After over 20 years of eluding the KGB, Estonian pastor Jaanus Karner shares the story of his dramatic escape to America, gives his insight into what is happening today in communist countries, and tells about his desire to return to his native land of Estonia.
Jaanus Karner is faced with a choice today. After growing up in one of the most repressive societies in the world, this native Estonian is now considering a return to his homeland.
The sudden and drastic changes that are now occurring in Eastern Europe have been long awaited by Jaanus, who resisted the communist system for over 20 years and now yearns for a free Estonia. Having come to America in 1981 by narrowly eluding the grasp of the KGB – the Soviet Union’s repressive secret police force – Jaanus now looks back over his life, which has spanned the Soviet takeover of Estonia during World War Two to the communist regime’s fall from power last year.
Born in Estonia in 1944, Jaanus entered the world during a time of tumultuous change in Eastern Europe. Soviet military forces were advancing through Europe driving the Nazis back to Germany and their eventual defeat. A few years after the Soviet occupation, Jaanus was born.
“My mother was a Christian and we were living on an island in the Baltic sea,” explained Jaanus. “My father had escaped to the West and we never saw him again.”
During the time that the Soviets were establishing the Iron Curtain, Jaanus’ mother felt that she had received direction from God to leave the island. At that time every city in Estonia was being compartmentalized by Stalin’s secret police and Jaanus and his mother narrowly escaped being deported to Siberia for reeducation.
Jaanus became a Christian when in high school at age 14 and began attending a Pentecostal church. This was a flourishing underground church movement that grew in Estonia despite the methods used by the communists to keep the fervor of Christians in check. Later on, as a young adult, Jaanus started a youth ministry.
“I wanted to be a youth minister,” Jaanus remembers, “and I started a music ministry bringing contemporary musical instruments into our church meetings. This worked marvelously because Estonians love to sing. It is not unusual for the Estonians to get 300 thousand to 1.2 million people to come to sing at festivals.”
Pioneering the “Jesus Movement” of Estonia, Jaanus tells of youth meetings he organized which were highlighted by Black American gospel music. “Our Thursday night youth services were packed out. We called them ‘catacomb nights’ and met in the basement of an old building.”
Attracted by the guitar playing, the meetings grew larger until many young people began to attend. “We prayed and we were hungry for God. Soon we began to reach out as an evangelistic team. The presence of God was strong in our meetings and our outreaches became a catalyst for revival.”
According to Jaanus, another youth movement began shortly in Lithuania and Latvia, the neighboring Baltic States, and when visitors came to their meetings from Russia, their church became a catalyst for revival in the East as well.
As a port country, Estonia had always been open to influence from the West. “We had our own ‘hippy movement’ in Estonia,” said Jaanus, “and a ‘Jesus movement’ sprung up as well.” But this new spiritual freedom was not gained without a price to be paid.
“There was a bad part too,” said Jaanus. “The government found out about our meetings and sent the KGB to investigate us. Communism is an elaborate evil system. They plant informers in every strata of society. They came to us wanting to know what was happening in our church.”
“They use direct intimidation by making threats. If you don’t cooperate with them, they can make your life miserable by taking away your promotion or education. And worst of all – they try to recruit you as an informer, trying to get you to betray your brothers – all the time they use psychological intimidation and all the evil that has gone on in history.”
Bluntly describing the spiritual force behind communism, Jaanus Karner says, “Communism is satanic; it is based on a hatred of God; it is against anything natural, godly, and it hates the human personality.”
Around this time, Jaanus came into contact with an American missionary named Jim Gilbert, who would often enter the country through Finland and minister as a musician to the churches in the Baltic States. Gilbert saw Jaanus’ plight and wanted to help, so he arranged an opportunity for the Estonian pastor to apply for emigration.
It took over 10 years for the Soviet government to allow Jaanus to leave Estonia. During this time, Jaanus and his family were continually harassed by the KGB. Through searching his house, constant interrogation, and trying to build a case against him, the KGB made his life a torment.
Then unexpectedly, a door opened to the West. Though forced to live a double life for many years – functioning as a pastor yet knowing that someday he would leave his country forever – Jaanus resigned himself to knowing that his faith in God was his only foundation. “I struggled with the idea of leaving,” said Jaanus. “I could not get rooted too firmly, yet as Christians, we knew that nothing is eternal on this planet.”
Just before Jaanus and his family were able to leave, the KGB began to move against them. “The KGB wanted to use us in a ploy to destroy another ministry. They placed us under house arrest and began to collect evidence against us.” The Soviet secret police threatened the Karner family that they would be put in a labor camp for several years and that their son would be sent to fight in Afghanistan.
At that time Jim Gilbert, the American missionary, began to arrange prayer chains for the Estonian pastor and his family. “This was a time of real spiritual warfare,” recollects Jaanus. The KGB officer who was investigating their case was suddenly and inexplicably kicked out – “sent to an early retirement” – as Jaanus describes it. “Somehow God had opened a door to the West.”
“We were to receive our passports to leave in three weeks, recalls Jaanus. “But even then, they used psychological intimidation. They let us go – but blamed us by saying we gave information about our brothers in this other church in exchange for emigration papers.”
“I never believed that they were going to allow us to leave until we were on the jet and in the air,” said Jaanus. “They kept us in the boarding room waiting, while three men went through our papers. Ten minutes went by – then twenty. All the time I was waiting for some officer to grab me. Often they will let you get this far and then take away your papers on some technicality. They make you reapply and begin the emigration process all over again. They do this to crush your hope and make your life miserable.”
After ten years in America and the recent changes in the Soviet Union, Jaanus is thinking more about returning to his country. “I have a desire to go back. I’m getting over the harassment now – this is something you never totally get rid of. It stays with you after twenty years of running from the KGB.”
The move of God which has occurred in Estonia has been called the “Singing Revival.” Estonians have always gathered in festivals to sing together even during hard times. According to Jaanus this lifts their spirits, draws them closer together and brings them closer to God.
“When you are singing, you feel free,” explains Jaanus speaking like a true Estonian. “All these songs are about ‘My homeland and my country’ – ‘Our forefathers’ and ‘My fatherland, you are holy to me.’ There is a spiritual yearning for something greater than a love for a nation. There is a spiritual experience when we all sing together holding hands – like we have touched God.”
When asked about Christian involvement in the political changes that have occurred in Estonia, Jaanus mentions one movement called the Estonian Preservation Society. “They teach very strong Christian viewpoints and encourage nationalism and independence.”
“In addition to this, the people are very open to God. Independence is not coming without a spiritual impact. There is a realization among the people that only a national revival can bring independence. They are getting to the point where they understand that freedom can come only from God. It has got to be supernatural. How can you break the superpower? This power comes from the Lord. And this message is pushing them toward God.”
“Christians in Estonia need to hear that message too,” explains Jaanus. “Churches in the West can help by sending in apostolic teams. We need ‘Sons of Issachar’ who understand the signs of the times.”
Even with all of the harassment Jaanus received from the KGB, this Estonian pastor still has a love for the Russian people. “As a Christian I cannot feel suppression. The Russian people are victims. I hope for a universal revival in the Soviet Union. I yearn for a day when 280 million people will be touched by God.”