Aleshka the Baptist

This short blog is just to share what was – for me at least! –  a fascinating intersection of different research interests. A number of years ago, when I was researching my PhD on the impact of de-Stalinisation, I worked with files from the archive of the ‘thick’ journal Novyi mir. I found readers’ letters in response to the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich a particularly rich window through which to explore popular attitudes towards the Gulag, the terror, and the processes of release and rehabilitation which had been under way since Stalin’s death in 1953, and wrote an article using them.[1. ‘Contesting the Paradigms of De-Stalinization: Readers’ Responses to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’, Slavic Review, 64 (2005), 580-600.] Now, as I begin work on a new research project exploring the history of Baptist and Pentecostal communities in the post-war period, I was delighted to stumble across an interview with a man who identifies himself as Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Aleshka-the-Baptist’.

Podvig very: Unikal’nye svidetel’stva o zhizni khristian v SSSR (The Feat of Faith: Unique testimonies from Christian life in the USSR) is a collection of oral history interviews carried out by the Pacific Coast Slavic Baptists Association with  emigres from Russia and Ukraine.[2. K. Prokhorov, ed., Podvig very: unikal’nye svidetel’stva o zhizni khrisitan v SSR (Omsk: Nauka, 2010)]. One of the interviewees, Leonid Vasil’evich (but known to all as Aleshka) recounts his story:

Born in 1924 in Dnepropetrovsk oblast, he was raised by a Baptist mother. During the war he was taken as a forced labourer to Germany, but allowed to return home because one of the factory bosses was a fellow believer. He was baptised in Ukraine in late 1942. When his city was liberated from the German occupiers in 1943 Leonid Vasil’evich was conscripted into the army. On the way to the front with other new and frightened conscripts he read aloud from the scriptures and led them in prayer; narrowly escaping the death penalty for this missionary activity, he found himself a prisoner in Vorkuta and it was here, he relates, that he met  the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the ‘real’ Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. Leonid Vasil’evich explains how he gave ‘Shukhov’ a copy of the Bible he had managed to smuggle into the camps and claims Shukhov later converted, as did his whole family. After imprisonment, Leonid Vasil’evich visited them in Alma-Ata; an amazing meeting where the two men were no longer fellow prisoners but ‘brothers in faith’. In this account, a new ending is thus given to Ivan Denisovich’s story. In Solzhenitsyn’s novella, there is no resolution or salvation: one day, just like any other, simply draws to a close. Now a redemptive moment, outside the camp and based on shared Christian faith, becomes possible.

The interview also throws up interesting insight into how texts, and rumours of them, circulated in the Soviet Union.  Leonid Vasil’evich and his wife acknowleged that they had not been able to read the work until the 1990s, but had already heard about Ivan Denisovich – and identified Leonid Vasil’evich as Aleshka-the-Baptist – from listening to programmes on Voice of America. This supports the Denis Kozlov‘s notion of ‘I have not read but I will say!’: the content of some works took on such significance to people that they formed opinions and reactions to texts which they hadn’t been able to read themselves.[3. Denis Kozlov, “‘I Have Not Read, but I Will Say’: Soviet Literary Audiences and Changing Ideas of Social Membership, 1958-1966,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 7 (2006): 557-597.] Leonid Vasil’evich said that he had not wanted to appear as the ‘hero’ of a political text and he clearly had reservations about Solzhenitsyn’s ‘anti-Soviet books’.  The religious ending he gives to Ivan Denisovich is part of a kind of re-working, turning this seminal text in twentieth-century culture into one whose message is a religious rather than a political one.


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