This town of 11,000 in the American heartland is best known as the place where Sir Winston Churchill coined the term “Iron Curtain” during a speech at Westminster College in 1946.
In a single ringing phrase, Churchill signaled that a physical and ideological barrier had descended across Europe, dividing the world between Western freedom and totalitarian communism.
Now, 50 years later, a retired Russian Army colonel--who said he once served in a Soviet tank division at the Berlin Wall--was here appealing to local Christians to help him send Russian-language editions of the New Testament to soldiers in his homeland.
The appearance last week of Yevgeny Ivanovich Khatyushin at the Southside Baptist Church was yet another testament to how dramatically the world has changed. Religion, which Karl Marx derided as the “opium of the people,” has flowered in the former Communist state.
But on his 17th fund-raising tour of the United States, Khatyushin’s visit also underscores how political issues can become entwined with religious fervor.
Standing at a podium in full dress uniform, Khatyushin suggested to his American audience that sending Bibles to Russia is in America’s national interest. The political climate in Russia is precarious, he said, and if civil war comes, the Russian army will decide whether Communists or democrats prevail. Wouldn’t it be better, he asked, if those soldiers were Christians?
“I want to give every one of my soldiers a Bible,” Khatyushin said in Russian to the 200 farmers and townsfolk gathered in the church’s sanctuary after a potluck dinner. “Please give me as much as possible of this weapon and I will give this weapon to my soldiers.”
A fourth of all soldiers and officers, he told them, are now Christians.
The American trips by Khatyushin, 59, are sponsored by Revival Fires Ministries in Branson, Mo., which says he has raised $500,000 and provided 900,000 paperback copies of the New Testament to Russian soldiers.
Such appeals are not new. While Christian leaders in the United States speak of Russia as a former Communist state that must be “won for Christ,” there is sometimes an unspoken premise that it must be “saved” to prevent communism’s return.
Along those lines, Khatyushin spoke darkly of religious repression under communism and the daunting problems faced by Russia as it struggles to stay on the road to democracy.
Though in a church, Khatyushin made no mention of the “great commission,” the words the New Testament says Jesus spoke to his disciples after his Resurrection--to go into the world to preach the Gospel and baptize all nations into the faith.
Later, Khatyushin’s translator said there was no need to speak of a religious motivation because such an audience is well aware of the great commission.
Khatyushin has appeared at at least one conference with retired U.S. Army Col. Oliver North, one of America’s best-known fund-raisers for anti-communist and pro-evangelical causes. And, like North, he is not averse to telling a few war stories--perhaps with a little embellishment.
Khatyushin told the attentive audience in Fulton that he was with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in August 1991 when tanks converged on the Russian White House in an abortive attempt by Communists to seize power.
“The president gave me the order to go forward to meet those tanks and to stop them at any cost,” said Khatyushin, a former senior professor at the Academy of Tank Troops. He said he drove to the tanks in his car and eventually persuaded a tank commander--a former student of his--to come over to Yeltsin’s side.
“In those difficult days and nights I was staking my life over and over again,” he said. “I realized that my country was going in the wrong direction all of those years, and I also realized that I myself was going in the wrong direction all of my life.”
He was baptized in 1993, he said.
Christian activists in Russia confirmed Khatyushin’s role in bringing Scriptures to soldiers there. But government officials said he exaggerated his role in defending the Russian White House.
He was at the scene, one official recalled, but was no longer on active duty--having been discharged from the army in 1989, two years before the coup attempt.
Anatoly D. Tsyganok, who was chief of the operative division of the White House defense forces in August 1991, said Khatyushin came to the government center and introduced himself as a colonel, though he was not in uniform. After Khatyushin showed a military ID, he was put under Tsyganok’s command, which consisted of about 30 military officers, the Russian official said.
“He didn’t do anything worth mentioning,” Tsyganok recalled. “He was one of many military men involved in the defense, nothing special. He didn’t even wear his uniform. That’s why probably nobody remembers him.”
Sergei Yushenkov, now a member of Parliament and then an army lieutenant colonel--and the man who led negotiations with the Soviet tank troops sent to attack the White House--said that he had never heard of Khatyushin. In fact, he said, no colonel on the general staff played a role in the White House defense.
Revival Fires founder and President Cecil Todd, reached in Branson, Mo., said that he has never tried to verify Khatyushin’s account.
“Others have said his role [in resisting the coup] was not that strong,” Todd said. “I’ve said maybe it wasn’t. But at least in his mind he felt like he made a major contribution to the failed coup attempt and as far as I’m concerned there’s enough truth and circumstantial evidence to point to his involvement in that.”
Whatever the case, those in the church didn’t question Khatyushin’s appeal to faith, contributing $800 to the cause, $250 of which covered his expenses; the rest was earmarked for the Russian Bibles.
“All answers to the problems of Russia are in Jesus and in this Bible,” he told them. “This little book has completely transformed my life. This little book could yet completely change the lives of my entire country.”
Times staff writer Richard Boudreaux in Moscow contributed to this story.