Letter from the Chairman
Keston never fought in the Cold War, yet we were in the frontline reporting on the battle, telling countless stories of the heroic resistance of believers to persecution and betrayal (sometimes by Christian leaders both in their own churches and in the West).
Exploration of the Stasi archives by Canon Michael Bourdeaux, founder and now President of Keston, has revealed that the East German government considered us to be one of their most important ideological opponents: they mistakenly thought Keston was founded in response to the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and that we were a large international organisation with a network of branches. Canon Bourdeaux found evidence that the East Germans were watching us closely: the Stasi archives contained some hand-written notes by a visitor to Keston in 1977 and by someone who had attended a 1985 Keston conference.
It is not surprising that our role has changed significantly since the collapse of communism. The miracle is that we have kept going for so long. However, circumstances, not least financial, have forced us to reconsider our role.
Keston has a good track-record of publishing: we produced a series of Keston Books, the Keston News Service (1974-1991 and revived 1995-2002) as well as our magazine Frontier and our journal Religion in Communist Lands (founded 1973 and renamed Religion State and Society after the fall of communism). We have produced a solid body of research and most recently our Encyclopaedia of Religious Life in Russia Today in eight volumes (in Russian) completed in the autumn of 2008 (publication of an updated version is now underway). Publishing on such a scale, however, is no longer sustainable. The future of Religion State and Society was secured in June 2006 when Keston transferred the rights of this journal to Taylor and Francis, the journal's publisher.
I have been working with the Council to forge a new vision for Keston and to define our role in the 21st century - it is now over 27 years since the Berlin Wall came down. We know that Keston has an important legacy from the period when it had reports almost weekly in the church or national press. This legacy is embodied in Keston's archive, which is unique in the world. It is extensive and comprehensive, covering all former communist countries in one way or another - after all, in the early 1980s we had over 20 staff and our researches led the world. The large staff of those early days shrank gradually during the 1990s until during 2006-2007, owing to financial constraints, the few remaining staff either left or sadly had to be made redundant. The Council of Management decided that, in its straitened circumstances, Keston must concentrate its resources on preserving the archive.
The archive contains many examples of heroism, texts which will one day become spiritual classics. By collecting material on all religions and Christian denominations during the communist period, Keston created a source of exceptional value for future church historians and for all those who recognise the importance of the 20th century religious witnesses in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union: they defended freedom of mind and spirit in the face of a political system which claimed total control over all aspects of human life. They and their message must not be forgotten.
As Keston had to leave its Oxford premises in November 2007, the trustees explored a number of locations in the UK and Europe as a new home for Keston's archive and library. The search was long and laborious. Most of the institutions approached were unfortunately not willing to house both the library and archive because they either did not have the space or the money, or both. In other cases either the proposed premises or the financial terms were not acceptable to Keston's trustees.
Baylor University in Texas, USA, approached Keston in the autumn of 2006 and three of their academic staff then made a presentation to the Council of Management in December of that year. Baylor wished to establish a new Keston Center for Religion Politics and Society which would carry on the mission of Keston into the 21st century, and would offer a new home to the archive. In February 2007 Michael Bourdeaux and I went out to Baylor to explore their proposals further, and after careful thought and consultation with the other trustees came to the conclusion that the best solution - and one which had been approved by the Charity Commission - would be for Keston to accept Baylor's offer.
On 24 March 2007 an Extraordinary General Meeting was held in London at which I spoke at length about the many approaches made to institutions in the UK and Europe and about the problems the trustees had faced. After lengthy discussion with Keston members, a proposal was put to the meeting that the library and archive be placed at Baylor, on terms to be negotiated by the Council. The vote to accept the proposal was unanimous. By June 2007 a contract had been signed with Baylor and in August the collection was moved to Texas where it is now being managed by Baylor library staff who have all the expertise to hand for its conservation and maintenance. Conservation is particularly important because some of the most important items in the archive are samizdat documents which were produced on poor quality paper, and would have inevitably deteriorated. Keston's Council of Management is represented on the Advisory Board of the Keston Center at Baylor, and at Keston's Annual General Meeting on 3 November 2007 Keston's Articles of Association were amended to allow the Director of the new Keston Center to join the Council of Management.
In November 2007 the Keston Center for Religion Politics and Society was officially opened. Michael Bourdeaux and I attended the opening and in November 2008 and February 2010 we again visited the centre to see what progress had been achieved in organising the Keston archive and library, and to hear about the number of research students, some funded by Keston UK, who had made use of these resources. New digitising technology, similar to that in the Library of Congress, had been acquired by Baylor's main library. Priority had been given to digitising material which was fragile and beginning to disintegrate. Items were also digitised in response to the requests of researchers, and already many additional documents were ready to be put on the Center's website, www.baylor.edu/kestoncenter.
Following the resignation on 1 August 2011 of the Keston Center's Director, Professor Christopher Marsh, Professor Robyn Driskell was appointed Interim Director and was able to help maintain and develop the Center until a permanent Director, Professor Kathy Hillman, was appointed at the start of the 2012-2013 academic year. Professor Kathy Hillman is Associate Professor and Director of Special Collections for the Central Baylor University Libraries as well as Director of Baptist Collections and Library Advancement. As Director of the Keston Center she is an ex officio member of the Council of Management.
A newly constituted Keston Center Advisory Board met during my visit to the Center in February 2013. Professor Stephen Gardner, Herman Brown Professor of Economics and Director of McBride Center for International Business, who is a Russian speaker, chaired the meeting which was attended by Dr Julie deGraffenried (History Department, Baylor), Dr Barry Harvey (Honors College, Baylor), Dr James Warhola (University of Maine), Dr Doug Weaver (Religion Department, Baylor), while Dr Wallace Daniel (Mercer University, Georgia) and Dr Stella Rock (UK) were present virtually, thanks to Baylor's highly sophisticated technology.
I was able to see the progress achieved since my visit the previous year. The Keston archive and library were now housed in a fine light-filled room, named the Michael Bourdeaux Room, on the third floor of the Carroll Library, where there was space for all Keston's documents, books and journals. Larisa Seago, the archivist, was now employed full-time and thus better able to help visiting scholars, while continuing to compile an electronic catalogue and to sort boxes of archive material. The Keston Center was now termed a Special Collection and had become part of the Baylor library structure.
In November 2013 the Keston Center organised a symposium entitled 'Religion and Political Culture in Communist Countries: Past, Present and Future', at which Professor Wallace Daniel and Canon Michael Bourdeaux gave keynote addresses. Wallace Daniel, University Professor of History at Mercer University (Georgia), helped engineer the transfer of the Keston Archive to Baylor in 2007 when he was a senior Baylor faculty member, and today serves on the Keston Center's Advisory Board. The complete programme and video recordings of the two keynote addresses can be found at www.baylor.edu/kestoncenter/index.php?id=933307.
I continued to visit the Keston Center each year until 2017. In March 2014 my visit for a meeting of the Advisory Board coincided with the arrival of Alexander Ogorodnikov, the Russian Orthodox dissident who was imprisoned for his faith during the communist period, and whose period of study at Baylor had been funded by Keston UK. He gave a most moving talk in a packed Michael Bourdeaux Room which I introduced: I emphasised how important the Keston archive was, since it had preserved material which Alexander Ogorodnikov could no longer find in Russia. He spoke about his prison experiences and the way he had been called to bring light into the darkest places in prison. During my February 2015 visit I heard about progress in the Keston Archive: 3,054 pages of Keston material had been digitised, as well as three of Michael Bourdeaux's diaries; all issues of the Keston News Service would shortly be digitised. On this visit I also gave a lecture in the Michael Bourdeaux Room on the history of Keston and its defence of persecuted Christians in the USSR. During my visit to Baylor in April 2016 I was pleased to be present again at a well-attended lecture in the Michael Bourdeaux Room given by Dr Julie deGraffenried on Soviet anti-religious policies and their effect on children: the lecture was entitled "Combatting God and Grandma: Soviet Anti-Religious Policies and the Battle for Childhood". On the following day the Advisory Board met and approved the Director's proposal that two new members join the Board – Dr Sergey Kudelia, a Ukrainian in the Politics Department at Baylor, and Dr Dominic Erdozain, an English historian at Emory University; Dr Barry Harvey after serving three years on the Board had resigned. Darryl Stuhr from Baylor's digitising department reported on recently acquired equipment; 7,500 files from the Keston archive including 1000 photographs had been digitised while the first edition of Keston’s Encyclopaedia was now on-line. The Director showed the Board a splendid new leaflet about the Keston Center which had just been printed. Last year I attended a meeting of the Advisory Board in February and was pleased that Roman Lunkin, a colleague working with Sergei Filatov and me on the new edition of Keston’s Encyclopaedia, was able to visit the Keston Center while I was there thanks to a grant from Keston UK. From January-March 2017 he was a Visiting Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. While at Baylor he gave a lecture entitled “Russia Today: Religion, Politics and Society” in a packed Kayser Auditorium. During the Advisory Board meeting I heard about Baylor’s new Libraries Summer Teaching Fellowships, two of which were awarded to faculty members who worked with their students in the Keston archive and used many of its documents in their classes. I was pleased to hear that increasing numbers of scholars were coming to do research at the Keston Center.
In March 2018, I was unable to visit the Center for the annual Advisory Board meeting. Keston UK was instead represented by our Vice-Chairman, Roland Smith. Another member of our Council, Alyona Kojevnikov, gave a lecture entitled “Hush! Religion and the Secular Media”. She spoke about her experiences working for Keston and for Radio Liberty, as well as of being an interpreter for Margaret Thatcher. She emphasised the importance of speaking out about religious persecution, and deplored the fact that very little was being said either by the Western media or by Western religious leaders about the current suppression of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. At the Advisory Board meeting next day, the Director of the Center reported that in the autumn of 2017, the Center had marked the centenary of the October Revolution in Russia, and that this had led to some ill-informed accusations that the Center was promoting Communism! - which however was fairly easily dealt with by pointing to the actual content of the Center’s output. She said that in the autumn of 2018, there would be events commemorating the centenary of the creation of Czechoslovakia, the 50th anniversary of the Prague Spring, and the 25th anniversary of the peaceful separation of Slovakia and the Czech Republic. In 2019, the Center would be marking the 50th anniversary of Keston. It was good to hear that for the anniversary, Julie de Graffenried and Zoe Knox are producing a book about items from the archive. It was also interesting to hear from Amie Oliver, of Baylor’s Texas collection, about a website which she and colleagues had set up bringing together material from many different archives and collections at Baylor about a series of remarkable women, among them a number from the Keston Archive, including Aida Skripnikova.
The creation of a Keston Center in the USA does not mean that Keston in the UK has ceased its activity. Keston continues to promote the goals for which it was founded in 1969. It completed in 2008 the twelve-year project to produce an Encyclopaedia of Religious Life in Russia Today, covering all aspects of religion in contemporary Russia, which is now being updated (three volumes of the second edition have been published and work on the next volume will be completed by the end of 2019), it monitors the use of the library and archive, continues to produce a newsletter for Keston members, manages its current finances and provides scholarships for researchers in Keston's field of study. It will sponsor conferences and publications which promote the purposes for which Keston was founded, and will undertake such other activities as are possible within the resources available in keeping with Keston's objectives.
I would like to thank most warmly all those who continue to support Keston Institute and its work.
With best wishes,
Religious Life in Russia Today - seven volumes covering all the religious denominations which exist in Russia.