Keston Center for Religion, Politics, and Society
In 1969, Reverend Canon Dr. Michael Bourdeaux, along with political scientist Peter Reddaway, diplomat and writer Sir John Lawrence and Soviet historian Leonard Schapiro, set up the Center for the Study of Religion and Communism, later known as Keston College and Keston Institute. It soon grew into a widely known British human rights organization and a resource center, unique in a way, as its field of expertise focused on church-state relations and persecutions of religious believers behind the Iron Curtain. From its foundation, the creation and development of an archive of documentation was a primary aim for Keston. Today, the Keston Archive and Library remains a unique collection of primary-source material on religious life and religious persecutions in socialist countries, containing, among other things, the world’s most extensive collection of religious samizdat. The Keston collection fills an important gap between state historical records and official church histories, giving voices to ordinary believers in their everyday struggle to freely express their faith.
Waco South 5th Street 1429, United States of America 76706
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Name of collection
The Keston Center for Religion, Politics, and Society, Baylor University, Waco, Texas.
Provenance and cultural activities
In 1964, two women from Western Ukraine journeyed to Moscow, taking with them a hidden letter, documenting the persecutions against the Pochayiv Lavra—one of the largest Orthodox monasteries in Ukraine. The Lavra was under pressure from the Soviet authorities, its land and some buildings confiscated and the monks living there evicted. Some were even sent to psychiatric clinics. These two women went to Moscow to find someone who could smuggle the letter to the West and spread the word about religious persecutions in the Soviet Union.
A young Anglican priest, Michael Bourdeaux agreed to take the letter from the Ukrainian women, which inspired him to search for more evidence of religious persecutions in the USSR. After returning to Moscow, he visited the ruins of a recently destroyed Orthodox church in the city, encountering some believers, among them the two women from Pochayiv. Bourdeaux understood this moment to be a call from God, after which he dedicated the rest of his life to collecting, processing and disseminating information about religious life in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
In 1969, Bourdeaux founded the Centre for the Study of Religion and Communism near London, along with political scientist Peter Reddaway, diplomat and writer Sir John Lawrence and Soviet historian Leonard Schapiro. The centre was later renamed Keston College and then Keston Institute. This institution focused on church-state relations and persecutions of religious believers behind the Iron Curtain. From the very beginning, Keston’s leadership prioritized the creation and development of an archive. The resultant collection (now held at Baylor University) is a unique compilation of primary-source material on religious life and religious persecutions in socialist countries, including the world’s most extensive collection of religious samizdat.
Keston College also prioritized research and publication, but also gained influence among policymakers as the west became increasingly concerned with the fate of Soviet dissidents and religious figures. Keston supplied the international media with news and analytical reports on religion in socialist countries. Its researchers also advised world leaders like Jimmy Carter, Harold Wilson, David Owen, and Margaret Thatcher and others. Keston ran a special news wire and also organized conferences, public talks, and lectures. They published an international journal, Religion in Communist Lands, a bi-monthly glossy magazine, Frontier, and produced more than thirty books.
Due to this work, the Keston Institute was considered an ideological opponent by many socialist countries in the 1970s and 1980s, in particular East Germany and also Russia, which denied entry to a number of Keston staff prior to 1991. As Xenia Dennen writes in her open letter on the institute’s website, although “Keston never fought in the Cold War, [they] were on the frontlines reporting on the battle, telling countless stories of heroic resistance of believers to persecution and betrayal."
In her contribution to the COURAGE handbook, Tatiana Vagramenko argues that the optics through which Keston viewed religious life in “communist lands” actively shaped the image the West was receiving. Keston College was established as an independent non-denominational organization, which aimed to objectively study church-state relations in the communist world. Yet, the activism of some of its members crafted a different message. What fascinated Keston leaders were cases of open resistance to Soviet authorities on religious grounds. The focus of their work was documenting the efforts of religious minorities and marginal dissident groups, inside and outside mainstream churches, which were in open conflict with socialist regimes. Persecuted believers are depicted as heroes, martyrs and prophets, struggling against both an atheistic state and official church hierarchies. In some of Keston’s archival materials, official church representatives are described as collaborators or betrayers of the faith.
The social and political transformations associated with the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991 created new challenges for the Keston Institute, in particular its operating model and mission. The center initially widened its research focus and geographical range, monitoring religious freedoms in newly independent socialist countries, Europe, North Korea and China. But eventually, the institute focused on historical analyses and contemporary surveys of religious liberty in the former Soviet Union, while also concentrating on preserving the Keston collection.
In 2007, Baylor University submitted a successful proposal to relocate the Keston Institute’s archive to Waco, Texas. Later that year, Keston’s archive became a part of the newly established Keston Center for Religion, Politics, and Society. The materials are being carefully conserved, re-catalogued, and digitized. Researchers can receive unlimited access to the Keston Digital Archive, which, by 2016, housed 7,500 files from the Keston archive including 1000 photographs. A number of scholarships for researchers to visit Baylor and to work in the Keston Archive and Library are available from Keston Institute, UK. In addition, the new Keston Center hosts symposiums and lectures on the Baylor campus.
Description of content
The Keston Center’s collection focuses on documentary evidence of religious persecution in socialist countries. It aimed to provide a different perspective on religious life in communist lands, one that focused on oppressive practices against religious communities that included harassment, physical assaults, fines, interrogations, trials, state interference in church affairs and parish life, discrimination in employment and education, the misuse of psychiatry, and the loss of parental rights. Figuring prominently are pamphlets, reports, manuscripts, bibliographies, photographs, posters, press clippings, books and periodicals in various languages. These materials were collected to be of use to future church historians and scholars that “recognize the importance of the 20th century religious witnesses in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.”
Tatiana Vagramenko argues in her contribution to the COURAGE handbook that with its selected archival material, Keston has crafted a narrative that highlights religious dissent as political protest. No less curated than official records, Keston’s archival materials focus on different religious groups—Baptists, Adventists, Jews, Pentecostals, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics—from Russia, Ukraine and other republics of the former Soviet Union (roughly 40 percent of the collection), Romania (15 percent), Poland (15 percent), Czech Republic (15 percent), and other countries of the Soviet bloc (15 percent). Also figuring prominently are materials about religious activists and dissidents—Georgi Vins, Gleb Yakunin, Aleksandr Men’, Alexander Ogorodnikov, Nikolai Eshliman, Pavel Adelheim, Anatoli Levitin, Aida Skripnikova, Nijole Sadunaite, Gheorghe Calçiu, and others.
The collection includes 3,500 rare images, 150 video recordings, and 500 voice recordings of interviews, lectures, and radio broadcasts. Some of these items decorate the walls of the Michael Bourdeaux Research Center. Posters and materials from the Soviet archives also figure prominently and include 69 original anti-religious Soviet propaganda posters and around 500 documents from the KGB and other state archives. The collection is enriched by a library consisting of approximately 10,000 books and 200 periodicals relating to religion and politics in Eastern Europe.
Driven underground, religious communities relied heavily on samizdat. Keston has 4,000 items of correspondence, petitions, newssheets, memoirs, and original literary works that circulated via samizdat. The collection also includes court transcripts about the loss of print rights, documents about fines levied against Christians in the Soviet Union, handmade prayer books, appeals to the West typed on cloth, and a copy of the 1972 Lithuanian Memorandum signed by 17,000 religious persons.
When the Keston Institute’s archive was transferred from the U.K. to Baylor University in 2007, the collection arrived largely unprocessed and thus archivists are still cataloguing materials. At present, the collection is organized by geographic area and divided into general files and subject files. The subject files are further categorized by religious denomination. Though the collection was originally geared toward collecting information on the Soviet Union and satellite states, the current collection also contains Spanish, German, Korean, Vietnamese, and Arabic-language materials.
- applied arts objects (folk art, decorative arts, etc.)
- graphics: 10-99
- grey literature (regular archival documents such as brochures, bulletins, leaflets, reports, intelligence files, records, working papers, meeting minutes): 1000-
- photos: 1000-
- publications (books, newspapers, articles, press clippings): 1000-
- video recordings (including oral history recordings): 100-499
- voice recordings (including oral history recordings): 500-999
Stakeholder(s) of the collection
- Bordeaux, Michael
- Kathy, Hillman
- Seago, Larisa
- Xenia, Dennen
Geographical scope of recent operation
Date of founding
Place of founding
London, United Kingdom
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Creator(s) of content
Important events in the history of the collection
- completely open to the public
- Bourdeaux, Michael. Faith on Trial in Russia. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1971.
Author(s) of this page
- Kulick, Orysia Maria
- Park, Sandra
- Vagramenko, Tatiana
“About Keston,” Baylor- Keston Center for Religion, Politics, and Society. Accessed September 19, 2017. http://www.baylor.edu/kestoncenter/index.php?id=931392
Bordeaux, Michael. Patriarch and Prophets. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1970.
Bourdeaux, Michael. "Ringing the Changes. Keston at Forty (1969-2009)." Keston Newsletter, no. 10 (2009): 1-2.
Bourdeaux, Michael. Risen Indeed: Lessons in Faith from the USSR. Keston Book No. 16. London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd and New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983.
Dennen, Xenia. "Letter from the Chairman." 2017. Accessed October 4, 2017. http://www.keston.org.uk/chairletter.php
French, April. "Michael Bourdeaux i Tsentr po izucheniiu religii i kommunizma v kontekste zashchity religioznoi svobody (1959-1975)." Gosudarstvo, Religiia, Tserkov v Rossii i za rubezhom, 35, no. 1 (2017): 216-243.
Keston College… The Fisrt 20 years. 1988. Keston Digital Archive ID: ml-keston-bkk_kc-first-20-years
Peterlin, Davorin. "An Analysis of the Publishing Activity of Keston Institute in the Context of its Last Three Years of Operation in Oxford (2003-2006)." Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe 30, no. 1 (2010): 1-17
Stricker, Gerd and Walter Sawatsky. “Postcript- Keston Institute in Transition.” Occasional Papers on Religion in Eastern Europe 23, no. 3 (2003): 1-8.
“Waco’s Kathy Hillman elected new president of BGCT,” Accessed November 17, 2014. http://www.wacotrib.com/news/religion/waco-s-kathy-hillman-elected-new-president-of-the-bgct/article_0fd251d6-f0ad-5d3b-9874-306e1c8b727c.html
Wallace, Daniel, L. “The Keston Archive: From Oxford to Baylor.” East-West Church & Ministry Report 23, no. 2 (Spring 2015): 1-16.
Kathy, Hillman, interview by Park, Sandra, September 15, 2017. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection