ikhail P. Kulakov, Sr., the first president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Euro-Asia Division, and a pioneering Adventist leader who endured imprisonment for his faith under Joseph Stalin in the former Soviet Union, died of brain cancer February 10 at his home in Highland, California. He was 83.
FROM PRISON TO PRESIDENT: Mikhail P. Kulakov Sr., a pastor and prisoner of conscience under the Soviet Union and Josef Stalin, who survived to become the first president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church's Euro-Asia division, died of brain cancer February 10. Kulakov was 83. [Photos: RHPA]
Once exiled as an “enemy of the state,” Kulakov in the 1980s was able to openly write in leading national Soviet publications about freedom of conscience, winning him respect from fellow believers, dissidents, and human rights activists. He later helped to establish the country’s first Adventist theological seminary.
“He taught us to dream big dreams, [and] not to be afraid of trials and challenges,” said his son Mikhail Kulakov, Jr., who lives in Washington, D.C., and coordinates the Russia-based Bible Translation Institute his father founded.
In a condolence message to the family, Pastor Jan Paulsen, General Conference president, referred to Kulakov as “a highly valued colleague of mine in the service of our church. We are honored to have had Pastor Kulakov serve the church in such an outstanding manner. He will long be remembered for that.”
Paulsen noted that among the notable aspects of Kulakov’s ministry is the fact that he served as the first president of the Euro-Asia Division, a pioneer Adventist leader in the former Soviet Union. “I am indeed grateful for Pastor Kulakov’s influence in establishing the Adventist Theological Seminary in Zaokski. His legacy will be felt for many years to come,” Paulsen said.
Added Ted N.C. Wilson, a general vice president of the world church who had followed Kulakov as ESD president, the Russian pastor “was one of God’s Giants in service for His church in the division. . . . God used him to stand firm for Bible truth when it was not popular to do so. As the first president of the Euro-Asia Division, he helped lay a foundation for the expanded work of God’s church in that vast territory of 11 time zones with millions of people and many unique people groups. His legacy of committed service will live on with the Bible Translation Institute, which he founded, providing modern Bible translation for Russian-speaking people to learn of God’s great love and plan for their salvation.”
Mark Finley, another general vice president who knew Kulakov, wrote that the pastor’s “life has had a profound impression on my life. I am closer to God today because of our friendship.”
Born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) into the family of a Seventh-day Adventist minister who was laboring for conscience amid state-enforced atheism, young Mikhail Kulakov, also known as Misha, endured persecutions, relocations, and the periodic arrests of his father. After becoming the leader of underground worship services he, too, was arrested and sentenced to hard labor in the Gulag followed by exile to Kazakhstan.
Just as he began to serve his prison term the government implemented new, even harsher camp regulations. In his book, Though the Heavens Fall (Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2008), Kulakov wrote of the time his mother hid a tiny New Testament in a food package she sent to him. Discovering it, the censor ripped it to pieces; but, unseen by the official, two pages fluttered to the floor in front of Mikhail. This is how Kulakov described what happened next:
“Once away from his office, it was all I could do to walk slowly. As I came near my barrack, I almost burst into a run, and once inside I removed the wrapping paper with trembling hands. There before me were two sacred pages from the Gospel of John. The first words I saw were part of Jesus’ prayer to His followers: ‘Father, I want those you have given me to be with
me where I am’ (John 17:24).
“I can’t describe to you how I felt at that moment. My heart seemed about to explode. It was as though Jesus were including me in His prayer. ‘Misha,’ He seemed to say, ‘I don’t enjoy seeing you held prisoner in this dirty, stinky barrack. I want you to be with Me in My kingdom of goodness and love.’ That single beam of celestial light, reflecting from those hallowed pages, penetrated the barbed wire and the high fences of the labor camp and illuminated my life.”
As freedom of religion became more prevalent in Russia, Kulakov fulfilled another dream of his by uniting his splintered, isolated, and unofficial cobelievers in Russia and organized them into an entity of the church’s General Conference. Even-tually, a new Euro-Asia Division of Seventh-day Adventists was organized under Kulakov’s presidency, and under his leadership it was possible to establish the first Protestant seminary in Russia, as well as the first Protestant publishing house in the country.
At the same time the membership of the Seventh-day Adventist Church increased dramatically, and new churches were formed throughout the country.
Kulakov had a diploma in Art History, Painting and Technical Drawing from the Ivanovo College of Arts in Russia, and later attended the Moscow Institute of Foreign Languages, where he studied the English language.
He began his career by teaching art in a high school in Latvia. After his release by the government as a political prisoner in 1953, he again taught art in the high school in northern Kazakhstan.
However, in 1955 he began to lead in the pastoral/administrative work of the Seventh-day Adventist underground church in Kazakhstan in the Central Asia Republics. In 1975 he became the leader of the semiofficial Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Russian Federation; and in 1985 he was elected the leader of the Adventist Church in Russia.
In 2003 the institute published a modern-day Russian translation of the Bible, which is heralded today as the top translation in Russia, his son Peter, an Atlanta-based minister, said by phone. The first five books of the Old Testament rolled off the institute’s press on February 10, the day of his death, Peter said.
“We have no doubt that this legacy will bring many people to salvation,” Peter said. “He was one to never quit.”
Kulakov’s wife, Anna, six children, 15 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren survive. His three sons are pastors, and his three daughters are married to pastors.
With additional reporting by Don A. Roth in Yucaipa, California, and Adventist Review staff.