The Rev. Dr. Matthew Heise, executive director of the Lutheran Heritage Foundation, gave CUNE students and faculty an overview this week of Soviet repression of Lutheran churches in Russia between the World Wars and how the church is recovering.
The Lutheran Heritage Foundation publishes and distributes Christian books in 96 countries and Heise has served through the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod World Mission in Russia.
Heise talked about the 1800s, when the Russian czar served as the head of the Lutheran Church in Russia, much like the king or queen of England serves as the head of the Anglican Church. That connection ended in 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution and its attack on religion.
Vladimir Lenin, whose mother was Lutheran, founded the “first official atheist state in human history,” Heise said. His goal, and the goal of future rulers like Joseph Stalin, was an abandonment of religion and full faith in man, not God.
Heise described the anti-religion magazine “Bezbozhnik,” published by the Society of the Godless from 1925 to 1941. In its political imagery, a Soviet worker climbs a ladder to Heaven in order to do away with God like their earthly leaders. “Man living by man alone” was their aim, Heise said.
Communist Russia did not allow the teaching of the faith inside church buildings at this time. Yet faithful Christians hosted summer camps to teach children the faith. Many Christian teachers, especially in the cities under surveillance by the KGB – the Soviet secret police – were arrested and executed.
Churches were ravaged and desecrated and over the course of the 20th century, churches were turned into theaters, museums or even swimming pools.
One church was burned until only one brick remained. The congregation continued to worship without a church building, sitting and standing in the grass of the former site, Heise said.
“Even when there’s one brick, the faith never dies in the hearts of the people,” Heise said.
The faithfulness of Russian Christians prevailed. Heise said the Russian government polled a small town during the height of persecution and asked if they still believed in God. He noted 100 percent of the town said yes.
Communism fell in Russia in 1991. Churches were restored and steeples reconstructed. Christians openly educated a new generation of believers who grew up without persecution. Heise in 1993 distributed Bibles in the Red Square, the heart of Russia outside the iconic Kremlin building.
Heise encouraged faithfulness and trust in God., even through persecution. “Joseph Stalin is dead,” he said. “All these other people are dead. Jesus is alive.”