexy (doubtless at the state’s instigation): he was commanded to keep silence and not to exercise his priesthood for the next 10 years. The young priest obeyed the injunction to the letter.
Yakunin was born into a Christian family in Moscow. His father was a musician who played the clarinet in a symphony orchestra; his mother worked at the post office. Gleb lost his faith aged 15, but while studying for a degree in biology in Irkutsk, Siberia, he found it again under the influence of Alexander Men, who was to become the foremost theologian of his generation. Their subsequent careers were divergent, yet equally influential. Barred from entry to one of the few functioning seminaries, they took correspondence courses in theology and studied privately. Men served discreetly in a parish and always deflected attention from his teaching ministry, becoming a national figure only during the Gorbachev era and until his murder in 1990; Yakunin early adopted a stance of open defiance to Soviet atheism.
His decade of silence only persuaded Yakunin to speak out more bravely when it ended in 1976. He had noted the signing of the Helsinki Agreement in 1975, which put human rights and religious liberty firmly on the international agenda. The Soviet authorities began systematically to imprison democratic activists, to which Yakunin responded by establishing a Christian Committee for the Defence of Believers’ Rights. He sent an appeal to the Fifth General Assembly of the World Council of Churches that met in Nairobi, begging the worldwide ecumenical fellowship to act on behalf of the persecuted church. The African editors of the assembly’s daily newspaper evaded the censorship which the Russian delegates exercised and caused a furore by printing the text of Yakunin’s appeal, only for the organisers to turn their face away from the issue under pressure from the Moscow Patriarchate.
Wrongly thinking that he now had world Christian opinion behind him, Yakunin increased his efforts. His energy was prodigious. He collected more than 400 appeals from almost all Christian denominations in the Soviet Union and even included support for Jews and Muslims in his wide-ranging activities. This time the Soviet authorities themselves acted, and arrested Yakunin on 1 November 1979. At his subsequent trial, he received a sentence of 10 years, the first half to be served in a camp, the second in exile. Eight years into this, with Gorbachev at the height of his perestroika policy, Yakunin was released.
The next year, 1988, saw celebrations marking the millennium of the conversion of the Eastern Slavs. During these June weeks Yakunin and his wife, Iraida, whom he had married in 1961, held open house for religious dissidents, inviting foreign Christian leaders in Moscow for the events to visit his flat and learn the real truth about the persecution of the past 60 years, not the sanitised version as presented by the Moscow Patriarchate. The atmosphere in the flat was electric as a succession of victims of persecution told their stories.
Yakunin at this point might have expected a triumphal reinstatement into the senior ranks of the Russian church, or an award of the Nobel peace prize, but neither was forthcoming. Soon he began to follow a more overtly political line and was elected to the Duma, the parliament, representing the Democratic Russia party. In this role he had brief and restricted access to the state archives. Here he found in the records of the Council for Religious Affairs, the body that controlled the life of the church, incontrovertible evidence that exposed the collaboration of church leaders with the KGB, including that of Patriarch Alexy II, who was in office at the time.
He was not permitted to take photocopies, but made handwritten notes, which he subsequently copied and passed to Jane Ellis, a researcher at Keston College, Kent, who published them in its journal Religion in Communist Lands. This was a bridge too far for the Moscow Patriarchate, which wrought vengeance on Yakunin by defrocking him, on the grounds that clergy were not permitted to stand for election to political office.
As the Moscow Patriarchate regained its leading position in Russian society, Yakunin’s influence declined. He became a priest in the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, later transferring to the True Orthodox Church (which had its origin in the Catacomb Church of the 1930s). He continued to speak out on human rights issues.
Mental toughness predominated in his personal relationships, but he relaxed with friends and, when able to travel in 1989, enjoyed playing truant from a conference in Manila to go white-water rafting.
He is survived by Iraida, and their three children, Maria, Alexander and Anna.
• Gleb Pavlovich Yakunin, priest, born 4 March 1934; died 25 December 2014
Source: The Guardian