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Kent: Plaque unveiled at Keston College

A blue plaque was unveiled recently on the building that was home to the Keston Institute from 1972- 1992. Rev Canon Dr Michael Bourdeaux, one of the Institute's founding members, writes:

For 18 years this characterful old building next door, now an upmarket block of flats, was a hub. Hundreds of people were drawn to it. What were they looking for? They wanted information about the Persecuted Church - once called the "Church of Silence." Now, with the technology of the time, the telex, by day - and sometimes by night - spread the translated new voices of believers to the world.

It was not only Russians whose word reached us - it was Poles, Czechs, Bulgarians, East Germans, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and many others. In the heyday of Keston College - that's what we were called - we covered about 20 languages on these premises and collected information on every country of communist Europe, with some attempt to spread wider to China, North Korea, Vietnam and even Cuba. The information which we preserved so preciously was available to all and in the last twelve years it has passed to the archive of Baylor University, Waco, Texas. We are delighted to welcome today Kathy Hilman, who has oversight over our continuing work there, and her husband John.

Who came to Keston? Principally journalists, radio, newspapers and sometimes TV. You have to remember that studying the persecution of religion by the Kremlin and other governments was considered highly suspect at the time. After all, there was a raging propaganda, often aided by western church leaders who should have known better, claiming that that such persecution was not taking place - or if it was, the situation was "improving". As my forthcoming memoirs recount, we were not without our conflicts.

"Oh yes", some people claimed, "what Keston writes is accurate, but they constantly emphasise the negatives". Researchers who visited Alyona Kojevnikov's centre of the hub, were told in decisive terms, that alongside the name and fate of the latest prisoner, we were constantly providing information about the latest proof of the revival of religion. Alyona and my daughter Karen, who occasionally assisted her, are both here.

With growing insistence the phone would ring - not only people requesting information, but also brave people from Russia passing information to us. In the 1970s you only had to mention the name "Irina" - and the reference was to Irina Ratushinskaya. She was a school teacher, imprisoned for writing Christian poetry, whose life was in danger owing to the appalling treatment that she was receiving in a prison camp. One day Alyona's phone rang: "Irina is free". When Alyona transmitted that information to the BBC, the news became the top headline for the rest of the day.

There you have it in a nutshell. If the news came from Keston, this meant that we had verified it - and in the two decades that we were here, we were never caught out. That's quite a claim, but I have no hesitation in making it. Keston News Service and our academic journal, Religion in Communist Lands, never let us or the world down.

But how the Soviets hated it. The KGB kept files on all we did, but never undermined us. At one later annual general meeting, addressed as always by an eminent speaker, the Soviet double agent, Gordievsky, proclaimed that, while he worked for the KGB, he knew that Keston College was considered to be number two in the hierarchy of hates, the first being Amnesty International.

Among the stream of visitors, we welcomed such people as Irina, who sadly died two years ago. Anatoli Levitin wrote about the revival of the Russian Orthodox Church, and saw how we had translated the more important of his writings.

Fr Vasil Romanyuk had recently been released from prison. Before long he would become the first Patriarch of the Kievan branch of the Orthodox Church, recently recognised as an independent church by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. History passed through this place.

Leader of the unregistered Baptists, Georgi Vins, had been in a dramatic exchange, organised by the American State Department, for a group of Soviet spies held in the USA. Georgi Vins's visit to Keston was memorable, because he broke down on viewing original documents with his signature on them, which he thought he would never see again. We had the honour of providing the information to President Jimmy Carter, which led to his release. I shall never forget the phone call from the State Department which summoned me immediately to New York, and then Washington DC, to participate in his debriefing. I am delighted to pass on my belated thanks to the representative of the American Embassy present today!

So many of those names have undeservedly faded into history, but demand commemoration as heroes of the faith. This is one of Keston's ongoing tasks - the names are faithfully preserved at Baylor University.

Among other distinguished guests we had archbishops of various churches, Catholic and Orthodox as well as Anglicans. Donald Coggan, Archbishop of Canterbury, unveiled an internal plaque to open our new library; Archbishop Runcie, the bishop of St Albans, came before we knew of his forthcoming elevation, to judge whether he should support us later. He became a patron.

I was served throughout the Keston years by a committed, individualistic staff. They bore the brunt of the careful research work and the obligation - sometimes lightly treated - that we were an academic group, not a campaigning one. Accuracy of information was what we sought and then the demonstrations and letter-writing to prisoners were left to other organisations or individuals.

In this context, the name of the founder of ChildAid stands out. Jane Ellis, who died in her forties, was a brilliant researcher for Keston, ran the Moscow office at one time and also had the energy to found Aid to the Russian Church, which later became ChildAid and still works in Bromley.

Sadly, with the passage of time, several of our former team have died, most prominently our first chairman, Sir John Lawrence, and a successor, Chris Cviic. Marite Sapiets, who is also no longer with us, covered the Baltic States and translated so many documents here -not least maintaining contacts with the Baltic countries. She lived to see their liberation. Arvon Gordon and Bob Hoare were only with us part-time, but covering China, Bulgaria and East Germany between them, they set standards for the full-time staff.

It's impossible to name all the hundred or so researchers who worked in this building at one time or another. Mike Rowe on Russian Protestants, Grazyna Sikorska on Poland, Victoria Watts on Romania, Alex Tomsky on Czechoslovakia - these are all names which should be written on the plaque, alongside many others. My second wife, Lorna, began her career here and saw the Bourdeaux family through difficult times. Sandy constantly brought new ideas to our publicity and mounted a Keston Road Show - based on true stories from the Suffering Church.

Administration - the person who tied together all the volunteers - was Mavis Perris, who died at the end of last year. Her dedication was total. My late first wife Gillian, in the early days, headed the administration and without this team of two, I think we would have fallen apart before we began.

One of Mavis's triumphs was to organise our Annual General Meetings in this very room. We always had over a hundred to listen to a succession of brilliant speakers. Some, perhaps, came because they knew they would eat hot Cornish pasties supplied direct from Cornwall, but the atmosphere was always electric. We turned no one away - we were not a secret organisation - so I found references to our AGMs in my 625-page long Stasi file, when I examined it in Berlin many years later. Very boring accounts. This is my chance to thank those who came so loyally, and offered committed support alongside the twelve thousand or so who were on our mailing list. They sustained the work right through to the collapse of communism.

So how did Keston School become Keston College? It's a long story. In outline, I negotiated with the Diocese of Rochester, who owned the old school, which was too small for the growing local population. They not only sold it to us, but provided a substantial short-term loan. I hope they felt we repaid it not only financially, but in service to the truth. My honorary canonry of Rochester Cathedral marks this link, for which I have always subsequently been grateful.

That is not to say that The building was in good condition when we bought it. Keston School had been unoccupied for far too long. There is a photo of me sitting in overcoat and Russian shapka trying to work in almost-zero temperatures. I can also see - in my mind's eye, Sally Carter, a gap-year student here today, a little older, balancing precariously at the top of a ladder, while she swabbed aeons of grime of the wall. Moira Blacklaws held a bucket at the bottom. They open one of the chapters of my forthcoming memoirs.

Finally, I must thank the London Borough of Bromley, represented today by the deputy mayor, in retrospect for various permissions for change of use and, finally, for his enthusiasm about the plaque. But most of all, the most heartfelt gratitude to Michael Elmer. He suggested this plaque at least ten years ago. He met opposition or indifference at various times, but persisted- and now his efforts have come to fruition. Assisted by the splendid building company, there is now a permanent memorial to an organisation which, in its dedicated way, contributed "One word of truth" (to quote Solzhenitsyn) to the triumph of freedom and democracy over the oppression by communist atheists in its final two decades.

Read more about Keston College here:


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