Bible Smuggling During the Cold War

For those too young to have lived through the era, it must be impossible to imagine what it was like to live during the years of the Cold War. The Super Powers of East and West faced each other across an ideological divide that threatened on many occasions to plunge the world into the nightmare of a nuclear holocaust. And each year saw the development of ever more powerful and sophisticated weapons of mass destruction. Worse than the wars that were being fought in various places, were the rumours of wars to come, the most frightening spectre being that of the sudden mobilisation of Russia's armies across an ill defended Europe in an avowed attempt to bring the entire continent under the Soviet umbrella. For many it was a daily expectation.

To us in the free West, the Communist Bloc loomed large as the oppressor of all freedoms, and not without reason. There were many a little older than I who remembered the mass killings under Stalin before, during, and even after the Second World War. And constantly filtering through were confirmed stories of persecution and systematic annihilation of the Christian Church under a pitiless atheistic regime. The Bible was banned, and it could mean dispossession, imprisonment, torture and even death merely to possess a copy. The names of some of those who suffered in this persecution, Richard Wurmbrand, Haralan and Ladin Popov, and many others filtered through the network across Europe to a sometimes incredulous audience.

Ironically news was also filtering through that the Christian Church in Russia was growing rapidly in spite of this horrendous persecution at the very same time that the Church seemed to be dying on its feet in the West. Material luxuries and Liberal Theology were taking their toll in a way that the Communist persecutors of the faith could only dream of. And it was in such an atmosphere that one day a married couple, accompanied by an unnamed pastor, turned up at a small informal house meeting of our church. They introduced themselves under pseudonyms, and when they began to tell us of their work it was clear why this was necessary. They were Bible smugglers. Their work was to carry copies of the Bible across the borders of Russia and her satellite states, Romania, Bulgaria, and so on, posing as tourists, and distribute them to a secret network of couriers, who in turn took them round to various underground cells of believers. They told a harrowing tale.

Their work at one stage carried them over the Bulgarian border, which they successfully crossed with a Land Rover crammed full of Bibles and vital funds for those persecuted families in need. The next week or so was spent in contacting a veritable army of waiting couriers, each drop being successfully accomplished. But inevitably news reached the ears of the local authorities of what they were up to, and it was whilst they were trying to leave the country that one of their more heart-stopping moments occurred. At the border post they were ordered, under threat of gunfire, to leave their vehicle. The guards marched them about twenty yards away, and from there they witnessed the systematic dismantling of the Land Rover.

The uniformed officers, perhaps police or customs staff who were highly trained in such work, were very thorough, and it was while they were about their work that the husband of the team realised with horror that he had left his document case between the front seats of the vehicle. That case contained all the names and addresses of his contacts and other underground workers. The officer in charge, as if reading his thoughts, reached in through the driver's door and retrieved the case. He looked at it long and thoughtfully and glanced repeatedly at its owner. He then drew near with it and stared deep into the hapless man's eyes. He continued to stare for a very long time, looking, it was supposed for an expression of fear or alarm that would betray the man's guilt. The man met his stare and held it for the entire length of time that it took for the vehicle to be dismantled. Then, after what must have seemed an eternity, a subordinate officer approached and murmured to the officer in charge that the search was completed and the vehicle was clean of any contraband. Then the officer in charge smiled and simply handed back the document case, without having opened it, to its owner. He then ordered that the vehicle be made good and the now mystified couple were sent on their way.

Their feelings are better imagined than described, and they left that border post with the unshakeable conviction that they had witnessed a miracle. The names in that document case would have led the authorities to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of members of an underground church that the state was desperate to eliminate. It is possible, of course, that the officer who retrieved the case knew perfectly well what was inside, but was himself a secret Christian. There were many such in the Communist states who managed to work their way into positions of some importance, and were consequently a help in warning those about to be arrested, or in sabotaging investigations and intelligence gathering. Who knows? But the couple's emotions as they recounted their exploits, convinced each of us who listened that there was much to do and a great work to accomplish if only somehow the Bible could be safely smuggled to waiting believers. Happily, the problem of just how this could be achieved had already been worked out, and my wife and I soon found ourselves recruited into something that we had never before dreamed of.

The task to which we had been recruited was simplicity itself. We were to face none of the perils under which the organisation's frontline workers laboured, and everything was to be done in the safety of our own home — although some alarming thoughts were to occur to us as the work proceeded! Our task was to receive every so often an unmarked package. Inside the package was a number of envelopes of all different colours and sizes, and accompanying each envelope was a portion of the Bible printed in the language of the country to which it was to be sent. The ingenious part, though, was that each Bible portion was printed on such paper that half a gospel would be no thicker or heavier than an ordinary two or three page letter. There is a rare surviving specimen now in the Tyndale Society's archives. It is actually the first seventeen chapters of Luke's gospel in Russian. It weighs hardly anything at all, and in its small envelope in the midst of a sackful of other mail it would (hopefully) pass unnoticed.

Our task was to address each envelope by hand. A type-written address would mean that the envelope would be automatically opened by the censor and the contents examined. We were forbidden for very sensible reasons to insert any additional enclosure, as tempting though it might be, it would seriously affect the thickness and weight of the envelope, and would again put its contents, and more importantly its recipient, at serious risk. We were supplied with lists of names and addresses, and it was important that we picked the names, the streets and the towns, at random and did not work down the list alphabetically. To do so might produce a pattern that the censor's office could pick up. The other important consideration was that we should never post more than one envelope a day, and that envelopes of the same colour and size should never be posted on consecutive days. This was again to avoid a pattern being noticed. My wife and I did add a precaution of our own to this, namely that of mailing each letter in a different postal district so a to vary the postmark on each envelope.

But there was one disconcerting task to be done, namely that of putting our own name and address on the back of each envelope. This was important as, again, the envelope which lacked such an apparatus would automatically be placed to one side by the censor for examination. All kinds of spectres arose in our minds of our names being filed away in some cabinet of the KGB for future reference should our country ever find itself under the Communist heel — not such an unlikely prospect in those days!

There was one factor, though, that was certainly on our side. I was serving as a Prison Officer at Wandsworth and then Ashford at the time, and one of my duties was to work in the censor's office. Because many of our prisoners were considered dangerous, we were required to read every outgoing and incoming letter and at Wandsworth we held nearly 1600 prisoners! Take it from me, when one has read so many predictably unsympathetic philosophical observations upon the judiciary of this country, mixed with inanities and a liberal sprinkling of obscenities, then one soon tires of the task, with the unhappy result that many letters went unread, only their passage to the outside world being recorded on endless reams of paper that nobody seemed to read. Knowing the excruciating boredom and impossibility of the censor's task was thus of great personal comfort to me. It was unlikely for this reason alone that many of the letters would be stopped.

One event that actually may have helped in this regard, although it caused some alarm at the time, was the national railway strike in Poland. Virtually all mail into Russia arrived via the Polish railways, and their prolonged strike meant that a veritable mountain of mail built up at the Russian border. Initially there was concern that this would produce inadvertent though recognisable patterns in the mail, a build-up of similar sizes, shapes and colours of envelopes drawing the attention of some prying and zealous officer of the state. But it actually had the opposite effect of causing the censors to yield in the face of such an overwhelming and impossible workload. Thus, hardly any incoming mail to Russia was stopped or intercepted during this period.

Because of the secrecy involved, there was often very little feedback concerning the effect, or even the safe arrival, of these gospels. We often wondered what became of them, or their recipients. Predictably some would be destroyed on arrival, their recipients knowing full well what became of those who were caught with such subversive literature. Others, we later discovered, were treasured by those who received them, and even dutifully copied out by hand for further distribution. It was the time of the Lollards all over again! Others would recognise the commercial value of such banned items, and would sell them for inflated prices to those whom they knew would be willing to have them. In one or two cases, we heard that this was sometimes followed up by the betrayal and arrest of the purchasers by those who were happy to take their money before claiming a reward from the state for their betrayal. But whatever became of some, we knew that most of these Bible-portions found their way to those who needed them. What their final impact was is a subject on which the history books have yet to be written.

I have avoided naming the organisation that carried out this work. It seems, in fact, to have been disbanded. But my caution in not publicly naming it is simply that some of its members might then be traced, and it is possible that they are still involved in such work in spite of the recent collapse of the Soviet. Moreover, lest it should seem that I am being melodramatic, it may also happen, and indeed seems likely, that the Russian people themselves will shortly elect the Communists back into power, who knows what scores might then be settled? It is safest, I think, to let them remain behind their cloak of anonymity. Meanwhile we may ponder how things were before the Reformation of our own country, when Tyndale's New Testaments were smuggled into England from the Continent. Or even before, when portions of Wycliffe's (and other?) translations of the Bible were smuggled around the country under the very noses of a persecuting authority. Such work changed the course of history more effectively than any army. Perhaps the same thing happened in Russia? We like to think that it did.

© W R Cooper

POSTSCRIPT It may be that one or two readers were themselves involved in this or similar work. It that is the case, would they consider donating any surviving literature or Bible-portions that they may have to the The Tyndale Society, where they will form the basis of a collection of such material? Such a collection would be of great value to future researchers.