How did a Soviet Jewish dissident, raised an atheist communist, come to be a powerful voice on behalf of Russian evangelical Christians? No, this isn't one of those "walked into a bar" jokes. It's a true story of Cold War bravery and danger told in Dancing on Thin Ice: Travails of a Russian Dissenter (Doppelhouse Press, July) by Arkady Polishchuk.
Polishchuk was a prominent Soviet journalist in the 1960s, yet as a Jew he did not fool himself about his ability to progress in Soviet society. And, as best he could, he tried not to participate in writing what we would now call "fake news." In secret, he began writing about the brutal Soviet regime.
In the early '70s, Polishchuk had a chance to emigrate. But he knew there would be fewer opportunities for him as a journalist outside the Soviet Union. Instead, he sabotaged his own application to leave, and began writing about anti-Semitic trials. Then in 1974 he did something very unusual for a Soviet Jewish dissident. He went south from Moscow to Starotitarovskaya, the westernmost point of Russia, to an underground Pentecostal church, and began documenting human rights abuses against Christians.
"They looked very Jewish to me," said Polishchuk, now 88 years old, while speaking to PW from St. Petersburg, where he lives temporarily to care for a family member. "There were a lot of big lies about them. They were persecuted not only by the government, but by Orthodox Church authorities."
Polishchuk documented horrific abuse against the children of evangelical Christians, most of whom could not finish school because of the violence. "They were beaten up at school. They were beaten with stones. One time I counted the scars on the head of a boy. Nine scars. He was beaten by stones when he was five or six years old."
To understand what brought Polishchuk to that church, it's important to look at his history. He was born in Moscow and was among the first generation of Jews to be allowed to live there. His father was not religious and supported the communist revolution. "The sky was blue and everybody was anticipating a great country and new freedoms," Polishchuk said. "As you know, it didn't happen."
Polishchuk's disillusionment with the Soviet state began in 1948, after the founding of Israel. Stalin thought the USSR's vote to create Israel would place the Jewish State firmly into the Soviets’ communist sphere. After all, the early Zionists were socialists who dreamed of a communist utopia. But Israel disappointed Stalin and that's when a new anti-Semitic campaign began. This was an important lesson for Polishchuk. It turned out, it didn't matter if he was a religious Jew or not. The Soviets considered Jewishness to be an ethnicity, something that cannot be washed off by lack of religious belief.
This was a shock for "a good Soviet boy" like Polishchuk, he said, and his career in journalism shocked him further, revealing how his country treated those at the margins of society.
To Carrie Paterson, publisher of Doppelhouse Press, it is Polishchuk's ability to empathize with the plight of others that attracted her to this author and memoir. "I think one aspect of the book that struck me is the tension that comes when the author meets the persecuted Evangelicals and hears their stories," Paterson said. "His commitment to Evangelicals does not have to do necessarily with belief in Christ, but in his belief that people should be able to continue their ethnic and family traditions."
As for today, Polishchuk said, things are slightly better for evangelical Christians in the Russia of Vladimir Putin, but the Orthodox Church is given primacy above all religions. The hierarchy "still comes from the same source, from those who served the previous rulers."
Other denominations are still afraid, especially Jehovah's Witnesses, which is banned in Russia, their members harassed, and their property confiscated. It's a systemic persecution that Polishchuk knows all too well.
Though he is now based in Washington, D.C., Polishchuk continues to meet with evangelicals in Russia and advocates on their behalf. But he is often asked why he's spending so much time helping Christians, when Jewish persecution still exists.
"My response is very simple," he said. "It is much easier to help your own. Try to help those who are not with you. Try to help those who are different from you. Try to understand them."