Dispatches: Latvia

medals picture-4Some Christians are called to walk lonely paths, especially in dark places that are hostile to the Gospel.  But even in loneliness with an aching sense of abandonment, they find comfort in their Companion.  David experienced this, “When my father and my mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up”—so also does a dear old Russian friend of mine.

Drove to the outskirts of Riga, where along the shores of the Daugava, the old Soviet naval base and airfields sit in quiet decay.  Once the proud vanguard of a great empire, it now succumbs to the ravages of rust and crabgrass.  Yet many retired veterans still live in crumbling apartments near the base, and that is what took me there—to look up an old friend.  I’ve been here before—a dozen years ago.  It was a blustery night with a light dusting of snow.  A friend of a friend arranged for Jan and me to stay with a Christian, and so we were brought here.  Nothing looked familiar today, though, until the door of #58 opened up, and there was Alexei.  He was a bit grayer, but still ramrod straight with a soldier’s bearing—and he was as kind as ever.  Twelve years ago he took two strangers in on a cold night.  I remember he made us a meal of black bread and fried eggs with steaming black tea.  It was right after the USSR collapsed, and the ruble was worthless.  I learned later that our host was so poor that he only ate one meal a day at that time, but his little one-room apartment was a place of joy and hospitality.  And when we departed he searched among his simple things and gave me a gift for remembrance.  How good it was to see Brother Beloborodov again today!

He invited us to tea. There have been so many questions I have wanted to ask him about his life and testimony, and today was my chance!  Alexei went to war at age 16—that was in 1943.  As a young tank commander, he quickly proved himself in battle—as evidenced by the box of medals he brought out of his closet.  He fought all the way to the smoldering ruins of Hitler’s Berlin.  He returned home in victory, only to find he had no home.  His village near Moscow had been destroyed in the war and his family all killed or scattered; so Alexei returned to the only life he knew—the Soviet military.  He became a naval intelligence officer, got married and had children, and spent nearly 30 years in the service.

As an officer, he had access to short-wave radio, and he heard Christian broadcasts being beamed into the Soviet Union.  The Gospel changed him forever!  He repented of his sins and received Christ into his life.  That was 1968.  He had no Bible, no church, no pastor, no Christian friend—no one to fellowship with except the Lord.  Alexei told me that he would often take long walks deep into the woods, where he would pray and weep and sing.  His was a lonely walk.  It was seven years before he met another Christian—after he left the military.  He said when he first learned the man was a Christian, he just gave him a big bear hug before he could even get the words out to the surprised man!

Yet Alexei’s walk would get even lonelier.  Shortly afterward he was baptized, and this public testimony of his faith was a great dividing line in his life.  His wife divorced him, and his children would have nothing to do with him.  For several years afterward he was homeless, living in a cold, dank basement without electricity or running water.  Alexei eventually got a job in a factory and a place to stay, but his penchant for passing out smuggled tracts and sharing his faith kept him in trouble with the KGB during the years of persecution.

For over 25 years now—during persecution and during freedom—Alexei has never missed church a single time.  In fact, when he worked at the factory and was scheduled to work on Sunday, he would pay a co-worker a full day’s wage to take his place!

We talked until dusk, and he took out a little box of mementoes.  Among them were yellowing photographs of a handsome, young officer in his crisp uniform decorated with many medals.  He took one of them out of the box.  Stamped in red on dull silver were the Russian words—“for bravery in battle.”  He gave it to me, but I said, “I cannot take this—it is a treasure won at great cost.”  He smiled and said, “I am going Home soon and will have no need of it there.”

My friend has known so much loneliness in his life, and yet the Lord has filled the emptiness with Himself.  We walked outside, prayed together, and parted ways.  As I set out for Riga, the last, long light of day brightened the birches as old Brother Beloborodov turned and walked back alone.