While Mikhail Gorbachev is wooing hearts with his new openness, Vasili Shipilov is passing his 48th year in Soviet labor camps and psychiatric hospitals. His crime? Shipilov is a Christian.
The 65-year-old Russian Orthodox believer is one of 169 Christians who will spend this Christmas imprisoned in the Soviet Union for a variety of crimes against the state that can be boiled down to the practice of religion. Religious prisoners are released by the Soviets in a trickle that makes the most out of Gorbachev's glasnost public relations program.
Jewish refuseniks get the lion's share of attention in this country because their supporters here are highly motivated by fresh memories of the Holocaust and because the Soviet Jews want to leave their country. But Christians in the Soviet Union, for the most part, don't want out. They just want to attend church in their homeland. And their fellow Christians in this country have not taken up their cause.
Anglican priest Richard Rodgers told our associate Daryl Gibson the story of Vasili Shipilov.
He was first arrested in 1939 as a 17-year-old seminarian and sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp. He was released in 1949, but was arrested again the same year for preaching Christianity and criticizing Stalin. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic and epileptic and confined to psychiatric hospitals. He once was told he would remain a prisoner until he renounced his faith. He hasn't.
The Institute on Religion and Democracy at Keston College in England, which keeps track of religious prisoners, reported that Shipilov is beaten when he observes a religious fast.
In 1979, Shipilov was discharged from a psychiatric hospital, and, since he has no family, he was ordered to go to a home for invalids. The home had a long waiting list, so Shipilov couldn't leave the hospital. Keston College officials believe he is still being held prisoner in the hospital in Siberia.
Rodgers has taken up the cause of Vasili Shipilov. Rodgers is a former orthopedic surgeon who gave up medicine for the ministry when he learned of the plight of Soviet Christians.
In 1986, he shaved his head, fashioned a "cell" and sat in the cell in a church in Birmingham, England, eating only bread and water for 46 days during Lent. He wanted to simulate the conditions of Soviet Christian poet Irina Ratushinskaya, in prison for "subverting and weakening the Soviet regime." She was released by Gorbachev as a friendly gesture before the Iceland summit in 1986.
Four days before Gorbachev arrived in the United States for the Washington summit, Baptist Anna Chertkova was released after 14 years in a psychiatric hospital.
According to the congressional Human Rights Caucus, there are at least 17 ways the Soviets grind their heels into religious believers. They range from prohibitions against teaching religion to minors to job discrimination against believers. Because religion and communism are natural enemies, it is easy for officials to come up with a formal charge that the believer threatens the foundations of the government.