Obituary: Pastor Georgi Vins

Georgi Petrovich Vins, pastor: born Blagoveshchensk, Siberia 4 August 1928, married (one son, three daughters); died Elkhart, Indiana 11 January 1998.

Georgi Vins hit the world's headlines twice - when he was sentenced in 1975 for his work as a leader of the Baptist churches that resisted Soviet government controls and again in April 1979 when he was dramatically expelled from the Soviet Union with four other dissidents in exchange for two spies convicted in the United States.

The events surrounding his expulsion were bizarre. On 26 April 1979 he was woken up in prison and told to change into his own clothes. Completely unaware of his imminent change of circumstances, he was flown to Moscow for what would be his last night on Soviet soil, which he spent on bare boards in a centre for vagrants. The following day he was issued with new clothes and informed by an official who refused to give his name that because of his anti-Soviet activity the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet had stripped him of his Soviet citizenship. He was being expelled.

Vins protested in vain that his activity was not anti-Soviet, but had to bow to the inevitable. He was told to write down the names of his close relatives so that they could leave the country with him and, realising that he would be unlikely to see them again otherwise, listed his wife, children, mother and niece. He was driven to Lefortovo prison and then all five expellees were taken to Moscow airport. Two American embassy officials on the plane explained that their release followed an agreement between the White House and the Soviet embassy in Washington. It was not until the plane landed in New York that they learnt they were being exchanged for two convicted spies, and the handover took place in an isolated hangar at Kennedy airport. The five walked off the plane at one end while the spies walked on at the other.

Once in the United States, Vins (and six weeks later the rest of his family) gradually settled down to the very different life of an exile, making the town of Elkhart in Indiana his home and slowly learning English. He received invitations to the White House and to innumerable events around the world. At first there was hot competition between missions supporting persecuted churches in the Soviet Union to enlist him, but Vins kept his distance. He eventually set up the international representation of the Baptist churches in the Soviet Union that owed their allegiance to the Council of Churches, a group of tight-knit congregations that categorically rejected any compromises with the Soviet authorities and refused to register officially. Their members were suffering fierce persecution, with hundreds in labour camps or psychiatric hospitals.

Vins was born in the Russian Far East in 1928 to Peter Vins, an American citizen of Russian origin who had travelled to Siberia just two years before as a missionary. His father was arrested in 1930, freed three years later but soon rearrested. The family was later informed he had died. The young Georgi was brought up by his mother, Lydia.

After the Second World War the two of them moved to Kiev and Georgi qualified as an engineer. He also became involved in the Baptist Church there. It was as Khrushchev's anti-religious persecutions began in 1959 that the state tried to impose new regulations on the Baptist Church that drastically curtailed the small measure of independence they enjoyed. As the Baptist movement split acrimoniously, Vins became one of the leading figures in the campaign to resist state pressure. He publicly opposed the pastor of his own congregation in Kiev who had accepted the new measures. Vins formed his own breakaway congregation, becoming its pastor despite his lack of theological qualifications. The group had to meet in a forest outside Kiev.

When the Council of Churches was formally set up as an underground body in 1965, Vins became its general secretary. Hundreds of the movement's followers were already in prison. In an astonishing protest, Baptists converged from all over the Soviet Union for a mass demonstration outside the Central Committee building in Moscow. Several days later, Vins went to the Central Committee with other leaders to ask about the fate of those who had been detained at the unprecedented demonstration. They were themselves arrested. Vins and another colleague finally went on trial in November 1966 and he was sentenced to three years' imprisonment. His wife, Nadezhda, was left to look after their four children.

After release, Vins resumed his work as pastor and organiser of the movement, but soon had to go into hiding to avoid arrest. He was finally discovered and seized in March 1974. Prodded by the human-rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov, the World Council of Churches finally joined the international protests at Vins' arrest. Vins was tried in Kiev in January 1975 and sentenced to five years in labour camp to be followed by five years' internal exile, becoming the Soviet Union's most famous religious prisoner. International pressure finally led to his dramatic expulsion from his homeland.

Vins' work aiding Baptist victims of persecution changed dramatically in the late 1980s, when open Christian work became possible. In 1990 President Gorbachev revoked the decree that had stripped Vins of his Soviet citizenship, thereby allowing him to revisit his homeland. In the 1990s Vins made numerous preaching trips, especially in Russia and Ukraine. In 1995 he was allowed access in Moscow to his father's KGB case file, and it was with mixed emotions that Vins finally learnt that his father had been executed in 1936. But reading the record of his father's interrogation he realised that throughout his own battles with the Soviet authorities he had been following in his father's footsteps.

Vins was a thoughtful leader with a certain presence. Although he had taken a hard line over the split in the Baptist Union in the early 1960s, he later felt a little uncomfortable with the aggressively uncompromising stand taken by many of his former colleagues. Splits within the Council of Churches over the past few years caused him much sadness and he was unhappy with those in Russia who called themselves Vinsites.

When he discovered late last year that he had a malignant inoperable brain tumour, he faced up to it with courage. He had already successfully undergone heart bypass surgery in the late 1980s, but this time treatment was unsuccessful. "The Lord is powerful and could shrink my tumour," he said. "But if not and God calls me to Heaven, I won't be sorry to go!"

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