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His passion fulfilled The dissident: Once jailed for his religious activities, a Christian publisher is riding a wave of reborn enthusiasm.


MOSCOW -- The day Viktor Popkov was arrested by the KGB is etched in his memory: "January 2, 1980."

On that day, the 28-year-old Christian, who had been repeatedly warned against practicing his religion, stepped off a Smolensk city bus into a KGB setup that would land him in jail for 18 months of labor, occasional solitary confinement and a series of interrogations.

A man planted himself in front of Popkov as he got off the bus, forcing the two to bump. Three agents jumped from a waiting car and dragged Popkov into it. They told the quiet young man that he was being arrested for cursing and being obstreperous.

It was the beginning of a series of trumped-up charges that allowed the KGB to keep Popkov in custody for his real crime: belonging to a religious discussion group that illegally published Christian literature.

Popkov was a religious dissident -- a strong believer in a nation where atheism was the official belief.

Only a handful of Soviet dissidents gained world renown, people such as Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, Andrei D. Sakharov and Natan Sharansky. But thousands more -- like Popkov -- spent the same long hours with KGB interrogators and served the same mind-shattering time in prison cells as their famous compatriots.

Some of them died. Some emigrated. Some, tormented by their difficult lives, continue battling authority.

And some are quietly reaping what they sowed. Democracy has set them free.

Popkov and his wife, Tanya, are a happy upper-income couple with two cars. Their daughters, Anastasia, 12, and Masha, 14, attend dance classes. They live in a nice apartment in Moscow with their rambunctious schnauzer and go to church every Sunday.

"I am doing what I always wanted to do," says Popkov, who earns a good living publishing and distributing Christian literature through the Roman Catholic-backed Religion Library and his own small publishing house, the Religious Studies Center.

But Popkov has chosen not to mar the pretty family picture by telling his daughters about his ugly Soviet past. He's been unable to bring himself to talk to them about his prison time for religious dissidence.

Popkov doesn't see his ordeal as heroic, and he is sharply aware that most Russians do not view his prison record as a badge of honor. Outside the thin layer of Russian intelligentsia who had access to Western news sources and even associated with dissidents, public sympathy was never high because dissidents were considered crazy to buck the system.

"I never speak of it to anyone without need. It's embarrassing, yes, because no one will pay attention to why [I was in jail]. Russians forget history," Popkov says.

"I thought this would disturb the children," he says. "At a certain age, they aren't going to understand the difference between me and a criminal."

Popkov's mission today is providing a Christian education for the generations of Russians who have never seen a Bible, let alone set foot in a church.

He is riding a wave of reborn enthusiasm.

A medieval church

Throughout Russia, the hulking onion domes of abandoned churches stand testament to the Russian Orthodox religion that dominated this country for a thousand years before communism. On Moscow's cityscape, the newest and most dominant sight is the cluster of gilt domes of the $250 million Christ the Savior cathedral, a replica of the 19th-century structure blown up by Josef Stalin.

Public opinion polls show the church to be more trusted today than any single politician. Millions of Russians have gone back to church, practicing the mystical, ritualistic Russian Orthodox religion that only a few brave believers clung to in the Soviet era.

Today, priests are baptizing adults who aren't sure if they were baptized as infants because such rites were kept secret. Many middle-aged people are seeing their first church weddings.

But the rebirth of the Russian Orthodox Church has pitted reformers against the old-guard church hierarchy and practices frozen in the time of the czars: no pews for worshipers attending hours-long services, liturgy delivered in Old Church Slavonic that few understand, and a clergy more apt to prescribe medieval monastic penitence than modern understanding to their parishioners' spiritual searching.

"When I think of the possibility of the church to influence society -- for Christianity to be influencing people -- then I'm not satisfied with the church; it's too limited," Popkov says.

But compared with the repression of Soviet times, he sees the turmoil in the church as a healthy symptom of recuperation from the dark past.

Popkov's encounter with religion began three decades ago.

A talented soccer player during his high school and college years in the provincial town of Smolensk in western Russia, Popkov had a bright future in athletics -- until he began to have "questions."

"There was a feeling of fogginess," he says. "I felt a very strong feeling of rejection around me in the way everyday relations with friends had a double-spirited sense."

Questions about the nature of man and his responsibility began consuming Popkov, causing his first act of dissidence and his first brush with the KGB.

He told a philosophy professor that he thought Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago" should be read before being criticized. The comment was reported to the KGB, and Popkov was stripped of the privilege to serve as an athlete during his military service.

After the army and two years of coaching high school sports, Popkov abandoned what most Russians viewed as the good life. He quit his job and took shift work at a gas-heating plant that would allow him time to read and search for answers to his questions.

"My mother was horrified and began to cry," he says, when his family found out he'd forsaken his career for a sort of monastic life.

'The Lord's presence'

But Popkov says he had embarked on a search that "made me sick with an almost physical, unfulfilled need and passion."

A Soviet denunciation of the Ten Commandments in the early 1970s first alerted him to the Judeo-Christian code of conduct. Later in the Smolensk cathedral, he happened upon a rare sale of the Bible, which he spent a month's wages to buy.

At a certain point in the 1970s, he says, "the Lord's presence" dawned on him, immediately giving him "a feeling" that the answers he wanted were with God.

Popkov joined a small group of other believers who held secret "seminars," which were the most common religious gatherings in the Soviet era. He was warned this was dangerous. But instead of stopping, he and his fellow believers ran bath water and exchanged thoughts by blackboard to foil KGB snoopers.

His circle enlarged. He began illegally spending long periods of time in Moscow, where he was part of the Christian group that called itself, and its crudely produced journal of religious writings, Community.

The group's leader, Vladimir Poresh, served most of the 1980s in prison and was a cell mate of Sharansky's.

The group also helped Father Gleb Yakunin, whose clandestine meetings with foreign human-rights workers and journalists provided documentation of religious persecution.

Eight other men from his group were arrested with Popkov on Jan. 2, 1980. The female members of the group were left to try to help.

One of the women was Popkov's future wife, Tanya, whose religious beliefs had been tested in the 1970s. When she wanted a daughter by her first husband to be baptized, her father became enraged and exposed her as a religious "nut" to her boss at the academic institute where she worked. She was fired on the spot.

Because Tanya was not a lawyer, the only way to have contact with Popkov and to help him was to marry him. "I thought, why shouldn't I marry him and help him," she says. "It started as a big job, and somehow love was granted to us."

Popkov says he was never physically tortured during his 18 months in prison and a six-month work furlough.

"I was generally scared -- the KGB is such an invisible force and I was just fearful of the unknown, but not of death because it was clear it wasn't the time of Stalin," he says.

Held in solitary confinement during his first weeks under arrest, Popkov remembers long, dreary days sleeping on a cold concrete slab. His huge winter coat became his most prized possession; it was his bed and his storage facility.

Before his trial he was held in jail cells with other prisoners, some of whom he was sure were KGB plants.

Popkov remembers the prosecutor at his trial "politely" proving that his work documents had been tampered with. Popkov explains that this was technically true -- it was common practice to lend work permits to friends who used them to get extra work in the far north. But it was not common to be prosecuted.

Throughout his imprisonment, Popkov was regularly visited by KGB agents who would question him and eerily repeat verbatim conversations he'd had in dissident meetings.

Friends in court

At one point he was brought to testify as a witness in the trials of Father Gleb and Vladimir Poresh.

Father Gleb says he remembers the bitterness that he felt when he unexpectedly saw Popkov escorted into his trial.

"He was one of those young generation of dissidents who supported and continued the cause of the older dissidents -- I was sorry to see him. But I was also proud of him ... that they didn't manage to squeeze out of him the evidence they wanted to get," says Father Gleb, who served nine years in prison for his international appeals for human-rights assistance.

"Viktor Popkov didn't say a single bad word against me," he says. "This was moral support to me."

After his release in 1982, Popkov couldn't find a job in Moscow because of his criminal record.

But he continued his samizdat, or underground press. Using a smuggled photocopier, he printed at least 100 novels, histories and religious books between 1982 and 1989.

The family's faith carried it through many torments.

At one point they moved from one apartment to another because the official doctor in their neighborhood had seen crucifixes on Masha and Anastasia, and threatened that "religious fanaticism" was cause for the state to take the girls. And when one doctor commanded Tanya Popkova to abort a dangerous pregnancy, she prayed and consulted her priest and was led to another doctor who recommended she have the baby. Anastasia is a healthy girl today.

Viktor Popkov's biggest problem just seven years ago was getting a photocopier. Now his biggest challenge is getting imported publications out of customs.

The Religion Library distributes Catholic books and modern interpretations of Russian Orthodoxy. His own two-man publishing operation, the Religious Studies Center, is now publishing a Russian translation of a biography of St. Thomas Aquinas.

All of these books are heresy to the Russian church's leadership. But Popkov says they're necessary -- in the absence of church guidance -- for informed discussions on issues such as abortion, the death penalty, war, poverty, adultery and the future.

He says the church's official answer to these questions often is: " 'Your problems come from sin. So pray first, and don't socialize with the world.' They want everyone to be a monk."

Far from the days shadowed by the KGB, the Popkovs are happy in the clatter of their active family.

Their faith appears to have sustained them better than many Russians who sweated out the spring and summer presidential campaign worrying that the Communists would beat President Boris N. Yeltsin.

The couple remained calm and confident.

"The new generation won't let [Russia] go back," Popkov says. "There's been too much freedom."

Pub Date: 8/23/96

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