Voices of the Voiceless

Religion, Communism, and the Keston Archive

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Editor(s): 
Julie deGraffenried, Zoe Knox
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , July
     2019.
     116 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781481311236.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The experience of religious believers and communities under communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is a new and relatively undeveloped field in religious studies. As the world’s first experiments in deliberately (and often violently) creating societies without religion, there is much to learn and understand that has implications for the study of religion in the modern world. During the Cold War itself, it was extremely difficult to study the fate of religious communities under communism: official, published reports were heavily propagandistic and unreliable. At the same time, reports coming from believers within these regimes were hard to verify or obtain. Moreover, the topic of religion itself was part of the conflict that made up the Cold War, as stories of religious persecution became a weapon in the hands of Western leaders to attack communist regimes.           

In the midst of all this, the Keston Archive played a unique role. In 1969, Rev. Canon Dr. Michael Bourdeaux and Sir John Lawrence founded the Centre for the Study of Religion and Communism, later renamed Keston College, which sought to expose the realities experienced by believers on the ground in the face of the official Soviet line which claimed religious tolerance. Keston College later published the Keston News Service as well as the academic journal Religion in Communist Lands (re-named Religion, State and Society after the collapse of communism, a leading journal in the field). Of particular note, Keston College established an archive that collected documents, official publications, and—most importantly—samizdat, or “self-published,” documents that included correspondence, reports, petitions, memoirs, transcripts of court proceedings against believers, spiritual testimonials, and petitions to authorities.  

The Keston Archive contains a unique collection of over 4,000 such items pertaining to all religions from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The purpose of Keston College, however, was not purely academic. As stated in the introduction, both it and its periodicals “were an integral part of global networks related to human rights activism and reporting, legal battles brought by dissidents inspired by the Helsinki Accords after the mid-1970s, and politicking by cold warriors” such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Yet after the collapse of the Soviet Union, much of the work of, and support for, Keston College declined. As a result, it sought for a new home for its library and archives, which was transferred to Baylor University in 2007, which also established the Keston Center for Religion, Politics, and Society to promote research on religion in totalitarian societies.

Voices of the Voiceless: Religion, Communism, and the Keston Archive is a collection of 25 short essays. Each essay focuses on a particular item from the Keston archive—photographs, petitions, propaganda posters, letters, trial transcripts, etc.—teasing out what the document reveals about religious life under communism (or, in a few cases, the work of Keston College). The artifacts discussed in these essays are from the Soviet Union, Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, and East Germany. The essays are by Keston College founder Michael Bourdeaux (who passed away in March 2021) and others who worked for Keston; scholars from Baylor University; and scholars who research various aspects of religion under communism and have used the collection, such as Emily Baran, Zoe Knox, Wallace Daniel, Stella Rock, and the late Sonja Luehrmann. These are not academic articles, nor do they contain critical analysis; rather they are brief vignettes, providing a snapshot into life under communism by means of the images, documents, and artifacts presented in the book. The book thus serves two purposes: to convey stories of the experience of believers under communism, and to highlight (and no doubt publicize) the Keston Archive collection at Baylor. All of the essays laud the work of Keston College, with only the introduction briefly suggesting ways in which its work was used as a weapon in Cold War battles.

For those unfamiliar with the Keston Archive, Voices of the Voiceless is worth perusing. Individual essays could very profitably be assigned to students, both to provide an accessible entry into the experience of religion under communism, and to demonstrate how to write an essay about an artifact, contextualizing it and teasing out what it reveals. The book is nicely produced, usually with full page color reproductions of the image or artifact discussed in each essay.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Scott Kenworthy is associate professor in the Department of Comparative Religion at Miami University.

Date of Review: 
October 18, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Julie deGraffenried is associate professor of history at Baylor University.

Zoe Knox is associate professor of modern Russian history at the University of Leicester.

 

 

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