This year Russian Christians are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the translation of the Bible into their common language. In a country like the United States, where there are a dozen Bibles for each church member, such an anniversary might occasion only passing notice. But Russian evangelicals publicly anticipated the celebration of this centennial for many months. Their enthusiasm arises from two causes. First, their history as evangelicals in Russia is inseparably joined with the history of the Bible in Russian. Second, the continued scarcity of Bibles in their language gives the Russians special appreciation for a precious possession. We will do well to share their joy this year.
The land of the Russians had been officially Christian for almost nine hundred years before the whole of the Scriptures appeared in words they could understand. From 988, when Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev declared Byzantine Orthodoxy to be the religion of his realm, until 1917, when the last tsar fell, the Russian state and the Orthodox Church remained in close union. The religious history of Russia paralleled that of the most Catholic countries of the West. A highly liturgical religion incorporated all citizens; all were baptized by the priest as infants and were expected to present themselves at mass at least annually. The mass and the church books were in an archaic language, Church Slavonic, which the Russian people understood hardly better than Europeans comprehended Latin. No Protestant revolt, crying for a religion of the Book, spawned evangelical faith in Russian hearts. And no secularizing Enlightenment undermined the union of church and state. The autocratic tsar reigned as head of both.
The first steps in the preparation of the Russian Bible were instigated by Tsar Alexander I. This pietistic ruler sponsored the creation of the Russian Bible Society on the day in 1812 that Napoleon fled in defeat from Russian territory. The Russian society was the first offspring of the British and Foreign Bible Society, progenitor of those societies now affiliated in the United Bible Societies. The first product of the British and Russian cooperation, the Russian New Testament, appeared in 1823.
Two years later, Alexander died. His extremely reactionary brother, Nicholas I, dissolved the Russian Bible Society and halted work on translation of the Old Testament. Persecution of non-Orthodox religions intensified under his hand.
Nicholas’s attempt to keep modern ideas out of Russia ended in the disaster of the Crimean War. His son, Alexander II, accepted the inevitability of reform in Russia. In 1862, one year after he emancipated the serfs, Alexander II permitted the revival of the Russian Bible Society. That revival led directly to the appearance of evangelicalism in Russia.
Colporteurs of the Bible Society spread throughout the Russian Empire, distributing New Testaments. One such colporteur, Iakov Deliakov, appeared with his books in the city of Tiflis (now Tbilisi) in the Caucasus Mountains of south Russia. Nikita Voronin took a New Testament from Deliakov, began reading it, and soon experienced spiritual rebirth. On August 20, 1867, Voronin became the first Russian “Baptist” when he received believer’s baptism from a German Baptist.
Within a decade, several thousand Russians in the southern and western regions of the empire had become “Baptists” as God’s Word in Russian continued to bear fruit. One participant in the movement of evangelicalism later described the work the Word accomplished in Russian hearts: “Peasants, beginning to read the Bible, began to notice the incongruity between the teachings of Christ and life around them.… Serious study of [the Bible] worked a miracle: people gave up drinking vodka, smoking, profanity—they were born again and were made completely different people.”
Meanwhile, work on the translation of the Old Testament moved forward, under the inspiration of Orthodox Metropolitan Filaret of Moscow. In 1876, the glorious day of its completion arrived. For the first time the whole Russian Bible appeared in one volume, in what was called the “Synodal Version.”
Six years passed before a significant edition of this Bible left the press. In 1882, the Russian Bible Society printed 20,000 copies, with money donated by a nobleman who had been regenerated under the preaching of the Englishman Lord Radstock, a prominent adherent of the Plymouth Brethren. This nobleman, Colonel Pashkov, also financed the distribution of the Scriptures and evangelical tracts through his “Society for the Encouragement of Religious Reading.”
The rapid spread of a new, biblical faith soon alarmed the authorities, and in 1884 Pashkov was exiled to Paris. Inside Russia, twenty years of severe repression of evangelicals began. It was illegal for a Russian to be a “Baptist.” No more Russian Bibles were permitted until political revolution in 1905 forced the tsar to guarantee religious toleration for the evangelicals. In 1907 the censor approved the printing of the second, small edition of the Synodal Version, but with the restriction that it be in large, “pulpit” volumes, so that it would be difficult for evangelicals to carry the Scriptures with them in their incessant (albeit illegal) evangelistic journeyings. “But the Word of God grew and multiplied.” By the time of World War I, evangelicals numbered over 100,000.
The Communist Revolution of 1917 aided the evangelicals in their quest for the printed Word. Many more copies of Russian Scriptures were printed during the 1920s than had appeared under tsarism. With money raised in America, Russian evangelicals printed and distributed 45,000 Bibles and 30,000 New Testaments from plates made by photographic reduction of the old Synodal Version. By 1929, the fruits of God’s Word in Russian amounted to more than two million evangelical believers.
Under Stalin, the Communist government reversed the fortunes of believers. In 1929 an edition of 10,000 Bibles printed by the Baptist Union was confiscated just before it was to be distributed. During the years of terror, thousands languished in prison, but the Word sustained them and they kept the Word. Only after Stalin’s death did the government permit the Orthodox and Baptist churches further printings of Scripture: 60,000 Bibles and 25,000 New Testaments in 1956–57. Then for ten years Russian Christians sought in vain to publish more.
Since 1968, about 35,000 Bibles and more than 20,000 New Testaments in Russian have been legally published. Several thousand more were illegally produced on a printing press operated by Baptists until it was seized in October, 1974. In addition, portions of Russian Scriptures have been printed in the West and taken unofficially, sometimes illegally, into the Soviet Union.
The Bible in Russian is but the beginning of the story of proclaiming the Word of God within the Soviet Union. Russian is the mother tongue of only half the citizens of that country. More than a hundred other languages are spoken within its borders. In ninety of these, no part of the Bible is available. Translation of the Scriptures into most of the other languages was not begun until after the Russian Bible appeared, for various political reasons. Since the Revolution, small editions (10,000 copies) of New Testaments have been produced for Ukrainians, Latvians, Armenians, and Lithuanians inside the Soviet Union. Preparation of the Scriptures in the non-Russian languages deserves the attention of those who know the power of God.
In sum, while precise figures are unavailable, it can be estimated that fewer than one million whole Russian Bibles and New Testaments have appeared on Soviet territory since the Revolution. That means there is a scarcity of Scripture for the well over three million evangelicals currently active in the Soviet Union, not to mention the more than 30 million Orthodox Christians. On occasion, handwritten Bibles can be seen in a Russian church, lovingly transcribed from another’s copy or from foreign radio broadcasts.
But the Russians know how to be grateful for the copies they have. The work of the Word of the Lord does not depend on the number of Bibles available. Each year thousands continue to come to new life in Christ in the Soviet Union because the believers there faithfully proclaim the Gospel. Attempts to introduce Bibles into the Soviet Union by illegal means do not serve God’s work well.
Evangelicals in the West can join in the Russians’ celebration and support them in ways that do not violate Soviet laws and Christian morality. More than fifteen years ago, Baptist leader Alexander Karev complained to Professor Steve Durasoff: “Many Christians visit our country from the West. Why doesn’t each one bring a Russian Bible with him and leave it with us? You have failed us.” Tourists entering the Soviet Union are required to declare at customs all literature they are carrying with them, including, of course, Bibles. Generally, one copy of the Bible is permitted; on occasion (as happened to me once) customs guards confiscate a Bible, claiming that the book is forbidden in the country. But there is no published law to that effect, and the claim is manifestly untrue since Bibles are legally published. One suspects that confiscated Bibles bring a handsome profit on the “black market,” where the price of a Bible can rise to over a hundred dollars.
Single copies of Bibles can also be sent by post to the Soviet Union, usually more successfully from countries other than the United States. One Baptist minister in Moscow recently confirmed this to me personally and requested that Americans mail him some Bibles.
There are promising signs that the United Bible Societies of Europe will be able to provide Bibles for Russians in the future. The Evangelical Christian-Baptist Union maintains contacts with the UBS, which recently received permission to ship to the U.S.S.R. 3,000 Bibles in the German language, the mother tongue of many Soviet Baptists. The Russians are patiently praying that this will be a first step toward the eventual importation of Russian Bibles. But the work of the UBS is hampered by a shortage of money for Scriptures for Communist countries. It also appears to be bothered by the illegal activities of “Bible smugglers.”
Russian Christians, both evangelical and Orthodox, now anticipate the preparation of a new Russian translation of the Bible that will modernize the language of the Synodal Version. The UBS is cooperating in this work. In 1969 the Leningrad Orthodox Theological Academy appointed a group to begin work on the New Testament, using the Greek text prepared by the UBS in 1968. Recognizing the lexical shortcomings of the old version, the general secretary of the Evangelical Christian-Baptist Union, A. M. Bychkov, observed: “We support these helpful beginnings of the Russian Orthodox Church and we believe that God will bless the great work of scholars for his glory and the benefit of immortal souls.” At present, no Russian Baptists are sufficiently educated to participate in translation work.
During the last 100 years, “the Word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed” on Russian soil. Bychkov declared in 1974: “Let the centennial jubilee of the Russian Bible be observed in all our churches with prayers of thanksgiving.” Let us, Western evangelicals, rejoice with them. God’s Word in Russian will continue to accomplish the purpose of him who gave it.
Paul D. Steeves is assistant professor of history and director of Russian studies at Stetson University in Deland, Florida. He has the Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and specializes in modern Russian history.
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