Photo by Jed Wells.
While the light of the Restoration was breaking forth in America, a preparatory light was also breaking forth in Russia. Now, with their first stake recently dedicated and the Book of Mormon newly translated into Russian, the Church is growing there stronger than ever. Read about the exciting progress of the Church since the Iron Curtain opened in 1989.
Joseph Smith and Pushkin, Russia’s beloved poet and the founder of Russian literature, were contemporaries. Pushkin published his first poem at age 15. Not long after, Joseph Smith had the First Vision in his 15th year. Pushkin’s novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, was serialized between 1825 and 1832. The Book of Mormon was published in 1830. Both men are revered to this day. Each died in their late 30s by an angry bullet.
In 1843, six years after Pushkin’s death and not long before his own, Joseph Smith called Orson Hyde and George J. Adams to serve as missionaries in the “vast empire” of Russia, “to introduce the fullness of the gospel to the people” there, where “is attached some of the most important things concerning the advancement and building up of the kingdom of God in the last days, which cannot be explained at this time.”
The assignment was never fulfilled but would have been a most challenging one considering the rich, millennial tradition of the Russian Orthodox Church—with close ties to the government. At that time there wasn’t even a complete Russian translation of the Bible, which came out decades later. And many were illiterate.
With the Bolshevik-led October 1917 revolution, atheism became the official religion and the Bible was not widely read or available. The country was closed to all Christianity, which included The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Iron Curtain Opens
At the October 1989 general conference, Elder Nelson told Steven R. Mecham, who was serving as mission president in Helsinki, Finland, that President Benson had received revelation that missionaries were to enter the Soviet Union and that he would soon see “physical and spiritual manifestations of the Lord’s hand in taking the gospel into Russia.” One month later, the world watched as the Berlin Wall came down.
A year and a half later, on April 26, 1990, Elder Nelson told Mecham it was time to rededicate Russia for missionary work. They needed to do it right, he said, in the Summer Garden, where Elder Francis M. Lyman, then-president of the European Mission and member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, first dedicated Russia in 1903. (Political turmoil surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution had prevented the Church’s establishment at that time.)
When the two arrived at the garden, however, they found it closed and guarded. “It looks like it’s closed,” said Mecham. “It’s never closed to the Lord,” Elder Nelson responded.
So Mecham approached a guard, telling him that an apostle of Jesus Christ wanted to use the gardens to offer a blessing on the country. “Nyet!” yelled the guard, pushing Mecham away. But as Mecham walked back to the car, the guard stopped him. “You touched me,” he said. Mecham apologized. “No,” said the guard, “you touched me, and I felt something.” The guard then told Mecham of a secret place on the other side of the garden where they could enter.
Once inside, Elder Nelson located the historic spot of the first dedication and kneeled in prayer. Then he stood up and related that President Kimball and his wife, Camilla, had longed for that day, and that President Benson and his wife, Flora, were with them in spirit. Elder Nelson then said they had a symbolic manifestation of that. He directed Mecham to read the names inscribed on the two female statues at that spot of the garden—“Camilla” and “Flora.” Elder Nelson took one look at Mecham’s astounded face and simply said, “Nothing spiritual in life is ever a coincidence.”
The Morning Breaks, the Shadows Flee
This was the beginning of the “dawning of a brighter day.” For the first time, the Bible itself was widely available and accessible—and the Book of Mormon, translated over decades by 1917 convert André Anastasion, majestically rose in Russia. In just three years, Moscow had 15 small branches. But there were great challenges that lay ahead.
Though the Church briskly expanded its reach into Russia, establishing several missions there (there are currently eight), the country is huge, covering about one-eighth of the world’s land, and the challenge of administering the Church across “the vast empire” has not been easy. (The longest train ride in the Novosibirsk Mission was 54 hours until a recent boundary change.)
The economic cataclysm of the ’90s after the breakup of the Soviet Union strained the Russians as they tried to follow the western economic model. With little experience in this new paradigm, organized crime became rampant and fortunes were made only to be lost or stolen. The government went into default in 1998. There was a drain of Church leadership as many of the new Saints, and numerous others who could get out of Russia, did. The core strength needed to maintain the growth of the Church was diminished. Still, some stayed, served missions, and helped keep the Church roots preserved for better times ahead.
The Second Wave
In those troubled times the Lord was preparing the next group, the second wave. For example, Timur, who lived in Rostov, Russia, in the turbulent ’90s, was the son of a very wealthy man caught up in the crime. His father had flirted with religion, taking Timur and his sister to a Pentecostal church on occasion. At age 10, Timur was playing on the fifth floor in a building construction zone. He lost his balance and fell. His playmates gathered round him, thinking him dead. Timur then asked them to pray for him.
“We don’t know how to,” his friends said. So Timur, flat on the ground, taught his friends to pray for him. “It was the first time in my life I had prayed out loud,” he says, smiling.
His father disappeared into the milieu when Timur was 14. When his mother contracted cancer just two years later, Timur was sent into the country to live with an aunt. It was there that he fell in love with the Bible. He then returned home to care for his mother, who passed away. Parentless at age 17, Timur himself was caught up in crime and ended up in prison, twice. It was at this time that an uncle introduced him to the Book of Mormon.
“I told my uncle that it was impossible to live like Jesus Christ,” Timur says. But his uncle simply answered, “You can,” words that continuously echoed in Timur’s mind. After being released from prison, he saw two missionaries on the other side of a busy outdoor shopping bazaar and fought through the crowd to meet them. Not long after, Timur became part of the second wave of converts, who were more prone to stay as increasingly favorable economic conditions in Russia prevailed. (Watch a great video of Timur telling about his experiences here--but make sure you have the captions enabled!
With this second, steady but slower-coming wave of converts, an increasing number of native Russians started going on missions in spite of the challenges. For example, it is often best for potential missionaries to wait until they have finished college, because leaving midstream would mean starting all over, and maybe not even getting reaccepted. For the brethren, the challenge is compounded because of required military service—required unless one is currently in higher education, graduates in particular fields in the hard sciences, or doesn’t pass the physical. Many of the native missionaries sorted through the challenges anyway and served missions, often at a substantially older age during their service than their American counterparts.
One advantage Timur had: the military wouldn’t draft someone who had been in prison. He was free to go—and did, serving a powerful mission in Moscow through 2010.
The Honored and the Abundantly Honored
Several people of prominence have joined the Church. For example, just three weeks before Timur completed his mission, he baptized Vladimir, a retired rocket scientist who as a young child was in a German concentration camp. Vladimir has more than 50 rocket patents to his name and spent the better part of three years studying the gospel with the Saints before his baptism.
Another member, Evegeniya, won the national championships as a youth in Russian speed-bike racing. She is currently serving a mission in Vladivostok.
Though these Saints bring great honor to the Church, the core strength of the Church in Russia truly comes from “those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour” (1 Cor. 12:23).
Take, for instance, Igor. Raised by a faithful, single mother of small means (yet still serving as a district Relief Society president), Igor was set apart for his mission in their no-bigger-than-20×20-foot apartment with wall-to-wall Church art and photos. In that hallowed place that felt much like a temple, Igor then gave his mother a beautiful, deeply spiritual farewell blessing using his recently received Melchizedek priesthood.
One great challenge facing the smaller branches in less-developed cities is the spirit of gathering that has also touched many of the Saints. Like the exodus to the West in the ’90s, many are now gathering to places where there are larger enclaves of Saints, Moscow being chief among them. It is estimated that well above 50 percent of the Church members in Moscow have joined the Church elsewhere—from Magadan, eight time zones east (3,700 miles), to Veronezh (900 miles) and everywhere else.
One of the places members gather is even farther away: the temple. The sense of family in the Russian people is deep, and when the gospel comes into their lives, they are driven to seek out their ancestors. Perhaps this desire is fueled by the fact that Russia lost 27 million people in World War II alone (more than all the other countries combined), not to mention the estimated 21 million who perished in the Soviet era through starvation due to the forced collectivizations during the ’30s and through many other atrocities. Everyone has stories about their ancestors’ struggles during those times.
For many members, the Spirit of Elijah is so strong that they will often take precious vacation time to journey to the temple—in another country. During an entire week, they have been known to spend all day in the temple and then the evenings socializing with one another. There is a strong, hallowed connection among the temple goers that crosses the land.
Shall the Youth of Zion Falter?
With a small but growing stream of Russian returned missionaries and valiant young single adults, many of them are finding each other and getting married, being sealed in the temple after the required civil service in the country. In one congregation in Moscow, there were so many children that a large room in one of the buildings had to be converted to a place for the nursing mothers. About one-third of the members in Russia are young single adults, and there is an increasing social online community in addition to conferences each summer for various regions. The future is bright for the Church because the Saints are becoming grounded in the ordinances of the temple. And Timur, himself, was just married in June to a returned missionary.
A Stake Is Formed
On June 5, 2011, the first stake in Russia was formed in Moscow. Over 1,000 Saints gathered as a very young presidency was installed. Yakov, the new president and former Moscow District president, was only 32. His first counselor was also 32 and his second only 27. And for the first time, a native Russian patriarch was in the land. Previously, there had only been two traveling patriarchs for the 116 congregations spread throughout the country, both of whom were foreigners, and they would often go to an area and give up to 90 blessings in a three-week period because of the high demand.
A few other cities in the north, south, and east slowly but surely march toward becoming stakes, and the Saints look forward even further to the day when they can have their own temple. The outlook can sometimes seem dim because of the intervention of those who would do anything to keep that from happening on Russian soil—there are great challenges even getting sufficient meetinghouses for the Saints. As the stake was being formed, Elder Russell M. Nelson counseled the Saints that they should strive to become a temple-ready people and have faith that when that time comes, the Lord will provide.
Vast Parts of the North Country Still to Be Visited
There are still dozens of large cities that have not yet seen missionaries, to say nothing of the numerous small villages that dot the country. The challenge, of course, is the staggering distances spanning each of these locations. For example, if one were to take a map of the recently discontinued Moscow West Mission and superimpose it over a United States map (with mission headquarters in Salt Lake City), it would roughly be equivalent to having mission branches in the Cayman Islands, New York City, Sacramento, Wyoming, St. George, and more.
All of the missions occasionally get requests from someone who has discovered the Church on the Internet but lives far away from established branches. With a growing Internet availability in the more rural areas and the Church’s electronic presence becoming more established, the requests will no doubt continue to increase.
After 20 years of being in Russia, the Church now has in place a firm foundation for future growth, and the new translation of the Book of Mormon released in 2012 portends a flood of new Saints in the not-too-distant future.
As the work now unfolds, perhaps the meaning of the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith about this “vast empire,” to which “is attached some of the most important things concerning the advancement and building up of the kingdom of God in the last days,” will begin to be revealed.
© LDS Living, July/August 2012.