By rights, Georgi Vins should be a supremely happy man. Last month he was in a Siberian work camp facing another five years of the misery that is the inevitable fate of an outspoken Baptist minister in the Soviet Union. “Suddenly,” he recounts, “I was sent to Moscow. Nobody explained why. I was just told I was being stripped of my Soviet citizenship.” Then an Aero-f lot jet whisked him to New York and his first taste of life in a country where Bibles are legal—and where the chief of state teaches Sunday school. Traveling to Washington for services with Carter that first Sunday, Vins remembered what he had cut out of a Soviet journal and carried with him in prison for inspiration—a photo of the President holding a Bible. “In the First Baptist Church with Brother Carter,” he says simply, “I prayed. I was deeply moved.”
Yet Vins, one of the five Soviets released last month in the historic swap for two Russian spies, remains oddly restless, a rebel who misses his cause. His disagreement with the Soviet government differs from that of his four freed colleagues, like Alexander Ginzburg. As a Baptist, Vins never considered himself a political prisoner and, as a matter of conscience, refused to sign their general statement on release. “There were political questions involved,” he says. “We reject the idea of dealing with politics.” Nor, it seems, was his treatment in prison quite as severe as theirs. His proselytizing was benignly ignored (the camp commandant lamented half-jokingly, “In another six months, all the inmates will be Baptist”).
Still, life in Siberia was far from easy for him or his fellow Christians. “There was a lack of oxygen,” he recalls, “because it was 76° below zero. I lived in a barracks with 120 people. Many were criminals, killers. We had sufficient food, but it was monotonous, basically bread, kasha [like grits] and water. I didn’t have my Bible, but while I was visiting with my wife I had my boots on. I made a hole in my boots and was able to stuff them with 15 chapters of the Gospel of John that she smuggled to me.”
His pre-prison ministry was hardly easier. His father, Pyotr, who attended three theological schools in the U.S., was jailed many times in Russia and eventually died in a labor camp. His mother, an aunt and an uncle have also been imprisoned. Despite the obvious risks, Vins persisted in and out of prison as leader of the Initsiativniki (Initiators), who in 1965 stood firm when the main Russian Baptist church agreed to abide by state regulations. He was jailed in 1966 after holding a public protest and spent the next three years dragging logs in a work camp in the Perm region. Released, he was sentenced again to forced labor, but fled to the underground. “We created our own little offset printing equipment,” he recalls. “You could take it apart and put it into five suitcases. We didn’t get a single screw from the government.” But one day a “repair man” came to the home of a Baptist in Kiev to work on the electric meter. Later, when Vins visited the house, police nabbed him—tipped off by a bug in the meter. Vins got five years in a labor camp and last March began still another five years of exile to Siberia.
Vins probably owes his freedom to the imminent SALT II agreement, but he doesn’t question Soviet motives for letting him go. His concern now is finding a place to settle his family—his wife, five children and their maternal grandmother, all back in Moscow. Their reunion will be the first in more than five years. Presumably his ministry will sustain him wherever he moves (he has already preached in New Jersey). But his thoughts go back constantly to the homeland and fellow prisoners of conscience he left behind. “My preference is to be free and in my homeland,” he says—and he clings to the hope of returning. “Everything is possible with the Lord,” he says. “A few days ago I was in prison, and today I am here.”