Over Christmas break I have had the great privilege of reading a little book I'd never encountered before: Children of the Storm, the (partial) autobiography of Natasha Vins. (Don't confuse it with a suspense novel of the same title by Elizabeth Peters!) The background is that I was looking for books that would give an intelligent child from, say, grade 4 through 8 information about the oppression of Communism that would be clear, engagingly written, but not graphic or unbearably heavy. When I asked for recommendations along these lines, Children of the Storm was suggested by an old college friend.
(In passing, I mention another book that fits the above description and was recommended by another friend but is much lighter and less religious than Vins's autobiography. The other book is Refugee Child, about the Hungarian Revolution and her family's subsequent escape to Austria, by Bobbie Kalman. It's much more distinctly a "children's book," and its worldview is not particularly deep--a "you can fulfill your dreams if you only believe in them" concept. Nonetheless, I'm glad to have read Refugee Child and have passed it on to the kids, because it does give good information, in a form accessible to children, about life under Communism and the difficulty of escaping from behind the Iron Curtain.)
I cannot recommend Children of the Storm too highly. It is suitable for children as well as for adults. I have now successfully badgered nearly every member of my immediate family, down to the youngest, to read it, and we have profited. If you are not a Christian but care about civil and religious liberties, you will find it an interesting and powerful primary document of totalitarian oppression and human courage, written by a person directly connected with the events it relates. To a Christian, it is all of that and much more.
Children of the Storm was originally written in Russian and then translated into English. The reading level is, I would say, somewhere around fifth to sixth grade, if you don't count the complexity of the Russian place names. It begins with Natasha's family's visit to her father, Georgi Vins, in a Siberian labor camp in 1975, but that is only the introduction. The majority of the action takes place beginning in about 1961. Natasha's family are Baptists in Kiev. They refuse to register their churches with the Soviet government or agree to Soviet rules banning children from church and banning Sunday Schools and youth groups. They hold secret church meetings in the forest, frequently broken up by government agents who beat old and young alike and arrest participants at will. They hold secret Sunday schools and youth camps, at which they perform such subversive activities as singing Christian songs and coloring pictures about the creation of the world. The atmosphere is one of constant danger, police house searches, and frequent arrests and interrogations. Natasha's father lives through much of her childhood and young womanhood, when he is not actually in labor camps, as a fugitive away from his family.
At school, Natasha is bullied incessantly from the age of nine onward for being a "sectarian" and for refusing to accept atheism. It is an interesting study in psychology to see what the teachers try. At first, after humiliating her for believing in God, they force her to go through regular re-education sessions. Then, when they are forced to report to their superiors that "Natasha Vins is not responding to re-education," they begin threatening her with being taken away from her parents and sent to an orphanage. They try bribery, "honoring" her by nominating her for the Young Pioneers and then ranting at her for "disgracing the school" when she "wins" the election but refuses to join the explicitly atheist organization. When all else fails, in Natasha's late teens a friendly and non-bullying young mathematics teacher nearly succeeds by a combination of sophistry and veiled threats and promises. ("You know you won't be able to get into university this way. Why should you give up your entire future?")
But this is to begin to give too many details, which cannot possibly do the book justice. What comes across again and again is the incredible courage and perseverance of the Baptists. When one of their number is on trial, the others find out the (unpublished) date of the trial and show up in numbers, at their own risk, to sing hymns outside the courtroom and throw flowers to encourage the "accused" during and after his travesty of a show trial. Never abusive yet always bold and unwavering, the leaders' courage and demeanor are like those of the Apostles themselves in the Book of Acts.
One of the most wonderful figures in Children of the Storm is Lydia Vins, Natasha's grandmother, called Babushka throughout the memoir. Georgi Vins was a revered person in the Baptist churches of my youth. We prayed for him in prison frequently, though his family, isolated in the Soviet Union, apparently did not know about all the support he had in the United States. But I had never heard of his mother and father. Georgi's father, Peter Vins, was executed for his faith by the Soviets. Lydia, as Children of the Storm makes clear, was an unstoppable force of nature. After her retirement, she housed Georgi's wife and children and formed an association to aid the wives and families of Christian prisoners and to submit petitions to the government concerning the mistreatment of Christians. For these activities she was eventually "tried" and sentenced to three years in a labor camp for the crime of "slandering the Soviet state."
Despite her age and a heart condition, and to her own surprise, Lydia Vins survived the hardships of her prison term. Upon her release she resumed her activities helping the families of imprisoned Christians. In the end, when the Carter administration made a deal allowing Georgi and his immediate family members to go to the United States, Lydia refused. She wanted to continue her work in the U.S.S.R.! She came to the United States only because the officials told her they would carry her onto the plane if she would not go willingly.
Herewith, some quotations, to whet your appetite for the book:
At home, Papa explained to Peter and me what to do if we were ever taken to the police station and interrogated. He told us not to be afraid, but to remember not to mention any believers' names during the questioning because those people might be arrested as a result. "For instance," he said, "if they ask you who teaches Bible lessons at the children's meetings and you mention Masha or Vera, they could be arrested and get several years in prison. So when you are questioned about church matters, it is best not to answer at all. Be silent just as Jesus was when Pilate interrogated Him."
A young guard led Papa in. For the first time in many months we saw him up close. Peter touched his hand and exlaimed, "Oh, Papa, your hands are so cold! Is your prison cell--"
"I have already warned you not to discuss the conditions in the cell!" the officer interrupted him....
We were frozen with fear that this man might cut our visit short. Babushka hurried to explain. "Please excuse him! Peter is only ten and just didn't think before he spoke."
The officer nodded....All of a sudden Lisa started to sing a hymn. We were alarmed. What if this would end our visit? But the officer himself watched in amazement as the six-year-old, in her innocent childish voice, sang glory to God in prison. With tears in his eyes Papa hugged his courageous little girl and said quietly, "Thank you, my dear!"
But the Lord had prepared a wonderful surprise for Babushka. As the newcomers ate their soup, a local prisoner in her mid-thirties walked in, went straight to Babushka, hugged her and said, "Hello, Lydia Mikhailovna. My name is Vera. I am a Christian too and I was arrested for teaching Bible lessons to children. I heard you speak several years ago at the ladies' seminar in Kharkov."
They became inseparable. Vera treated Babushka as a daughter would. She helped her in any way possible and took care of her when Babushka was sick. Together they would find a quiet place to pray and encourage each other with the Bible verses they knew by heart.
But before long the camp administration started to prevent their meetings....Babushka found a solution. Early in the morning, when the rows of prisoners were marched to work, she would step outside of her barracks and walk up and down the sidewalk. When Vera's work crew walked by, she would quickly whisper a verse to Vera or say an encouraging word. Vera would smile at her, and that's how they carried on their secret communication.
[Babushka told me during a visit] "You know, Natasha, the Lord has a special way of comforting me. When I am discouraged and have no strength to go on, I have a recurring dream. After it, I always wake up with a feeling of happiness!
"I dream about the black soil in early spring, when the snow has just melted. The soil is soft and full of moisture. And then come the first green sprouts--young, fresh, full of life. When I wake up, such happiness fills my heart--life goes on! I start praising God for His goodness, for His help in everything...."
Late on Saturday night, before Easter Sunday, about twenty young people from our youth group had gone to the prison walls and sung "Christ Is Risen" for Papa. But since nobody knew where his cell was, they were not sure he heard them.
They were able to sing only one hymn before the prison guards appeared and chased them away.
Later Papa told us his side of the story. "Four of us were in a cell. It was quite late, and everyone was asleep. Then suddenly in my sleep I heard singing: 'Christ is Risen!'...
Suddenly we heard the barking of guard dogs and the shouting of guards. The singing ceased. Then I understood--my Christian friends had decided to encourage me in such a unique way. But I was still puzzled. How did they know which cell I was in? It seemed like they were singing right under my window!"
For me, the strongest impression [upon arriving in the United States] was made by a Christian bookstore. My sisters and I had tears in our eyes when we were taken to one for the first time. We gasped at all the Bibles--big and small, for children and for adults--displayed freely all over the store with no fear that the police could come and confiscate them. As we stood by the shelves full of Sunday school materials for children, I wanted to tenderly stroke the covers of all those wonderful books that Christians in my country were deprived of. Never before could I even imagine that such riches exist!
No doubt, if you read Children of the Storm, you will tell me that I did not pick the best things to quote or talk about. There are so many.
Lest I am unclear, let me say in so many words: Children of the Storm is not a literary masterpiece. The prose is merely workmanlike. The book is, rather, a masterpiece of the human spirit because of the eyewitness story that it tells. Its piety is of a distinctly Baptist type--like the bare, sunwashed spaces of a country church. But this church is built of stone. These people would never give in. They, including the children, endured hardship as good soldiers of Jesus Christ and thought from day to day not of their troubles but of how they might continue to serve Him and their brethren in persecution. If you read it, you will be changed and humbled. You, too, will want to serve our Lord Jesus Christ more consistently, more faithfully, and without complaint. And you will be shaken out of any inclination to take for granted the freedoms we western Christians presently enjoy.