Russian Baptist Immigrants in Germany

Russian-German Baptists Cannot be Bought


A Conversation with Pastor Hermann Hartfeld


M o s c o w – The ethnic-German Baptist Hermann Hartfeld from Brühl/Germany grew up in Omsk/Siberia. He was arrested for his missionary efforts in 1962 at the age of 20 and sentenced to five years in a labor camp. During that period he got the “privilege” of doing sanitation work without protective gear on the atomic testgrounds at Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan and labouring in uranium mines. He was arrested a third time in 1973 and allowed to emigrate to the West a year later. After theological studies in Western Europe, Winnipeg and Fresno/California, he served as a pastor in Switzerland and Germany beginning in 1981. From 1999 until his retirement in 2007, Hartfield, who has a doctorate in theology, lectured at the “Bible Seminary Bonn” (BSB), which is strongly supported by “Aussiedler” (Russian-Germans who have emigrated to Germany). Since the downfall of communism, Hartfeld has been active in building structures for the theological education of Baptists in Russia. He recently held lectures at the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists’ (RUECB) “Moscow Theological Seminary” on counseling. William Yoder interviewed him there on 16 October.


Is it fair to say that the Aussiedler in Germany are more conservative than those Baptists remaining in Russia today?


Ethnic Germans were already more conservative during the Sovet period. In the USSR they often had their own congregations and villages. Only ethnic-Russian Baptists were concerned about addressing Russian culture. In Germany, they were then confronted with German Baptists who also seemed alien and different. Aussiedler were at home neither in Russia nor in Germany. They are still on a search to find their own identity.


Why are Aussiedler so afraid of inter-denominational relations? In view of Orthodox preponderance, Russian Protestants are forced to stand together – also with Pentecostals, of course. It’s a matter of survival.


Aussiedler are fearful and insecure. That fear is often justified by quoting Scripture, for ex. II. Thessalonians 2,9-10. Many of them assume the Antichrist is to be found within the ecumenical movement.


The few Aussiedler still attending German Baptist congregations impress me as shy and unsure of themselves. I feel sorry for them!


People were deeply intimidated in the Soviet Union, one did not attempt to express one’s position. One did not practice the skill of fruitful discussion. The second matter is language: Aussiedler do not speak German like the Germans from Germany. Those born in the USSR also rarely have the level of educational training Germans have. The mentality is different and inferiority complexes are strong.


You are among the few who have remained with the German Baptist „Federation of Evangelical Free Churches“ (BEFG). Why do you not belong to one of the Baptist unions founded by Aussiedler?

I come from the non-registered Baptists. I observed the tendencies towards division – also in Germany – and that turned me off. One accuses each other of having worked for the KGB; anybody who thought differently was immediately labeled a liberal. I told myself: “I don’t want to be a part of that. I’ve had enough of that. I want to build up the church of Christ.”


Is time on the side of the native German Baptists? Will coming generations bring about a merging of Russian-German and German unions?


The younger generation is freer on matters of external appearance. But many graduates of BSB are even stricter in ethical terms than were their parents – which I do not necessarly regard as problematic. Only a few young people will be joining the BEFG. The beginnings of historical-critical exegesis bother them – but apparently not all of them.


So is a long-term existence to the right of the evangelical mainstream (BEFG, Pentecostals, Lausanne Movement, Baptist World Alliance) plausible?


That indeed is thinkable. Bible institutes such as Brake, Giessen and the BSB will retain a reason to exist for a good while yet. Only a few Russian-Germans will find a path elsewhere.


Have the German Baptists really been friendly enough? Their congregations do not always have an inviting atmosphere. They often do not attempt to reach out to Aussieder.


I don’t think that’s very true. Pastors such as Dr. Günter Wieske and Viktor Krell have tried very hard. They gave the first Aussiedler pretty much everything. I think the sobering moment came in the 1980’s when the great exodus out of Russia began. One then began to condemn the German Baptists as “ecumenists” – even though they do not belong to the World Council of Churches. Also in ethical terms – sexual ethics, for ex. – they regarded the Germans as questionable.


German Baptists then responded with a disenchantment of their own. “We invested so much, we demonstrated so much love. We thought they were people arriving from the East who would reinvigorate our Union! And now they don’t want to have anything to do with us.” The Germans have grown tired. One says it won’t do any good anyways. We did so much and they have remained ungrateful. But that is also proof of the fact that Russian-German Baptists are very stubborn and cannot be bought. They otherwise would never have withstood the terrible persecution.


Aussiedler of Baptist background outnumber native German Baptists nearly 3 to 1. (The BEFG has a membership of 76.000). One is fearful that Aussiedler might help form – probably in cooperation with the the USA’s Southern Baptist Convention - an alternative, international Baptist union.


The largest Aussiedler congregations see no need to join forces with the SBC. They also will not be impressed by the funding which the SBC has to offer. Russian-German Baptists cannot be bought.


I think both sides have illusions. If the Russian-Germans only knew what all happens within the SBC! Southern Baptists are not unified, they are not a homogenic, fundamentalist and Biblically-inerrant Baptist movement. They presently have a conservative leadership. But if they would vote in another leadership, then many things would change. The SBC is a kind of “state church” in some regions of the US, and a large, decentrally-organised church can vary a great deal from location to location. There are even charismatic Southern Baptists.


Southern Baptist history has not always been uplifting. For a good while, they supported slavery and racism. SBC-leadership also approved of the still-ongoing war in Iraq. If Russian-Germans get wind of that, they could break ties immediately. The SBC only needs to make one major mistake and it will be history for them.


There are Baptist unions in Central Asia who rely on funding from this source. But that really only functions until one becomes well-acquainted. One can observe that time-and-again: When movements become well-acquainted, their differences become much too great. In the SBC, women have no head covering and wear pants. Even a Southern Baptist cannot always survive without a cigar. What one tries to forbid in one’s own union, is part of the daily bread among the foreign partner.


Are the immigrants in the USA from the USSR different from those in Germany?


They are culturally more integrated in the USA. They are somewhat more liberal there, but not necessarily more liberal theologically. Those who have emigrated to North America or Germany are very reserved towards each other. The Russian-German believes he has suffered too much at the hands of the Russians to support them financially now. They prefer to give their funding for missions to Africa or South America. They will also help more readily in Ukraine; hundreds of thousands are flowing into Moldova. “Russians have done us evil,” they say. And they identify communist torture with the Russians per se. That feeling resides down deep within older persons and cannot be removed. But the younger generation sees things quite differently.


That is very unjust! The Russians themselves also suffered immensely at the hands of the communist system.

The Russians are completey correct about that! The vast majority of Baptists in prison with me were Russians. But those three centuries of German history in Russia cannot be erased.


In Germany, Russian-Germans are very happy to receive Russians from Russia as guests.


(RUECB-President) Yuri Sipko is always welcome there – also at the BSB for ex. But one still does not have a sense of belonging together.


What has become different among the Baptists in Russia during the last 20 years? What surprises you?


They have gotten lukewarm. The repression earlier had fired their enthusiasm. They were oriented towards mission. Today, people are fighting for economic survival – or they want to possess more than just the necessities. Congregational life no longer takes centre stage – financial success does. In my youth, we survived on bread and water and were happy. Today I see grumpy, unhappy faces dissastisfied with their material status.


Congregations are no longer interested in centralised structures. They simply up-and-leave the Union if they feel like it. They prefer to be autonomous. This too makes me very sad. We need unity in Christ and not splinter groups bent on doing their own thing.


William Yoder, Ph.D.

Department for External Church Relations, RUECB

Moscow, 08 November 2008


A release of the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists. It is informational in character and expresses solely the opinion of the interviewed person. Release #08-53, 1.475 words.