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Russia: Religious Broadcaster Draws Millions Of Viewers

Ottawa, 10 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - A Canadian who used to smuggle Bibles into the former Soviet Union has become a major television celebrity in Russia, where his religious program has an estimated weekly audience estimated at more than 100 million people.

Hannu Haukka was in Canada recently to promote a new book, called "Only Believe," which documents his story. It starts 20 years ago when Haukka was sent by his local church to Helsinki to prepare for future religious work and to learn Russian. On a trip to the Soviet Union, he says he realized "how starved for moral guidance the people were." So, he and some other people "decided to do something about it."

What they did was to start smuggling Bibles from Finland "by any means that would work," says Haukka. He says "tourists" on flights from Helsinki would hide Bibles under their clothing in specially tailored vests, high speed boats were used to drop boxes of Bibles on one of the tiny islands off the Soviet coast -- always in rough weather so the boats could hide from radar in the troughs of waves -- and hidden compartments were built into cars, trucks and buses to hold as many as 5,000 Bibles at a time.

Haukka says "the casualties were high; the lucky ones were immediately deported but, quite often, those who were caught would be detained for as long as a year."

Haukka himself was thrown out of the former Soviet Union in 1978 after taking American astronaut James Irwin into the country. Irwin met with students in six Soviet cities and, says Haukka, created a stir when he told them he had seen God on the moon.

Back in Finland, Haukka -- whose parents are Finnish -- got involved in a radio outreach program and then helped put together a series of cartoon videos of Bible stories in Russian which were smuggled into the country. He says one of the videos got into the hands of a Soviet state television crew. In a documentary it produced on the religious underground, parts of the Bible videos were played and, says Haukka, "There was a tremendous response from the people; they wanted more of it."

Then came the big surprise. In 1989, Haukka was approached by Russian state television to produce the first religious show. "It was a miracle," he says, "especially having been expelled from the country 11 years earlier." The first program went on the air in 1990 and, within the first month, the program received 1.2 million letters from viewers. The show now airs on 32 channels across the former Soviet Union.

Says Haukka about the show's popularity: "After 72 years of denying that God exists, the people wanted to hear the other side. The program provides a moral foundation for a nation that doesn't have one. Communism failed and now they've seen democracy fail. Before you have a moral system, you have to have a moral system; otherwise, it's a license to commit any crime you want."