History of Lutheran Education in Russia

The Lutheran confession is not new to Russia. Perhaps this is nowhere as clear as in the history of public education in this country.

The first formal Lutheran parish was organized in Russia in 1576. There are records available from 1601 that show that the parish school offered instruction in doctrine, church singing, reading, writing, and arithmetic. Lutherans lived on the outskirts of Moscow in a place that was called “the German settlement” (located around the present Baumanskaya metro station, which is now considered to be a part of the downtown area). Peter, who later became known as Peter the Great, was at times referred to as a “student of the German settlement.”

Hence, it should not come as a surprise that Lutherans were represented in St Petersburg from the very foundation of this new capital of Russia (the city having been founded in 1703, while the first Lutheran services were held in 1704). The Lutheran school of St Peter and Paul’s Church in St Petersburg, the so-called Petrischule, became the first public school of the city. Its most significant principal was a graduate of Halle University, pastor Anton Friedrich Büsching (1724–1793), who established its curriculum and arranged for highly qualified teaching personnel. His erudition and scholarly learning, particularly in the area of geography, impressed the Empress Catherine the Great so much that she even offered him an opportunity to quit the realm of theology and become a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, an offer that he politely declined. Local citizens brought their children (about 25% of them were Russian Orthodox) to this school, which, having become the major school in Russia and one of the top schools of northern Europe, was known for its high standards of education. Many famous people studied there, for example, composer Modest Musorgsky (remember his “Pictures at an Exhibition”?).

Higher theological education took place at two sites. Future pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Russian Empire received their training from the Theological Departments of the Universities of Dorpat (now Tartu, Estonia) and Helsingfors (now Helsinki, Finland). Following the disastrous Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the German-speaking Lutherans in what came to be known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics attempted to regroup and establish a seminary in the Leningrad of the 1920s. It was very short lived and had to close down within a few years, and this was followed by the legal shutdown of the Lutheran Church at large.

It was only through annexation by Stalin of the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 1940 that the Lutheran church once again came to be present in the Soviet Union, although it was separate from the rest of the country.

It was only in 1957 that the first Lutheran congregation in the rest of USSR was reopened by the Soviet authorities in Akmolinsk (now Astana, the capital of Kazakhshan) – a place where I have the honor of teaching pastors and church workers of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Kazakhstan twice a year. It took years and even decades for more congregations to reacquire limited legal status, although faith was communicated in homes at a simple level.

To be sure, no Lutheran education was possible anywhere except in the Baltic, where some limited pastoral training took place in Latvia and Estonia to provide for the needs of the local churches. In the Soviet Union outside of the Baltic no such “luxury” was possible. Many ethnic Germans were relocated by Stalin from the Volga region to Siberia and Kazakhstan based on a decree of August 28, 1941. It surely changed the demographic situation in terms of a nominal Lutheran presence in the country. Many of the groups and congregations were Pietistic in character, led by brothers and sometimes sisters (when men were not available) who preached and conducted baptisms and other church rites upon necessity.

Many of these people, including their leaders, left the country in what became a mass exodus of the ethnic German population in the 1990s following an invitation by German chancellor Helmut Kohl. They never had a chance to receive a formal seminary-level training to conduct their ministry, but their sacrificial service during the difficult Soviet years will not be forgotten.

In 1980 the Lutheran World Federation held its Conference in Tallinn, Estonia, which was allowed by the Soviet government in its attempt to defuse tension between the USSR and the Capitalist countries according to Brezhnev’s policy of the 1970s. At this conference it was decided that the Latvian Church would be responsible for the German Lutheran population of the USSR and the Estonian Church for the Finnish (Ingrian) population. German pastor Haralds Kalniņš, of mixed Latvian and German descent, unofficially visited the ethnic German congregations in Siberia and Kazakhstan throughout the 1970s, while in 1981 following the Tallinn event he became Superintendent of the German congregations in the USSR. A practical school of pastoral training existed in Riga in the 1980s. At that time Riga, Latvia, was the place to go to study if you wanted to be a minister in the Lutheran church of German background. Following the independence of Latvia at the height of perestroika, education in the Latvian language only was offered in Riga, effectively limiting its character to the internal Latvian scene. Sometimes when I think of this, I come to the conclusion that if the Latvians of the time had realized their potential more fully, they could have continued to be a major center for Lutheran education in the territory of the former USSR, and, perhaps, there would not have arisen a need for such a school as our Seminary in Novosibirsk.

The second center of organized Lutheranism in the USSR was in Estonia. It is remarkable that both Russian Lutheran Churches now in fellowship with the LCMS, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ingria and the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church, received their independence from the Estonian Church (1992 and 2003 accordingly). Jaan Kiivit, Archbishop of the Church from 1949–1967, had an interest in helping the remaining Lutherans of the Soviet Union outside of Estonia, but the Soviet authorities did not let him do it. He was also the rector of the Institute of Theology of the EELC. This was a more pastoral school as compared to the Department of Theology of Tartu University, which was more academic and also more theologically liberal (both schools were geared toward Estonians and thus were practically unavailable to Russian-speaking people). His son, Jaan Kiivit Jr, served as a pastor of Holy Spirit parish in Tallinn (the church building dates back to the 14th century) when a young man from Siberia, Vsevolod Lytkin, visited his church in 1987 in an attempt to get to know more about Lutheran catechesis and be baptized.

Later on Vsevolod Lytkin returned to Tallinn to be ordained as a pastor (1993) and then again to pass an exam for the right to wear a pectoral cross.

Seminary-level education in the Russian language did not come into being until the 1990s. The first two seminaries were the Theological Seminary of ELKRAS (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Russia and Other States) in Novosaratovka and the Theological Institute of the ELCI in Koltushy (both in the St Petersburg area). Of these, the first no longer offers full-time education, limiting itself to distance training. In its heyday it immersed students in the theological mindset of 20th-century western protestant Christianity (with Paul Tillich as a big name to be studied there). This theology, though not as liberal as some of its extreme versions in Europe and America, was decidedly different from the conservative Pietist background of many of its students!

I remember well how I acquired a very strong desire to study theology in the year 1994. So I came to my pastor, Vsevolod Lytkin, with the question of where I could study theology and the Bible. Prior to that I asked him numerous questions about the Bible, which became more and more elaborate and difficult for him to handle on the spot. He said to me: “Well, you could study at one of the Anglican colleges in England, because the people there can cover your expenses. Or you could try the new school of the Ingrian Church in St Petersburg – I don’t know how strong the program is there, but it may be an option. Oh, wait. There is one more thing. Perhaps something will come up in the LCMS. Last summer I sat in on some summer courses at the Seminary there, and the level of instruction was very high. But you need to wait. Please find a way to keep yourself busy in the next year or two and I will try to work something out.” So I kept myself busy for a while until the “Russian Project” was born in Fort Wayne. But that’s another story…