East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring 2000, Covering the Former Soviet Union andCentral and Eastern Europe

Following Communism's Demise:  Is Self-Sustaining Protestant Publishing Possible?

Mark Elliott

The basics for publishing in a market economy involve four essential tasks:  the generation of saleable text, publication, marketing, and distribution.  In the 1990s, the first post-Soviet decade, texts for Evangelical publishing overwhelmingly derived from  the translation of Western works into Slavic and East European languages.  With the many decades of Communist suppression of Christian cultural expression and wholesale exclusion of Christians from higher education, journalism, teaching, and publishing, it is no surprise that translations of Western Christian literature predominated.  Reprints were the rule in the 1990s for Orthodox as well as Evangelicals as the prodigious reproduction of prerevolutionary and emigre Orthodox literature attests.  However, the first decade of the twenty-first century should focus on the encouragement of indigenous Russian writers if Evangelical faith is to develop respect and speak to the heartfelt concerns of its own community and context.

Encouraging Indigenous Writing and Publishing
In one respect all of the one-hundred-plus new Protestant seminaries and Bible schools in the former Soviet Union founded since the advent of glasnost, and dozens more founded or revived in East Central Europe, are training students who will not only speak from the pulpit but who in years to come will write and publish their own understandings of faith for their own people.  Not enough, but a few Western agencies have had the foresight to encourage indigenous writing and publishing:  Cook Communications International, East European Magazine Training Institute, Media Associates International, Overseas Council International, Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries/Association for Spiritual Renewal, and SEN (formerly Central European Fellowship).

In European states under Communist rule, the publication of Christian literature in any appreciable quantity was out of the question.  Today, in contrast, Christian publishing in-country is quite common and cost efficient.

Marketing in Its Infancy
At present, marketing and distribution of Christian literature are in their infancy.  Taking Russia as a case study, political, theological, economic, geographic, and administrative hurdles all thwart effective distribution. Growing anti-Western sentiment since the mid-1990s, and especially in the wake of NATO bombing of Serbia, has made it harder for Western Christian groups, in particular their representatives from NATO countries, to function as effectively as they did in the early 1990s.  Theologically, some Orthodox still associate Bible and Christian book distribution with Protestant proselytism and therefore are wary of it.  Economically, the most recent nosedive in the Russian economy, which began in August 1998, further stymied progress toward self-sustaining Bible and Christian book distribution. Also, the geography of the largest country in the world spanning 11 time zones, even without the fourteen other Soviet republics, is a formidable obstacle for distribution.  But the biggest bottleneck, by far, appears to be administrative:  Russia simply lacks a viable secular or Christian infrastructure for book distribution.

Dysfunctional Distribution
The former Soviet Union has thousands of existing churches and new church fellowships.  But outside a few major cities, these churches do not have ready access to Christian literature.  Distribution is so dysfunctional at present that it often amounts to a church delegating a member to travel to Moscow or St. Petersburg or Kyiv by train to purchase as many Christian titles as can physically be hauled home by one person. The bookstore in the Christian Ministry Center in Moscow, not much bigger in size than a typical street kiosk, carries 800 Christian titles; but most Russian believers across 11 time zones do not know of the existence of the majority of the titles, and would not have access to them if they did.

Free Books Undermining Indigenous Publishing
One reason a distribution infrastructure for Christian books has been slow to develop is that some Christian organizations are still distributing books in Russia at no charge. Gideons have donated 45 million New Testaments and Josh McDowell Ministry has given away 15 million books, the largest number of Christian books other than the Bible distributed by any one agency in Russia.  Self-sustaining Christian book distribution will never develop as long as Christian literature is handed out free of charge or is heavily subsidized.

On the positive side, the Russian Bible Society, with the help of United Bible Societies, and a host of Western agencies have done excellent work in making the Bible available to Russian seekers and believers.  Whereas from 1917 to 1986 the Soviet government sanctioned the import or printing of a mere 450,000 Bibles and New Testaments, printings and imports for 1987-88 ran to 1.3 million, and for 1989 in the order of six million. Quantities since 1990 would appear to have swelled beyond measure.  Current Western leaders in Bible distribution include the Gideons, The Bible League, Revival Fires, and the German-based Bibel Mission.

A Nation That Loves to Read
Another plus for Christian publishers is that Russia has an extremely high literacy rate and Russians are passionate readers.  I often observe Muscovites reading on the subway, and bookstores typically are crowded. And every Russian city has its omnipresent, open-air book kiosks. They underscore Russians' love of reading and the tremendous potential for Christian literature distribution.  Despite the serious downturn in the economy, Russians still are prepared to spend money on quality books, including quality Christian books.  Books that are valued entail careful editing, careful translation for foreign works, and durable paper and binding. Conversely, bare-bones editions of the Bible and Christian books are not a winsome witness in Russia today.

The collapse of Communism has left an ideological and spiritual void that could be filled by Christianity.  Former President Yeltsin even set up a government commission to search for a new undergirding idea to give Russia cohesion and purpose.  Western ministries should do everything in their power to promote quality Christian literature that will foster a spiritually sound and humane Russian "idea" for the twenty-first century.

Promising Developments
In the last several years not enough, but some, promising Christian book distributors have emerged in Russia.  They include:  The Russian Bible Society (Moscow); Bibles for Everyone (St. Petersburg); Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries/Association for Spiritual Renewal (Moscow and Wheaton, IL); MIRT (St. Petersburg); and The Bible League (South Holland, IL).  Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries has seen a dramatic increase in its distribution capacities just in the past 12 months, with 300,000 books sold through 40 distributors.  Russian Ministries also is exploring the possibility of establishing a chain of Christian book kiosks and bookstores in Russia, if capital can be raised to jumpstart this promising approach.

In closing, I would pose two questions for consideration.  First, what can be done to promote an indigenous book market and local self-sufficiency in the distribution of Christian literature?  Second, can Western Bible agencies partner with indigenous booksellers in the sale of quality Bibles and biblical reference works as a means of providing capital to undergird independent indigenous Christian literature distribution systems in the former Soviet Union and East Central Europe? Thinking long term, Western Bible societies can be of great service not only in the provision of scripture, but in support of sustainable infrastructures for distribution not only of the Bible, but also of all manner of Christian literature. Book sales hold promise for helping many indigenous Christian parachurch groups to become self-sustaining if Western groups abandon well intentioned but ultimately destructive free distribution. 

Mark Elliott is editor of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

Mark Elliott, "Is Self-Sustaining Protestant Publishing Possible?" East-West Church & Ministry Report 8 (Spring 2000), 16, 15.

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© 2000 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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