Igor Chernov — living in a different world
Things are different from normal at -40 Celsius. The ice on the road is no longer slippery, but makes a squeaking noise as you walk over it. Plastic carrier bags become brittle. The hairs in your nose freeze with the first breath you take.
Any hint of a wind feels like sandpaper rubbing on your face (before your face becomes numb, that is!). Passers-by look at each other’s noses to check that white spots are not appearing — the first sign of frost bite.
Fortunately, in Novosibirsk, Siberia, such temperatures only occur once or twice each winter, and usually not for longer than a few days. If possible, most people naturally try to stay at home during such cold spells!
One morning, when it was -43 Celsius, Igor set out from home. It was 15 minutes walk to the bus stop, 20 minutes on the bus, and then another 20 minutes walk to ‘The Ark’.
The Ark is the only Baptist church in Russia specifically organised for the deaf and dumb. Igor was on a search for God and had heard about this church at a Bible study group he’d been going to.
He’d been invited to a New Year prayer meeting and, despite his wife’s protests, was determined to set out on this coldest of days to find out for himself more about God, in a language he could understand.
And he was rewarded for his effort. That bitterly cold day he asked for God’s forgiveness and received new life.
Igor’s parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters are all deaf. With the help of a hearing aid, Igor can hear about 20 per cent of what is going on around him. His wife, Tanya, can hear more — about 70 per cent. Their two children are almost totally deaf.
Igor didn’t have an easy childhood. His parents were often drunk and Igor was only too happy to escape to his special boarding school for the deaf from Monday to Friday. He would dread returning home over the weekend, knowing he would have to witness his drunken father beating his mother.
His parents were always searching for ways to make ends meet and to finance their drinking. Once they started selling alcohol illegally from their flat. One day when they were out, customers persuaded Igor to open the door to sell them some vodka.
Once they realised that Igor, then only a young boy, was the only one in the flat they stole the stock of liquor. Igor received a severe beating when his parents returned home to find what had happened.
The boarding school where Igor studied was regimented and strict. Lenin was preached as the world’s saviour from the evils of capitalism and God was never mentioned. Igor, however, found his expression through sport, at which he excelled: volleyball and football in the summer; ice hockey in the winter.
In the days of the Soviet Union, transport between cities was remarkably cheap and Igor often travelled around the country with different sports teams to play in the deaf leagues.
Igor’s school days also influenced his life in another way.
Whilst Igor was heavily into playing sport, a pretty young girl, Tanya, at the same school, was also travelling around Russia as a member of a ballroom dancing team. One day her dancing partner became ill and Igor was asked by the school to step in.
As they danced together, they started to get to know each other better and before long they started to see each other not just on the dance floor! They grew closer to each other and started living together, before getting married officially in 1999.
Igor was always interested in the idea of God and when a fellow sportsman invited him to church he was tempted to go, but in the end Igor turned him down. He was just too suspicious.
Surely the church was all about rules? He didn’t need to go to a church to be told what he could and couldn’t do. Then another deaf couple visited their flat one day and told them that a group was starting up to study the Bible.
The group was to be held in a flat just a few minutes’ walk away from where they lived — would they come? Tanya wasn’t so interested and had just given birth to their daughter, Diana, who needed caring for at home.
However, Igor started to attend the studies and what he learnt about God from the Bible really made sense. One day he decided to accept an invitation to visit the church, The Ark, despite the weather that day. He came to faith, getting baptised shortly afterwards.
Tanya would occasionally visit the Bible study group, but started to attend more regularly when she was required to translate from Russian into sign language. She would come along with her small baby held in one arm, using her other arm to sign the translation!
As a translator, she was forced to listen carefully to everything that was being said, and her interest began to grow. Eventually, after about two years, some women talked with Tanya at a conference and suggested that she should ask Jesus to forgive her and reign in her life. She accepted their advice and was baptised in 2003.
In Russia, 5 million deaf people live a totally separate existence from the ‘hearing’ population. They speak their own sign language, have their own schools and social clubs, and almost no way of communicating with the ‘hearing world’; very few hearing people have ever learnt Russian sign language.
Job options are very limited. Cleaners or street sweepers are the two most common ways of making a living. Because of limited education and few opportunities in the job market, the deaf are generally discriminated against and looked down on as being stupid and untrustworthy.
The gospel, however, is powerful enough to build bridges between different and diverse groups of people. In Siberia, one of the first bridges was begun in the most surprising and unlikely of places — a prisoner labour camp in a cobalt mine located in the north east.
There, in the 1960s, Alexander Stepanovich was sent to serve a ten -year sentence. His crime was simple; he wouldn’t stop telling people about Jesus Christ, something that was highly illegal at the time.
The majority of his companions perished in the harsh climate from thirst, hunger, exposure or from breathing in the cobalt dust day after day. Alexander somehow survived and, when he was finally released, he decided to share the gospel with those who otherwise would never hear the Good News.
He started working with Russia’s many deaf and began a church for them which was named ‘The Ark’. At last the gospel had entered the world of the deaf and gradually word got around the tight-knit deaf community that there was a church you could go to, where you could understand and be understood, where everything was conducted in sign language.
Today, the church is well known in the deaf community in Novosibirsk and there are over 70 members. Igor and Tanya and their two children, Diana and Mark, are very active in the church, organising the missionary work.
Every time there is a church celebration for Christmas, Easter or Harvest, they organise a ‘road show’, which consists of songs, sketches and talks that they then take around other Siberian towns where there are clusters of deaf and dumb people.
They are always welcomed with a large turnout when they arrive and they are especially excited when people come out for the first time and have a chance to hear the Good News in their own special language.
Travelling around Siberia is not easy and not always safe. In the winter, driving the long distances between cities is quite hazardous.
Visibility can be low if snow is falling. People can overtake recklessly. There are many drunk drivers, and, if your car happens to break down, the temperature inside the car drops very rapidly and, within a short space of time, you are in danger of dying of exposure.
Igor recalls one journey back from a mission trip when they were driving late into the night. Igor was sitting in the passenger seat talking to the driver in order to keep him alert and awake. Snow was falling heavily onto packed ice, making visibility poor and hiding the slippery patches.
They came to a sharp turn in the road going over a mountain pass. The driver turned the wheel, but the van didn’t respond and slid off the road. It hit more ice and began to spin.
Everyone in the back of the van woke up and started to scream, wondering where the edge of the plateau was and when they would start to plummet down the cliff. They called out to God for help, and the van eventually came to a halt right next to a precipice, having spun around several times.
Igor and Tanya started studying in the OM Russia Discipleship Centre in September 2009. Igor sat near the front of the classroom and learnt through a mixture of hearing, lip reading and Tanya’s occasional translation.
It was a hard decision for Igor to give up paid employment and study, living in faith that God would supply their needs and direct their future. However, when he considered the great need for the gospel in the deaf and dumb community in Russia, he knew he needed to act.
Igor estimates that, in Siberia, less than 0.5 per cent of deaf people go to a church. Since theological education is so hard to obtain for a deaf person in Russia, one of Igor and Tanya’s plans for the future is to organise a missionary training school, similar to the OM Russia Discipleship Centre, in order to pass on the education they have received.
Whatever they do in the future, Igor and Tanya will continue not only to bring the gospel to many deaf people, but, under God, provide a bridge to join together and unite his hearing and his deaf children across Russia.
Colin and Bron Cleaver
The authors are leaders of Operation Mobilisation Russia and founders of OM’s Discipleship Centre in Novosibirsk, Siberia. The story above is included in a booklet they’ve written called The Siberian six, which can be ordered from their web site, www.ru.om.org