Lutherans in Latvia and the ex-Soviet Union

St. Louis’ Gateway Arch has appeared over Riga


The one-time Soviet republic of Latvia is not at all like the former East Germany:  Latvia still sports the familiar socialist look.  Long lines cue in front of grocery stores; Western glitz and pornography remain nearly invisible.  Phone calls to foreign countries are a rare feat and mail still takes weeks to arrive.


For Westerners with a hard, convertible currency like the dollar, Latvia offers once-in-a-lifetime bargains.  A 32-hour train ride from Riga to Berlin cost the author slightly over a dollar; a three-course meal in a higher-notch restaurant reduced his cash assets by 20 to 30 cents.  But in matters of economics, one party's feast is usually another's funeral: An average monthly salary in Latvia (500 rubles) presently converts to $6.25.

Despite economic problems, Latvian Lutherans remain surprisingly upbeat. They expect to become what they were prior to World War II: a state church.  Squeamishness regarding the pitfalls of a close association between church and state is not apparent.  Both the new university theological faculty and Latvia's first Christian elementary school are the products of government funding.

Latvian Lutherans are busily consecrating flags and monuments.  Mara Zviedre, a poet and member of Riga's newly-founded theological faculty, states flatly:  "The Lutheran church has been a primary motor in the movement towards national independence."  The "Rebirth and Renewal" movement, which played an early role in the independence movement, was created in Lutheran circles.


Doubters claim that Latvian Lutherans preach the nation along with the Gospel.  On the train to Berlin, a Jewish professor complained about Lutheran presence in the forefront of the struggle to create a Latvia strictly for Latvians.  Over 40% of Latvia's residents are non-Latvian, primarily Russian.  Indeed, Latvians are a minority in their own capital, Riga.  Latvia is no Protestant diaspora: Traditionally, there have been as many Lutherans as Catholics in Latvia.  Present Lutheran membership is estimated to be between 400-600,000; pre-World War II Latvia had boasted 900,000 Lutherans.


Riga also happens to be the seat of a second independent Lutheran church:  the "German Evangelical-Lutheran Church in the Soviet Union" (DELKSU).  This church was not officially founded until April 1989.  It represents approximately 400 congregations and is territory-wise the largest Lutheran church in the world.  Nevertheless, Latvian Lutherans tend to avoid contact with it.
Latvian reserve is based upon the suspicion that this German church is in reality a Russian one.  The absence of DELKSU representatives from church festivities during Latvian independence day celebrations on November 18 supports in their eyes this suspicion.

These conclusions regarding the DELKSU are not baseless: Most young people still hear German only in church.  The church's name is also problematic for an additional reason:  Since the recognition of Latvian independence last summer, this church's headquarters are no longer located within the Soviet Union.  This is one reason why Latvians are quietly recommending that DELKSU-headquarters be moved to Russia proper.

The DELKSU is also beset by other problems.  Its German-Latvian bishop, Harald Kalnins, is attempting to remold the isolated congregations between the Baltic Sea and the Pacific Ocean into a church.  This has caused new tensions on the congregational level.  Congregations which had arisen strictly from the grass roots are now expected to follow the command of distant church superiors.  Not all congregations are willing to give up the necessary sovereignty and power.


The charming, 80-year-old bishop explains: "Many churches had to begin at point zero.  They gathered together around a Bible, or prayer, but not a single pastor was in sight.  Yet a lay 'brother' is not the same thing as a pastor!  That has been the issue.  Who will have the final say: the 'brethren', or the church, the pastors' church?"


The DELKSU receives no aid from the Latvian government, but it is not empty-handed.  It is kept alive by the donations of Western churches and missions.  A portrait of St. Louis' Gateway Arch is displayed in the church's cramped Riga headquarters, but the support being supplied by the Missouri Synod is also obvious in other ways.  Missouri Synod professors are involved in the five-week theological courses being offered in Riga; in January, the Missouri Synod begins a Russian-language radio work based in Riga.  Happily, professors from the German-language seminary in Sibiu, Rumania are also involved in this seminary.  As members of a pietistic minority church in Orthodox surroundings, the Germans of Romania seem especially suited for work within the DELKSU.  Liberal Western-schooled Lutherans would have more difficulty adjusting to a church in which some congregations still forbid the wearing of neckties.

Church headquarters expect to coordinate aid projects, but only by coincidence did they hear of Missouri's plans to develop a "Luther house" in St. Petersburg.  Professor Gerhard Krodel of Gettysburg Seminary has begun to gather donations to open a seminary within Russian borders.  This project was also begun without prior consultations in Riga.  But DELKSU-officials hasten to add that they endorse this effort wholeheartedly.  Interestingly enough, the Missouri Synod has already purchased property for the construction of a DELKSU-seminary near Riga.  All parties seem aware that a certain rivalry between Missouri and the ELCA exists.  The Evangelical Lutheran Synod is also part of the act: In Kiev it is developing projects completely free of any cooperation with DELKSU-officials.

Beside state funds, most funding for the Latvian Lutheran church stems from exile Latvian churches and synods in Western Europe, Australia and North America.  Visvaldis Klive, Professor of Philosophy at Wittenberg University in Ohio and an ethnic Latvian, is one of numerous Western persons now serving the Lutherans of Latvia.  He has been instrumental in the founding of the theological faculty at the University of Latvia.


Beside the three ethnic churches in the Baltics and a new Finnish church, a rival Lutheran church based in St. Petersburg and consisting of roughly 26 congregations has been formed.  DELKSU-leadership is concerned that some Western-sponsored projects could lead to the creation of additional Lutheran denominations.  Consequently, Western donations and projects are being accepted with some nervousness.


Rector of the DELKSU-seminary presently based in Riga is Georg Kretschmar of Munich.  He explains: "We know that projects are sprouting up everywhere in Germany and that contacts are being sought.  This is a wonderful and magnificent thing, but sometime soon these projects will need to be tied into a general church-wide concept.  Aid for Russia is 'in' right now. The formerly German city of Königsberg is awash in aid programs.  Everyone intends only to help, but the result on location is chaos.  True aid implies that one respect the specific and real needs of our church.  Everyone wants this, yet it is so difficult to realize that in practice."


Bill Yoder

Berlin, Nov. 21, 1991


An edited version of this article appeared in “The Lutheran” in Chicago/USA, 1,085 words.