The Trials of the Religious Dissidents in the Late Soviet Union, 1960-80s: Between Judicial and Political

Researcher: Olena Panych
Funded by: Gerda Henkel Stiftung
Duration: August 2022 - January 2023

The history of the Soviet political trials is indicative and eloquent in terms of how authoritarian regimes can sacrifice human rights for the sake of ideological mobilization and promotion of mass loyalty. To a great extend political trials became intrinsic feature of the Soviet regime as such, although most actively they were used during the period of Stalin’s mass repressions. Later, during Khruschev’s and Brezhnev’s periods, the number of political trials declined significantly and only the most persistent dissident activists were subdued to this kind of treating. In this case the experiences of Evangelical Baptist dissidents who resisted the Soviet state atheism policy in 1960-80s can be considered as the most interesting. A big amount of restraints of religious activities imposed by the Soviet laws and regulations (including prohibition of missionary activities, religious education, and publishing theological literature without state censorship) invoked resistance of Evangelical Baptists who considered these activities an inevitable part of their faith expression and practice. Most of the Evangelical Baptists faith community experienced administrative pressure by the Soviet authorities, while some activists and religious leaders (totally about 220 persons) were imprisoned. Many of them were convicted for several times. The trials were varnished with a veneer of legality via maintaining all formally required procedures although they were based upon discriminative legislation. Whereas almost all such legislative provisions were abolished in early 1990s, similar practices seem to have been resurrected in contemporary Russia.

The main goal of this project is to explore how the religious dissidents (Evangelical Baptists) persecuted by the Soviet regime used the courtroom as a platform for spreading of their views and evoking the discussions of legitimacy of the Soviet religious legislation.

This research project is intended to show up the methods, narratives and discourses developed by Evangelical Baptists during their trials and especially in the courtrooms in order to cope with the pressure of the state authorities. These narratives and methods successfully strengthened the faith community and contributed to formation of imaginary martyrdom as a basis for their collective identity. The trials of religious dissidents were one of the factors undermining the inner legitimacy of the Soviet regime as they revealed the contradiction between the Soviet authorities’ intentions to demonstrate legality and democratic procedures but also eradicate religion in the Soviet society which inevitably entailed violations of the freedom of conscience.