All but banned for 70 years, Scriptures find an open and insatiable market in the Soviet Union.

Not too long ago, “Bibles for the Soviet Union” meant a few dozen Scriptures stuffed into the hidden compartments of a Volkswagen Beetle, secreted across the border by “God’s smugglers.” But today, in the brave new age of glasnost, Bibles arrive in the USSR by the truckload, measured by the ton, and with virtually no government restriction on their importation. In this era of openness, the only limitation on the availability of Bibles in the Soviet Union now appears to be the ability of Christians in the West and East to secure the paper, the press time, and the dollars needed to meet the incredible demand.

Just how great is the need for Bibles in the Soviet Union? According to Walter Sawatsky, author of Soviet Evangelicals Since World War II, the total number of Bibles, New Testaments, and Gospels made available to the Soviet population of 266 million people (including an estimated 50 to 60 million Christians) from 1917 to 1986 was only about 4.1 million copies. Of that number, only 450,000 pieces were provided through legal means; nearly 90 percent were brought in without government permission.

A turning point came in 1987–88, however, when the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev combined with the celebration of the 1,000-year anniversary of Christianity in the Soviet Union to thaw the government’s attitude toward religion. In honor of that event, Brother Andrew of Open Doors International, famous for his Bible-smuggling ministry, offered a gift of 1 million New Testaments to the Russian Orthodox Church. The gift was allowed by government officials.

Open Doors

Other offers followed, and soon Western mission agencies and Bible societies were rushing through the newly opened door to supply millions of copies of what only months before had been labeled harmful “religious propaganda.” In the next two years, Soviet authorities sanctioned more Bible imports than in the previous 70 years of Communist rule. Observers estimate that up to 4 million Bibles and New Testaments have arrived since Gorbachev came to power.

In 1989 alone, according to figures supplied by Evgenii Chernetsov, head of the Protestant office of the Council for Religious Affairs, more than 1.3 million Bibles, New Testaments, and Scripture portions arrived at Protestant churches in the USSR. In fact, permission had been issued for the import of twice that amount. Experts now estimate total Scripture deliveries and printings through the next five years could add up to almost 45 million, including a target of 30 million Bibles and New Testaments set by the United Bible Societies.

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Still, Christian leaders say demand far outdistances supply. They estimate that as many as 100 million Scriptures are needed to satisfy the immediate needs of Christians and inquisitive non-Christians.

Overwhelming Orders

As presses in Europe, America, and the Far East begin to roll, however, distribution channels within the USSR remain limited. Without improvement, the simple carload and truckload delivery system will soon be swamped as the millions of Scriptures on order begin to arrive. Congregations in the largest, most accessible cities now have enough Bibles for their members, church leaders report. But needs remain in far-flung areas, such as Siberia and Central Asia. (One significant step toward improvement was taken in August, when Baptists in South Korea announced an agreement with the Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists [UECB] in the USSR to ship 100,000 Russian-language Bibles, printed in Seoul, directly to churches in Siberia.)

Distribution thus far has been limited primarily to registered churches, such as the UECB (which last year received 878,000 pieces) and the more recently formed Pentecostal Union (which received some 220,000 pieces through official channels and several hundred thousand more by parcel post). Churches that have shunned registration with the government have continued to receive Scriptures only in limited quantities by parcel and other underground sources.

In such a demand-driven market, the question of price has proven to be a sensitive subject. While some churches offer Scriptures free of charge, prices of 5 rubles for a New Testament and 30 rubles for a Bible are common in Protestant churches (the average monthly wage in the Soviet Union is about 180 rubles). Observers have noted prices as much as ten times higher in Russian Orthodox churches, which have also been accused of hoarding Bibles.

Bibles For Sale

The practice of selling Bibles has caused debate among Western groups, which usually provide Scriptures free of charge to their recipients in the Soviet Union. For example, the South Holland, Illinois-based Bible League’s policy states that those who distribute their literature may not do so for profit. But the Bible League is comfortable with the “small fee” charged by some churches, says vice-president Roger Van Beek.

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In the case of the UECB, money from the sale of Bibles is distributed throughout the union to help rebuild churches, said Alexander Firisiuk, deputy president of the union. Last year, 2.3 million rubles from the sale of Bibles helped restore more than 80 churches, he said. “[The money] is only for the purpose of new church buildings,” he said. “If we as a union receive literature, it means that the purpose of evangelism will be served.”

Still, accountability for both the funds raised and the Bibles themselves remains a concern. Black-market trade in Bibles continues to flourish, with prices on the street generally set at modest levels (10–14 rubles for a New Testament and about 90 rubles for a Bible). Suspicions abound as to the source of black-market Bibles. Often mentioned are government and customs officials who have confiscated Bibles as well as compromised church members, who have sold the Bibles for great personal profit.

“By careful placement, we can contain the black market [trade in Bibles],” says Esko Rintala of the Finnish Bible Society. He suggests donor groups and churches assist with distribution, both to provide needed help and oversee the final step of importation. “But the only sure way to end the black market is to satisfy the need,” he says, and not until at least 20 million Scriptures are delivered will the demand slacken.

Printed In The Ussr

While the bulk of Bibles still arrive in Soviet hands as imports, some efforts are under way to develop Scripture printing within the country. For many years clandestine presses, some pieced together from bicycle and washing-machine parts, turned out Scripture portions by the score. But glasnost also has opened the doors to government-run printing plants, and a few recent press runs have produced larger quantities. Earlier this year Protestant Publishers, an independent Christian publishing house that began three years ago, produced 100,000 hardcover Bibles and 100,000 illustrated children’s Bibles.

Lack of paper, however, remains a major obstacle to Soviet printing. And press time is difficult to secure. But dollars open doors, says Alexander Semchenko, president of Protestant Publishers. State printers will quickly replace Communist propaganda on their presses with Christian literature when it is paid for with hard currency from the West.

Semchenko hopes to encourage Soviet-American partnerships that can take advantage of cheaper labor and lower transportation costs in the Soviet Union to deliver less expensive Bibles. “We can print Bibles for $1.50,” he says, compared to the $3 to $5 cost for Bibles printed and shipped from the West.

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While American businesses and ministries have expressed interest in such joint ventures, the instability of the Soviet economy has kept all but a few from fruition. And for the time being, far less Soviet bureaucracy stands in the path of importation than of indigenous printing.

New Translations Needed

In addition to the demands of quantity, problems of quality are also increasing. The need for modern translations is of top interest. For example, most Russian Bibles now supplied are based on the nineteenth-century Synodal translation.

Some recent attempts to update the language, however, have been criticized by churchmen as inaccurate and awkward. Quality of printing, binding, and covering is also of concern, says Mikhail Morgulis, director of Slavic Gospel Press in Wheaton, Illinois. Morgulis says he hears complaints from pastors in the Soviet Union about new Bibles literally falling apart in the hands of their people.

Still, the overwhelming need for Scriptures leaves most Christian leaders welcoming any and all efforts to supply Bibles to the Soviet Union. And in spite of the open lines of import, the clandestine methods of a few years ago have not completely disappeared. Some ministries continue to guard the details of their distribution and the identities of their operatives. “It would not be wise to lay everything on the table,” said one member of Open Doors, echoing the apprehension of other church leaders in the Soviet Union. “Things may never go back to the way they were, but they may change at any moment.”

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