Marina Mikhailovskaya and Benjamin Gaines, “Putting Family First in Ukraine,” Ensign, Sep 2004, 46
Saints in Kharkov, Ukraine, work to strengthen their families despite many obstacles.
On the morning of 19 August 1991, families in Ukraine woke up to startling news: The government they had lived under for nearly 70 years had suddenly ceased to exist. In an instant, life changed forever.
Dmitry Mikulin from Kharkov, Ukraine, remembers well both that morning and the disorienting days that followed. “We went to sleep in one country and woke up in another,” he says. “Almost immediately, people began to experience real freedom in many facets of life.”
Many viewed the freedom to believe in God as a great blessing. Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles dedicated the land of Ukraine for the preaching of the restored gospel on 12 September 1991. A year later missionaries first came to Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city. And in January 1993, a branch was organized in the residential Alekseyevka area of town.
In his dedicatory prayer, Elder Packer asked “that the people [in Ukraine] will be blessed with food and clothing and shelter.” Obtaining these necessities has been a challenge for most citizens of Ukraine. Many have had to work long hours at the expense of family time. For others, the opportunity to grow rich through privatization of business has provided a distraction from home life. In addition, Ukraine has one of the highest divorce rates in the world, the number of out-of-wedlock births is increasing, and more couples are choosing to have one child or to remain childless. Somehow, for many citizens of Ukraine, the family has seemed to lose much of its significance.
But Latter-day Saints in Kharkov say the Church has helped restore their faith in the family. Dmitry, a returned missionary who recently moved from Kharkov to Moscow and now serves as second counselor in the Russia Moscow South Mission presidency, is one of these valiant Saints. He was sealed to his mother and father in the Freiberg Germany Temple in April 2000 and to his wife, Viktoriya, in the Stockholm Sweden Temple in August 2003.
“When we heard of the restored gospel, it gave us hope, a strong foundation, and faith in eternal life for our family,” he says. “Those problems that once seemed important became insignificant. Priorities in the family changed; values and the feelings of confidence and protection appeared.”
Dmitry’s father, Sergey, is currently Kharkov district president. He adds, “Our Church is the only place where people learn the truth about the family.”
Because of this fact, members of the Alekseyevka Branch are committed to building on eternal principles to strengthen families, not just their own but also other families who are striving to be in the world but not of the world (see John 17:11–14). The “family first” attitude has helped many here to achieve happiness in home life despite those distractions inherent in modern Ukraine. For Saints in Alekseyevka, the family and eternal goals permeate everything they do.
Stand Ye in Holy Places
Vitaly Yemtsov served in the Soviet army on the East German side of the Berlin Wall in 1988. “I had a normal childhood,” Brother Yemtsov says, “but when I lived in Germany, I saw how families suffered under a foreign government. I felt bad for them. Soldiers often treated them harshly. After that experience, I wanted to have a better family life than those I saw, better even than the family in which I grew up.”
After his service in the army, Vitaly Yemtsov and a childhood friend became dissatisfied with the spiritual emptiness they felt and dedicated themselves to finding the truth. Both quickly accepted the restored gospel just months after the Church was introduced in Kharkov. “When I met the missionaries, I finally found spiritual food, especially for the family,” he says. “I found what is lacking all around us.”
However, faith does not free Brother Yemtsov and his wife, Lyudmila, from the family-threatening pressures and challenges of life. Within 18 months, both left well-paying jobs that required too much sacrifice of family time. Both found new jobs offering comparable salaries. Even so, everyday life often makes it difficult to focus on the family. Brother Yemtsov works nine hours a day, six days a week painting and repairing cars. Sister Yemtsova until recently worked as a warehouse manager. She now works at a care center for the elderly. In addition, Vitaly serves as branch president and as an institute teacher, and Lyudmila is district Young Women president.
Like others in their country, the Yemtsovs continually face challenges stemming from influences that subtly work against the family. Brother Yemtsov often feels isolated at work as the only employee who neither smokes nor drinks. “Everyone was surprised when I told them that I don’t do any of that,” he says. “Some considered me crazy in the beginning. Most respect me for it though.”
Alcoholism is a serious problem in Ukraine; some people do not know anyone who does not drink. Smoking is almost as widespread, especially among youth. Pornographic images are visible on advertisements and are for sale on almost any street corner.
“There is temptation everywhere,” says Sister Yemtsova. “Satan works diligently here. But the Spirit works diligently too. We find that it is not just how much time we spend together as a family but also what we do during that time that is important. And we make it a priority to do things that strengthen our bond.” For example, they say that family prayer and scripture study have become crucial, daily reminders of the importance of family happiness.
“The Lord said, ‘Stand ye in holy places,’ ” says Brother Yemtsov (D&C 87:8). “We try to make our home our own holy place so time spent together here will bring us closer.”
Choosing What Is Important
If he so chose, Aleksandr Chervyakov could have it all materially. Nine years ago he founded his own food technology company. Clients come from all over Ukraine and even Russia to take advantage of his firm’s services. “Without the Church, I could have easily become one of those people who works all the time and earns more than enough money but lacks the blessings of a loving eternal family,” Brother Chervyakov admits.
Fortunately, when two young missionaries asked if he would like to know more about Jesus Christ, he said yes. He and his wife, Lyudmila, and daughter, Inna, were baptized in 1995. Since then he has reduced his time at work so that he can nurture relationships within his family as well as serve in the Church. He has been the branch president and is currently second counselor in the branch presidency. The Chervyakovs were sealed in the temple in August 1997.
“One thing that has helped us keep our priorities in order has been family home evening,” says Aleksandr. “It’s so easy to forget what is truly important. Monday nights provide a great opportunity to forget about everything that is not important and to concentrate on our family.”
He says of their family home evening activities: “We always read from the scriptures or from the Liahona. If there are any family-related issues, we discuss them. Right now the question is, Which university will Inna enter when she graduates next year? We have been discussing that a lot lately. And we have fun. I think it’s a great secret of life that being with one’s family is fun. Sometimes we even dance.”
Sharing the Truth
President Gordon B. Hinckley has said: “We believe that the family is the basic unit of society. You can’t have a strong community without strong families. You can’t have a strong nation without strong families—the father, the mother, the children as one unit working together. Now the family is falling apart all over America, all over the world. If we can just cultivate good, wholesome family life among our members, I don’t worry very much about the future of this Church.” 1
Unfortunately, many families are struggling. However, there is tremendous hope because of the dedication of the Saints. Few people in Ukraine know the eternal principles that lead to happiness in the family, but the number is growing. As members live these teachings, their friends and family notice. Opportunities are abundant to share the peace members experience at home because of their diligence in establishing a house of God.
President Hinckley noted: “If we live the gospel, people will come into the Church. They will see the virtue of our lives, and they will be attracted to the message we have to teach. That message places great emphasis on the family.” 2 And it is a message the Saints in Kharkov have embraced.
[photos] Photography by Christina Smith and Benjamin Gaines
[photos] Left to right: the Mikulin, Chervyakov, and Yemtsov families are helping to make family a priority in Ukraine.
[photo] The Alekseyevka Branch
1. From an interview with Ignacio Carrión, El País, 7 Nov. 1997; quoted in “Family Home Evening,” Liahona and Ensign, Mar. 2003, 5.