A faithful witness to persecution

For many years the Keston Institute monitored religious oppression in the Eastern bloc. Now it is struggling to survive
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One of the prize exhibits in the archive of the Keston Institute in Oxford is the transcript of the trial of a young Russian Baptist, written on strips of sheet so that it could be smuggled out of the country wrapped beneath someone's clothes. It records how in 1968, Aida Skripnikova, in her early twenties, was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for distributing Christian literature on the streets of St Petersburg.

The Keston Institute, a small, independent research unit, is dedicated to the study of religion in Central and Eastern Europe, and since the Sixties has reported on the persecution of believers under atheist totalitarian regimes. As well as producing academic books and a quarterly journal, and fostering links between religious groups in the East and West, the institute has amassed an important archive. But since the collapse of Communism and the advent of religious liberty, Keston has found it much more of a struggle to raise the funds necessary to continue its work and maintain the archive.

"Before 1989, we were seen by the media, not completely accurately, as a human rights organisation," explains Canon Michael Bourdeaux, director of the institute. "Since then, we have actually been able to do what we set out to do in a more meaningful way, meeting people face to face and helping the religions of East and West to know each other better. But the popular perception is that we don't really need to keep going. People think the work is done."

A year ago the institute moved from Kent to a large, grey, four-storey house in north Oxford. Although not part of Oxford University, Keston's public profile will benefit, in terms of fund-raising, from being in its shadow, Canon Bourdeaux believes, particularly if the university later confers official "associate" status on Keston, as on other outlying organisations such as Ruskin College and the Maison Francaise.

In the meantime, the institute needs to find pounds 150,000 to renovate its new building. A proper library is needed for its 5,000-odd books and mountains of newspapers and journals, with room for visiting researchers to work, as well as space for the archive, currently crammed into 35 filing cabinets and barely accessible. The house will eventually accommodate students from Eastern Europe, on scholarships sponsored by Oxford University and by the Keston Institute.

The material in the archive dates from 1917, when persecution of Christians in the Soviet Union began. It includes 40 or 50 trial transcripts, many of them from the Seventies; religious testimonies, published in samizdat editions; original documents relating to church history; and newspaper articles and private protocols charting the Communist view of religion.

These documents have been passed to the Keston Institute by its network of contacts, established over the past 30 years; more recently, the institute has gained access to the KGB archives. The most important material is translated and published by Keston staff, and the rest is kept on file for reference.

"The archive is of quintessential importance because it is the means of reconstituting the Christian history of Eastern Europe," says Canon Bourdeaux. "When that history comes to be properly written, in the 21st century, this will be one of the key places to look."

It is, furthermore, a living archive, documenting a situation that is still fraught with ethnic and religious tensions - the conflicts in Bosnia and Chechnya being the most obvious examples.

The Keston Institute: 01865 311022.