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  • Luther in Russian
  • Matthew Heise

In April of 1521 the seventeen-year-old future Danish king, Christian III, heard Martin Luther make his bold proclamation before Charles V at the Diet of Worms. Christian was intrigued and became a staunch defender of Luther's views. His dedication to the cause helped introduce Lutheranism into not only Denmark but also Russia.1 In 1552 the Czar of Russia during Christian III's reign, known to history as Ivan the Terrible, invited the Danish king to send skilled tradesmen to Moscow. Seizing the opportunity, Christian III also sent to the theologically curious Czar copies of the Augsburg Confession and Luther's Small Catechism. Shortly thereafter these Lutheran confessions were translated into Russian in a book entitled Articles of the Right Faith.2 Ivan no doubt read the documents with intense interest since they were decidedly critical of the papacy, his arch enemy. Evidently following the old adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, he initially permitted the Lutherans to preach freely, but only to ethnic minorities within his empire. The first Lutheran congregation in Russia was formed in 1559 by Germans, Swedes, and Danes working in Moscow.3 In 1576 the Czar went a step further and allowed the Lutherans to construct a church, St. Michael's in Moscow.4

Unfortunately, Ivan's views changed quickly and dramatically. While the exact reason for the Czar's change of heart is unclear, it seems that he suspected that the Lutherans were trying to convert him and his people. Ivan reneged on his promise of free speech to Lutherans and in 1580 ordered the wood-framed St. Michael's to be burned.5 Thereafter, although the Lutheran Church became one of the largest churches in Russia outside of the state-sponsored [End Page 180] Orthodox Church, Luther's writings and other books produced by Lutherans were for centuries only allowed to be printed in the languages of the minorities that were deemed "ethnically Lutheran." That would include the largest group, the Germans, as well as the Finns, Swedes, Latvians, and Estonians.6 However, due to the gradual assimilation of these ethnic minorities within the Russian Empire over time, some attempts were made in the early twentieth century to provide catechisms in Russian to those who were no longer proficient in their original language.7 For example, a translation of Luther's Small Catechism from German into Russian was published in 1913 in Warsaw, at that time part of the Russian Empire. It contained the five standard parts, as well as the morning and evening prayers, table prayers, and the table of duties. An added section contained a general confession of sins, a prayer for use before the scripture readings, and a general prayer, including petitions for Czar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, the surviving and former czarina Maria Fedorovna along with Prince Michael, Nicholas' brother.

During World War I, German was forbidden in the Russian Empire, so church documents and possibly some other Lutheran books were also translated into Russian as that was the only language allowed.8 A Russian Lutheran hymnal from 1915 is showcased today in downtown St. Petersburg's Lutheran cathedral, St. Mary's. The success of the atheist-inspired Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 eventually led to bans on the import of Christian literature, not to mention on any attempt at translations of Luther into Russian.9 All Lutheran congregations in Russia were forcibly closed by 1939.10 However, in the late 1980s an opening for religious freedom occurred during Mikhail Gorbachev's experimental program of glasnost (openness). Finding little impediment, Lutherans cautiously began re-establishing old congregations. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the demand for translations of Luther and Lutheran materials increased sharply.

In 1992 the Michigan-based Lutheran Heritage Foundation (LHF) entered the newly established Russian Republic with the hope of restoring Lutheran literature to a land that had once hosted a fairly robust Lutheran church. Now that ethnic Russians could legally belong to any church and given that historically ethnic [End Page 181] Lutheran minorities had become more comfortable with the Russian language, LHF explored how it could provide Luther's...


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