Many events in history prove that God can use even the most tragic circumstances to save people. Such was the case when the Russian revolution in 1917 and the civil war that followed it triggered a wave of immigrants to different parts of the world, including China. One Chinese city in particular, Harbin, became an immigration center for those who supported the Russian czar.

Harbin was one of the central stations on the great Chinese Eastern Railway (CER) that connected the Russian and Chinese empires. By 1920, Harbin was flooded with Russian railway workers and Russian immigrants who had lost everything, including their hope for the future.

Then an Adventist pastor named Teofil Babienco came to this city of broken dreams. At the time, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Harbin consisted of 25 to 30 members who attended worship in private homes.

Babienco began a series of sermons on the three angels’ messages in Harbin’s theater. Notably, he received permission to conduct the meetings from the police department director, E. I. Opanasenko, who later became an Adventist and whose son-in-law P. E. Kositzin became an ordained minister of the Adventist Church. The city’s elite came to listen to Babienco’s brilliant lectures and received typed summaries of his speeches.  Babienco also organized simultaneous meetings for the church members, inspiring them to become more involved in the mission of saving the lost.

Preparing for a baptism in Harbin, circa 1924.
Harbin citizens stand on the frozen Sungari River that flows through the city.
Pastor Teofil Babienco, far left, and his workers on a missionary trip to Mongolia.
The first graduates of Harbin Bible School, circa 1925.
Harbin church, circa 1924.

In 1923, Babienco organized a Bible school to prepare evangelists to work among the Russian population in Manchuria (the Northeast region of China, which was controlled by Japan at that time) and China as well as among the Mongols and Chinese. Learning the Mongol and Chinese languages was a mandatory requirement in the program. Babienco then sent graduates to key stations in the west and east branches of the railway to spread the gospel.

Results came quickly. After several months, Adventist churches were organized in station Buhedy, the city Hailar, and station Manchuria along the Chinese Western Railway, and in stations Hengtaohotze (Han Dao Hedze) and Pogranichnaya of the CER. Babienco regularly visited these churches by himself. In addition, he and his workers made a trip on camels through Mongolia. For the first time in history, people in these lands heard the good news of salvation.

As mission work continued along the railways, Babienco built a spacious church building in Harbin. He also opened a publishing house that began to regularly publish several magazines for Russians and Mongolians,  including Istochnik Zhizni (The Source of Life), Golos Istini (The Voice of Truth), and Semeiniy Drug (Family Friend).

God provided many helpers for Babienco. One of them was A. S. Brazhnikova who joined the church after one of Babienco’s sermons. Fluent in English, she translated Ellen White’s The Great Controversy and Steps to Christ into Russian. Her husband, A. Y. Brazhnikov (Brashnikoff), a former associate of Harbin’s attorney general, was also baptized and became a licensed minister.  In the course of time, members of the Adventist church began working and witnessing in Adventist hospitals in Shanghai, Mukden, and Hankou (Hankow).

By 1926, Adventist work in Harbin was blossoming. The youth, women’s, and music ministries were among the local church’s most active ministries. Their choir became one of the best in the city and even featured soloist

S. Isaeva, a famous opera singer. Before joining Harbin’s choir, she was trained in Italy, performed in the La Scala opera house there, and sung many times before the Russian czar and his guests.

The Adventist Church was known and respected not only in Harbin but also almost everywhere along the CER. Babienco’s charity work among the various ethnicities in the community contributed much to that. As members of the church disseminated Adventist tracts in the local languages, many people accepted the message. Thousands of Russians, Mongols, and Chinese heard the good news, and many of them were baptized.

When Babienco moved on to another field in 1927, he left behind a wonderfully equipped network of churches with 440 members who were united into the Sungari-Mongolian mission.  The total number of members in settlements along the CER was about 700.

The Russian churches Babienco founded would survive much turmoil: Japanese occupation and the time of the Muchukuo state, the Soviet invasion, the time of Mao Zedong, and other crises. But in each period, the seeds of faith that he nourished in these churches remained strong. Later, many of the Russian-speaking members moved from Harbin, but the work they established in the city and the surrounding areas continued long after they were gone.

Aleksey Oparin
is head of the Therapy and Rheumathology department of the Kharkov Medical Academy of Postgraduate Education in Ukraine. He is a church historian and the main editor of a medical journal and a journal on world issues in the Russian language.
Galina Stele
Born in Russia, Galina Stele is the research and evaluation manager of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research.