A Gospel Encounter that Changed the World

In the first half of the 20th century, millions of Russians disappeared into the gulags of the Soviet police state. Many of these were condemned on trumped up charges. Unjustly declared enemies of the state, they became victims of communism’s cruel tyranny.

Still, in the midst of horrible evil, faithful men proclaimed Christ. And one extraordinary encounter changed not only a man but also the world.

James Montgomery Boice recalls:

“One of the inmates of the notorious Russian prisons was a Jewish doctor by the name of Boris Nicholayevich Kornfeld. He was a political prisoner of the Stalinist era. But he was treated better than most simply because doctors were scarce. Guards got sick as well as prisoners, and no prison officer wanted to end up in the hands of a prisoner he had cruelly abused. Boris Kornfeld was filled with hate. He considered himself innocent of all crime, and he was by our standards. But he would gladly have killed all his persecutors if the path had been open to him. There was a Christian in the camp. He was another one of those nameless persons who perished by the millions in those days. But he spoke to Kornfeld, and through his witness the Jewish atheistic doctor became a believer in Jesus.

“The most extraordinary changes followed. The conversion was itself astonishing, but Kornfeld now began to live the faith he professed. He began to pray for the guards, above all for forgiveness for himself for the hatred he had once had for them. He stopped signing forms that permitted the guards to confine those they disliked to dark torture cells where most died. Even more significant, he turned in an orderly who had been stealing food from the most seriously ill patients. It was the equivalent of signing his own death warrant, for although the orderly was placed in a punishment block for three days, he was inevitably released and could expected to try to kill Kornfeld at the first opportunity.

“The doctor took to sleeping in the hospital, where he had his best chance of survival. Still, having accepted the possibility, even the probability of death, Kornfeld now experienced freedom to live as God’s man. Hatred vanished from his life. He did what he could for the prisoners.

“One night Kornfeld began to tell a patient what had happened to him. The man had been operated on for cancer of the intestines and probably had little time to live. As the doctor talked, the patient kept drifting in and out of consciousness. He was an unlikely person to hear the Jew’s testimony. But Boris Kornfeld spoke of Jesus as his Savior and confided, ‘On the whole, you know, I have become convinced that there is no punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved. Superficially, it can have nothing to do with what we are guilty of in actual fact, but if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow.’

“It was a remarkable confession, and it touched the patient deeply in spite of his pain-wracked condition! . . .

“The patient awoke the next morning to the sound off running feet. The commotion concerned his newfound friend, the doctor. During the night, while Boris Kornfeld slept, someone had crept up on him and had shattered his skull with eight blows of a plasterer’s mallet. It was the end of Boris Nicholayevich Kornfeld! Yet not the end, because Kornfeld’s testimony lived on through the life and witness of that one single cancer patient with whom he had shared it. The patient’s name was Alexander Solzhenitsyn.” (James Montgomery Boice, The Minor Prophets, vol. 2 (Baker, 1986), pp. 609-610.)

Read Theodore Dalyrmple’s reflections on Solzhenitsyn’s remarkable life.

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