Arthur’s heart raced as footsteps approached his cell. Russia was cold to those who believed in the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ; it was downright frigid to those who proclaimed the Gospel to others.
Arthur Mitskevich had put his faith in Jesus just five short years ago. Born in Lithuania, he had moved to Russia in 1914 before the revolution. At age 17, he had become a Christian. A year later, evangelists in St. Petersburg lit a fire in him for missionary work. Despite laws against it, the Gospel compelled him to preach throughout Russia and Ukraine. By age 22, he found himself arrested for crimes against the regime. Imprisonment had done nothing to alter Arthur’s passion for Christ...but his time in prison had forever changed his heart. The reason approached now: Maria, a beautiful, young Russian woman who often brought Arthur food in his cell.
Upon my release, he thought, I will ask her to be my bride.
Seventy-three years after Arthur’s imprisonment, Chuck and Cynthia Swindoll donned aprons, appropriate for barbecue, behind the tables at the graduation celebration for Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS). As the president of DTS, Chuck and his wife, Cynthia, had volunteered to serve barbecue to the graduating students. For decades, the Lord had stirred in Cynthia’s heart a desire to turn the world upside down with the life-changing truth of God’s Word. When Chuck stepped into his role at DTS, Cynthia had asked the Lord to open her eyes: perhaps the campus housed men and women chosen by God to partner with Insight for Living Ministries to teach the study and application of God’s Word worldwide. At that time, there were about 38 foreign languages spoken on the DTS campus. That evening, she had jumped at the chance to serve and meet more students, many of whom were international students—and among them, unbeknownst to Cynthia: Peter and Tatiana Mitskevich.
Chuck recalls, “Well, Cynthia and I were there, serving at the barbecue, aprons and all, and along walks this charming couple with this unique accent. They introduced themselves in such a friendly way, and I thought, Now, there is a man worth knowing. Before I could track those thoughts very far, Cynthia leans over and says, ‘We’ve got to get to know them. They’re from Russia.’ And you know her; she had immediately fallen in love with them and was already thinking, There’s our voice for Russia, on the loose, eating Texas barbecue!”
As Cynthia puts it, “I could almost hear the Lord saying, ‘That’s your couple for Russia.’” She couldn’t resist getting to know them better as they ate that evening. It would take another conversation—this time at a steakhouse—and another year before all the right doors opened, but from that moment, there was never any doubt. Peter and Tatiana were God’s team for IFL Russia.
Of course, manning their stations at the DTS barbeque, Chuck and Cynthia had no idea that Peter was the grandson of a very influential leader of the evangelical movement in Russia....
Upon his release from prison, Arthur Mitskevich did marry Maria. He continued to preach God’s Word and was arrested and imprisoned at least two more times. The last time, the sentence carried 10 years in prison and then—along with Maria and their six children—banishment to Siberia. There, Arthur worked as a photographer, an accountant, a salesperson...anything to keep his family fed. Each of them had one set of clothes, and in Siberia’s bitter winters, the children could not go to school because those clothes weren’t warm enough. The KGB made surprise visits, ransacking their home for Christian literature. Despite poverty, persecution, and ridicule, Arthur’s and Maria’s faith never faltered...and joy never left their home. Eventually, all six children became believers, including their son Walter, who would one day have a son they would call Peter.
But Walter’s faith didn’t come easy.
As a young man, under pressure, Walter joined the Young Communist League, enrolled in medical school, and eventually became a dentist. Then he returned to school to train other doctors and pursue another degree. All the while, his parents prayed for him and guided him toward Christ. In Moscow at that time, it was illegal for anyone under 18 to attend church. So Christian parents would gather their children and teens in different homes for Bible study and prayer. One Spring Break, Walter had plans in St. Petersburg. Arthur knew just the place for his son to stay—with a Christian family, in a home where youth regularly gathered for worship meetings. Watching the youth worship touched Walter in a new way. Right there, he knelt and gave his heart to God. It changed his whole life.
When Walter returned to Moscow, his professors had already heard about his conversion. They told him, “Walter, we know who your parents are. We know you became a believer. If you want to finish your education, you will have to write the newspaper and publicly deny your faith.” The choice was clear: Walter left school. He met and married Zoya and, like his father, became a pastor.
This remarkable Christian heritage made a tremendous impact on Peter’s life. “I was born in 1959 in Moscow,” Peter says. “I grew up in a family of believers, and this is very important, because in those days, Russia was an atheistic country. But every day in our home, we would start with breakfast and prayer. As early as I can remember, my mother would tell us, ‘Pray always. When you children pray, God will listen!’ As we got older, she would ask us to give a daily report: ‘What did you read today?’ In fact, up until she died in 2016, every time I saw her, she asked, ‘What did you read today, Son?’ ‘Mom,’ I would answer, ‘I’m a pastor!’ ‘OK,’ she would laugh, ‘So what did you read today?’”
As soon as he could talk, Peter learned to pray “official” prayers at bedtime and around the table with his family. He recalls the first time he prayed on his own: “When I was maybe four years old, for the first time, I faced a challenge I could not solve by myself. I prayed the bedtime prayer with my parents. Then I was alone, under the blanket. I prayed, ‘Lord, my mother said You will listen to this prayer. I have this challenge. Can You help?’ The next day, in an amazing way, God answered. He exists! I thought. I believe!”
With this childlike faith, Peter enrolled in the public school the regime required all children to attend. His family had become “famous” in their small village as one of only two families who believed in Christ. As soon as Peter walked into school, those in power announced, “We need to work on him!” The secretary of the Communist bureau, who acted as an assistant to the principal, quickly brought Peter into the principal’s office. With the sweet distraction of tea and cookies, they began manipulating him: “You don’t really believe this stuff your parents are teaching you, do you? We will help you! We will open your eyes. We will build you, and you will build Communism on the earth.”
As Peter became a teen, the regime’s tactics began to work. “I laughed at my parents,” he recalls. “I thought prayer was just air, nothing happened. Church was for babushkas—not young people like me. I began rebelling—smoking, drinking. I still prayed those ‘official’ prayers at home. But in truth, I was living a dual life.”
As Arthur and Maria had done for Walter, Peter’s parents continued to pray for their son. With church still forbidden for children, they took him to youth Bible studies and prayer meetings at believers’ homes. Godly influence came from surprising places as well. “In Russia, we love to celebrate! Weddings are huge, hundreds of people!” Peter remembers. “Christian weddings were an opportunity to see faith in action. I remember one wedding, watching the young people playing the guitar and leading us in worship. I thought, I want to be like that.”
But the greatest influence came from his grandfather Arthur. “Reading testimonies in the Bible is one thing,” Peter says, “But when you actually meet people who really love the Lord and suffer for Him—this is the most influential thing in life.”
Yearly, the Mitskeviches gathered at family reunions. “There were so many grandchildren!” Peter recounts, “We would eat and play, but we would also listen as the adults reminded themselves of the Lord’s faithfulness during my grandfather’s imprisonments.” Like the repetition of Deuteronomy, year after year, the Mitskeviches told the stories of the Lord’s providing for them during the war—stories of salvation, protection, and delivery. “Year by year,” Peter says, “I understood more that these people weren’t playing! They knew who God is. They didn’t just have religion; they lived spiritual lives.”
In 1968, after decades of persecution, Peter’s grandfather Arthur founded the Bible-teaching course that would become Moscow Theological Seminary in 1993. Arthur’s passion for the Word and his penchant for teaching younger generations followed him home.
One day, when Peter was 15 years old, he ate dinner at his grandparents’ house. Afterward, his grandfather watched a soccer game on television. Peter settled in beside him. “Peter,” Arthur asked, “do you believe in Jesus Christ?” Peter knew the correct answer: “Yes, I do.” “But is Jesus Christ the Lord of your life?” Arthur prompted.
The moment pushed the young rebel to admit the double life he had been living. “Peter,” Arthur urged, “you have to make a decision. Otherwise, you’ll be pulled from side to side your whole life.” Grandson and grandfather knelt together, and Peter dedicated his life to Christ. “That was it!” Peter says, “It was GO! from there!”
In those days, before the age of 18, being baptized in Moscow could carry charges—both for youth and for their parents for “brainwashing” them. Peter’s parents took his sister outside the city to be baptized at 15, but Peter waited. He wanted to be baptized in Moscow’s Central Baptist Church—the only church in the region, one that weekly drew adults from hours away just to hear the Word of God.
“My baptism,” Peter shares, “was a public announcement: ‘I do believe!’ There was no turning back! You had to be clear on what you believed and were willing to give up. Many people would be baptized in hidden places so nobody would know; they didn’t want to lose their jobs. Truthfully, I was at risk of being discharged from my university where I was a medical student. The state did not allow believers in the universities.”
Remarkably, Peter was able to finish his education...although he didn’t hide his faith! One by one, all his friends visited the church. Many laughed, but others believed. One friend rejected Christ, but his mother—a KGB officer—also visited and repented. Another friend, a member of the Young Communist League, also came to faith. When she told the regime she did not want to be a Communist, 300 students and professors gathered to interrogate her: How could a doctor be a Christian in this modern age? Ultimately, the regime forced her out of school. But the Lord protected Peter.
However, when he began practicing medicine in Moscow, Peter was quickly reported for being a Christian and sent to a faraway village and a different hospital. He soon saw that the Lord had plans for him there: “Nothing is an accident! The new hospital was much more open than Moscow. People began to talk about me. ‘You are not drinking or smoking or going to parties?’ they asked. ‘Are you a Christian?’ ‘Yes, I am,’ I answered!”
Through the witness of Peter’s life, the Lord drew others to Himself. First the vice president of the hospital became a Christian. Then she brought another woman to faith. Before long, Peter started a church, and more and more people believed. “I’ve never been a great evangelist,” Peter confesses with a chuckle. “My role was simple: just invite people to church. God’s amazing grace did the rest!”
Peter never intended to start a church. Despite his grandfather’s, and later his father’s, leadership in Moscow Theological Seminary, Peter never planned on going to seminary himself. In short, he had no clue! The regime had pegged him to build Communism on the earth, but the Lord knew Peter would be a world-changer for Him.
About 10 years into his medical career, a door opened that would change his life. Walter had encountered a Norwegian Christian who had come to Russia with The Gideons International and fallen ill. Walter called his son. While caring for the Norwegian, Peter received something he had spent years praying for—his own Bible. Under Communism, Bibles had once been illegal, and later, very hard to find, but here was this Gideon handing Peter one! Two days later, Peter became the president of the first Gideon camp in Moscow. He reveled in the opportunity to give his countrymen and women the Word, written in their heart language! But he discovered they had questions he couldn’t answer.
From hospitals to police stations, people asked: “Who will teach us to read this? Who will teach us to pray? Can you send somebody to help us?” They wanted to understand and apply the Word, but Peter himself didn’t know how.
In 1991, Peter traveled to Phoenix, Arizona, for a speaking engagement with The Gideons. While there, he called a friend, who happened to be a student at DTS. As Peter shared the need for biblical discipleship back home, his friend encouraged him to enroll at DTS. When he returned to Russia, Peter asked his wife, Tatiana, what she thought of the idea. A native Russian with three children, her eyes grew wide, “America?!” Peter assured her he intended to return to Russia as a doctor and remain in bi-vocational ministry as a pastor and representative of The Gideons. He simply wanted to be able to answer peoples’ questions.
As Peter and Tatiana prayed together, the Lord turned both of their hearts toward the adventure of DTS. In 1992, they packed up their family of five and headed for the United States. As they landed in Dallas, they knew they were diving into a completely foreign culture. But they had no clue that Peter’s passion for curing sick and broken bodies would soon turn to an even greater passion for tending sick and broken hearts....
And they certainly couldn’t have imagined the God-sized mission the Lord would be soon serving up with a Texas-sized barbeque plate!
Peter Mitskevich has been IFL Russia’s pastor and the voice of Chuck Swindoll in Russian since 1998. For the last 21 years, he and Tatiana have served on the ground in Moscow. Paul and Tim, two of their five children, have recently joined the Insight for Living Ministries’ staff in the US.