Most of us are familiar with the Soviet persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution and the communist victory in the Russian Civil War. Most of us are unfamiliar with the Soviet persecution of the many, often vibrant, minority Christian communities caught up in the “atheist propaganda” of the Soviet Union. In his new book, “The Gates of Hell,” Matthew Heise brings to light an important story of faith, persecution, and perseverance among the Lutherans of Russia who suffered great evil from Soviet oppression, including murderous persecution.
The Lutheran Church was one of the largest and most important Christian churches in Russia before the rise of the Soviet Union. It was also the oldest. The origins of the Lutheran Church in Russia dates back to the arrival of German migrants, mostly skilled tradesmen and productive farmers, alongside mercenary aristocrats, who came to Russia to help build the Czardom into a major European power beginning in 1576. With beautiful cathedrals in Moscow and St. Petersburg on the eve of the Russian Revolution in 1917, there were nearly 4 million Lutherans and “approximately 1,828 churches and prayer houses scattered throughout Russia” before martyrdom and persecution began.
Russian Lutherans were a very successful minority group. Mostly German, Swedish, or Finnish in origin, the Lutheran Church in Russia provided an extensive network of schools, hospitals, and charitable organizations that served as an important organ of Russian civil society. Though never part of official Czarist society, which was tied to Russian Orthodoxy, Lutherans in Russia represented everything the Bolsheviks came to loath: middle-class and successful “bourgeois” families with a strong religious faith.
War and Revolution
In 1917, Lutherans worldwide were trying to honor the 400th anniversary of the Reformation despite a global war and shattered Christendom. The hope for a temporary moment of peace and joy in the midst of bloodshed vanished in Russia when the Bolsheviks seized power. Already knocked out of World War I and suffering the turmoil of that defeat, Russia was now plunged into civil war.
The Russian Civil War saw Bolsheviks, anarchists, and other left-wing militants target Christians for murder in a campaign of brutal persecution. All Christians were associated with the bourgeois capitalist order and the remnants of the Czarist regime that the communists were trying to destroy. Lutherans, due mostly to their German heritage, were also held in greater suspicion as a “fifth column.” By the end of the civil war, only 160 German Lutheran congregations remained from the 1,828 in 1917.
Despite the hardships and struggles of war and revolution, tales of courage and heroism abound. The pastors who remained and weren’t killed by the revolutionaries would travel hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles to serve the faithful. Attempts to secure even the slightest accommodations for the continued teaching of the faith and allowance of worship were a high priority that brought pastors and their assistants into danger. The spiritual nourishment and survival of the Lutheran Church inside Russia, now the Soviet Union, continued despite the intense pain and suffering Lutherans faced thanks to the bravery of clergy and laity.
America’s Forgotten Aid
In the aftermath of the Russian Civil War, Americans — especially Lutherans in America — came to the aid of the dispossessed and starving peoples of Russia. The National Lutheran Council in America, in cooperation with the American Relief Administration, began sending aid workers, money, and food to all the suffering people in Russia. American Lutherans, for the first time, began to see the suffering plight of their brothers and sisters in a foreign land and were moved by a great heart of charity to aid them in their hour of distress.
The assistance of foreign organizations and charitable groups embarrassed Soviet officials. It confirmed two things antagonistic to state policy: their reliance on capitalism and religion to improve their own country and fellow citizens. While the Soviets temporarily accepted the aid of foreigners to save as many of their own citizens as possible, the Soviets were also limiting aid efforts and making it as hard as possible for the NLC and ARA to do their work. Soviet leaders wanted to wear down and eventually force foreign aid organizations to leave the country.
In time, the subversive campaign of the Soviets worked. Eventually, American aid organizations were forced to leave. Nevertheless, the NLC and ARA had helped millions of Russians and ensured the survival of the Lutheran Church in Russia. This would provide the needed strength for Lutherans in Russia to persevere through the harshest campaign of persecution unleashed by Stalin.
Remembering 20th-Century Martyrs
Because, as Heise writes, “the church was too often associated with images of Russia’s czarist past and that in order to truly change the mindset of Soviet citizens and build socialism, religion had to be eradicated,” the Lutheran Church inside the Soviet Union now found itself targeted by the new wave of militant atheism propagated by Stalin. Under Lenin and the New Economic Policy, religious life was difficult but not impossible to live out. Censorship and occasional pogroms and street murders happened, but Lutherans in the Soviet Union persisted and even got a Bible school constructed to train seminarians.
Under Stalin, however, a new campaign for state atheism was unleashed. Of the first graduating class of seminarians from the Bible school (seminary) established to continue the propagation and service of the Lutheran faith in 1928, “[e]very single one of the class of 1928 would be arrested in the future. … All but three would eventually be shot.” Whatever little religious freedom was possible under Lenin was now being squashed by Stalin and his minions.
In a chilling reminder to Christians in America and elsewhere of why religious liberty is so important, one of the first laws promulgated in this new war against Christianity was to prevent all meetings, education, and even charitable service for their own children, families, and church members. “Religious associations,” the law read, “may not … organize for children, young people and women special prayer or other meetings, or, generally, meetings, groups, circles or departments for biblical or literary study, sewing, working or the teaching of religion, &c., or organize excursions, children’s playgrounds, public libraries or reading rooms, or organize sanitaria and medical assistance.” The point was clear: The communist state wanted total control over everything, and nothing outside the state’s direct control was to be permitted.
Here, Heise’s book turns to the history of remarkable perseverance and martyrdom. Despite all the hardships of the past 10 years since the Russian Revolution, Lutherans still soldiered on in the name of Christ and the gospel of loving service to others. Men and women were arrested and often shot or sent to the gulags, where they died. Others would continue to live out the commandment of Christ to serve their neighbors even as they suffered persecution by those whom they were now saving, like Peter Mikhailov, who served as a medic in World War II.
In the end, the once-vibrant community of Lutherans and their organizations of service were all but obliterated by the Soviets. Yet a small and faithful remnant persevered through it all (and remains active today). In hiding or in public, where still tolerated, Lutherans inside the Soviet Union kept the flame of love and truth alive in the darkness. As Heise said, “These remarkable men and so many others, named and unnamed in this chronicle, were used by God to sustain the church in times of spiritual famine for the day when it would be revived with the living waters of his word. That day is now at hand.”