‘There Be Lutherans’ . . . in Siberia!
After the LCMS fellowship discussions in Siberia at the end of October 2010, some may have said, “Lutherans, in Russia? Siberia, Russia? How did that happen?” Perhaps, even more surprising to learn is that before the Russian Revolution of 1917, there were actually millions of Lutherans in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltics, and other territories that would eventually comprise the Soviet Union. Some have estimated that there were 1.2 million Lutherans within Russia and Siberia proper, and another 2-3 million in the other territories. In fact, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Lutheran presence in Russia was larger than The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is today. Yet, by 1937, every Lutheran congregation had been liquidated and their pastors arrested, exiled, or executed. The communists were quite effective in destroying the Lutheran Church in Russian lands.
Early Russian Lutherans
There are reports of Lutherans—primarily German merchants, craftsmen, and engineers—arriving in Russia as early as the 1520s. These groups held worship in their homes. Other Lutherans arrived in Russia after the Livonian War of 1558, when Ivan the Terrible relocated Lutherans from the Baltic region to the environs of Moscow. Like other czars, Ivan had a certain fascination with Lutherans and other Protestant preachers, listening to them with favor on some occasions, and at other times with great displeasure. In fact, there is an account of Ivan the Terrible smacking a Lutheran preacher on the head with his scepter because the preacher dared to compare Martin Luther to St. Paul.
During the reign of Peter the Great (1682–1725), Lutherans were given a constitution and religious freedom within Russia. Peter the Great even travelled to Wittenberg in 1712 because of his interest in Lutheranism. His interest was as much political as it was religious, as Peter had the goal of modernizing Russia and decreasing the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. As early as 1718, Lutheran chaplains from Sweden had reached Tobolsk, the historic capital of Siberia, to establish Lutheran congregations. Lutherans later arrived in other Siberian cities such as Tomsk, and Lutheran congregations were found throughout many parts of Russia until the Russian Revolution of 1917.
One Lutheran, One Small Catechism
In 1987, young Vsevolod Lytkin from Novosibirsk, Siberia, had pro-Western views and was no longer convinced that the Soviet system was good. Since the Soviet system disapproved of religion, Lytkin began investigating religion through the Atheistic Dictionary of Religion. When he read about Lutherans, his interest was piqued. He learned “there be Lutherans” in the Baltics, so he got on a train and arrived in Estonia three days later. He sought out a Lutheran church, where the pastor gave him the Small Catechism. Through his conversations with the pastor and the study of the Small Catechism, Lytkin was baptized at Holy Spirit Church in Tallinn a few days later.
After returning to Siberia, Lytkin and other young Christians began to give lectures on the Bible to the students of Novosibirsk State University and other interested people from the scientific community of Academic City (Akademgorodok). By 1991, a Bible study group was formed that came together regularly to pray, read, and study the Scripture. Through the study of the Bible, the Small Catechism, and Lutheran theology, this fledging assembly of young Christians transformed from a generic Protestant group into a congregation that desired to be truly Lutheran.
Theological Education Welcomed
In 1993, Vsevolod Lytkin was ordained in Estonia as pastor of Bible Lutheran Church in Novosibirsk. Shortly after this, Archbishop Janis Vanags of the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church introduced Pastor Lytkin to Rev. Wallace Schulz, editor of Good News journal and then Lutheran Hour speaker. These contacts helped introduce this young Siberian Lutheran group to the LCMS.
In 1994, Rev. Vsevolod Lytkin and Deacon Pavel Khramov visited Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. This trip acquainted them with the theology of the LCMS and marked the beginning of closer ties. A larger group of about 20 people from Siberia visited the United States in 1995. The men visited Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind., while the women visited Concordia University in Seward, Neb. In 1996, the Russian Project began at the Fort Wayne seminary under the direction of Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill, with summer seminars held in Russia and other former Soviet Republics. Ultimately, about 35 people came to the seminary in Fort Wayne for theological training. The people who formed the SELC sought out the Missouri Synod because they wanted a conservative, Lutheran theological base. The training they received at Concordia Theological Seminary strengthened these theological ties even further.
It soon became evident that a seminary in Russia was needed to train future pastors and to enable this young church to eventually become self-sufficient. Pastor Lytkin approached President Wenthe requesting assistance from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne in the establishment of a Russian seminary in Novosibirsk. The founding of the Lutheran Theological Seminary (LTS) in Novosibirsk was made possible by a generous grant from the Marvin M. Schwan Charitable Foundation. Over the years, a number of guest professors from the United States, Germany, and Australia have taught at LTS. Presently, the seminary is registered and licensed as an academic institution in Russia.
Fellowship with the LCMS
In July 2010, twelve years after the Siberian Lutherans first requested fellowship discussions with the LCMS, Bishop Lytkin sent a letter to then LCMS President-elect Rev. Matthew C. Harrison. In that letter, Lytkin wrote, “With your election and introduction in the office of the president, discussions between our church bodies concerning church fellowship will gain new momentum and will come to a proper conclusion.” The trip by LCMS officials in October was Harrison’s response to Lytkin’s letter. The LCMS delegation concurred that while differences in practice exist in some areas, there are no differences in the doctrine confessed. Full fellowship has been recommended.
Of course, the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELC) is not the only Lutheran Church in Russia. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is already in fellowship with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria in Russia (ELCIR), based in St. Petersburg. This church body has congregations that date back to the 1600s, but like the SELC has some ties to the Estonian Church. The other legally recognized Lutheran church in Russia is known as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Russia and Other States (abbreviated ELKRAS). ELKRAS is the largest Lutheran body in Russia but is not in fellowship with the LCMS or the other Lutheran churches in Russia. The Missouri Synod, with her two partner churches in Russia (ELCIR and SELC), has an opportunity to impact Lutheranism in Russia.
A Lesson for Today?
The story of Lutheranism in Russia is both heartbreaking and encouraging. In this story, we see how a church can be brought to the brink of extinction through persecution. Much more could be told! Stories of martyrdom and great faith abound—stories about Lutherans in the Baltics, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, St. Petersburg and other places. We also see how the Lord works life from death. The Lutheran Church in Russia today is not as “glorious” or impressive as it was under the Russian Empire, but she lives under the cross of Jesus. The Lord’s hand was at work, preserving His Church against the gates of hell, but doing it in such a way that we know the success of His Church does not depend on us.
This history is a good reminder for us that what happened to Lutherans in Russia in the past could also, as unimaginable as it might be, happen to us. The story of Lutheranism in Russia ought to bring us to our knees in repentance, drive us to the cross of Jesus seeking His forgiveness, and encourage us in how the Lord preserves His Church here on earth. Indeed, by the grace of God, “There be Lutherans” . . . in Siberia!