It is a feature of the Eurocentric way we teach our history that
concentration camps are often spoken of as a feature of our past, whose grim
crushing of millions of human lives has been vanquished. Meanwhile, in North
Korea 200,000 of our fellow humans presently languish in the Communist
regime’s own gulag archipelago, and from Burma to Peking, Pakistan to Syria
religious persecution and its attendant imprisonment is rife. How inspiring,
then, this week to meet a man whose own struggle for religious liberty spans
the old Soviet system and the new Russia, the bi-polar world of the European
detention camps and today’s international system, where a multiplicity of
risks to freedom rest upon us.
Alexander Ogorodnikov was in London to speak to a packed gathering at St James Church in Piccadilly. Among those present were British clergy who had
endured hunger strikes to bring his name to international attention and teachers who had raised funds to sustain the soup kitchen that he founded after the fall of the Berlin Wall, which has fed 1.7 million poverty-stricken Russians since. Alongside them was Lord Alton, who had once demanded entry to Soviet Russia by brandishing a letter from Mrs Thatcher as he sought to visit Ogorodnikov with supplies for his underground printing
press. For Alexander Ogorodnikov is one of the least known but most
significant of dissidents against persecution in our age.
A convert to Russian Orthodoxy, Ogorodnikov was critical of his church¹s
collaboration with the Soviet regime. With a few friends he started to
organise an underground network of groups that came to be known as ‘the
Christian Seminar’. Numbering tens of thousands among their membership,
these high-risk gatherings brought together Catholics and Baptists, Orthodox
Christians and others seeking to reflect on spiritual matters. The state
cracked down on their activities and the KGB gave Ogorodnikov a choice:
leave his country and live in the West or be sent to Perm 36, one of the
Soviet system’s most brutal detention camps. The human rights campaigner
chose to stay in ‘his’ Russia and eight years of incarceration followed.
Conditions in such camps were at their best cruel. For petty bureaucratic
reasons an initially short term was extended and extended. This was
compounded by solitary confinement in huts in freezing temperatures. Food
and reading materials were almost absent and it was only after an extended
hunger strike of his own that the prisoner was permitted a Bible. It was
this that became his bridge to hope in a wasteland where suicide had at
times seemed the only escape from a living hell.
As Ogorodnikov languished in jail his cause was registered by human rights groups across the world. A woman in Liverpool glued his picture to her fridge and prayed for him everyday. In London, Danny Smith from the Jubilee Campaign held demonstrations outside the Soviet embassy. Lord Alton took to the BBC World Service and soon Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were asking Moscow why the young man had not been set free. When he was allowed to walk out of the gates of Perm 36 he turned to the gates as they closed, whispering that death had not had its victory. He immediately returned home to pick up his fight for freedom where he had left off.
As in Nelson Mandela’s case, Ogorodnikov’s struggle and imprisonment gave
space to the secret police to shred his marriage. Colleagues were murdered.
His brother was killed. He survived assassination attempts. All the time the
quiet, determined, stubborn force of his spirituality kept him fixed to the
For a while, Ogorodnikov tried to bring all of Russia’s civil society groups
together to found a Christian Democratic party. In the new Russia after
Communism, though, new oligarchies of power have emerged and. once again.
the tender shoots of emergent political diversity faced challenge for monopolistic tendencies, this time among the oil and property rich, many of them themselves products of the old KGB. Despite some support at first from the Christian Democrat International, realpolitik returned, with Putin retaining the gaze of western policymakers. Not to be defeated, Ogorodnikov has taken to feeding the hungry and opened the nation¹s first homeless shelter, too. He shares his story internationally using the broken English he learnt from a fellow prisoner through a pipe that linked their two cells.
For as thousands continue to be persecuted for encouraging
religious observance, the need to share stories such as those of this
particular Russian has never been greater. For in the life of Alexander
Ogorodnikov is a more general lesson, namely, that the solidarity of
citizens across the globe can keep our confreres who are in harm’s way
within sight of freedom and on the right side of safety. That so many should
have to live with radical uncertainty that such a peril may take them is
itself one of the great moral outrages of our age. Their names should be
told not just in Europe but across all the nations and ages lest our history
ever not remind us that our past is still, sadly, a guide to our present.
Francis Davis is a Fellow at ResPublica. An earlier version of this article was published in The Catholic Herald.
Dissident for Life: Alexander Ogorodnikov and the Struggle for Religious Freedom has just been published by William Erdmans Publishing, priced £21.99