Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s political doctrine of glasnost, or “openness,” is beginning to stir long-held hopes for change among the citizens of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Among these changes is the easing of restrictions against foreign travel.
Those changes combine to bring Valteri Rotsa from Tallinn in his native Estonia to visit relatives in Finland. While there, he encounters missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is baptized. Before Valteri returns home, President Steven Mecham of the Finland Helsinki Mission assures him that in due course he will visit Valteri in Estonia. Anticipating that day, Valteri wastes no time telling his friends and relatives of his new faith. 1 At about the same time, Yuri, Liudmila, and Anna Terebenin are baptized in Budapest, Hungary, while on vacation there. Upon their return home to St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad), they, too, tell their friends of the restored gospel.
Meanwhile, in Italy, eighteen-year-old Olga Smolyanova from Moscow is visiting friends. One of them is a Church member who introduces her to the missionaries. Soon after her baptism she returns home. As she crosses the border, she cries, anticipating an uncertain future in a land where the Church has no official presence. Yet she resolves that no matter what obstacle she encounters, she will not renounce her testimony. 2
From such small seeds, the gospel has taken root in Soviet soil. What follows is a chronology of the gospel’s growth during its first year in the USSR.
Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve and European Area President Hans B. Ringger meet with the chairman of the Soviet Council on Religious Affairs to discuss the possibility of official recognition for the Church. They are told that recognition is possible if a minimum of twenty Soviet citizens living in the same political district petition for it. The challenge is to convert twenty people where it is not yet possible to preach.
Interested individuals begin to cross the border into Finland to join the Church. Some have heard of the gospel from friends, others from Church members in the Soviet Union on non-Church business.
This same month, President Dennis B. Neuenschwander of the Austria Vienna East Mission enters the Soviet Union on a fact-finding mission. President Neuenschwander speaks Russian. In St. Petersburg, he finds the Terebenin family firm in the gospel, with a growing circle of interested friends. He also visits Olga Smolyanova and members of the Church serving in the United States Embassy in Moscow. One of the embassy members is Dohn Thornton, and President Neuenschwander counsels the group to begin holding meetings in Dohn’s apartment so the Russians can worship with them. 3 Olga is no longer alone.
The European mission presidents meet in Budapest, the first time in fifty-seven years that such a meeting can be held in eastern Europe. Elder Nelson and Elder Ringger tell presidents Neuenschwander and Mecham that it is time to move the work forward in the Soviet Union. They promise that this decision will be accompanied by unmistakable physical manifestations. 4 The next month, the Berlin Wall (left) comes down.
President Mecham appoints Jussi Kemppainen, a counselor in the mission presidency, to help Finnish members visiting the Soviet Union share the gospel with groups waiting in Tallinn, St. Petersburg, and Vyborg. The first week of December, President Mecham himself visits St. Petersburg with his wife, Donna. In his hotel room, he convenes the first officially sanctioned sacrament meeting in Russia.
On December 8, Elder David Reagan (pictured below, at right, with Elder Bill McKane) and Elder Kevin Dexter become the first full-time proselyting missionaries to enter the Soviet Union. With them are President Kemppainen and President and Sister Mecham. They arrive in Tallinn, Estonia, fulfilling President Mecham’s promise to Valteri Rotsa. They stay for the weekend, teach, and hold sabbath meetings.
On December 16 Elder Reagan and native Finnish missionary Harri Aho come to Tallinn. The next day they baptize four young Estonians in a hotel sauna. These four (Alari Allik, Jana Lass, Kristi Lass, and Eva Riesalu) become the first converts to be baptized in the republic of Estonia—and thus inside the Soviet Union.
On January 5, Elders Dexter and Aho baptize Jaanus Silla and Urmas Raavik. A year and a month later, Jaanus will be called to serve in the Utah Salt Lake City South Mission. He will be the first missionary to leave the Soviet Union for service abroad.
In January, LDS missionaries enter the republic of Russia for the first time. On January 13 President Kemppainen takes Elder Reagan to St. Petersburg. They hold several large group discussions during the weekend. At the end of January, Elders Reagan and Dexter return to proselyte for two weeks.
Anton Skripko is baptized on February 3. He is the first to receive the ordinance in Russia since before the Revolution of 1917. At the end of February, missionaries hold a meeting for about thirty interested people in the local library at Vyborg. More missionaries return the next month and begin to assist in building the Vyborg Branch. 5
On the first Sunday in February, President Neuenschwander visits the branch in Moscow. It is the first service at which the Russians outnumber the Americans. At the fast and testimony meeting, Galina Goncharova, not a Latter-day Saint, tells how her life has changed since hearing of the Church. She will later become the first to accept baptism in Moscow.
Elder Russell M. Nelson visits Estonia and Russia to assist in obtaining legal recognition for the Church. (See photo at right.) The groundwork has been laid by Presidents Mecham and Kemppainen, who have developed a friendship with the Estonian Minister of Religion, Ants Limmets. Mr. Limmets has promised to walk the needed papers through the government bureaucracy. 6
While in the USSR, Elder Nelson dedicates Estonia and Russia for missionary work. Estonia is dedicated at Laululava, a natural amphitheater that is the site of a national folk song festival held every five years. Some Estonians say the soul of their country resides there.
At St. Petersburg, Elder Nelson chooses to dedicate Russia at the Summer Garden, the site of a previous dedicatory prayer offered in 1903 by Elder Francis M. Lyman of the Quorum of the Twelve. The garden is closed to them until the Spirit intervenes and a guard allows them in. 7 That same day, Elder Nelson and President Mecham submit papers requesting official recognition for the Church in St. Petersburg. Soon after his visit, Estonia grants official recognition to the Church.
The Finland Helsinki East Mission is created. Gary L. Browning, a professor of Russian at Brigham Young University, is called as president. The mission consists of more than a hundred members in branches at Tallinn, Vyborg, St. Petersburg, Moscow, and a few other scattered locations.
Effective September 13, Russia extends official recognition to the St. Petersburg Branch (left).
On October 1, the Soviet parliament officially ends state persecution of organized religion by approving a law guaranteeing freedom of worship throughout the nation. During October, President Browning sends missionaries to labor in Moscow and Kiev, broadly extending the work throughout the Soviet Union. Only a year has passed since the European mission presidents’ conference. The curtain is finally open for passage of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
Transcript of address by Steven R. Mecham delivered to Church Educational System employees, 10 Apr. 1991, p. 2; copy in possession of author.
Dohn Thornton, “The Beginnings of the Moscow Branch,” p. 5, typescript in possession of author.
Thornton, “Moscow Branch,” p. 3.
Steven R. Mecham, interview by author 24 May 1991, Salt Lake City, Utah.
Missionaries, serving here and elsewhere in early 1990, included Elders John Webster, Don Leavitt, Bert Dover, Kurt Wood, William McKane, Ivan Stratov, Richard Wells, Eric Thorley, and Clarence Dillon, and Sisters Heidi Moffett and Stefanie Condie. The visas issued the missionaries at first lasted for only a few days, but the length soon increased to weeks until by the end of 1990 the visas were for several months. Soviet officials were aware that the missionaries would hold meetings and proselyte on a referral basis only. President Mecham carefully laid the groundwork so everything would be done openly and legally. The missionaries were watched closely; Soviet intelligence agents came to LDS meetings, tapped phone lines, and kept President Mecham under surveillance.
Mecham address, p. 6.
Mecham address, p. 8. The guard was unmoved until President Mecham touched his shoulder, saying, “I need your help. We must enter.” The guard’s disposition changed. He asked, “Who are you? I felt something when you touched me.”