under Soviet occupation in Estonia and the imposition of Soviet administration
in Bulgaria is to hear living witness to the strength of the human spirit and
the invincibility of faith and hope.
Meeting people in Bulgaria and Estonia the past few days has brought me new understanding of the strength of faith and the invincibility of hope. The human spirit yearns for freedom and voice, and it does not easily accept containment and control.
In Bulgaria we heard how people conducted worship and prayer meetings underground. Some were effective administrators within the existing government system, so effective that the government could not do without them even if they were identified as Christians. This is not to say that they had it easy, or that they were free to worship or study the faith. They weren’t. They were just in-expendable.
Those who were expendable, or who were strongly confrontational, or otherwise represented a threat to Soviet administration were imprisoned or sent to work camps. Generally, people were unable to travel. Many were separated from families.
Hearing the limitations on freedom and the concessions granted by the system is to hear both tragedy and tragicomedy. Sometimes they were allowed to come together to sing, but not to pray. Sometimes they were allowed to worship in private homes, but not in former church buildings. At the root of the policies, of course, was control. It was imposed brutally and without concern for humanitarian consideration.
In Estonia many of these leaders are remembered for their martyrdom, for they were exiled to Siberia and some were either killed or died in captivity. It has taken many years for the story of their lives to emerge from secret files. Some disappeared and were never heard from again but no confirmation of their death was provided. As secret files were opened their fate is now known. Documentation has been discovered in the past two years for some who disappeared as long ago as 1948, for example. A book of Estonian Christian martyrs is being written based on this recent knowledge.
As one from outside the region I have not heard before the deeply human, individual drama of life in what the Estonians call “Soviet time” in direct conversation. There are heroic, but quiet, stories of resistance and survival. We in the west who have not experienced the imposition of social and political control from the end of a gun may not be able to fully comprehend how this intimidation and long-term oppression was sustained.
But we can understand the blunt, unadorned use of power. It is a constant threat. The loss of freedom can come like a thief in the night, and it can come not only at the end of a gun but through the surrender of rights and accommodation to authoritarianism. The challenge this lays before us is how to preserve freedom and individual rights even when we face external threats and harm.
This is the learning that I am gleaning from these living witnesses.