The Gospel in the Soviet Union

“There is no God.” This message was given to an entire generation in Eastern Europe. It came in absolute terms from teachers, government leaders, and even parents. Since atheism was the official doctrine in parts of Europe for nearly half a century, some have wondered how people living in the Soviet Union and other such places would respond if they were to hear the restored gospel.

Recent changes there have provided just such an opportunity. For the faithful everywhere, prayers are being answered on a large scale—and new religious freedoms are suddenly being extended to millions of people. Yet how will they receive the good news of the gospel?

“They are ready,” declares Aimo Jäkkö, of the Lappeenranta Ward, Helsinki Finland Stake, near the Soviet border. Aimo and his wife, Nellie, have been closely connected with the beginnings of missionary work inside the Soviet Union, and they are optimistic that Soviets will accept the gospel.

The Finland Connection

Aimo is a Finnish loom maker, and Nellie is an international table-tennis champion. They have five children.

“For years, Aimo and I had attempted to be good missionaries among our own countrymen,” begins Nellie, who is originally from Holland. “But we had not been successful.

“Then in August 1989, we hd a chance to do one of our favorite things—take a canoe trip—with three Russian families through the forests of east Karelia. One of the families, the Semeonovs, became interested in our views of life as we talked by the fire at night. We became very close friends in a short time. The father, Andrei, an outgoing man in his mid-twenties, was especially interested in the spiritual and family values we shared. He wanted us to meet his brother, Pavel, who lives in Leningrad, so we could share these same values with him.

“As we got better acquainted,” Nellie continues, “we learned that both Andrei and Pavel are physicians. Both are intellectuals who have searched earnestly for truth and understanding. Andrei was eager to see us again. So a few months after the canoe trip, we invited Andrei and Pavel and their wives to visit us in Finland.”

Andrei, who is now president of the Viborg Branch, recalls the get-together as “Unforgettable! Before meeting the Jäkkös, I had been acquainted with the gospel of Jesus Christ only by movies, television, and a few visits to Russian Orthodox churches. We had been taught that Communism is the only just society. But since 1984, with the coming of President Mikhail Gorbachev, I had started to look around. And now, I had found what I was looking for.

“In Lapeenranta, I met with Elder Bert Dover and Elder John Webster,” continues Andrei, “and I felt the Spirit so strongly. It was a real breakthrough for me. I went home and began studying the Book of Mormon, which convinced me that no man could have done this work. It was of God.”

In March 1990, Andrei was baptized. In August, he baptized his wife, Marina, in the icy waters of the Baltic Sea. Pavel and his family have also been baptized in Leningrad and have been part of the growth of that branch. Pavel tells how his whole practice of medicine has changed since discovering God and the sacred nature of human life. Andrei, likewise, explains that he is grateful for the new strength he feels since he realized that his life is linked with God.

“When I first heard the Latter-day Saint doctrines, I was afraid,” Andrei says. “The standards seemed too high, too impossible to live. Since then I’ve learned that there is a Source of strength to live this way. Somehow, I had been prepared to receive the gospel when it came to me.”

The Hungary Connection

Like the Semeonovs, other Soviets have learned of the restored gospel through friends outside the country. Among the earliest to be baptized were Yuri Terebinen and his wife, Ludmilla, of Leningrad. They joined the Church in the fall of 1989 in Hungary while visiting with friends. “We went to church with them,” says Yuri, “and felt something different in the people’s relationship with God and with each other. It seemed right that we should be free to communicate directly with God for ourselves, rather than through professional clergy. You are taught, and you teach; this brings you closer to God.

“For me, the rituals and language of other churches I had visited often came between me and God. Here, I felt intimately connected with Him, which made me also feel closer to people.”

When the Terebinens returned to Leningrad after being baptized, they relied on friends in Helsinki to put them in touch with the Finnish mission president, who at the time was Steven Mecham. President Mecham and his counselor Yusi Kempainen had already been visiting with members in Viborg and Tallinn. They visited with the Terebinens and other members in Leningrad. By December 1989, small branches of the Church were established in those three cities.

Yuri became the first branch president in Leningrad. Since then, the branch has been divided into two, with a total of over 160 members. There is now also a branch in Moscow.

Behind the Scenes

For centuries, Christianity flourished in Russia. Cathedrals of the Russian Orthodox Church are among the most colorful and striking of the country’s architecture, and faith in God was strong among its people. In those days, Leningrad was still St. Petersburg, or Petrograd. But for the past forty-five years, the beautiful churches, with their shiny gold cupolas, icons, and fine art, have been used very little for worship. Many of the structures were converted to museums or skating rinks or were used for storage.

Latter-day Saints have prayed for years that the restored gospel could be taken to all nations of the world. So, although glasnost, the new openness, may seem to be the cause of the religious revival, it is more likely evidence that the hand of the Lord has been moving quietly behind the scenes of mortal events.

On 6 August 1903, Elder Francis M. Lyman of the Quorum of the Twelve knelt in the Summer Gardens in Leningrad and dedicated Russia for the preaching of the gospel. Again in April 1989, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve knelt beneath the rows of tall linden and oak trees in that same beautiful garden and prayed for the Lord’s blessings on the Soviet Union. Elder Nelson and Elder Hans B. Ringger, a member of the Seventy and president of the Europe Area Presidency, continued to meet with officials of the Russian Republic to bring about official recognition of the Church.

Since spring 1990, even before the Finland Helsinki East Mission opened, missionaries were allowed into the USSR on short-term visitors’ visas. Now mission president Gary L. Browning, a professor of Slavic languages at Brigham Young University, directs the work of more than twenty Russian-speaking missionaries from his office in Helsinki, almost five hundred kilometers to the north, making trips as necessary to the branches in Leningrad, Tallinn, Viborg, and Moscow.

On 19 September 1990, Evgenii V. Chernetsov of the Council on Religious Affairs of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union informed Elder Ringger that the Council had approved registration of the Leningrad Branch. Although each congregation must be registered individually with the republic, it is expected that future registrations of Church units will be routine.

The Leningrad Branch

On the day I visited the Leningrad Branch (before its recent division), two recently baptized young women shared moving testimonies. Then President Browning spoke, saying that the Church has become a worldwide Church, with leaders from many nations. “The Church in Russia is a child,” he said, “but this child is growing rapidly. It is still young and learning. You have expressed faith; now you must add knowledge to your faith. Faith without knowledge leads to fanaticism, and knowledge without faith is cold. Jesus Christ has shown us by his example that his love comes from faith balanced with knowledge.”

Inside the little theater that serves as a chapel in Leningrad, the members and visitors shared a vibrant warmth that characterizes Latter-day Saint gatherings anywhere. Vigorous handshakes, arms around shoulders, hugs, and verbal expressions of love almost seemed to illuminate the dusky hall.

After the meeting, several students shared how they heard about the Church from Pavel Agafonov.

Pavel learned of the Church in March 1990, while studying engineering and psychology in the United States. Previously, he had visited many other churches, asking hard questions. “None of the churches I visited could answer the questions I had,” explains Pavel. “I wanted a real church, one that knows God today.”

He was baptized in April 1990, then began bringing his friends. Since then, his two roommates, Andrei Chromovskich, another engineering and psychology major, and Vladimir Shestakov, a semi-professional basketball player and athletics major, have both joined the Church. Another friend of Pavel’s named Valeri Pomazanov, who studies at the institute of teachers, has also joined the Church. These young men agree that there is no other place where they’ve found as much closeness, both emotionally and spiritually, as they’ve found in the Church.

Twelve-year-old Roman Batin was one of the first to be ordained a deacon in the Leningrad Branch. At school, he tells his friends about his American friends—the missionaries. He says they are “young men of very high character, and I want to grow up to be like them.”

Elena Stolyar, age twenty-six, works in a children’s culture center and is pursuing a degree in electrical engineering. What appealed to her about the gospel? “I like that it’s not easy and that much is expected of us. My life is being shaped by the new values, new friends, and new hopes that I’ve gained.”

As soon as Liliya Chuprova attended Relief Society, she “knew at once that this is what I’d been looking for all my life. I have come every Sunday and brought my children.” She and her daughter, Alexandria, who is nine, were baptized in August 1990. Liliya is divorced, rearing two daughters and helping her own mother.

While some of these Soviet Latter-day Saints learned of the restored gospel from connections outside their country, most of the growth of the Church in the USSR has come from members telling their friends about the gospel. At branch meetings in Viborg, Leningrad, and Tallinn, members are often outnumbered by their visiting friends.

Like most Soviets, these Church members had been taught from their infancy that there is no God. Imagine their joy to discover for themselves the “good news”—the very meaning of the word gospel—that God not only exists, but that, as Andrei says, “He loves us enough to speak to us through a prophet and to send his servants, the missionaries.”

“My life has changed 360 degrees,” Andrei adds. “I’m going the same direction now—but with a complete turn in my thinking and feeling. This knowledge of the gospel and the hope it brings has changed my life and will change life for my countrymen who are ready for it.”

[photos] Photography by Giles H. Florence, Jr.

[photos] Above: A new generation of Latter-day Saints—Primary children in the Leningrad Branch. Opposite: Nellie and Aimo Jäkkö are typical of the Finnish Saints who have helped introduce the gospel to the Soviets. With them on her baptismal day is Irene Maximova, center, of Leningrad.

[photos] Opposite: Attending church with Latter-day Saint friends, Yuri and Ludmilla Terebinen felt “intimately connected with God.” Top: Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum houses some 2.5 million pieces of art. Bottom: Tamara Efimov heard about the Church through friends and then introduced the gospel to her mother, Galina, left, her brother, Pieter, and her father, Viachaslav, who currently serves as president of the Leningrad First Branch.

[photos] Above: For the past forty-five years, cathedrals in the Soviet Union, like this one in Leningrad, have been used as museums, skating rinks, or storehouses. Opposite: Twenty-three-year-old Valeri Pomazanov of Leningrad, discovered that the Church offered a “way of life that I was searching for.” He is studying to be a teacher “so that I can help the next generation.”

[photos] Top: With changing times in the Soviet Union, renovation is under way to restore many beautiful cathedrals and churches to their original purpose. Bottom: Leningrad University student Pavel Agafonov, left, first heard of the Church while studying in the United States. Following his baptism, he introduced the gospel to his fellow students. His roommates, Vladimir Shestakov and Andrei Chromovskich, joined the Church.

Giles H. Florence, Jr., is an associate editor of the Ensign magazine.