Stalin's 'Railroad of Death' Witnesses Revival

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SALEKHARD, Northern Siberia -- In 1949, thousands of Russian political prisoners were ordered to a Siberian labor camp to build a railway. Many died trying to finish the rail line.

Today, Pastor Anatoly Marichev is honoring their memory by starting a house of worship, Good News Church, on the very spot that housed many of the prisoners.

Marichev explained that the railway was the project of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

"Stalin's plan was to join the eastern and western parts of Russia," Marichev told CBN News. "The railway started in Salekhard and ended in Igarka. Thousands of political prisoners were sent here to Salekhard to work on it."

An 'Enemy of the State'
 
Among the political captives was Marichev's grandfather.
 
"My grandfather was labeled an enemy of the state," Marichev said. "He was against Stalin's policies and sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp in Salekhard."
 
Located approximately 1,200 miles northeast of Moscow, Salekhard is the only town in the world that's on the Arctic Circle. Temperatures often plummet to minus 60 degrees.
 
"We live in one of the coldest places on earth," one Salekhard resident said.
 
"In many ways we are cut off from the rest of the world," another resident said.
 
The city served as the ideal place to stash away Stalin's political enemies.
 
"Most of the labor camps were located in the isolated regions of the Arctic," Marichev explained. "And soon those who began to work on the railway faced these harsh conditions."

Railroad of Death

Salekhard had blizzard-like conditions during the winter - and millions of mosquitoes, gnats, and parasites during the summer. 

Construction on the railway eventually stopped in 1953 after Stalin's death. But the damage was already done. Marichev's grandfather died, along with tens of thousands of other prisoners.
 
"People call this the 'Railroad of Death' because many could not handle the cold and the bugs," Marichev said.
 
Historical records show Christians were also killed in the Salekhard gulags.
 
"We have eyewitness accounts of secret prayer gatherings," Marichev said. "Germans from Volga region, Russian Christians from the Caucuses and elsewhere - they prayed for this harsh region."
 
Several years ago, Marichev moved with his family to Salekhard to honor the memory of his grandfather and the countless who died in the Siberian labor camps.

"These prisoners prayed that one day the Gospel would reach the peoples of this land," he said. "Today, we are seeing the fruits of their prayers."

Good News Church is Born
 
The fruit is the Good News Church, a thriving evangelical congregation that has risen in the heart of the Siberian Tundra led by Marichev.

"People are turning to the Lord all over this region," he said. "Families are being healed, people delivered from alcohol and drugs."

The church was built in the exact location of Stalin's 1950s railway labor camp.
 
"To have a spiritual center, a house of worship, in this location is not just symbolic -- but also strategic," Marichev noted.
 
In partnership with the Association for Spiritual Renewal, which focuses on bringing the Gospel to the former Soviet Union, Pastor Marichev uses his church to train the next generation of Christian leaders.
 
Mykhailo Cherenkov oversees the program.
 
"We have a program called Schools without Walls that's preparing young men and women to go into full time ministry," Cherenkov told CBN News. "We equip, disciple, then send out prospective leaders to reach these remote communities in Siberia and around Russia."

Good News Church is also training young people like 25-year-old Marina Savchenko from neighboring Ukraine to be effective missionaries.
 
"My heart is to share the Gospel with the nomadic tribes of the Siberian Tundra," Savchenko said.

"Before I can do that, I have to understand their culture and way of life," she said. "That's where Good News Church comes in. They've been working with these tribes for years."

To the Ends of Siberia

When Marichev is not busy leading his flock, he can be found driving across the frozen Russian tundra to reach nomadic villages with the Gospel.

"It took us four hours today to travel less than 60 kilometers on the frozen river," he said. "But it was worth it. These tribes were once forgotten. Not anymore."
 
Members of his church take regular trips to deliver food, clothes, and medical supplies to the area. On one particular trek, the pastor shared communion with a nomadic family that he recently introduced to Christ.

"I'm so happy today," tribe member Vladimir said. "We are the only Christians in this village. To take part in communion with other believers is very special for my family."

Continuing Their Legacy
 
Meanwhile in Salekhard, home to an estimated 40,000 people, Marichev is extending the church's influence to minister to orphans, the homeless, and those living with HIV/AIDS.
 
He said his work is all part of the desire to continue the legacy of those who came before him enduring hardship and persecution to see the Gospel preached in Siberia and beyond.
 
"That's what I stand on, those prayers of the prisoners," Marichev said. "I believe that God's Kingdom will reach the far corners of this difficult land for which our grandfathers shed their blood and prayed a long time ago for."

*Original broadcast July 26, 2011.

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