BE OUR VOICE AND SPEAK FOR US
Born in Praze in Cornwall, his father, Richard, was a baker who claimed to make the best Cornish Pasties in the county. His mother was Lilian Blair, a primary school teacher.
He was sent to boarding school aged 8. It was the Truro School at Treliske. He loved it – “It was the first turning point of my life.” His work task was to maintain the cricket pitch. It was there he became an accomplished tennis player and represented Cornwall at Rugby.
He remembered seeing Falmouth Docks being bombed by the Luftwaffe.
Michael found he had linguistic abilities, learning both French and German at school. He credited Truro School with turning him into an internationalist.
He was selected for a Cornwall Schoolboys tour of Germany and found he was the only boy to speak the language. He translated for all the others – “my first experience of being a diplomat.”
After school, he joined the RAF for his national service. Noting his ability to pick up languages, his Group Captain signed him up for an interview to take a German interpreter’s course. But on the day of the interview Michael was taken ill with a dental abscess.
When he recovered there was only space on a Russian interpreter’s course.
It was based in Coulsden, Surrey and there were hundreds of students. He picked the language up immediately – but he was entranced. They were taught Russian history, geography, culture and everything you could think of. And there was no political dogma. Even over Stalin, the students were encouraged to come to their own conclusions.
Then Michael went to Oxford to do Russian. This involved him in a student exchange with Moscow University. His swap was the very first one ever between a Russian and British student. He was to study medieval Russian history.
Whilst there, the Soviet leader Nikita Khruschchev launched a vicious campaign against religion in the USSR. Michael witnessed the closure of churches and an increase in discrimination against people who worshipped. He was extremely angry – and religion in the USSR became his driving force.
On one occasion he was stopped and questioned by the KGB but released without charge.
When he returned to Oxford in 1960 he changed his course to Theology. He married Gillian Davies and became an ordained Anglican priest in 1961. Gillian and Michael had two children.
On a visit to the Soviet Union in 1964, he went to the site of an orthodox church that had been recently blown up by the authorities. He had to make his way carefully, ensuring nobody was following him.
When he got there, he met two elderly nuns. They had travelled to Moscow from the Ukraine. They had sent documents to the West concerning the destruction of the Pochaev Monastery (and the torture and imprisonment of the monks). Then they heard nothing.
They asked Michael to take the information to the West. They asked him, “to be our voice and speak for us”, in the west. He had discovered his lifelong mission.
This led Michael to found Keston College (later Institute) in Bromley in 1969, along with two academics from the LSE. It was dedicated to the spreading of reliable religious information in communist countries. He poured all his energy and enthusiasm into the project for 30 years.
They were homed in the former primary school in Keston, which was redundant. It was in the diocese of Rochester, and it was granted to Michael by the bishop, who approved of his mission.
For years, students and academics were sustained by Cornish pasties sent up from Cornwall by his father.
Using both history and current affairs, Keston studied Russia in depth. It used high-quality journalism, communist press releases from the USSR and the satellite states, photographs, primary and secondary sources and ‘samizdat’ documents (they were documents written by Refuseniks – opponents of the regime from within – highly illegal). They had many informants from behind the Iron Curtain and Keston set up channels to smuggle information out.
The Soviet authorities hated it. A Soviet defector claimed Bourdeaux was number 2 on the KGB list of foreign enemies (after Amnesty International).
The reason for this was he exposed the way people of varied religions were treated behind the Iron Curtain. He challenged communist claims that there was religious tolerance and freedom of conscience.
He pointed out in 1917 there were 600 churches in Moscow. In the late1950s there were 35.
Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet leader between 1954 and 1964, never fully banned religion like his predecessor, Joseph Stalin. It has been suggested that as he was pursuing a greater element of détente with the West, Bourdeaux might have exposed his claims of increased tolerance if he shut the Orthodox Church.
And Michael and his Keston College were not that popular in Britain either. Lambeth Palace (Church of England), Baptist and Methodist leaders and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office all shunned his work, claiming he was doing more damage to Christians than helping them (he noticed they softened their stance after Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet leader in 1985).
Nevertheless, in the 1960s and 1970s he was called on to advise Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
He would still visit the USSR, regardless of the danger he faced. In 1969 he visited the grave of famous Russian poet Anna Akhmatova – and was visibly moved. Her husband had died in a gulag, her son had also been imprisoned and she herself had been blacklisted.
From 1969, Michael kept a list of everyone who he knew of in the Soviet Union who was being persecuted for religion.
Two people he helped were poet Irina Ratushinskaya, who was imprisoned (he helped her keep contact with her husband who was in England. He contributed to her release), and Father Georgi Vins (he provided full support for his family whilst he was imprisoned and helped get him extradited).
And yet, Michael was never anti-communist in public – it was the religious intolerance he concentrated upon.
Gillian died in 1978 and he married Laura Waterton the following year, having another two children.
In 1983 he was invited to a seminar on the Soviet Union, at Chequers, chaired by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
In 1984, Michael was awarded the Templeton Prize for “progress in religion”. Previous winners included Mother Teresa and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
The press briefing described him as a “mild, soft-spoken ruddy-cheeked baker’s son from a remote mining region in south-west England.”
Michael laughed and commented “at least they got one bit right – the baker’s son.”
The prize was presented by Prince Philip at the Guildhall, London. He accepted it on the behalf of everybody who had died behind the Iron Curtain defending their religion. He said, “We preach the Gospel. They live it.”
In his acceptance speech he predicted the downfall of the Soviet Union, claiming it would be a mixture of religion and nationalism that caused the collapse. “I see an empire in decay because there’s no binding loyalty which will keep it together.”
Academics mocked him, but one year later Gorbachev was chosen as General Secretary of the Soviet Politburo and by 1988 he had passed a law allowing freedom of religion – something Michael believed precipitated the end.
He was delighted when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
A couple of years later Keston Institute set up an office in Moscow. This time it went unchallenged – evidence of progress.
In 1994, Keston Institute moved to Oxford.
In 2007, it set up a link with Baylor University in Texas. A branch of Keston was opened in Texas to promote the study of religion in former communist countries.
Although he retired in 2012, he remained the Honorary President of Keston. He donated his massive archive (he never got rid of anything) and it is now regarded as an important historical resource.
In 2019, he was persuaded to write and publish his autobiography, entitled ‘One Word of Truth’.
At his death there were once again over 600 churches in Moscow.
When he died a former colleague said, “He was an honourable person, a lover of song as well as the natural world and a faithful man of the church.”
“A son of England, his contributions to humankind were universal.”
RIP – Religion Is Powerful