If you had known Ken Howard as a young boy, growing up in the years before World War II, you would have never suspected that this Texas farm boy would become a university professor of economics and work for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). You also could have never known that he would one day play a pivotal role in an illegal Christian network that secretly printed Bibles and biblical material inside the Soviet Union in the waning years of the Cold War.
Young Ken Howard was the son of itinerant farm workers in and around Texas. In the Howard family, work came first. That left little time for school. With both his parents having little schooling themselves, Ken seemed destined for the same life.
But that was not the life Ken wanted, and so he set out to get himself an education, eventually earning his doctorate.
While becoming a college professor in 1969 was in itself a monumental achievement, another series of events transpired that would radically change Ken’s life and directly impact a nation.
Naturally curious and a self-proclaimed tinkerer and problem solver, Ken was always open to new possibilities and challenges. So, when his students asked about going to the Soviet Union after he had mentioned they should go in order to understand the difference in political systems, Ken decided to make it happen.
And so it was on Monday, May 22, 1972, that Ken and his students found themselves near the Kremlin, jostling for position to see President Richard Nixon, who had just arrived for the Moscow Summit.
As the crowd dispersed afterward, a young Soviet approached Ken and asked if they could talk. Ken had never met this man; didn’t know who he was; didn’t know if he was KGB or not. Ken simply trusted, and after a long trip to a park where they could talk freely, he learned more about the struggles of everyday life for Russians.
At one point, Ken asked the man what he knew about the Bible. The young Russian responded, “The Bible starts with Noah and Eve.” Ken, a little exasperated, said sarcastically, “What’s the matter ... haven’t you ever bothered to read the Bible?” The young man responded he had been trying for years to get a Bible, but the price alone would set him back months’ worth of salary.
Right then and there, Ken decided to do whatever he could to help get Bibles to those who desperately wanted them in the Soviet Union. It was a decision that over the next several decades would cost him dearly. His dedication would require prolonged time away from his family, force him to hold down several jobs, and nearly cost him his life. Years later, when asked about his decision, Ken simply said, “You could not walk away from a need like that and just ignore it. So, I did what I could.”
What he did was draw upon his experience and training with the DIA and his own problem-solving skills and natural tinkering abilities.
On his return trip that took him through several Nordic countries, Ken befriended key individuals who were dedicated to smuggling Bibles into the Soviet Union and began working with them. The problems of their covert work were soon apparent. While it was legal to own a Bible in the Soviet Union, you could not bring Bibles into the country, nor distribute Bibles, nor even lead a group Bible study. These individuals and their organizations were pitted against the KGB and the Soviet Army. The odds did not bode well.
True enough, it proved tremendously costly to get just a few Bibles across the border, often at tremendous risk to the carriers and those in the country with whom they were working. Additionally, the KGB worked to infiltrate and compromise several of the organizations.
Ken’s DIA training, plus his Texas-born mistrust of organizations in general, proved invaluable, and he was able to elude the KGB and continue working to smuggle Bibles into Russia. But he and his team were forced into ever more elaborate schemes. Probably the most fantastical scheme was a remote-control boat they planned to sink just off the Russian coast. After it sank, it would release a homing signal that would then allow their Russian counterparts to locate the boat and retrieve the Bibles stowed safely below.
A series of mishaps, plus the mounting costs of the project, forced Ken to abandon it. He later said that was just as well because the KGB were growing so adept at radar and sonar the mission probably wouldn’t have had much success.
Soon afterward, though, Ken happened on the idea that would transform his approach.
Most who attempted to get the Bible into the hands of Russians assumed they had to smuggle Bibles into the country. But what if you could produce Bibles inside the Soviet Union? Ken didn’t come up with this idea. There had already been several attempts to establish underground printing presses in the country, but most proved too costly and couldn’t overcome the problem of detection. If the KGB showed up at the door, there was no way to hide or destroy the evidence of such a large operation.
Ken’s innovation was to create a silk screen method of printing that overcame both problems. First, it was a relatively inexpensive printing method to set up, and second, if the KGB came knocking, the whole apparatus could be quickly disassembled and thrown into a fire. The method enjoyed immediate success. In fact, this method was so effective that soon around 75 printing presses had spread throughout all 15 republics of the Soviet Union. Even more importantly, as far as Ken has been able to find out, no one involved in this printing process was ever imprisoned.
Screen printing was an ingenious system whose success made Bibles more readily available to those who desperately wanted them. Ken, however, was not one to take credit. Rather, he pointed to those inside the Soviet Union who endured real hardships and constantly risked imprisonment for this work to succeed. He saw himself as a minor collaborator, reliant on those inside the USSR for their perseverance, their willingness to risk their lives, and their ingenuity to make it happen — they even came up with their own ink made from melted tires and butter and diluted with vodka. But more than this, Ken Howard’s story shows the impact the Bible can have in motivating even the most unlikely of people to take incredible risks and do amazing things and, in turn, the impact that person can have on the world.