Lutheran Life in the Kaliningrad enclave

Church life arising from the ashes


For a remote Russian vil­lage buried within the forests of central "Northeast Prussia", August 22, 1998 was a big day. On that Saturday morning, Gromovo celebrated its first church service in over 50 years. Since scavengers had over the years left only the church steeple standing, the service took place in a farmhouse. All of Northeast Prussia's Lutheran clergy (three pastors from Germany and a local, ethnic German lay pastor) attended.


In the past 10 years, Lutheran church life has arisen from the ashes in the Russian enclave known by its largest city: Kaliningrad. This portion of German East Prussia fell to the Soviet Union in 1945 and is now a Russian island surrounded by Lithuania to the north and Poland to the south. Kaliningrad (or Königsberg in German) is located 370 miles northeast of Berlin. Moscow is nearly twice as far.


After the service and elementary religious instruction, Provost (Propst) Peter Witten­burg of Rostock, the leading Lutheran clergyman in the enclave, asked the worshipers about their religious roots. Two of the 30 were of German background, another had once known Catholics. All others had never before attended church. At prayer time, only one local remembered that one always stands to pray in Russia.


Until 1986, the only church services in this isolated military zone were held by the small Baptist community. Pastor Kurt Beyer, the first Lutheran pastor from Germany, laughs when he reports on the reaction of many of the thousands of annual visitors from Germany. "When I came, people told me they were without any church tradition. So I simply introduced my own and held church services like the ones back in Dresden. So today, visiting Germans exclaim: 'The church services are just like the ones back home!' And people from here make the same experience when they visit Germany." Many ethnic Germans who emigrated to Germany over the past three decades hailed from the 500 Lutheran congregations in the Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. Rev. Beyer says the ethnic Germans now in the Kaliningrad region "stem from the white spots in between".


The small Kaliningrad congregation of 50 was in disarray when Rev. Beyer arrived in late 1991. The sectarian "New Apostolic" church had made heavy inroads into the congregation. Some participants had been baptized by a grandmother or another family member. When Beyer left five years later, as many as 400 were attending the services, choir and children's work were thriving.


Despite constant strife among the church laity, this Russian island remains an impressive missions story. Though a thousand of its members have left for Germany in each of the last three years, membership has remained constant at roughly 3,000. Ethnic German and ethnically-mixed families from the new islamic states of Central Asia are still arriving. Adult baptisms occur almost daily; 250 baptisms and confirmations took place last year.


Local Lutheran leadership remains a problem. Most promising young people have departed for Germany leaving it to pastors from Germany with little background in the Russian language and culture to gather the flock. Baptists who emigrated to Germany and became citizens have caught the vision and are now returning to Russia as missionaries. It appears likely that Lutheran clergy of the future will have made the same detour.


Officially the Lutheran church was only given access to the enclave to serve ethnic Germans. Yet most Germans are married to non-Germans. The Orthodox church lays claim to all ethnic Russians from birth. Yet no more than half of all Russians consider themselves to be Orthodox and this church does not possess the means to address the needs of even that number. Provost Wittenburg maintains: Our churches are open to all, and any restrictions according to nationality "would be apartheid". Only Russian is spoken in some Lutheran services.


Though relations with the mainly Polish and Lithuanian Catholic congregations are cordial, Lutheran-Orthodox and Lutheran-government tensions flare when church ownership is discussed. Lutherans would have been overjoyed to get Kaliningrad's "Luisenkirche" (St. Louise) returned. But it had been converted into a puppet theater 30 years ago and its proprietors expected a brand new theater as a condition for returning St. Louise. Yet German Lutherans believe donors would only fund the building of church centers. As a result, a new Lutheran church is rising on the grounds of a former cemetery. It will be costing 3 Million DM ($1,818,000); funding for only 1.8 million DM is in place. The official dedication of Northeast Prussia's first new Lutheran church is planned for Spring 1999.


Back in Gromovo this past August, the Lutheran pastors noted that 27 of the villages 80 families had requested the founding of a congregation. But weren't the pastors already spread too thin? The four of them are serving 31 congregations and house groups throughout the entire enclave. The lay pastor, Vladimir Michelis, noted: "It would be ideal if they could attend our church in Chernyahovsk (Insterburg). But the bus connections are very poor and none of them could afford the fare anyway."


And are the villagers truly interested in the spiritual, or are they attracted above all by the chances for humanitarian aid? In this instance, evidence to the contrary was available: Without prompting the villagers had volunteered to pay a church tax of five rubles (roughly 50 cents) per month. Provost Wittenburg stated in closing: "We'll ponder the matter a little longer and then we'll let you know."


Dr. Bill Yoder

Berlin, October 14, 1998


Written for „The Lutheran“ in Chicago, 885 words


Note from November 2021: The retired pastor Peter Wittenburg (born 1941) resides in Rostock. He was Provost (or Dean) in Kaliningrad from 1996 to 1998. Dresden pastor Kurt Beyer (1932-2015) served as Dean in Kaliningrad from 1992 to 1996. The retired Vladimir Michelis is residing in Chernyakhovsk/Insterburg; he was ordained in 2002. You will find his German-language bio here under “RU-Lutheraner”, 17 January 2003.