The Battle Against Religion Is Joined
The year 1929 would prove to be fateful for the Lutheran Church in Russia. Until that year, the Lutheran Church had survived most of the turbulent changes in the country reasonably well, especially since the early years of Soviet rule would have led an astute observer to think that the Church would soon be extinguished.
The emigration of large numbers of pastors followed by a devastating famine, along with persecution of religion in general, did not bode well for the Church in the initial years after the revolution. And yet it survived, because despite these problems the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia was no longer limited by the Russian Orthodox-dominated czarist state.
General synods for the Lutheran Church had never been allowed in Russia in the past, but when the Soviet state proclaimed freedom of religion and atheism, new possibilities opened up. The Lutheran Church held two general synods in 1924 and 1928, and this despite the fact that pastors were categorised with the so-called biivshe ludii, the “former people” of the old czarist regime.
Not only that, when borders changed after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution (or October Revolution) and Estonia became an independent country, Russia had lost its only Lutheran seminary, which had for years been located in Dorpat. This new geographical reality turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it forced the Church to request permission from the Soviet state to establish its own seminary. In 1925, the Lutheran Church of Russia officially opened the doors to a seminary on the grounds of St. Anne’s Lutheran Church in Leningrad. So naturally, most Lutherans could be forgiven for assuming that they would be able to weather any changes and continue to hold on to the Church of their forefathers, a Church that dated back to the sixtenth century.
But the relative freedom that the Church had experienced would in 1929 be curtailed by the dictates of the state. Specific decrees directed against religious freedom would be enacted, as opposed to the arbitrary actions of individual atheists and die-hard Communists. Reading the letters of bishops Malmgren and Meier to Dr. John Morehead in America, one can discern a change in tone from guarded optimism to growing pessimism. While both bishops would fight for the Lutheran Church’s survival to the bitter end, it was clear that they were coming to the conclusion that the inevitable triumph of the state over the church was only a matter of time.
Joseph Stalin who once he was even publicly invoked as “Our Father” by a metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church, had become the secretary-general of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (1922–53). He had solidified his power base by 1929, first by allying with Nikolai Bukharin, the so-called Rightist Bolshevik. Together they were able to purge the Leftist Bolsheviks from the party.
The Bolsheviks, or Reds, where member of a wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, which, led by Vladimir Lenin, seized control of the government in Russia during the October Revolution phase of the 1917 Russian Revolution, and founded the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR). With the Reds defeating the Whites and others during the Russian Civil War of 1917–1922, the RSFSR became the chief constituent of the Soviet Union (USSR) in December 1922.
The RSFSR initially focused its efforts on the newly independent republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine. Wartime cohesion and intervention from foreign powers prompted the RSFSR to begin unifying these nations under one flag and created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Historians generally consider the end of the revolutionary period to be in 1923 when the Russian Civil War concluded with the defeat of the White Army, which had survived great hardships in the winter of 1917–18, and all rival socialist factions. By the end of 1918 these forces included the Cossacks of the anti-Bolshevik General Anton Denikin in the south, supported by the French from Odessa; the Ukrainian separatists; the commander of the White forces in the northwest during the Russian Civil War (1918–20), General Nikolay Yudenich’s army of the Baltic; a puppet government in the north supported by the Anglo-French from Arkhangelsk; and the government of the Arctic explorer and naval officer, Admiral Aleksandr Kolchak at Omsk in Siberia.
The victorious Bolshevik Party reconstituted itself into the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and would remain in power for over six decades.
Initially the Bolsheviks were a marginalised faction, however that changed following a series of developments including the use of their slogan, peace, land, and bread which promised to cease war with Germany, give land to the peasantry, and end the famine caused by Russia’s involvement in WWI. These slogans had a direct effect on the growing Bolshevik popularity. They dubbed their opponent members of the non-Leninist wing of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, the Mensheviks (“Those of the Minority”).
When Lenin’s followers obtained a temporary majority on the central committee and on the editorial board of the newspaper Iskra (“The Spark”), they appropriated for themselves the name Bolshevik (Those of the Majority); Martov and his followers became the Mensheviks. In bringing out the political newspaper Iskra, they hoped to unify the Russian Marxist-Lenist groups that were scattered throughout Russia and western Europe into a cohesive Social-Democratic party.
The Bolsheviks were not opportunists but benevolent idealists; the point of the Decrees was to bring about a better quality of life for the Russian people. Regardless of which view is the more accurate account, it is clear from these opposing perspectives that the history of the Initial Decrees is a politically charged issue. This is perhaps because historians use the Decrees to try to discern whether the implementation of Marxist thought has totalitarian tendencies.
As Leftist Bolsheviks, Grigory Zinoviev (born Hirsch Apfelbaum), Lev Kamenev, and Leon Trotsky had advocated a more aggressive campaign of industrialization and collectivization of agriculture. The Old Bolshevik and prominent member of the Communist Party and Soviet government during the decade after the October Revolution in Russia (1917), Lev Kamenev became an opponent of Joseph Stalin and was executed during the Great Purge, in which Stalin removed the remaining influence of Leon Trotsky as well as other prominent political rivals within the party.
Stalin used the articulate Bukharin to great effect, defending Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) as a reasonable policy. The policy of War Communism, in effect since 1918, had by 1921 brought the national economy to the point of total breakdown. The Kronshtadt Rebellion of March 1921 convinced the Communist Party and its leader, Vladimir Lenin, of the need to retreat from socialist policies in order to maintain the party’s hold on power.
Hopefully this series gave you some idea of why it could be interesting to come to read
The Gates of Hell: An Untold Story of Faith and Perseverance in the Early Soviet Union by Matthew Heise and published in 2022 by Lexham Press.
Decimated by war, revolution, and famine, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia was in critical condition in 1921. In The Gates of Hell, Matthew Heise recounts the bravery and suffering of German-Russian Lutherans during the period between the two great world wars. These stories tell of ordinary Christians who remained faithful to death in the face of state persecution.
Christians in Russia had dark days characterized by defeat, but God preserved his church. Against all human odds, the church would outlast the man-made sandcastles of communist utopianism. The Gates of Hell is a wonderful testimony to the enduring power of God’s word, Christ’s church, and the Spirit’s faithfulness.
Prayer for Martyrs
1. A WORLD IN FLUX
War, Revolution, and Reformation
2. “THE CHURCH IS SEPARATED FROM THE STATE”
The Bolsheviks Take Power
3. “ANY PROOF OF BROTHERLY LOVE”
Finding a Way to Aid Russia
4. A POWERFUL, INVISIBLE HAND FROM THE DARK
The Malevolent Might of the Cheka
5. THE “RELIGIOUS NEP”
The Departure of the ARA and the NLC’s Struggle to Continue
6. A FIR TREE WITH TWO PEAKS
The First All-Russian Lutheran Synodical Convention
7. SERVANTS IN HIS VINEYARD
A Bible School Is Born in the USSR
8. “HOLD FAST WHAT YOU HAVE”
The Status of the Lutheran Church in 1926
9. “UNBELIEVABLE ELASTICITY”
Managing Relations with Church and State in 1927
10. “THEY WOULD NOT SEE HIS FACE AGAIN”
A Last Synod and Mission Festival
11. “A DECLARATION OF A RELENTLESS STRUGGLE”
The Battle Against Religion Is Joined
12. “HE … SHALL THINK TO CHANGE THE TIMES AND THE LAW”
Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan Gets Underway
13. “FAITHFUL TO HIM TO THE GRAVE”
Inspiring a New Generation of Believers
14. A SOMBER CHRISTMAS
Arrests and Interrogations
15. THE CHURCH IS BROKEN
The Koch Trial and the Decision in the Hansen-Muss Case
16. SHEEP AMONG WOLVES
The Servant of the Church as Enemy of the State
17. “STAND AND EAT, YOU STILL HAVE A LONG WAY TO GO”
Words and Prayers of Encouragement
18. “STUCK DEEP IN SNOW AND ICE”
The Spiritual Life of the Church in Late 1931 and Early 1932
19. A SAD AND MUDDLED AFFAIR
Conflicts in the Church as OGPU Pressure Intensifies
20. “HARVEST OF SORROW”
Seminary Struggles, Famine, and the Recognition of the Soviet Union
21. “A MARTYR TO THE CAUSE”
The Tragedy of the Meiers
22. “A SMALL CROWD ARMED WITH COURAGE”
More Arrests and the Closing of …