Gennadi Kryuchkov

Baptist leader pursued by the KGB
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Gennadi Konstantinovich Kryuchkov, pastor: born Stalingrad, Soviet Union 20 October 1926; ordained Baptist pastor 1960; chairman, Council of Churches 1965-2007; married 1951 Lydia Domozhirova (died 2007; nine children), died Tula, Russia 15 July 2007.

In July 1989, as Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika was loosening controls on religious life in the Soviet Union, the Baptist Council of Churches – an illegal denomination – held its annual congress in Rostov-on-Don.

A wave of excitement went through the church members gathered as their leader Gennadi Kryuchkov emerged from the crowds to speak. He reaffirmed their policy of continuing to reject state interference, before disappearing. The KGB, which had been monitoring the event, held back from arresting him in front of thousands of church members, but tried in vain to grab him afterwards.

Kryuchkov was one of the most extraordinary of the Soviet Union's religious leaders in the post-Stalin era. For a quarter of a century he led the Council of Churches which, despite heavy persecution, maintained a network across the vast country of prayer houses, pastors and underground printing presses producing Bibles and other Christian literature unavailable because of censorship.

More extraordinary still, from 1970 Kryuchkov conducted his ministry – preaching and encouraging embattled congregations around the Soviet Union – despite being hunted by the police and KGB. Wanted posters went up at train stations and his family was put under surveillance as the secret police hunted everywhere for him in vain.

Kryuchkov was born in Stalingrad (now Volgograd) in 1926 to parents who had recently become Baptists. Suffering would soon engulf the family. In 1931 his father was sentenced to five years in labour camp for his faith. When he returned, he was banned from living in Moscow, so the family moved away.

In 1943, when he was little over 16, Kryuchkov was called up and remained in the army until 1951. He returned to his parents in the small town of Uzlovaya near Tula, where his father had been assigned to work in the coalfields. That year Gennadi Kryuchkov and his new wife Lydia were baptised in the local unregistered Baptist congregation, one of many that survived despite the ever-present threat of persecution.

Sensing a growing impulse to serve the church, Kryuchkov devoted less time to his work as an electrician and more to his preaching, becoming choir leader and then pastor of the Uzlovaya congregation. In the late 1950s he was being considered for study abroad by the leadership of the state-approved Baptist Union, but was unimpressed when its leaders urged him to co-operate with the KGB.

When, in 1960, the Baptist Union was forced to accept new rules banning children from churches, discouraging baptisms of those under 30 and rejecting evangelism, Kryuchkov was one of many to resist. At a meeting in 1961, leading pastors drafted a call to overturn the leadership, an unprecedented action.

The group went public later that year but was rebuffed by the Baptist Union leadership. Both sides refused to "repent" of what the other felt they had done wrong. State action was swift: within a year, more than 100 of the reformers had been arrested.

As opposition to the Baptist Union leadership crystallised, Kryuchkov was elected chairman and the Kiev-based pastor Georgi Vins became general secretary of what would become in 1965 the Council of Churches. That year, Kryuchkov and Vins were among leading reformers who met Anastas Mikoyan at the Supreme Soviet in Moscow, but to no avail.

An unprecedented mass pray-in outside the Communist Party Central Committee in Moscow in 1966 triggered a new wave of arrests. Kryuchkov was among many imprisoned for three years. It was within a year of his release in 1969 that the church leadership decided he could best serve by going underground.

The KGB put the Kryuchkov family home under surveillance and installed a bug (American-made) in the electricity meter. The house was subjected to strong radiation which killed the goldfish. During much of this time, Kryuchkov was holed up in the attic of a farmhouse in the Latvian countryside.

The 1989 conference was Kryuchkov's first public appearance after 19 years underground. During all this time he had seen his wife Lydia and their children only infrequently, initially once a month, then, as surveillance intensified, only a couple of times a year. Kryuchkov saw his youngest son for the first time when the boy was 18 months old.

In 1990 Kryuchkov could finally return to live openly with his wife. By then Lydia was in a wheelchair suffering from arthritis which the family believed was brought on by the radiation the KGB had subjected their home to.

Felix Corley