The Russian Far East

The commissar had recognized that Babienco had peace in his heart that he didn’t have.

In 1920, the General Conference sent a Canadian minister by the name of T. T. Babienco to China to supervise the Adventist Russian-speaking churches and scattered believers in Manchuria and Eastern Russia.1 Babienco arrived in Harbin with his wife and two children and started enthusiastically working among the segment of the Russian population that had flooded Harbin, Manchuria, and its surrounding areas after the Russian revolution and civil war.

Babienco was a prominent leader and had many blessed experiences during his ministry in that region, including one occasion when he had to cross the border with the Soviet state to visit an Adventist church in the city of Vladivostok.2 The congregation had some 200 members, and the building sometimes served as a meeting point for Babienco and the area pastors.

In view of the news that the border could soon be closed by the Soviet state, Babienco traveled to meet with these pastors to discuss church work in their region. Traveling with him was an assistant he called Brother Paul.

The two men boarded a train on a cold winter day, wearing heavy coats to shield them from the bone-chilling winds of Vladivostok. To protect the safety of their mission, they sat in separate cars and planned to stay only long enough to preach the sermon on Sabbath and hold their meeting.

The train chugged slowly across the frozen landscape, and it was already dark when it stopped at the Soviet border. Within minutes, Babienco noticed a commotion and realized that a commissar and a patrol of soldiers had entered the car in which he sat. The commissar was dressed in a fur hat and a greatcoat and had a golden crown on one of his front teeth. He announced that they were looking for an American spy, and soon his eyes fell upon Babienco.

“Papers!” he ordered. Babienco handed the commissar his documents and prayed silently as the commissar reviewed them. “Bring your things, and follow the soldiers,” he ordered.

Babienco gathered his belongings and followed the soldiers to an empty boxcar standing on a reserved railway. It was in such cars that people were often interrogated and shot without a court investigation if it was decided that they were dangerous for the state.

When Babienco entered the car, a soldier emptied the contents of his pockets and suitcase onto a table. As the soldier did so, Babienco noticed a small piece of paper that he didn’t recognize. Has someone put it on the table to accuse me of something? he wondered.

One of the soldiers unfolded the paper, read it, looked intently at Babienco, and silently passed it to the next soldier to read. Each man did the same until everyone had read the note. Suddenly, a man who appeared to be in charge handed Babienco his things and told him that he could go because they were looking for someone else.

At that moment, the commissar came in. He was furious to learn that the soldiers had let Babienco go. During the heated discussion that followed, Babienco waited calmly, praying for divine help. Finally, the commissar agreed to release him on the condition that he provide the address of where he would be spending the night. His Bible was confiscated.

Later that evening, the train finally rumbled into Vladivostok. Babienco and Brother Paul quickly made their way to the church, where they would stay in a guest room. The church guard had dinner waiting for them, and when he heard their story, he was concerned that the commissar knew where they were staying.

That night Babienco could hardly sleep. He kept thinking about that piece of paper. What was written on it? Who had put it there? Suddenly, he heard loud knocking at the door. It was the soldiers! They had come to arrest him and Brother Paul.

The guard knew some of the men, and he invited them to his room. The group talked and laughed together for some time, and then suddenly, as if they had forgotten why they came, the soldiers disappeared into the night.

The next day, Babienco and Brother Paul had their meetings at the church and returned home without further incident. The contents of that piece of paper remained a mystery for several years.

Before Babienco left China for a new mission field, he received permission to visit Vladivostok and went to say good-bye to the church members. While he preached on Sabbath, he noticed a man sit down by the door with his wife. After the service, the man approached Babienco to shake his hand. “Do you recognize me?” he asked.

“No, I’m sorry, I don’t,” replied Babienco. “But you do look vaguely familiar.”

“Maybe it’s because I no longer have my golden tooth,” the man replied. Babienco was stunned as he remembered the man who had brought him to the boxcar for interrogation.

“I had it removed before my baptism,” the man explained. “It was a symbolic way for me to say good-bye to my former life.”

“Your baptism?” asked Babienco. “How did this happen?”

The former commissar told Babienco that he hadn’t been able to forget how calm Babienco had been at the moment of his possible death at the Soviet border, and he also couldn’t forget what was written on the small piece of paper. “That little note helped changed my life,” he said.

“What note?” asked Babienco. The man opened the back cover of his Bible. There was a small, old piece of paper, torn apart but glued to the inside cover. Babienco immediately recognized it: it was the note he had seen on the table.

As Babienco read the paper, he remembered that he had made the notes during one of his personal devotions. He must have placed it in one of the pockets of the heavy coat he wore on the train, and because he rarely wore the coat, he had forgotten all about it.

On the note, the following words were written:

  • Read the Bible daily
  • Pray always
  • Live as if it is your last day on the earth
  • Always be ready to meet your Lord

The man told Babienco that when the soldiers had failed to return with Babienco the night he stayed in Vladivostok, he had wanted to go to the church and shoot him. But he had been so affected by the words on that note that he couldn’t follow through with his plan.

The commissar had recognized that Babienco had peace in his heart that he didn’t have. He wanted this peace to be his so much that he started studying Babienco’s confiscated Bible and attending the Adventist church, where he was soon converted.

On that day, the mystery of the small piece of paper was solved for Babienco. His experience reveals the long-lasting consequences of one Christian life fully dedicated to God. What about us? Do we live as if this were our last day on earth?

  1. See Galina Stele and Aleksey Oparin’s story “The Chinese Railway and the Gospel” about Pastor T. T. Babienco working in China in the 1920s in Mission 360° 6, no. 4 (2018), 20, 21.
  2. This story was told to Aleksey Oparin by Babienco’s daughter Lida B. Mann, who was born in Harbin in 1921. He published it in his book about Adventist pioneers, Pobedivshie vremya (Winners of the Time), which is posted in the Russian language at http://soteria.ru/s3696/16/.

Photo at top of page: T. T. Babienco with his wife, Anna, and daughters, Helen and Lida.

Read more about Babienco in the new Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists (ESDA), upcoming in 2020. To learn more about the ESDA, please email encyclopedia@gc.adventist.org, go to adventistarchives.org/encyclopedia, or follow ESDA on Twitter @EncyclopediaSDA.

Galina Stele Born in Russia, Galina Stele is the research and evaluation manager of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research.