How the Soviet pastor was exchanged for American spies

On April 27, 1979, another exchange of prisoners took place between the United States and the USSR

Five Soviet political prisoners were exchanged for two USSR intelligence officers arrested in the United States. One of Moscow’s released Georgi Vins was not a spy, but a pastor of a Baptist church.

These exchanges look like well-practiced choreographic performances. However, according to Michael Bordeaux, who was an eyewitness to the exchange in 1979, not everything went according to plan.

A call from the State Department in the middle of the night

“They called me in the middle of the night from the State Department and said that George Vins was already in the air – he was flying to New York. “Get on the plane immediately: we want you to take part in the conversation between him and us. Are you ready “I was a little shocked, I even suspected it was a joke. It all seemed very strange to me. “

Michael Bordeaux is president of the Keston Institute, a British NGO that has been researching religion and communism since 1969. In an interview with the BBC, he recounts how at the end of April 1979 he was invited by the State Department to meet in New York with Baptist Georgi Vins, an activist twice convicted of fighting for religious freedom in the Soviet Union.

M. B .: I called them back, and they convinced me that this was a completely serious matter, and I went to Heathrow Airport, canceled all my plans, and a few hours after that call I was already on the plane.

BBC: Didn’t you expect that?

M. B .: Absolutely not. I did not know that negotiations were taking place, although our Keston College [as the Keston Institute was then called] regularly provided the State Department and other organizations with information on prisoners of conscience in the USSR. We knew that Georgi Vins was on their list, but we had no idea that preparations were being made for this so-called spy exchange.

Georgi Vins was the leader of a group of underground Baptists in the USSR – called “initiators” – who refused to comply with Soviet laws restricting their activities.

After his second term, Vins became the target of US-Soviet diplomacy. He was added to the exchange list at the personal request of US President Jimmy Carter.

He was the pastor of the Kiev congregation and was involved in the publishing and distribution of Christian literature. He was sentenced twice in prison in the 1970s for this.

The interview with Georg Vins remains in the radio archive of the Russian BBC service.

BBC: Did all Soviet prisoners flew together?

MB: Yes, they were all together, I met them at a UN hotel in New York, in a big skyscraper, and they were full of enthusiasm.

They were taken out of the Soviet Union almost without warning. They came straight from prison, each received a set of clean clothes – not prison clothes, of course – and they were put on a plane.

They weren’t even asked if they agreed – and here they are in New York, and they have no idea what will happen to them. I spent several hours with them…

It was evening, the day after, they had left the Soviet Union, and I will never forget how we talked to Georgi Vins, looking out the window at the magnificent New York and its skyscrapers. He just couldn’t believe what had happened, and that’s not surprising.

Soviet dissidents Alexander Ginzburg, Eduard Kuznetsov, Mark Dymshits, and Valentin Moroz, along with Georgi Vins, were taken out of Soviet prisons and detention centers and boarded a plane – and soon landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport.

In return, the Americans extradited Rudolf Chernyaev and Waldik Anger, who had been convicted of espionage in the USSR and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

In the Sevorot program on October 17, 1992, a journalist and publisher of samizdati (samizdat- one of the illegal forms of combating censorship in the USSR. Copies of texts were made by the author or readers without the knowledge and permission of the authorities, usually by typewritten, photographic or handwritten methods.) newspaper Syntax, Alexander Ginzburg, a draftsman and a member of the USSR human rights movement, recalled the exchange as the Soviet authorities hastily prepared them for a new life in the United States.

1979 Ginzburg, was in the prison for the third year, this time for participating in the Moscow Helsinki Group.

Michael Bordeaux did not know Vins personally before meeting in New York.

M. B .: We couldn’t meet. I met his wife. They brought us his manuscripts about imprisonment. We knew about him for 15 years, from the early 1960s.

They knew that he was the leader of the group, that he had been in prison twice during that time, but the probability of meeting him in person was close to zero.

He hid between prison sentences so we wouldn’t have found him even if we tried.

But his manuscripts reached us. We published them, translated them and set aside all the royalties for him.

I went to Kiev together with thepresident of the Keston Institute – we managed to get in touch with his wife while her husband was in prison. We wanted to talk to someone who would represent him.

We had her address and we just went to visit her. She was a lovely woman. She immediately gave us permission to keep the royalties we had received in our bank account so that we could transfer money to him if possible.

That evening we were taken to an unregistered church founded by George Winx.

It was Wednesday, but there was a Sunday school for children, which was completely illegal at the time, but we were told that if we wanted to, we could attend and tell others about it.

It was the only way to help Georgi Vins and this church – to make it public and to talk about what was happening to the world.

So for various reasons, Georgi Vins was a completely real person to me when I got a call from the Foreign Ministry in the middle of the night, but the fact that so suddenly I had the opportunity to meet him just in a few hours – that was unbelievable…

BBC: And what was his impression?

M. B .: He was surprisingly calm, given the confusion he had experienced in recent days. We talked a lot about what he was was going through, but he was soon taken to Washington.

I was asked to go with him and others, but Vins case was considered special because then US President Jimmy Carter was also a Baptist, and I’m sure his personal intervention played a role in Vins departure from the Soviet Union and that he was on the exchange list and was invited to Washington.

I was not invited to this meeting, so I did not see the President at the time, although I met him later when he had retired and came to Oxford.

But I kept in touch with Georgi – and asked him what they were talking about. It turned out that they had talked about his spirituality, his organizational skills – and they can hardly be overestimated, after all, they were able to resist the Soviet government’s attempts to take control of the life of their Baptist church – and it was an amazing organizational achievement.

His mother and wife also took part in the activities, and his mother was still in prison at the time. So it was an emotional conversation. I was shocked that Georgi was able to stay calm all those days. Overall, his peace of mind was amazing.

BBC: What did he tell you about how the KGB treated him?

M. B .: He spoke in detail. It turned out that in prison, where he had been for the last five years, it was extremely difficult to write. And getting the necessary materials – paper, pen – and storing what was written was not easy in the cell due to frequent searches and drafts were often confiscated.

However, the prison experience surprisingly did not affect him. He was not bones and skin, as one might think.

I think he looked very good. Perhaps because the authorities were well prepared for the exchange, although they kept it a secret.

He was taken to a more lenient prison regime so that he gained weight and did not look skinnyat the time of his expulsion from the Soviet Union. However, he emphasized one thing – and I think it was important to note then – that he was forced to leave against his will.

When asked if he was willing to take part in the espionage exchange – in addition to being a spy (which was obvious), he added: “If I had a choice, I would go back to my family and my Kiev church and continue my spiritual work. I do not want to be here in the United States, but the exchange agreement promised me that my wife and children would soon join me, so it is now my job to work for them so that we can somehow rebuild our family life after a five-year break. “

MB .: The conversations in Washington were short and I wasn’t happy with the Foreign Ministry’s questions: I thought they were terribly trivial, they didn’t express the interest in spirituality that was important to me – they finally said two or three days later: we are now finished with Vins, what are you doing with him now? ”

I was asked this question. I was a little shocked. Well, I said, I’ll take him from you. “I need to talk to someone about where we’re going.” We learned that Pastor Vins talked to his fellow believers, who were many in West Germany.

Baptists in Germany – Protestants, joined by Protestants from Norway, raised money to release imprisoned Baptists, and not just from the Soviet Union.

They founded a small community in the Federal Republic of Germany and Georgi Vins wanted to meet them. We waited for three or four days until they made preparations.

And when they arrived, I gave Georgi Vins over to them, so to speak and that ended my work with him. We saw him later, when he came to England, to Keston College and gave him the money we had kept for him all this time.

BBC: Why do you think the exchange of spies took place?

M. B .: These people, when we first met, joked that five of them were worth two spies. Two Soviet spies released during the exchange. They tried to find out how much each of them was worth – 2/5 of one spy or 5/2 of one spy – they didn’t know how to make that equation.

But it was a wonderful group of people where none of them were spies. They were all dissidents and I would have liked to spend more time with others as well.

But I needed to be with Georgi Vins. And Georgi was closely associated with them. He was the only Baptist among them, the majority being political dissidents.

One of them [Mark Dymshits] escaped execution. He was a Jewish activist who planned to hijack a plane and fly to Israel. It was just an idea, nothing more, but he was prosecuted for it and it was common knowledge that he would be executed.

But in the end, he got into that exchange. So the whole group was nice, I wish I could have spent more time with them.

BBC: Was it illegal to be a Baptist then?

M. B .: No, but you had to be a registered Baptist and Georgi Vins led an unregistered group. Registrants agreed not to attend Sunday schools or allow young people to attend their church.

To become a registered Baptist, you had to be at least 18 years old, and the state appointed more or less all Baptist pastors.

Georgi Vins didn’t want to do anything about it all, saying, “In the Baptist tradition, we appoint our pastors ourselves, encourage children and teens to participate and learn the Christian faith, and hold meetings and classes.”

And they did just that. It was illegal. If they had surrendered and become part of a state-controlled Baptist movement, they would have been very strictly controlled, but they would not have been imprisoned.

BBC: What is the current situation of Russian Baptists?

M. B .: They are worried. The difference between these two groups – registered and unregistered – is practically gone, but you need to be registered in order to be fully accepted into the Russian system, although there are those who continue to keep their line and do not join administratively registered Baptists.

They are not persecuted, but there are many limitations. For example, to own real estate – they want to build churches themselves, but do not get the necessary permits.

And now they are in danger because Jehovah’s Witnesses are already banned and all kinds of trials are underway to challenge the legality of their existence.

And traditional Baptists – such as George Vins and his supporters – fear that they will also be threatened by the highly anti-ecumenical stance of the Russian Orthodox Church, which determines the religious policy of the Putin regime.

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