The Man in the Black Sweater |

Vins, Georgi

We rode through the dark streets of Novosibirsk to the prison. “Home sweet home!” several of the prisoners said. “We’ll finally get a good night’s sleep before our next trip.” We were exhausted because for two days and two nights we had neither slept nor eaten in that crowded prison train. But first we had to endure another search. This one took hours.

As I was searched, I prayed, Oh, Lord, preserve my little Gospel and help me. I have no human strength left for a new battle. Again, the Gospel remained safe!

We were taken to a long, dark corridor. Both walls were lined with heavy metal doors of prison cells. A row of dim electric lights suspended from the ceiling deepened the eerie atmosphere.

“Sit down!” a guard commanded.

A hundred prisoners quietly obeyed and sat on the cold cement floor. An officer called out the prisoners’ last names. Guards escorted small groups of prisoners to their cells. An hour later, I was still sitting there. Before long, I was the only prisoner left.

At last, my name was called and I was led down the long corridor. I had been issued an old, dirty mattress and a lumpy, filthy pillow. In one arm, I held my bedding, in the other my bag of personal belongings. I was completely exhausted. My legs felt like dead weights. My mind couldn’t accept anything more. All I could think about was lying down and sleeping, even right there on the cold cement floor.

Finally, the guard stopped, looked in the peephole of a heavy metal door, turned the key in the lock, and pushed the door open.

“Go in,” he said, motioning me inside. The door closed and locked behind me. Heavy tobacco smoke hung in layers throughout the cell. Two electric bulbs burned dimly on the ceiling. The cell was not large, built to hold sixteen men. Metal bunk beds lined the walls. In the center of the room stood a wooden table and two wooden benches. A toilet and water faucet were partially hidden behind a short wall in the corner.

Although it was after midnight, none of the prisoners were asleep. They were upset about something and had been arguing among themselves. Some stood in the center of the cell near the door. Others sat at the table. A few lay on the bunk beds. Nearly everyone stared at me with hostility. Something about the atmosphere in the cell alarmed me.

“Good evening,” I said, then corrected myself. “Good night.” I dropped my mattress and pillow on the floor. “I haven’t slept for two days. Just got off the transport train.”

I started moving toward what looked like a vacant bunk, but two prisoners blocked my way.

“Why are you entering our ‘home’ so late?” asked a tall man in a black sweater.

“I just got off the transport,” I answered.

“You were alone on a whole transport train?” a voice piped in from a bunk.

“No, there were about a hundred of us from the Irkutsk prison.”

“Where are they? Why were you brought here alone? It’s a trap!” someone shouted.

“Get out of here! Call a guard! We’ve seen people like you before!” growled the man in the black sweater. He pointed to the door.

I had no energy left to explain. “I just want to sleep,” I said, trying to make peace. “I’ve gone two days and nights without sleep.”

Several men began cursing me.

My spirit cried out to God. Oh, Jesus, be with me! I don’t even know where I am.

A skinny little old man made his way out of the crowd. “How many people have you killed?” he rasped.

“I’m a Christian. I never killed anyone. I was sentenced twice for my faith in God,” I answered.

“Where were you in prison before?”

“My first term was in the northern Urals. I just finished five years’ strict regime in Yakutia.”

“So you’re a Christian and not a murderer?” the man in the black sweater asked. “First time I’ve met anyone like you in prison. Why were you put here in this cell? All of us are murderers.” He pointed to the little old man. “And this one killed five people. We all just came from our trials and we’re going to be sent to special strict-regime camps.” He began cursing the judge and God.

“Why curse God?” I objected. “He didn’t bring you here.”

“We know your type,” he shouted, moving toward me. “Get out of here! You’re not a Christian!” He shoved me with his shoulder.

I didn’t know what to do. The hostile faces of prisoners surrounded me. In my eight years of prison life, nothing like this had ever happened. Shouts, curses, threats, and an evil that I couldn’t comprehend filled the cell.

“You say you’re a Christian?” someone shouted. “Prove it! Let’s see your Bible!” Others echoed the command.

My thoughts raced madly. Should I show them my little Gospel of Mark? What if they tear it up? No, I must show it to them. The Lord will protect His Word from these murderers just as He protected it from the soldiers on the train.

“Do you really think I could get a whole Bible into prison? It would be confiscated! But I do have the Gospel of Mark. That’s part of the Bible,” I said.

“Let’s see it!” demanded one of the young men.

I opened my bag and pulled out the box with the little Gospel. Hands stretched out from all directions to touch it. “It’s so tiny!” the prisoners marveled. Everyone wanted to see it.

“Can we read it?” asked the man in the black sweater.

“Yes, of course!” I handed it to him.

Suddenly the skinny little old man darted forward and grabbed for the little book. “Don’t touch it!” he cried. “It’s a holy book and our hands are sinful! They’re stained with human blood! Have him read it to us!”

The man in the black sweater pulled free from his grasp. His gaze shifted from the little old man to the Gospel still in his hand and then to me.

“Don’t be afraid,” I urged. “This book was written for you as well as for me. It holds the path to salvation and a new life.”

I stood, still holding my bag. Weariness overcame me. I didn’t know how much longer I could stand. A young man turned to me. “You can have my bunk tonight.” Then to the others he sneered, “Ha! Why are you attacking him like animals? The man’s been in prison for years only for his faith in God and you harass him! Sit down here.” He showed me his bunk.

“Where are you from?” he asked.


“I’m from Kiev, too! I spent a month there robbing. That’s where I was arrested last time. What camp were you in?”

“Tabaga, a strict-regime camp about fifteen miles from Yakutsk,” I answered.

Another prisoner confirmed my statement. “Oh, yes,” he said, bobbing his head up and down, “I know that camp. What other camps are in Yakutia?”

I named at least three other camps in Yakutia where I had been a prisoner. Again other prisoners confirmed my words. Still holding the Gospel, the man in the black sweater sat down at the table. The rest of the men gathered around and he began reading aloud:

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee…”

“Let us see it! Let me hold it! I want to at least touch it! I’ve never held a Gospel in my life!” interrupted excited voices.

Just then the metal door scraped open and an officer and two soldiers entered the cell. Even before the door was completely open, the man in the black sweater had managed to hand the little book to another prisoner who hopped up to his bunk in a flash. It happened so quickly that hardly anyone in the cell noticed.

“Why aren’t you sleeping?” the officer asked. Then he looked straight at me. “How do you like your new cellmate? Is he one of you?”

Everyone was silent. The officer seemed quite disappointed. He studied my face to see if I’d been beaten. Now I understood why I’d been put in this cell. He had expected the murderers to attack me.

“Don’t believe anything he says,” the officer said, pointing his finger at me as he left.

After the officer was gone, the man in the black sweater retrieved the Gospel. I went over to a bunk, knelt, and poured out my thanksgiving to God.

“Look! He’s praying!” whispered some of the prisoners in amazement. “Let him pray. It’s his business,” said others.

Complete peace filled my heart. Later I learned that the KGB had indeed instructed the prison administrators to put me in that specific cell. Some of the prisoners had been told lies about me in advance and were incited to attack me. I’m sure the KGB concealed the fact that I was a Christian. But with that little Gospel of Mark, God had, in an amazing way, upset the cunning schemes of His enemies. I felt completely secure, protected by God Himself.

—An excerpt from The Gospel in Bonds: 8 Years in the Soviet Gulags - Imprisoned for His Faith by Georgi Vins, published by Lighthouse Trails Publishing. Used with permission.

In 1926, an American missionary named Peter Vins left the United States for the mission field of Siberia. Young Peter had finished his seminary training in Kentucky, then for a time pastored a church of Russian immigrants in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There he fell in love with a Christian woman and asked her to marry him. She agreed, and the two announced their engagement. However, when Peter told his fiancé that God was calling him to Russia, she refused to go along. Her ultimatum to him was “Either me, or Russia.” So, broken-hearted, Peter called off the engagement and departed for Russia alone.

In Russia, the Lord’s blessing was on Peter Vins. People responded to his preaching, and many joined the church. Also, before long, a Russian woman who was a dedicated Christian attracted his attention. Peter began courting young Lydia Zharikova and married her in 1927. In 1928, in the city of Blagoveschensk, Lydia bore her husband a son whom they named Georgi. The Gospel in Bonds is Georgi’s story.