When I was 19 years old, I was drafted for the compulsory military service in the Soviet Army. Having received the call-up paper I went to the military enlistment office and said that I could neither take the oath or hold a weapon because it contradicted the Bible. After a long conversation with the chief enlistment officer full of insults aimed at me, I went home to wait for a call from the prosecutor’s office.
Back then I worked as a mechanical technician at the local brickyard and stood well with the authorities. Nevertheless, after having received the letter stating that I was a believer, my boss quickly had me summoned up and fired for the violation of labor discipline. His screams and distasteful insults were not the first time I had experienced persecution at such a young age. Even in a secondary school believers were often informed on because they didn’t want to join the Young Pioneers’ Organization. Anyone who refused to become a pioneer did not attend their meetings, as well. How could we join this organization when they made you take entrance exams with obligatory questions on atheism? To answer those questions meant to deny Jesus.
To make a long story short, a week later, on the 13th of October 1959 I was arrested. First I was placed in a solitary cell at the police department, where I was fed once a day. All I had to eat was 300 grams of bread with a small serving of borsch. They put me under a lot of pressure trying to break my faith. While searching my house, they found and confiscated my New Testament. It was very difficult to buy the New Testament back then, and even if one could find a person willing to sell the Book, it usually cost a lot of money.
My parents were called to the prosecutor’s office, too. My mum said that she had done a bad job bringing me up. Then I was transferred to prison in Ivano-Frankovsk, where I had to wait for the court hearing decision. My court session turned into a show trial. As a result I was sentenced to a five years’ imprisonment in a general regime penal colony as a draft dodger. However, I was told that if I denied my faith and joined the Soviet army, they would immediately set me free. I said that I would never agree to do that.
I was transported from one prison to another until I was brought to a correctional labor colony in Solnechnoye settlement, in the middle of Chersonese steppes. In the summer we grew vegetables and in the winter we build houses. We also made brooms and dug pit hotbeds… At the end of the 1950s a special clemency and parole board organized by the USSR government made a decision to set free those prisoners whose crimes were considered minor. Back then a lot of felons were set loose while all the believers stayed in confinement because they were considered dangerous to public safety.
At the beginning of the 1960s a lot of Christians including clergymen were taken to court and sent to prison, therefore I had a chance to spend a good deal of time with them. Prisoners of faith were watched very closely even while in prison. Group meetings were strictly prohibited, so we couldn’t get together in order to pray or talk. If we were caught talking to one another, the prison superintendent was immediately informed. He would come, stop the meeting and threaten us with penalty. No one in prison had the Bible or the New Testament. It was impossible to keep religious literature because of frequent searches. Besides, even inmates could inform on those who had such books. Luckily, a lot of brothers knew some Bible passages by heart and they could share with other believers during daily walks. To have God’s word in your heart meant to have faith and live in victory.
Photo – The hero of the story (in the middle) with his brothers in faith who had served their sentence at the same time, 1959.
There were about a thousand people in prison. A lot of prisoners who had been sentenced for criminal offence were often disimprisoned after having done merely a half of their time if they had not been penalized for misdemeanor. Even repeated offenders had a chance of being set free ahead of time unlike believers who had to serve their full sentence as “incorrigible offenders”. Even if your case was reopened, you had to deny God and sign a paper confirming that after disimprisonment you promise to live like a normal soviet citizen. Nothing could make us deny God, though.
We would gather in so-called “tents” – clay structures about 10 to 10 meters in area and 1.20 meters high. One brother would be on the lookout outside the building to make sure that the guards don’t notice our meeting while the others prayed inside. Sometimes we were caught and had to scatter around to fling off superintendents. There was a snitch among us who had been appointed by prison administration. This person would inform superintendents about our meetings. Once even the snitch was caught because the authorities thought that he was a real believer. I did not see him again after that incident. Usually we were reported by so-called squealers. Seasoned criminals thought squealing was below their dignity.
The administration, on the contrary, called us “incorrigible” even though we didn’t drink chifir, a type of very strong tea often brewed in prisons, we didn’t smoke and didn’t do anything “normal prisoners” did. We never reacted to provocations or any attempts to force us to doubt our faith. On the other hand, when there was a riot in our prison and it had to be taken by storm, prison administration knew without a shadow of a doubt that the believers had nothing to do with the riot, and therefore no measures were taken against us.
Standard output rate in prison was back-breaking while our daily ratio was scarce. Once I refused to work on a Sunday. In order to punish me the superintendents made me take my clothes off and threw me into a cold concrete cell. I was so cold there that I couldn’t either stand or sit. The warden of our division, Shevchenko, would often call me into his office and recommend the books of the prisoners who had denied their faith. I would always tell him that I didn’t have anything to do with those books. Very often ex-orthodox believers or militant atheists were brought to prison to deliver lectures. They tended to twist the Scripture and blaspheme the name of God. Nevertheless, we were forced to attend their lectures and at the end we were forbidden to ask any questions.
Once we were sent to cut and gather sedge and reed near Vilkovo (Odessa region – editor’s note). With rubber boots on my feet I was gathering sedge and reed for eight hours in a row. My boots were leaking, but I couldn’t complain because every complaint was regarded as disorderly conduct and was severely punished. The prison warden, Shevchenko, told me that he would make sure I rot in prison. I remember that I stepped aside and cried out of frustration. When we were coming back from work Shevchenko suddenly died. I didn’t gloat over his misfortune. No one deserves such sort of death. A new warden was appointed soon after. Once he called me into his office and said: “I have studied your case. You do not have any faults or failures to comply with prison rules. If it was up to me, I would set you free.”
For approximately three years we had about 20 inmates from the pentecostal church, as well as a few Baptists and Jehovah witnesses. Our sisters in faith from Chersonese Lena Chekhun and Pastushenko Maria did a lot for the prisoners of faith. They would often come to the fields where we were working under guard. Somehow they managed to persuade the guards to let us have the food they’d brought. Maria passed away long time ago, but as for Lena, I got to meet with her a couple of years ago in Chersonese. She is ninety years old now, but as active as ever. She still takes a bus to get to her church meeting without any assistance.
Photo: With his wife Olga
To this day I can remember the names of my believing fellow-prisoners. Some of them went to be with the Lord, others live out their remaining days here, in America. I still keep in touch with some of them: Pastors Trophimov Petr, Polchevskiy Ivan and Kovalenko Vasiliy, as well as Yakov Kubay, Tkachenko Kolya, Ivanchenko Mark, Kushnirenko Sasha, Stukalo Sasha, Sokolik Mitya, Guk Ivan, Boyko Vasya, Moskvich Vitya, Vysotskiy Tolya, Ivanchenko Misha, Bukhalo Pavel, Savchuk Vasya, Shkira Volodya and many others. All these brothers were arrested for their faith in God.
After disimprisonment I stayed in Chersonese for a couple of days. There I was invited to attend the local church. When I was given some time to share my testimony I was overjoyed because it was the very first time I had been given a chance to preach at church.
After prison I got married. As believers we were still persecuted – we were constantly threatened and fined. Years later our whole family immigrated to America. Living in the US my wife and I have been giving donations to Ukrainian and Moldovan orphanages and prisons. Eventually I was allowed to visit Ukrainian prisons as a church minister. Once I went to Ivano-Frakovsk prison with a mission and was able to share my faith with the prisoners. It happened 55 years after I had done time in that very prison myself.
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