I was in fifth grade when my trumpet teacher took it upon herself to teach me music appreciation and theory in addition to trumpet. She sent me home each week with records to listen to and then we would talk about them at my next trumpet lesson. After she took me through weeks of studying and listening to composers for each of the periods of classical music, she told me that I seemed to be drawn to a lot of Russian composers. The more I listened to, the more records she would pull out and loan to me. “If you like that, listen to this,” she’d say week after week. And it really became an auditory sort of revelation of sound—Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Prokofief, Stravinsky, Khabalevsky.
In my junior high art class, the teacher dumped clippings of buildings and places from around the world onto a table and told us to each pick one up and paint it with watercolors. I chose an exotic building with lots of colors and shapes. Is it real? I wondered.
The teacher explained in his outgoing art-teacherish way that there was a terror to go with the beauty in the photo I chose. I didn’t know what that building was or where it came from. Of course, it turned out to be a real structure in Russia. The legend was that the Czar had the architect blinded after he finished so that he could never duplicate his work. I was fascinated and a little aghast. What kind of a place was this?
Then, in college, I took a class that focused on Dostoevsky. There I was, back in Russia again, this time exploring the world through the eyes of Raskolnikov, Sonya, Porfiry, Mitya, Ivan, Alyosha, Zosima and so many others. Dostoevsky became a giant of a writer to me, as I read through many of his works and marveled at the insights into humanity, faith, suffering and some kind of redemption. This was a land far-removed from the England of Charles Dickens or the America of John Steinbeck. Not better, but very much different. It was a people familiar with sorrow and suffering.
In all of these experiences, never did I think that I would ever go there.
But I did end up working to advocate and pray for Christians in labor camps and a psychiatric hospital during what turned out to be the last years of the Soviet Union. And while doing my work, the organization I worked for sent me there. It was to help me see and do a better job of writing, and also to take some Bibles and books with me to the churches starving for them. This later grew into full-time missionary service, but that’s another story.
One place I went to on that first visit was Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). A Soviet-approved tourist destination was the Tikhvin Cemetary—the burial place of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Of course, I had to go. When I got there, I found that I was not the only one to go to his grave. Others went also, reverently and with a sense of awe.
And Dostoevsky was not the only one. I wandered and stopped beside others where people stood and figured out the names in my newly acquired Cyrillic alphabet—Borodin, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky. I knew these names and recalled their music. Walking by them all, in the shadow of the Orthodox monastery, I returned to Dostoevsky’s grave before heading out.
Even as the official tour guides took us to many cultural and historic landmarks and lectured us on history and culture from the Marxist-Leninist perspective, we did carve out free time. It was then that we purposely sought out church. Leningrad was also where I met and prayed with Christians who loved Jesus in ways that seemed normal to a Sunday school teacher like me but was reckless in the Soviet context. And just a few weeks later, some would be arrested and sent to psychiatric hospitals/labor camps for teaching minors about Christianity. And even later on, one recanted to a degree and later got back into ministry, another served out his term and was released from prison, later still emigrating to the United Kingdom.
The suffering and sorrow expressed with such intensity in the arts of the country were nothing compared with the mostly unseen regular people living out their lives and practicing their faith no matter what.
My prayer and advocacy for Russia has grown now to include so many other places and people of the world—a partial list from a recent prayer time includes Algeria, Central African Republic, China, Eritrea, Indonesia, India, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Vietnam and North Korea.
I’m learning and forgetting and learning anew that God answers prayers along the way—prayers that free people, topple empires, convert persecutors and give freedom to share the good news in more open ways that may seem impossible. Things that seem far away aren’t far away at all where Jesus is concerned. You could read about a far-off land and years later find yourself standing in the very place you read about.
My first time in Russia was an eye–opener. More than that, it was a heart–opener, forget the heart—it laid bare my soul. I came face to face with God preparing me for his work in ways no human could imagine. And I started to learn that even more beautiful than art or literature or music is the suffering of God’s people and the amazing gift we have to stand with them in prayer and advocacy.