By Pastor Georgi Vins
(From his book, The Gospel in Bonds, chronicling his years in Soviet prisons)
The door closed and locked behind me. Heavy tobacco smoke hung in layers throughout the cell. Two electric bulbs burned dimly on the ceiling. The cell was not large, built to hold sixteen men. Metal bunk beds lined the walls. In the center of the room stood a wooden table and two wooden benches. A toilet and water faucet were partially hidden behind a short wall in the corner.
Although it was after midnight, none of the prisoners were asleep. They were upset about something and had been arguing among themselves. Some stood in the center of the cell near the door. Others sat at the table. A few lay on the bunk beds. Nearly everyone stared at me with hostility. Something about the atmosphere in the cell alarmed me.
“Good evening,” I said, then corrected myself. “Good night.” I dropped my mattress and pillow on the floor. “I haven’t slept for two days. Just got off the transport train.”
I started moving toward what looked like a vacant bunk, but two prisoners blocked my way.
“Why are you entering our ‘home’ so late?” asked a tall man in a black sweater.
“I just got off the transport,” I answered.
“You were alone on a whole transport train?” a voice piped in from a bunk.
“No, there were about a hundred of us from the Irkutsk prison.”
Where are they? Why were you brought here alone? It’s a trap!” someone shouted.
Get out of here! Call a guard! We’ve seen people like you before!” growled the man in the black sweater. He pointed to the door.
I had no energy left to explain. “I just want to sleep,” I said, trying to make peace. “I’ve gone two days and nights without sleep.”
Several men began cursing me.
My spirit cried out to God. Oh, Jesus, be with me! I don’t even know where I am.
A skinny little old man made his way out of the crowd. “How many people have you killed?” he rasped.
“I’m a Christian. I never killed anyone. I was sentenced twice for my faith in God,” I answered.
“Where were you in prison before?”
“My first term was in the northern Urals. I just finished five years’ strict regime in Yakutia.”
“So you’re a Christian and not a murderer?” the man in the black sweater asked. “First time I’ve met anyone like you in prison. Why were you put here in this cell? All of us are murderers.” He pointed to the little old man. “And this one killed five people. We all just came from our trials and we’re going to be sent to special strict-regime camps.” He began cursing the judge and God.
“Why curse God?” I objected. “He didn’t bring you here.”
“We know your type,” he shouted, moving toward me. “Get out of here! You’re not a Christian!” He shoved me with his shoulder.
I didn’t know what to do. The hostile faces of prisoners surrounded me. In my eight years of prison life, nothing like this had ever happened. Shouts, curses, threats, and an evil that I couldn’t comprehend filled the cell.
“You say you’re a Christian?” someone shouted. “Prove it! Let’s see your Bible!” Others echoed the command.
My thoughts raced madly. Should I show them my little Gospel of Mark? What if they tear it up? No, I must show it to them. The Lord will protect His Word from these murderers just as He protected it from the soldiers on the train.
“Do you really think I could get a whole Bible into prison? It would be confiscated! But I do have the Gospel of Mark. That’s part of the Bible,” I said.
“Let’s see it!” demanded one of the young men.
I opened my bag and pulled out the box with the little Gospel. Hands stretched out from all directions to touch it. “It’s so tiny!” the prisoners marveled. Everyone wanted to see it.
“Can we read it?” asked the man in the black sweater.
“Yes, of course!” I handed it to him.
Suddenly the skinny little old man darted forward and grabbed for the little book. “Don’t touch it!” he cried. “It’s a holy book and our hands are sinful! They’re stained with human blood! Have him read it to us!”
The man in the black sweater pulled free from his grasp. His gaze shifted from the little old man to the Gospel still in his hand and then to me.
“Don’t be afraid,” I urged. “This book was written for you as well as for me. It holds the path to salvation and a new life.”
I stood, still holding my bag. Weariness overcame me. I didn’t know how much longer I could stand. A young man turned to me. “You can have my bunk tonight.” Then to the others he sneered, “Ha! Why are you attacking him like animals? The man’s been in prison for years only for his faith in God and you harass him! Sit down here.” He showed me his bunk.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“I’m from Kiev, too! I spent a month there robbing. That’s where I was arrested the last time. What camp were you in?”
“Tabaga, a strict-regime camp about fifteen miles from Yakutsk,” I answered.
Another prisoner confirmed my statement. “Oh, yes,” he said, bobbing his head up and down, “I know that camp. What other camps are in Yakutia?”
I named at least three other camps in Yakutia where I had been a prisoner. Again other prisoners confirmed my words. Still holding the Gospel, the man in the black sweater sat down at the table. The rest of the men gathered around and he began reading aloud:
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. . .”
“Let us see it! Let me hold it! I want to at least touch it! I’ve never held a Gospel in my life!” interrupted excited voices.
Just then the metal door scraped open and an officer and two soldiers entered the cell. Even before the door was completely open, the man in the black sweater had managed to hand the little book to another prisoner who hopped up to his bunk in a flash. It happened so quickly that hardly anyone in the cell noticed.
“Why aren’t you sleeping?” the officer asked. Then he looked straight at me. “How do you like your new cellmate? Is he one of you?”
Everyone was silent. The officer seemed quite disappointed. He studied my face to see if I’d been beaten. Now I understood why I’d been put in this cell. He had expected the murderers to attack me.
“Don’t believe anything he says,” the officer said, pointing his finger at me as he left.
After the officer was gone, the man in the black sweater retrieved the Gospel. I went over to a bunk, knelt, and poured out my thanksgiving to God.
“Look! He’s praying!” whispered some of the prisoners in amazement. “Let him pray. It’s his business,” said others.
Complete peace filled my heart. Later I learned that the KGB had indeed instructed the prison administrators to put me in that specific cell. Some of the prisoners had been told lies about me in advance and were incited to attack me. I’m sure the KGB concealed the fact that I was a Christian. But with that little Gospel of Mark, God had, in an amazing way, upset the cunning schemes of His enemies. I felt completely secure, protected by God Himself.
When I awoke the next morning I didn’t remember where I was. Then I opened my eyes and saw the other prisoners sitting around the table, listening intently as one of them read from the Gospel. Already the morning sun penetrated the double-barred window of the cell as a fresh breeze blew through a small open pane. I lay quietly, listening to the Word of God. Soon the closing verse of Mark 16 was read. I got up and walked to the table, and the man in the black sweater handed me the Gospel. Everyone was silent.
“It’s a powerful book,” he said simply.
The little old man turned to me. “I’ve killed five people,” he said. “Can God forgive me?”
The man in the black sweater looked at me closely. “How can I find salvation? All night we were reading the Gospel and discussing this. There was no one to ask and we didn’t want to wake you. I’m also a murderer, a murderer and a thief. That’s what the Gospel said. How can we get this salvation?”
“If you repent before God and trust in Jesus Christ, then you, too, will receive salvation,” I told the man in the black sweater. “And God will help you turn from your wicked, criminal life.”
The little old man’s voice trembled with fear and excitement. “But I’ve killed five men. This isn’t even the first time I’ve been caught. I was in prison before, you know. They wanted to execute me but changed my sentence to fifteen years’ special strict regime. Do you think God can forgive even me?” he asked.
I looked at the puny man with the squeaky voice. How odd that such a feeble person could find strength to kill five people. “Yes, God can forgive you,” I said. “Jesus Christ forgave the criminal on the cross next to Him. He took everyone’s sins upon Himself, even the most horrible sins, and died on the Cross for all men because God loves us. Even though I never killed anyone or stole anything, I am a sinner, too, a sinner forgiven by Jesus Christ and saved.” And I recited the familiar verse of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him, should not perish but have everlasting life.”
“Have any of you ever read the Bible before or heard a sermon about Jesus Christ?” I asked.
They shook their heads. Never before in their lives had any of these men read the Gospel or heard a sermon.
Seeing this, I was again amazed that after reading it just one night, they understood the Gospel’s main message—salvation! Usually prisoners are proud of their criminal exploits. They don’t even use the words “kill” or “murder.” They say, “Well, I got him wet” (meaning wet with blood), or “wasted him,” or “squeezed him.” And when they talk about it, their victim was invariably the guilty one who got what he deserved. But after reading the Gospel, these men understood that they were the guilty ones, they were the criminals, they were the sinners, having sinned not only against man but, more importantly, against God.
I spent a week in that cell. The men asked hundreds of questions. Every day we talked about God. I explained how Jesus died on the Cross—not for His wrongdoing but to pay the penalty—serve the sentence—for our sins, our crimes. If we believe that He died in our place, He offers us a new life, a fresh start, doing what pleases God. He gives us hope for the future and strength to make it through each day.
The men listened tirelessly. It was hard to believe that these same men had been so hostile toward me that first, tense night. I rejoiced at what God was doing in their hearts. But I knew that it was only the beginning. I can’t say that all of them repented and became Christians right there, but I saw their desire to learn about God.
My “neighbor” from Kiev, whose name was Petro, stayed by my side for hours at a time. He had spent his whole life engaged in various criminal activities. Petro was fascinated by everything I had to say and asked many questions. He simply couldn’t understand why the authorities were so cruel to Christians.
“You are a believer,” he’d say. “Why do they put you in prison? You can help people!”
One day the cell door opened and a guard called out my name. “Gather your things and get ready to move,” he said.
He left, giving me ten minutes to prepare for the journey. I looked at my cellmates. One of them hurried over to me and held out my tiny Gospel of Mark. “It was absolutely amazing that we could read it here in prison,” he said. “Thank you.”
Petro looked at me longingly as I hid the little book in my bag. “Oh, Georgi,” he cried, “give us that Gospel! You already know the story. You’ve read it many times but we just started reading it. We’ve all got fifteen years to go through. And some of us,” he glanced at the little old man, “will probably die in camp. We really need that holy book. Please leave it with us!”
What should I do? I wondered. This little book is so precious to me! I’ve had it so many years in prisons and camps. The Lord preserved it through many searches, even on the train when the soldiers found it and wanted me to rip it up. This little book actually saved my life in this cell. I still have exile. Oh, I don’t want to give it up!
“Your God will give you many Gospels,” added the man in the black sweater. “Where will we get another one? Leave it with us. It’s the only truth I’ve found in my whole life.”
I handed it back to the man in the black sweater.
“Get moving! Let’s get out of here!” the guard shouted impatiently through the door.
I grabbed my bag. Someone quickly shook my hand as we parted. “Farewell, Georgi! Pray for us!”
The guard took me to the transit cell. I was so impressed by my week in the cell with the murderers that I nearly forgot about being exiled to Tyumen. With my own eyes, I saw how special God’s Word became to those prisoners in such a short time. I’ll never forget them. I left behind with them not only my tiny Gospel of Mark, but also part of my heart.
Click here for more information about Pastor Georgi Vins.