His passion fulfilled The dissident: Once jailed for his religious activities, a Christian publisher is riding a wave of reborn enthusiasm.

August 23, 1996|By CLARA GERMANI

MOSCOW -- The day Viktor Popkov was arrested by the KGB is etched in his memory: "January 2, 1980."

On that day, the 28-year-old Christian, who had been repeatedly warned against practicing his religion, stepped off a Smolensk city bus into a KGB setup that would land him in jail for 18 months of labor, occasional solitary confinement and a series of interrogations.

A man planted himself in front of Popkov as he got off the bus, forcing the two to bump. Three agents jumped from a waiting car and dragged Popkov into it. They told the quiet young man that he was being arrested for cursing and being obstreperous.

It was the beginning of a series of trumped-up charges that allowed the KGB to keep Popkov in custody for his real crime: belonging to a religious discussion group that illegally published Christian literature.

Popkov was a religious dissident -- a strong believer in a nation where atheism was the official belief.

Only a handful of Soviet dissidents gained world renown, people such as Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, Andrei D. Sakharov and Natan Sharansky. But thousands more -- like Popkov -- spent the same long hours with KGB interrogators and served the same mind-shattering time in prison cells as their famous compatriots.

Some of them died. Some emigrated. Some, tormented by their difficult lives, continue battling authority.

And some are quietly reaping what they sowed. Democracy has set them free.

Popkov and his wife, Tanya, are a happy upper-income couple with two cars. Their daughters, Anastasia, 12, and Masha, 14, attend dance classes. They live in a nice apartment in Moscow with their rambunctious schnauzer and go to church every Sunday.

"I am doing what I always wanted to do," says Popkov, who earns a good living publishing and distributing Christian literature through the Roman Catholic-backed Religion Library and his own small publishing house, the Religious Studies Center.

But Popkov has chosen not to mar the pretty family picture by telling his daughters about his ugly Soviet past. He's been unable to bring himself to talk to them about his prison time for religious dissidence.

Popkov doesn't see his ordeal as heroic, and he is sharply aware that most Russians do not view his prison record as a badge of honor. Outside the thin layer of Russian intelligentsia who had access to Western news sources and even associated with dissidents, public sympathy was never high because dissidents were considered crazy to buck the system.

"I never speak of it to anyone without need. It's embarrassing, yes, because no one will pay attention to why [I was in jail]. Russians forget history," Popkov says.

"I thought this would disturb the children," he says. "At a certain age, they aren't going to understand the difference between me and a criminal."

Popkov's mission today is providing a Christian education for the generations of Russians who have never seen a Bible, let alone set foot in a church.

He is riding a wave of reborn enthusiasm.

A medieval church

Throughout Russia, the hulking onion domes of abandoned churches stand testament to the Russian Orthodox religion that dominated this country for a thousand years before communism. On Moscow's cityscape, the newest and most dominant sight is the cluster of gilt domes of the $250 million Christ the Savior cathedral, a replica of the 19th-century structure blown up by Josef Stalin.

Public opinion polls show the church to be more trusted today than any single politician. Millions of Russians have gone back to church, practicing the mystical, ritualistic Russian Orthodox religion that only a few brave believers clung to in the Soviet era.

Today, priests are baptizing adults who aren't sure if they were baptized as infants because such rites were kept secret. Many middle-aged people are seeing their first church weddings.

But the rebirth of the Russian Orthodox Church has pitted reformers against the old-guard church hierarchy and practices frozen in the time of the czars: no pews for worshipers attending hours-long services, liturgy delivered in Old Church Slavonic that few understand, and a clergy more apt to prescribe medieval monastic penitence than modern understanding to their parishioners' spiritual searching.

"When I think of the possibility of the church to influence society -- for Christianity to be influencing people -- then I'm not satisfied with the church; it's too limited," Popkov says.

But compared with the repression of Soviet times, he sees the turmoil in the church as a healthy symptom of recuperation from the dark past.

Popkov's encounter with religion began three decades ago.

A talented soccer player during his high school and college years in the provincial town of Smolensk in western Russia, Popkov had a bright future in athletics -- until he began to have "questions."

"There was a feeling of fogginess," he says. "I felt a very strong feeling of rejection around me in the way everyday relations with friends had a double-spirited sense."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.