An integral part of Alexander‘s concept was the idea of making the scriptures available to all the peoples of the empire in their various languages. For this purpose he encouraged the establishment of the Imperial Russian Bible Society in December 1812, as a branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society, to undertake the work of translation, publication and distribution… The extent and coverage of the Society‘s work is demonstrated by the fact that in its first year it published or bought and distributed 37,700 New Testaments and 22,500 complete Bibles in Church Slavonic, French, German, Finnish, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Armenian, Georgian, Kalmyk and Tatar. For the purpose it set up new printing presses and imaginatively used retail outlets, such as apothecaries’ shops, which had never previously been used for selling books. By 1821 the New Testament and Prayer Book were starting to appear in modern Russian.
Significantly, the language which aroused the greatest opposition when it came to translation was none other than Russian itself. The Bible existed in a Church Slavonic version, and many churchmen felt that only the Slavonic tongue, consecrated by ancient usage, possessed the dignity to convey adequately the meaning of the scriptures. The Society’s view, on the contrary, was that the Slavonic text was readily understood only by those who had been brought up on it since childhood, and that it was therefore unsuitable for evangelism. At Alexander’s express wish, work was started on a translation into modern Russian, in order ‘to give Russians the means of reading the word of God in their native Russian tongue, which is more comprehensible to them than the Slavonic language in which the scriptures have hitherto been published.’
From the outset, some Orthodox clergymen had opposed the Society’s activities… The resistance reached its apogee in 1824 with a denunciation of the Society by the abbot of the Iur’ev Monastery in [Novgorod], Arkhimandrit Fotii… In a memorandum presented personally to the Emperor, Fotii warned of certain ‘Illuminists’ — Freemasons — who were plotting to install a new worldwide religion, having first destroyed ‘all empires, churches, religions, civil laws and all order’. The Bible Society, he maintained, was preparing the way for this revolution…
Alexander was certainly susceptible to Fotii’s insinuations… In the last years of his life, [his fears of sedition] were intensified by the growth of secret societies inside Russia. He naturally associated them with the societies in Germany, Italy and Spain which threatened European peace and stability as guaranteed by his cherished Holy Alliance… He had hoped that the Bible Society would arm the ordinary people against atheism and sedition. Now he was being warned that, on the contrary, the Bible Society was part of the conspiracy… In the event, he drew back from actually closing down the Bible Society, but he dismissed Golitsyn as head of it, replacing him with the irreproachably Orthodox Metropolitan of [Saint Petersburg], Seraphim…
He also appointed to the Ministry of Education… Admiral Shishkov, the principal protagonist of Church Slavonic. Shishkov lost no time in putting pressure on Seraphim to stop the Russian publication of the Bible. ‘What! Who among us does not understand the divine service? Only he who has broken with his fatherland and forgotten his own tongue… And can this supposed necessity [of publishing the Bible in modern Russian] do other than degrade the Holy Scriptures and thus implant heresies and schisms?’
Seraphim did not take much persuading. Publication of the catechism and the scriptures in ‘the vernacular’ (prostoe narechie) was terminated… Remarkably but characteristically, the continued publication of the scriptures in other ‘vernacular’ languages did not bother the Orthodox hierarchy, but the Holy Synod ordered the burning of thousands of copies of the Pentateuch, which were already being printed in Russian.
The halting of the Russian Bible was fateful. It delayed by a fatal half-century the moment when ordinary Russians could have access to the scriptures in a language which they could read and study with ease. Peter the Great had carried through a kind of Protestant revolution in the church, but a dangerously incomplete one, since it had never been supplemented by mass reading of the scriptures among the population. Without that the domination of the state within the church always threatened to hollow out its spiritual life. The situation had been created where the postman hero of Leskov’s story Odnodum (The One-Track Mind) could be seen as a laughable and possibly dangerous eccentric merely because he was in the habit of regularly reading the Bible for himself.
The Archimandrite’s attitude is still maintained in some Orthodox quarters; this page on the Elder Nilus says “Archimandrite Photius of the Yuriev Monastery… passed into history as a true confessor who battled with the enemies of the Orthodox Church: the Protestants, Masons and the ‘ecumenists’ of that time – the Bible Society.” And you can get a different perspective (from a Jehovah’s Witness point of view) on the history of the Russian Bible here.