Religious persecution discussed

By Michelle Landrum

An exiled Russian Baptist minister told of the brutal conditions he endured while imprisoned for eight years in Soviet labor camps.

In an interview with The Northern Star, Georgi Vins gave an account of his release from prison in 1979, when he and five other prisoners were exiled to America in exchange for two Soviet spies.

Vins lectured in the Carl Sandburg Auditorium Thursday night.

Religious persecution is not new to the Vins family. When Vins was two years old, his American-born father was arrested for preaching and spent 13 years in labor camps where he eventually died.

“I know Jesus Christ and I know he can help. My mother suffered a lot. She suffered because she was the wife of an American missionary, but God never abandoned us,” Vins said through his interpreter.

“Soviet prisons are very different than American prisons,” Vins said. “Prisoners here can play sports and watch television,” he said, adding if American prisoners do not like their food, they can protest.

America has about 300,000 prisoners with a total population of about 240 million people compared to five million prisoners in Soviet Union with a population of 280 million people, Vins said.

Soviets can be charged with sabotage and imprisoned if factory equipment they work with breaks, Vins said. They might also be imprisoned for causing a car accident and receive a life-sentence if a passenger in the other car dies, he said.

Vins spent eight years in labor camps where prisoners work between 10 to 12 hours each day, he said. Many camps are located in Siberia where prisoners log trees and the temperature drops to 70 degrees below zero, he said.

Prisoners must meet quotas in their work and are supervised by guards armed with machine guns and dogs, Vins said.

If they do not meet the quota, prisoners are given less food, he said. The food they are given “is similar to what you feed pigs here—water with cabbage,” Vins said. In Soviet prisons inmates are not allowed to have meat, milk or butter, he added.

Vins said many prisoners commit suicide to escape the horrid living conditions in the prisons.

Throughout his sentence, Vins said his faith in God grew, and other prisoners searching for hope were drawn to him and other Christians. Imprisonment “strenghtened my faith and opened up opportunities to witness,” he said.

“When I was a prisoner, I wasn’t allowed to have a Bible. Spiritually, the only nourishment I had was the verses I had memorized,” Vins said.

Most religious prisoners have been released from Soviet jails, Vins said. However, “the basis of the persecution is the 1929 legislation by Stalin,” which has not been changed, he said.

The government was forced to release religious prisoners on the insistence of human rights groups from other nations and their leaders, Vins said. The demands “were getting in the way of the agenda,” he said.

Vins spoke about the plight of religious prisoners in the Soviet Union with former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan when they held office, he said. He also spoke with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

“The result is that the leaders of the free countries were raising the question of prisoners of conscience,” he said. However, Vins said, “I attributed it to answered prayers. The Soviet government was forced to release prisoners by God.”