About This Blog

This is my travel journal chronicling my 2011 tour of Siberia, visiting with our Russian Lutheran brethren in the Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church. Hopefully and God willing, there will be future adventures for me there.

The title is based on a remarkable book (that I actually read after returning home from Russia) called Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier. I found much of his writings to mirror my experiences as an American in Siberia - though Mr. Frazier has made many more trips and experienced many more things than I did - not to mention that he is a better writer. At least for now. Practice makes perfect! Frazier's book (here is a review) is also an interesting look at Russian history and gives an overview of the past writings of American travelers to Siberia. I'm humbled to be yet one more.

I hope that readers of TILS vicariously travel with me and enjoy what I have posted. I hope that it provides a small window into the life and work of the pastors and laity of Siberian Lutheranism (and their extraordinary history) and Russian culture in general.

It is also my hope that readers will: 1) Pray for our Christian brothers and sisters in Russia, 2) Support the outstanding missionary work of the Siberian Lutheran Mission Society, and consider sponsoring a Siberian congregation, 3) Consider visiting Russia for themselves, 4) Support the work of the faithful LCMS pastor Rev. Prof. Alan Ludwig, who has taught at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Novosibirsk for many years and has much of interest to say from his perspective, and 5) Read Ian Frazier's wonderful book
Travels in Siberia (which by the way is available on Nook and Kindle for $9.99)!

Of course, a disclaimer is in order: Ian Frazier has never endorsed this blog, nor have I ever met him or communicated with him. I thoroughly enjoyed his book, however, and am playing with his title for the title of my blog. However, Mr. Frazier, if you're out there - I would love to hear from you some time! I grew up in Cuyahoga Falls - and for some reason, Siberia seems to attract people born in Ohio who feel compelled to write about it. I really did enjoy your book, and I hope you are pleased by my reference to it.

One other disclaimer: other than being a supporter of the Siberian Lutheran Mission Society, I'm not affiliated with SLMS. The material on this blog is mine, and I take sole responsibility for it.

Note: Since I arranged this blog chronologically - which is backward from the way blogs usually work - the buttons at the end that say "Newer Post" and "Older Post" are reversed - just as the "hot" and "cold" water taps are often reversed from the way we're used to them in the states. In other words, if you want to read the next day's installment, click "Older Post" instead of "Newer Post." Just consider this another delightful quirkiness of an American writing about Siberia.

Большое спасибо! Thank you very much!

2011 Journal - Day 15 - July 11

Bishop Vsevolod is on a mission from God

  • Novosibirsk
  • Yurga, 
  • Tomsk

Dan and I have breakfast of leftover sausages from yesterday’s picnic, as well as some cheese, bread, and tea.

I get packed for our trip to
Tomsk. We leave in the bishop’s Jeep about 10:00 am, accompanied by Natasha. Vsevolod is a good driver – sufficiently aggressive for Siberian roads. The lines on the road are more of a suggestion than anything else. It’s great fun!

The bishop needs to gas up the car, but we are not having much luck. One station was out of gas. The roads are choppy and inconsistent. Some are better than others.

After a couple hours of driving, we stop for a break. The first order of business is the toilet. We park at a stop – the local version of the rest area. We park the car and have to cross the highway in a human version of Frogger. There are many cars parked, as well as a couple tour buses. The public toilet has a small crowded entrance. It costs 10 rubles to use the facilities – about 30 cents U.S. There is a subway-like turn-style that only accepts the old-style 10-ruble coin.

People bustle in – especially given the arrival of the tour bus outside. We hurriedly put our coins in the turn-style and pass through the tripod of metal arms that swivel around while people hurriedly exit through the same narrow space. It is a mass of confusion. Men go to the left and women to the right – not that it matters a great deal as the doors are wide open. Since the line to the women’s room is long, several women decide to come into the crowded men’s room. At least the stalls have doors that go all the way to the floor. Many of the men, however, stand with their backs to the open doors.

A tired-looking washerwoman mops the floor – or more accurately, slops dirty water around the floor in a futile attempt to clean.

I enter the stall. The toilets themselves are porcelain holes in the floor. There are a few small rolls of brown industrial toilet paper (so-called) strewn around the stall. I exit and wash my hands. I have trouble finding a hand-dryer that works, and so I dry my hands on the paper towels – which seem to be identical with the toilet paper.

There is a great contrast between the smartly-dressed high-heeled fashion-conscious women and these unfashionable and uninviting bathrooms. I can’t imagine the status quo won’t change as Russian women travel abroad. If nothing else, as McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants spread across Russia (which is probably inevitable), the expectations of public restrooms will likely be raised. Or maybe not! I’m speculating.

We leave the public toilet, emerge into the daylight, and we cross the busy highway to go to the little diner. It is run (like the public toilet) by Armenians. The diner offers traditional Russian fare. I enjoy a shashlik and a nice bowl of plov (плов) – an Asian dish of rice and meat.

I’m offered a blini (pancake) with meat. I only want one, but end up with two – with sour cream (сметана). I’m not a fan of sour cream, but the Russians put it on (and in) just about everything! Admittedly, it tastes different than its American cousin. I also take a small piece of obviously homemade bread, and an instant coffee. It is a wonderful meal. The bishop pays for all of us.


We sit at a round table down the hall – Dan, Natasha, the bishop, and I. In spite of the bustle of people coming and going, we do not feel rushed. We enjoy our lunch and lunchtime conversation.

Afterward, Dan and I go back to the counter on our own. Father Daniel buys an ice cream and I buy a Coke. I really need the caffeine as well as the bubbles for my stomach. The bishop also buys a Coke and scolds me teasingly for me for being “a bad American influence.” I smile and apologize. I get real Coke (not Diet) – as the real Coke has real sugar (unlike the American version sweetened with high fructose corn syrup). The Diet Coke in Russia does not taste good to me. I think it still has saccharine.

We get back on the road as the bishop drives us to Yurga.

The SELC has a parish there, though it is in transition and we won’t be visiting it. The congregation formerly met in a flat in an apartment building that was torn down by the government. They gave the church a different flat – a nicer one than the old one. The new flat is on a nice building, but is on the ninth floor. The church is meeting there temporarily until they can sell the flat and buy a different one on the first floor.

At one point, we have to wait for a herd of horses to cross the street. At least one of them is a very young colt.

Yurga is the site of a concentration camp where Russians of German ethnicity were deported under Stalin’s reign of terror. Most of these deportees were Lutherans. There is a plot of ground in Yurga that is a mass grave from the days of the concentration camp. The bishop explains how horrific the place was. Some people were even buried alive there – rather than receive treatment for illnesses. At the end of Stalin’s regime, the camp was closed – and most of the records were destroyed. People began to build dachas on the site. Many of the camp inmates continued to live there after they were freed. Their freedom, however, was limited by the fact that they could not get passports until the 1970s. In Soviet times, even internal travel required a passport.

After the fall of Communism, relatives of the victims petitioned the Yurga government for a small plot of ground to build a memorial. Today, this park is filled with crosses, stones engraved with names, and a large cross with a wind chime built into it that calls to mind the ringing of church bells. Many of the inscriptions are in German.

Bishop Vsevolod had consecrated the the plot at the invitation of the local government. There is also a small garden area with flowers in the shape of a cross.

The Lutheran Church as invited to build a chapel on the site – but they have no money to do so. How different from the situation with the Russian Orthodox Church, with new and elaborate – and even opulent – churches springing up like gilded mushrooms across the country – paid for by government money.

It is a long haul down the expressway to Tomsk. Some roads are, of course, better than others. It begins to rain heavily.

As he navigates the puddles with his windshield wipers doing yeoman’s work, the bishop puts on an eclectic mix of guitar music. One tune was a haunting anthem by Mark Knopfler (formerly of Dire Straits) with the poignant refrain “We will remember them.” It is called “Remembrance Day" (listen here).  After just visiting the memorial at Yurga, this was providentially appropriate.

I have the opportunity to interview the bishop about Lutheranism in Siberia. It seems that the last Lutheran priest in Siberia (until post-Soviet times) died in prison in the 1940s. He had been arrested and sent to a labor camp, but escaped and heroically returned to his parish to continue his pastoral work. He was re-arrested and shot.

The history of post-Soviet Lutheranism is complicated. In fact, many of the answers to my questions addressed to our Siberian brethren concerning their history and existence in the current culture begin with, “It’s complicated.”

One such complication involves two Russian Lutheran church bodies born of the same mother church. Both the Ingrian and Siberian churches were established as missionary endeavors of the Estonian (Lutheran) Church. The Ingrian Church (centered in St. Petersburg) does not “ordain” women, but sometimes allows female “priests” from the Church of Finland (with whom they share fellowship) to serve in their parishes. The LCMS is also in full communion with this church body.

It’s complicated.

The Siberian Evangelical Lutheran Church is also a daughter jurisdiction of Estonia. Bishop Vsevolod Lytkin is the first bishop of the autonomous Siberian Church.  While the SELC is in communion with its mother church, it does not recognize the validity of "ordained" women (nor their "sacramental" acts) in any church body, nor will it participate in any churchly acts with "ordained" women.

After a long ride, we arrive in Tomsk. It is a big, old (by western standards), university city. The old Lutheran congregation, St. Mary’s, was torn down by Stalin as part of his purge. It was maliciously replaced by a circus – with the ferris wheel (which stands there to this day) being erected on the site of the church's altar. The Russian word for “ferris wheel” is “devil’s wheel.” You can read more about it here.

The pastor, the Rev. Ivan Lokkenberg, was imprisoned and died after a few years. There is still a street in Tomsk called Lutheran Street. The pastor lived near the church, and was courageous throughout the persecution.

The bishop explains that before the Bolshevik Revolution (1917) about 10% of Russians were Lutheran. 60% were Orthodox. The number of Lutherans was significant.

About six years ago, under a post-Communist law, a Lutheran church was built to replace St. Mary’s building that had been destroyed. So, SELC restarted St. Mary’s in this beautiful rustic building that we have just entered. It is utterly remarkable! There is a pipe organ in the loft (Natasha gladly plays as we gladly listen). There is also a small antique pump organ on the main floor. The bishop took video of me playing a scale.

We meet the congregation’s two pastors: Father Daniel Burlikov and Father Alexander Hahn. They also rotate service in Yurga.  I meet Father Daniel first. He speaks very good English having served a vicarage in the United States. He is also Olga Netaeva’s brother. Father Alexander also speaks English, and is actually the only SELC clergyman who was raised in the Christian faith. Both men are kindly, soft-spoken, and devout in their faith. Father Daniel presents me with a beautiful gilded coffee mug illustrating the city of Tomsk. It has since become my vessel of choice for tea drinking (the one on the right). Father Alexander is gregarious and loves to talk. English not being his native tongue is no obstacle!

What a great privilege to count these honorable brothers in Christ as fellow servants of the Lord and brothers in arms in service of the His Bride the Church!

The altar at St. Mary's, Tomsk
We all climb the narrow ladder to the bell tower for an excellent view and wonderful conversation with the two pastors.

Father Daniel explains to us the complex situation regarding St. Mary’s and SELC's relationship with ELKRAS - a more liberal Lutheran church body.  SELC owns the building, but they are supposed to allow the local ELKRAS congregation to also use the building.  ELKRAS is threatening to send a woman "pastor" to lead services.

After our tour of St. Mary's and a drive around town to see the interesting architecture - we go out for coffee and dinner.  Fr. Alexander says goodbye to us.  We visit a nice little a la carte style restaurant.  I get a cappuccino, potato pancake , and a piece of Vienna cake.

A beautiful view of Tomsk

The rain has cleared up, and so we head downtown for a walk.  Tomsk is a gorgeous city - very European looking.  We walk to the Lenin statue and take funny pictures of the anachronistically triumphal dictator being dwarfed by the Orthodox Church that he tried so hard to extinguish.  We stroll around the downtown area.  We visit the Tomsk History Museum and walk up the observation tower to take pictures of the city.  We stroll along the Ob River, and visit the whimsical statue of Anton Chekov, the writer who "praised Tomsk’s food, criticized its women, and ultimately recommended that the city wasn’t worth visiting."

The city's square is beautiful and has statues representing periods in Tomsk history.  The Orthodox church prepares for Vespers as a clergyman stands in the belfry and rings the bells in a hypnotic melody.  We walk back to the bishop's car, say our goodbyes to Father Daniel, and pile in for the four hour return drive.

Again, I have the privilege to sit in the front passenger seat to converse with Bishop Vsevolod about church history, polity, the diaconate, and the history of Lutheranism in Russia.

The ride back never seems to end.  We do stop at the same туалет (toilet) and shashlik joint.  This time the Russians eat heartily - me, not so much.  I ate more than they did on the way up.

We drop off Natasha and head back to the seminary.  I believe it is about 1:00 am when we made it back.

Here is a link to all of my pictures of Day Fifteen (and Sixteen).

Tools of the trade

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