Valeri Seleznev is a man you can’t help but look up to—oftentimes because, as the senior maintenance technician at In Touch Ministries, he’s perched atop a ladder, changing a light bulb or repairing HVAC fixtures. But no matter what he’s working on, Valeri never fails to wave or say hello to passersby. His warm smile and openness make it hard to imagine who he was 20 years ago—an official in the Communist party who was labeled as disloyal to the Soviet Union. Eventually, he knew it was no longer safe to stay in his home country. And so he fled to the West with his wife Valentina, unsure of what awaited them in a new land.
A few weeks after the Seleznevs learned they were under suspicion, they boarded a plane in Moscow for a 10-hour flight to New York City. And they were up in the air—both literally and figuratively—every minute of it. Their paperwork had been acquired through back channels, and they weren’t sure if it was even valid. When they landed, the couple would either be allowed to enter the United States or be forced back to the country they loved but had to flee.
“Growing up, we thought we were living in the happiest, most prosperous nation on earth, but we were totally brainwashed,” Valentina said in a recent interview. “We were told there was a ‘bad world’ full of capitalists out there, and to worship Stalin and trust in our government no matter what.”
Since their parents were all employed by the Communist party, there was never a question about which direction Valeri and Valentina’s lives would take. Both finished high school and began pursuing secondary degrees—he in electrical engineering and she in linguistics. But it soon became apparent they’d be leaving school with more than a diploma. “We grew up in the same city,” she said, “and I was aware he liked me. Girls always know these things, you see. But we didn’t begin dating until our first year at university.”
Soon after they wed on September 23, 1967, Valentina started teaching English as a second language in a school for gifted children, and Valeri left to serve a mandatory one-year stint in the Red Army. Upon returning, he worked in a factory but quickly rose in the ranks and was appointed to a position in the Ministry of Agriculture, which allowed him to travel around the world to supervise the installation of Soviet-built equipment.
There and Back Again
In 1988, Valeri was sent to Toronto, making him the first person from their hometown to travel overseas. “He felt himself quite the Columbus,” Valentina said.
“All I knew of Canada I learned from Jack London novels,” Valeri said, “and they said it was dark and cold.” He came armed with a heavy fur coat and was stunned when he saw people in shorts and T-shirts. It was mid-May.
But that wasn’t the biggest shock. Working in the West allowed him to experience a culture his government openly despised, and what he witnessed didn’t jibe with the things he’d been taught. “Everyone was happy and prosperous,” he said. “They weren’t forced to attend political meetings. It wasn’t until then that I understood how not free I really was.”
Even though he was no longer on Soviet soil, the rules from home still applied. “Nobody could walk by himself,” Valeri said. “And always—always—we had to report on one another. Where people were going and who they were seeing.” The KGB even rifled through the mail, so Valeri couldn’t tell Valentina or their teenage daughter Natalia about the things he was experiencing. “I couldn’t even describe grocery stores filled with beautiful vegetables and fruits,” he said. Eighteen months into his assignment, the KGB finally permitted Valentina to join him, and she was able to see it all for herself. But Natalia, now a medical student, was not allowed to go. “They knew we wouldn’t defect,” Valentina said, “because that would mean possibly losing our child forever.”
“They were singing hymns,” he said, “even the men. It was like nothing I had ever heard before.
“Neither Valeri nor I was a Christian at this time,” she said. “In fact, since I was a teacher, it was my job to promote atheism. But my mama was a believer, though she kept it a secret, and some things she said made me wonder.” This curiosity led to a high crime of sorts. “I stole a Bible from the library in Toronto,” Valentina admits. “Well, I didn’t steal it so much as borrow it forever.” She couldn’t buy a copy—too many curious eyes were watching. But hidden in a stack of books, it slipped right past the KGB. “When Valeri got home, he found me reading it and crying,” she said. “‘Why did they lie to us?’ I asked him. ‘Why did they say this was a bad book?’ I became a believer then and was so thirsty I read that Bible three times while we were there, even though I understood little.”
A Seed Is Planted
In 1991, when the Soviet Union began to crumble, Valeri—by then something of an expert in Western culture—was called back to assist foreigners doing business in Russia, and Valentina worked with him at times as an interpreter. Two years passed uneventfully, but everything changed with one group of U.S. entrepreneurs. The government thought they were there to teach business classes, but their goal was something greater: to preach the gospel.
The Seleznevs were invited to attend a retreat where the Americans talked about faith, prayed over meals, and worshipped, which Valeri found especially moving. “They were singing hymns,” he said, “even the men. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. I think my heart knew something of God then, but my head wouldn’t accept it.”
However, God left a couple behind to water the seed that had been planted. Two missionaries, who’d come with the group, stayed on. Their willingness got Valeri thinking. In Russia, only the elderly, the sick, and the dying went to church. Why would young, educated people believe in God? They didn’t need anything from Him.
“I think my heart knew something of God then, but my head wouldn’t accept it.”
His questions led to friendship, and the couples spent a great deal of time together—none of which Valeri reported to his superiors. “It made them suspicious,” he said. “‘Why didn’t you tell us the Americans were in your house?’ they asked me. I told them this was my personal life, not business. And they told me, ‘Nothing is personal.’” Soon after, while Valeri and Valentina were at work, men came by to “fix an electrical problem” in their home. That could only mean one thing—they were under KGB surveillance.
Coming to America
Though Valeri knew it was time to go, he wasn’t sure he could leave the country. But his wife could, so he sent her to Moscow to apply for a tourist visa to visit Natalia, who’d managed to resettle in New York City with her husband. Valentina hired a mediator, a person who, for cash under the table, worked to secure the paperwork she needed; he managed to get not one but two visas. So after telling everyone they were going on vacation, Valeri and Valentina left with only what they could carry in a few suitcases—uncertain of what awaited them but all too sure about the retaliation awaiting them if they stayed.
At the American customs desk, when asked how long they planned to stay, the Seleznevs answered, “Forever.” The official looked at them strangely. “I was sure we were dead,” Valeri recalled, “but he only said, ‘I can authorize you for six months. Anything longer than that requires the immigration office.’” They applied for asylum the next day.
But just because they were safe in a new country, that didn’t mean life was perfect. Valeri didn’t speak English fluently, and well-paying jobs were hard to come by. To make matters worse, they couldn’t find a church. One night, when their spirits were low, Valentina knelt down on the rickety apartment balcony and prayed, “Lord, I know You brought us to America so we could worship You. Help us.”
Thankfully, they were still in contact with their missionary friends, who’d returned home to deliver their first child. They told the Seleznevs about Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, a congregation whose members had been praying for the salvation of people in Kyrgyzstan—the Seleznevs’ hometown—and were willing to help them move south. “We couldn’t believe it,” Valentina said, “We felt the hand of the Lord on us. So we looked at a map to see where Georgia was and decided to go.” It was a providential choice. The Seleznevs found a church they could truly call home, one that supported them spiritually and financially. Not long after, Valeri—both head and heart convinced—trusted Christ as Savior.
But the blessings didn’t stop there. A church friend who worked at In Touch invited Valentina to tour the ministry and encouraged her to apply for a job. “Are you insane?” Valentina asked. “Who would let me work here?” But after a little cajoling and much prayer, she filed an application. Several weeks later, Valentina joined the Christian Guidance department, where she would work for the next 19 years. Today, she serves as Dr. Stanley’s executive assistant—something she never imagined herself doing. “I believe the Lord wanted me here at this specific time in Dr. Stanley’s life,” she said, “and I’m enjoying every minute.”
Valeri joined the In Touch team in 2003, and while what he does today is a far cry from the prominent position he once held, he couldn’t care less. “If someone needs a floor mopped, I do it with joy,” he said. “I love being here in this place because I can do what I want, believe what I want, say what I want. Here, I am free.”