Vyacheslav Tsvirinko paid dearly for his faith and has no regrets
by Myra Holmes
Vyacheslav Tsvirinko can pinpoint the day his life changed: Aug. 24, 1974. That was the day he gave his life to Christ—a decision that cost him everything. But VT, as the Mennonite Brethren church leader is known in non-Russian-speaking circles, says he has no regrets.
“I’m one of those whose conversion was very dramatic,” says VT, who 20 years ago emigrated from the former Soviet Union to the United States. “It was a very clear switch from a worldly life, sinful life, just life for earthly purposes and goals, to life for Christ, life in the church.”
On that day, VT attended a youth meeting following a Saturday service at a Christian church in the former Soviet Union. Some 30 or 40 young people had gathered after the service to worship, learn from Scripture and pray. VT came as a seeker, dissatisfied with his life and drawn by the God of the Bible. One young man preached from Acts about Saul’s Damascus-road conversion. Then the young people knelt for an extended time of prayer.
While they prayed, God confronted VT in a dramatic way, not unlike Saul’s Damascus road experience. VT heard two distinct voices. “I never heard it before and never heard it after,” he says.
One voice urged, “It’s your time. You have to accept the Lord and you have to repent.”
The second voice told VT to wait: “It’s not your time. You’re not ready. You haven’t read the whole Bible yet.”
So VT counted the cost.
He knew that to become a Christian was to give up everything he knew. And by Soviet standards at that time, he had everything.
His young life in the former Soviet Union was picture-perfect. He had been accepted for university training as a nautical engineer—no small accomplishment, since the Soviet government allowed only a select few to pursue higher education. He had excelled at university, graduated with honors and been chosen as lead instructor at an engineering school—again, a rare and prestigious opportunity for one so young.
Simultaneously, he had been trained as a submarine officer for the Soviet navy. Then, in an unusually short time, he had been invited to pursue graduate-level engineering education, an opportunity available only to a handful of the best and most competitive. At only 24 years old, he had interesting work and study and an apartment, all paid for by the government.
“Basically I was quite successful in my life,” VT says.
"Just to live…then die?"
But something was missing. “Even though from the outside it looked like I was successful, inside in my soul I was being more and more disappointed.” He watched the people around him and saw a future that wasn’t attractive: alcohol abuse, divorce and emptiness. “I didn’t see the purpose of life,” he says. “Just to live a number of years and then die?”
Then he remembered that his mother, a Christian, found meaning in a Bible. Curious, he borrowed his mother’s Bible and began to read from the beginning, verse by verse, word by word, like a good student. “It was not very exciting to read,” he admits, “but at the same time, it did something in my heart.”
God was drawing him, and his heart began to respond: “I found faith in God by reading this book.”
But in the Soviet atheistic culture of that time, faith came at a high price. Atheism was “official,” explains VT. “It was the way of thinking and approaching life, and it was not only the common worldview, it was required. It was the only worldview accepted in the society.”
Different kind of life
One of VT’s two sisters, a student at another university, rejected that worldview and turned to Christ just one semester short of completing her degree. The university administration asked VT, the model Soviet student, to come “influence” his sister, to keep her from “ruining her life.”
Instead, she influenced him. She took him to meet her new friends in the underground church. The young Christians he met showed him a very different kind of life than the one he observed among his colleagues. VT says, “They weren’t allowed to obtain education higher than high school, they weren’t allowed to go to university, they weren’t allowed to work with positions with skill, but they were very happy people. They were people of integrity. There were no problems with marriage, no problems with alcohol, no problems with many things that I was facing living in a secular society.”
VT’s sister did not renounce her faith in Christ. As a result, she paid the price; she was expelled from the university. His other sister also became a Christian, and both became janitorial workers—the only positions they were allowed to keep as part of the underground church. Both were rejected by their atheistic father.
Meanwhile, while VT studied, “the work of God was going on in my heart.” On his 25th birthday, VT asked God to “do something for me.” To help him “either 100 percent love God or 100 percent be through with the church.”
A few weeks later, he found himself on his knees debating between two voices.
“Fortunately,” he says, “the youth were praying long enough for me to debate between these two voices. Eventually, I accepted the advice of the first one, and I prayed to accept the Lord and repented. I didn’t even know well enough what I was doing and who I was accepting; I just knew I needed to repent. And I did. Like Saul, in the same way, I was told what to do and prayed.
“It was a changing point of my life. Since that time, I became a follower of Jesus.”
It wasn’t long before his faith cost him. When VT was called into the office of the university president—not a friendly invitation—he knew the price he was about to pay. There, in front of the university president, a vice president and a man VT assumes was a KGB agent, he was asked about his worldview: “Do you believe in God?”
“I said yes,” VT remembers. When pressed further, he fearlessly told them about the Bible and about Jesus—“what I knew at that point.” He says that while walking into the meeting was “terrifying,” once confronted he felt no fear. “Of course, it wasn’t me; it was God’s promise: ‘I will give you words to say.’”
The next day, VT was expelled from the university and from his prestigious teaching position. He lost his apartment and his permission to live in that city. “I found myself without study, without income, without apartment, without permission to stay.” His father disowned him, so going home was not an option, either.
Consequence of faith
Several times in the years that followed, VT was pushed out of jobs, homes and cities because of his faith. He was arrested, interrogated and detained more than once, although only briefly—“just for one or two days, not years. Somehow God decided that I don’t deserve such kind of honor to suffer for him. But I paid in a different way, with my education, my future.”
In time, he moved to Riga, Latvia, where a slightly more tolerant attitude toward Christianity prevailed. “Still we experienced persecution, still our pastors were arrested and imprisoned, but it wasn’t as severe as it was in other areas of the Soviet Union,” VT explains. During 14 years there, VT became a leader in the church, was ordained as a deacon and pastor, met and married his wife, Nina, and had six sons.
When the door opened for Soviet Christians to leave the country in the late 1980s, VT and Nina reluctantly gave up their homeland and emigrated to the U.S. in order to provide more religious freedom for their sons, all now “grown young men serving God and humanity,” VT says.
A new home
In the U.S., VT was able to learn English at Fresno Pacific University, then to study the Bible as deeply as he once studied engineering, earning his Master of Divinity degree from MB Biblical Seminary, Fresno, Calif., in 1995. Once an up-and-coming Soviet success story, he now finds joy in serving Christ and the church.
VT serves as one of the volunteer pastors at House of the Gospel Church, a Russian-language Mennonite Brethren congregation in Fresno, Calif., and he works as director of the Visalia Center for Fresno Pacific University, the Mennonite Brethren-owned school in California, which gives him further opportunity to love people and witness. In addition, he is a member of the U.S. Conference Leadership Board and serves Slavic students and churches on the West Coast in countless ways.
In spite of the high price he paid for his faith, VT says he has no regrets. “The only one thing I ever regret is that I hadn’t done it sooner, when I was younger. If I would be able to come back and start my life again, I would accept Christ as soon as I was able to understand,” he says.
So for VT, Aug. 24, 1974, is a day his life changed for the better. Time has shown him that Christ was worth the cost.