To Russia, With (God’s) Love
A WAU professor translates and unveils an interdenominational Bible for Russian-speaking people, making God’s Word come alive.
Story by Angie Crews
He did it. Michael Kulakov Jr. accomplished what many thought impossible. He completed an epic spiritual work started by his impassioned father that transcended denominational affiliation in a country marked by years of religious intolerance. Kulakov, through an unprecedented collaboration between nearly a dozen Seventh-day Adventist, Orthodox and Jewish scholars, recently published a new interdenominational Bible translation in Russia, and only the second major translation to be released in post-Soviet Russia.
In May at an official unveiling of the New BTI Bible at Zaoksky Adventist University in Tula, which Kulakov Jr. helped establish in 1987, there were joyful tears and excitement as those involved in the undertaking shared their stories of sacrifice and dedication to making the Bible a reality.
How it Began
Converting the Holy Scripture into modern Russian was first put into motion through the formation of the Bible Translation Institute (BTI), founded in 1993 by M.P. Kulakov Sr. (left), a Russian pastor, scholar and church leader. Opening the BTI, housed inside the Zaoksky Theological Seminary, was the pastor’s lifelong dream.
It was in the late 1940s, very early in his ministry in the city of Daugavpils, Latvia—and prior to a five-year imprisonment in Stalin’s labor camps for being a Christian—that Kulakov Sr. began to comprehend the great need for a new translation of God’s Word into modern Russian. During that time, he frequented the home of Pastor Janis Oltinsh, which contained a massive library of theological literature in various languages. Oltinsh was an accomplished Bible scholar, and he had a strong, formative influence on the young pastor.
It was Oltinsh who introduced Kulakov Sr. to the advantages of comparing various translations of the Bible—literal and amplified. Out of that mentorship, Kulakov Sr. decided to begin a collaboration with scholars from other denominations, to produce from the original languages a more accurate version that would help Russians clarify the meaning of passages that may have once puzzled them.
There have only been two major translations released in Russia during the past millennium: the Gennadievskaya version published in the 15th century and the Synodal version at the end of the 19th century. Both use antiquated language that is difficult to interpret, and the Synodal version was hard to come by. As a result, Russian seminarians in the early 19th century instead used the more accessible Latin Vulgate Bible. As Russian universities slowly began teaching biblical studies, the Bible was often absent from the curriculum. Not even students at Kazan Orthodox Seminary had a Bible of their own.
Translation work was impossible for most of the 20th century due to the atheistic regime. Only at the end of that century did translation work resume, and some new versions emerged.
A Legacy Fulfilled
Kulakov Sr. spent more than a decade working on the new translation of the New Testament and Psalms. When he passed away in 2010, his BTI colleagues were despondent, as they assumed the project and institute would die with him. What they didn’t realize was that his son was committed to finishing the work.
Kulakov Jr., however, was a full-time professor of theology, history and philosophy at Washington Adventist University (WAU) in Takoma Park, Md. He decided to seek the support of Weymouth Spence, WAU president.
“I saw how important this project was to the mission of our church and how it aligned with our values as a university,” explains Spence, whose administrative team granted Kulakov Jr. the university’s first five-year sabbatical to complete the translation.
“We couldn’t have done this without the support of Washington Adventist University,” said Kulakov Jr. at the unveiling ceremony. “This is all happening as if it were a dream. It will take a few years, lots of rest and meditation for this moment to really sink in.”
The project was also a momentous landmark for the Adventist Church in Euro-Asia. Although Russia’s primary religion is Eastern Orthodox, through the BTI collaboration and leadership of G.E. Biaggi, president of the Euro-Asia Division, a more trusting relationship has been forming between the Adventist Church and other faith communities.
This is evident in the New BTI Bible’s quick acceptance across the country. A number of Orthodox clergymen are excitedly using it. Also, professionals from the department of biblical studies at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University and other theological schools are encouraging their students to use it.
Adventist BTI team members have been surprised to see their work received so positively, but see it as testimony that the Lord led in the project. “What a blessing it is for this to be received so positively by other denominations,” says Biaggi. “We are thrilled to see this happen in our lifetime.”
Dave Weigley, president of the Columbia Union Conference and WAU board chair, adds, “I am so excited that we can be a part of providing the Word and the Light to the masses. Incredible, incredible opportunity! This will make such a difference because we know the Word does not return void.”
The Work Continues
The New BTI Bible is formally presented this month at the 60th General Conference Session in San Antonio, Texas, giving the world church body an opportunity to praise the Lord for His divine work. And, Ted Wilson, church president, will ask the Holy Spirit to speak to the hearts of the thousands of Russian readers who will get a first or renewed taste of God’s Word.
Next for the new Bible is an effort to reach Russian young adults and youth. The BTI Board of Trustees voted in May to support the development of a mobile app version, along with an illustrated children’s edition.