This fall, the Keston Center for Religion, Politics, and Society will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of Keston College to be the voice of the voiceless for those experiencing religious persecution under communism and other totalitarian regimes.
In the heart of the Cold War, Michael Bourdeaux, a young Oxford student, became enthralled with the majestic beauty of Russian language and literature. During his studies, Bourdeaux’s emigre professor encouraged him to inquire into the whisperings of persecution church leaders were hearing from the USSR.
By God’s providence, Russian Premiere Nikita Khrushchev signed an exchange student agreement with England that Bourdeaux leveraged to study in Russia in 1959-1960. He found himself in the heart of Khrushchev’s cultural divestment of religion.
When Bourdeaux returned to England he worked from London to share his experiences. His stories, however, were called into question when the Russian Orthodox Church joined the World Council of Churches in 1961 and rebuffed any reports of any persecution. With western Christian and political leaders convinced there were no issues, Bourdeaux was marginalized.
In 1964, he received a letter from a group of Ukrainian Orthodox Christians recounting their experiences of persecution. Following a visit to Russia, Bourdeaux became the point person to receive testimonies, underground publications, and other materials that detailed the persecution of Christians in Russia. The flood of materials was so overwhelming that it was more than Bourdeuax could process alone. The evident magnitude of this crisis eventually led to the foundation of Keston College at Oxford in 1969.
Throughout the Soviet period, Bourdeaux and his colleagues operated research bureaus, verified information, advised political and religious leaders, published an academic journal, and widely exposed the realities of persecution through articles, books, media interviews, conferences, and high-level meetings. However, once the Cold War ended, financial support waned. Even so, on its 50th birthday, the Keston Institute remains alive producing newsletters, publishing articles, and supporting researchers.
The collection that contained a groundswell of evidence of religious persecution now resides at Baylor. In 2007, the university welcomed Keston’s library and archives and established the Keston Center for Religion, Politics, and Society to house the materials. In 2012, it became part of the Libraries and continues to collect new publications, receive materials, welcome scholars from around the world, and disseminate information.
On June 20, a plaque was unveiled on the building occupied by Keston College from 1972-1992 in honor of its fiftieth anniversary. Kathy Hillman, associate professor and director of the Keston Center, was on hand for the unveiling and reflected on the enduring importance of Keston’s work.
“Keston College was a ‘voice of the voiceless’ for so many persecuted believers in the Soviet Union and other Communist countries,” said Hillman. “Those stories continue to be told as researchers visit Keston Center and as we regularly host events on campus at Baylor.”
Keston’s golden anniversary celebration will continue on October 15 at the Foster Campus for Business and Innovation of Baylor University. A volume of commemorative essays entitled Voices of the Voiceless: Religion, Communism, and the Keston Archive will be formally presented at this event. Then, on November 9, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, will speak at the annual general meeting of the Keston Institute in London.
“A whole generation of Confessors was airbrushed out of official history,” said Bourdeaux during a recent Keston Open Day. “The Keston legacy, however, gives these men and women a continuing voice, having documented their activities with care and precision.”
This story originally appeared in the 2019 Baylor University ITS & Libraries Magazine. To join our mailing list for future editions, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.