JONATHAN DAY went to Russia in June as the first step of a full-scale tour with his band. Here Jonathan reports on what he found.
It felt like the end of the world. Orange fire fell across a thousand miles of Northern Europe. A quiet river flowed. Beyond, a farmer set his sickle to the ripe corn. Overhead, a buzzard beat the air. All around us was the forest. As the late light slanted into our clearing, Vladimir, Andrei, Sergei and Hyena cooked shaslik over an open fire and gave us homemade beer and vodka (which the wise amongst us heavily watered down!). We sat on an ex-Soviet Army parachute, talking in signs, smiles, handshakes and kisses. We sang Dylan's "Knocking On Heaven's Door". Everything around us, the trees, the river, the buzzard, the corn, the farmer and our friends, are very, very radioactive.
Percussionist Shane Pincher and I had come to Volozin with five Germans on a planning trip, sponsored by the YMCA Peace Network, Sputnik, the Russian youth organisation and our local churches. This first three-day visit was to prepare in detail for a group of forty people, including three bands, who will visit this area in Easter 1993, sharing a message of faith, hope, peace and friendship.
The project has grown from an initial contact between Shane and the, German YMCA who have for several years been taking food to this area. The Volzin district is an area of rolling plains and forest, peopled principally by farmers, living in painted wooden houses, keeping cattle, pigs, horses and chickens and growing cereals and garden crops. The huge fields are hedgeless, accentuating the space and scale of this immense flat country, stretching out to meet the endless sky. Much farming is still done by horse and hand - we saw no computerised cattle prisons or force-feeding of herbivores with the carcasses of mad sheep. The people are currently buoyed-up as the labour motivation of de-collectivisation (privatisation) takes hold. They feel a sense of ownership again. That is ironic. Before Chernobyl the sun rose, the rain fell and the crops grew. In the neighbouring Ukraine a reactor burned. The sun rose, rain fell and the area was poisoned, soaked with isotopes of Caesium and Strontium, carried by the clouds.
I think the most disturbing thing was the vibrancy of everything. If it had looked scorched and barren, it would have been easier to comprehend. But it didn't, it looked healthy. This of course is the most deadly thing of all. These people are farmers. What else can they do? They are told their farms are radioactive. A poison you can't see or taste or smell. What else can they do but carry on farming. And all the food they produce is tainted. There are now widely publicised shortages in Russia and some sources suggest that most of this radioactive food is being fed into the supply.
More serious even than this is the situation in Volozin. If there are
shortages, while outside are fields of corn and cattle, even though
tainted by this tasteless poison, the people's response is obvious.
The German YMCA has concentrated on baby milk supplies and medicines in order to give the children a start. Many of them already had leukaemia and brain damage. On a previous visit, Dieter Ebert, secretary of the YMCA in Oberhausen, was told by a young man that he couldn't think of any reason for his living. He had no hope. His girlfriend wouldn't marry him for fear of having children - she couldn't face the thought of the deformities and disease they might carry. In another conversation he was told that even more important than the aid were the visits. So that the people did not feel alone, deserted like lepers. Here was the germ of our project.
Realising it however had not been easy. Belorussia is living under two systems simultaneously. The old regime had been rejected, yet the government, now called democratic, consists of the same old men as before. There has been no statue smashing here. Lenin still stares fifty feet high, over the main square. Similarly, many of the old systems and procedures remain. To have any hope of a visa we need a Russian and a British sponsoring organisation. With the help of Nicolai Biaco, vice president of Belorussin 'Sputnik', a youth organisation, the Russian end was covered. Our UK sponsor was a Midlands YMCA branch. However as plans progressed it became increasingly obvious that this YMCA was less than enthusiastic. The problem came into the open when Dieter came to West Bromwich for a planning meeting. The YM was in financial difficulties and neither had the time, money or heart to sponsor the trip. Even so, we all still believed strongly in the visit. A flurry of impromptu meetings later, we had our sponsors: my own church, St Mary's Bushbury (Wolverhampton) and Oakham Evangelical Church (Warley) and as our umbrella organisation, the Anglican Rurual Deanery of West Bromwich. Our problems, even now, were far from over.
Despite applying several months before our departure date, we had heard nothing from the Russian Embassy. Phone calls were answered shortly with "We won't look at your visa application until 1st June." We were leaving Britain on the 12th! During the first week of June, the phones rang constantly between Germany, Russia, ourselves and the embassy. Nicolai sent three faxes confirming the sponsorship of our visit. No visas. We telephoned the embassy several times. No visas. The embassy now belongs to Russia and gives the visas of other Commonwealth states a lower priority. Eventually, Nicolai attached a letter from the Belorussian Foreign Minister to his fax. Success at last, the visas were ready. As I breathed a sigh of relief, I asked when they would be posted. "On Tuesday the 9th or Wednesday the 10th." We were leaving Friday the 12th! It became obvious that I would have to fetch them. Just to make it interesting the embassy only opens three days a week between 10:00 am and 12:30 pm.
I drove down in good time and saw no problems until I hit the Harlesdon turning on the A40 in London. My car overheated. I stopped, let it cool a little and continued. It happened again in East Acton. By now it was 10:15 am. We ditched the car and walked a mile to the tube. Two stations down the line, the driver apologised for the delay - the line was flooded! Time for prayer and panic. The flood was beyond our station, so we might still make it.
We progressed at twenty-yards-movement, ten-minutes-waiting pace. The driver told us that in the other direction a bomb scare had stopped all trains. If the car had broken down a few miles earlier, we would have been unable to use the tube. Thank God we made it to the embassy in time, and spent the rest of the day in the company of a very nice man from RAC recovery.
Still our problems weren't over! While I had been struggling with fire and flood, amazing news had come from Germany. A travel agent had told us we didn't need a Polish visa to cross that country en route to Russia. The Germans didn't need a visa either. However, Dieter had dreamt that on reaching the East German border at Frankfurt am Oder, Shane and I had been ordered off the train. He dismissed the dream on waking, but it wouldn't leave him alone. He phoned the British consulate in Cologne to make sure. We did need a visa. Without this dream we would not have been allowed into Poland. Powerful stuff. Our only course of action was to apply to the Polish embassy in Germany on the morning of the day we were due to leave. Thanks to God's will and the commissioning prayers of Oberhausen YMCA Church elders the previous day, we got the visas. By now we had no doubts as to God's hand on this visit.
The YMCA Peace Network is predominantly but not exclusively Christian, reflecting the YMCA's membership. We also will reflect this next Easter. The English Christian band Change Of Heart and my own band Eye Of The Storm will be accompanied by the German band Last Exit who do not profess faith through their music, but will carry a message of peace and friendship. Our programme will include drama and the spoken word from English and German Christians, combined with gospel music and after the presentation, Last Exit will play and we will run a rave allowing people from the three nations to meet, mix and talk. There are currently no such events in Belorussia. The situation with regards to Christ is very exciting. I read a book about Minsk, the capital city of Belorussia, about forty miles from Volozin, before going, and saw a huge red brick cathedral, which was the centre for cinematography in an officially atheist state. I visited the place and the Catholic believers in Minsk are turning it back to a cathedral. The interior is full of rubble and yawning gaps in the walls are mute testament to its days as a cinema. The congregation meets on the steps outside while the work continues. People even get married there. I was exhilarated and moved by what is happening but especially by a handshake with a little lady inside, her smile more gaps than teeth, who seemed in her powerful faith and determination and physical weakness, a fitting guardian. This church reclaiming is happening everywhere. An orthodox church in Volozin, for many years a plastics factory, is being similarly restored.
We met many people during our stay. A moving opportunity arose out of a collection of paintings from nursery age children offering their support to the Belorussians, which Shane had bought with him. One of our translators, Irina, arranged for these paintings to be received by a former underground painter, who now runs an art therapy school for deaf and mentally and physically handicapped children, many of whom are victims of Chernobyl. He gave us in return a collection of works from his children. They are beautiful and deeply moving. He told us that because of Belorussia's current 2,000 per cent inflation rate, he now has no paper, paints or pencils for the children. We are currently collecting artist's materials to be sent over in September. If you would like to be involved, please see the footnote for address.
The reaction of our interpreters to us was very interesting. They knew we were musicians and had arranged a series of meetings with Belorussian musicians which were fascinating. One band was even heavily into Celtic music! What they found confusing however was that we were rock musicians who were also Christians. This combination seemed to them unlikely. Even so, there was no hint of censure or suspicion as Christian musicians in the West often experience, rather there was a keen desire to learn more about our beliefs. I think if there is one thing these people, who've so recently rejected communism, with all its materialistic, atheist philosophy, want from us, it's a clue to the answer to why we're all here, why we're all alive. I don't need to dwell on the importance of us in the west underlining the Gospel of Christ, preserved at such cost to themselves by Russian Christians during Communist rule. There will be a flood of voices shouting answers in the next years, and it's a privilege and responsibility to be able to speak of Christ and for peace and brotherhood. We will also learn from them, as the seven of us already have, of their faith, their humanity, and their desire for peace.
As we sat in a forest clearing, Russians, Germans and Englishmen laughing, singing and eating together, I couldn't help thinking that fifty short years before, two of these races were killing each other here while two other were doing the same thing in the West. Dieter's father fought on the Russian front and was ten years a prisoner of war. My grandfather died in the war, I never knew him. Three hundred thousand people died in the German concentration camp near Minsk. Two million Belorussians died at the hands of the fascists. A fifty metre high bayonet next to Minsk Airport marks the site of the last battle of the Second World War on Russian soil. In Germany there are new fascists. Russia has its great armies crippled by inflation and food shortages. Britain blunders headlong into more and more nuclear systems while our health and education standards spiral downwards. In days like these we need the words dorushba, freund-schaft, friendship and mir, frieden, peace.
If you wish to help the "Come Together" peace network exchange or the "Children Of Chernobyl" appeal, please send your donation or write for further information to "Come Together" c/o Jonathan Day Evangelical Trust, 653 Stafford Road, Wolverhampton, or, "Come Together", c/o YMCA Oberhausen, Marktsrabe 150, W 4200 Oberhausen 1, Germany.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.