Kiev, Ukraine, is a city of survivors. Since prehistoric times, people have lived on the broad plain south of Russia, on the hills where the Dnepr and the Desna Rivers meet. Since A.D. 600, the City of the Golden Gate has been prominent and then destroyed, in ruin and then rebuilt. It has been invaded and invaded again, but has outlasted Mongols, Tsars, Nazis, and Soviets, always re-emerging with its identity intact.
No wonder Ukrainians think of themselves as people you can count on. They have often had no one to rely on but themselves. This independent spirit is evident today in the lives of four young Aaronic Priesthood holders who live in or near Kiev. But there’s a humility, too. You can count on Ukraine, they’ll tell you, and you can count on us. But you’d also better count on the Lord.
Life was rough for Viktor Russo. As a boy he was scrawny. Other boys beat him up. Out of resentment, he made a mistake. He joined a gang when he was 15. “I wanted the others to be afraid of me,” he says, looking back.
And that’s what started to happen. He became one of the “bandits,” as he calls them. But before he got in too deep, he discovered the Church. His aunt, a Latter-day Saint, invited Viktor and his mother to attend Sunday meetings.
“Right from the opening prayer there were tears in my eyes,” Viktor explains. “They didn’t just recite words. They spoke with their Father in Heaven. I felt a great love overpowering me, an understanding that I also have a Father in Heaven who loves me.” Viktor was so impressed that he continued to attend. And he began discussions with the missionaries.
“I had always wanted to know if there really is a God,” he says. “So I prayed, ‘Please tell me if what I am learning is true.’ The same powerful feeling I had during sacrament meeting surrounded me again.”
He was particularly impressed as he learned about the priesthood. “I felt this love among the men, something I had never felt in the gang. Then during one of the missionary discussions I remember thinking, ‘I can’t be in a gang and serve God, too.’ From then on, I tried not to meet with my old associates. I tried to be only with good people.”
And what happened was remarkable.
“I was amazed. Some of my former ‘friends’ teased and taunted me, but most of them just said, ‘All right then, go. We’ll leave you alone.’” Enemies didn’t retaliate. True friends took an interest in his new religion. Some of them even met with the missionaries, but Viktor is the only one so far to be baptized.
“I had a lot to repent of first,” he acknowledges. “But I knew it was the right thing to do.”
Today Viktor is 17. He’s been a Latter-day Saint for almost two years. He spends his time with other Aaronic Priesthood holders, helps with the sacrament, and goes home teaching. He looks forward to a full-time mission and foresees the day when there will be a temple in Ukraine. Day after day you’ll find him with the elders when they’re teaching. “I like to share my testimony of Jesus Christ,” he says. “I like to tell people they need to believe in Him.”
You can’t think of Nikolas without thinking of Sergey. And you can’t think of Sergey without thinking of Nik. These brothers, whose last name is Chemezov, have become closer and closer since their family joined the Church in 1992.
Of course, like all brothers they have similarities and differences. Sergey is 20, Nik, 12; but Nik is the taller of the two. Nik is quiet; Sergey is bolder. Both are athletic, lift weights, and love helicopters. Both are musicians, though Nik plays piano and Sergey violin. Both love the gospel and all it stands for. And both are fiercely loyal to each other and to their parents, Sergey Sr. and Valia.
That loyalty was tested when Valia and the boys returned from an extended visit with her parents and found that Sergey Sr. was investigating the Church. But he persuaded them to listen to the missionaries, to learn what he was learning, and to give it a fair chance.
“I can say the gospel saved our family,” Sergey (the son) says. “I decided to be baptized because of the example of my father. I saw a very big change in him when he joined the Church. He became so nice, so loving. It was a testimony for me.”
“Before,” Sister Chemezov explains, “the family didn’t come first. But now we understand we are an eternal family, and we appreciate one another on a whole new level.”
“I used to always think I was the big brother, so I always had to lead the way,” Sergey says. “But now when I stand next to Nik, I see that he is taller than I am. I know that sometimes he teaches me, that when I need help I can count on him.”
Nik has not only been there for Sergey but for his parents as well. “From the time he was baptized, he’s been saying, ‘I want to pass the sacrament; when can I start?’” Brother Chemezov explains. “That kind of excitement has strengthened our own testimonies and our faith. Helping other people and helping his family—Nik understands that’s what the priesthood is all about. He was very happy when he turned 12 and I ordained him a deacon.”
Nik was also happy when the family was sealed in the Freiberg Temple in Germany.
“After finishing the sessions, we had free time,” Brother Chemezov says. “Other people went to the city and went shopping. I asked the family, ‘Do you want to go to the city?’ and Nik said of the temple, ‘This place is so good; I don’t want to go to another place.’”
“The priesthood has the highest position in my life,” Nik says. “It helps me live as Jesus Christ says we should. I know if we will honor it, God will help us and make us better.”
That’s a reminder Sergey thinks of every day. “I am going to serve a mission, but it’s hard to work out the details with the military service required here. Sometimes I get discouraged, but then Nik reminds me I should just do what’s right. It’s great to have a brother who can keep me straight.”
Thirteen-year-old Vetaley Kurnosov lives in a fairly isolated place. His home is in Chernigov, a little more than 100 miles north of Kiev, and about 75 miles east of the nuclear disaster site at Chernobyl. Because the roads are rough, Chernigov is about three and a half hours by bus from Kiev. The trip takes even longer by train.
Though Chernigov is a fair-sized town, many of the streets are unpaved. Houses are built of cinder block, capped with tin roofs. The blocks are left without stucco. A rural atmosphere prevails. Most people have some land and grow some crops. Ducks and other animals wander down the lanes.
There is a branch of the Church in Chernigov, and full-time missionaries are just beginning work in the area. For now the members meet in a family’s home. Besides that family, Vetaley, his mother, and his grandmother attend Sunday services with elders, investigators, and visitors, including a missionary couple that travels up every other week from Kiev.
“I’m the only deacon,” Vetaley explains. “My main duty is to pass the sacrament.”
But if he could, he’d preach the gospel to the whole world. “I’d tell them that this Church is true. I believe in it 100 percent and even more. I’d tell them how it felt so right when I was baptized and how everything in my life seems better because of the Church. I’d tell them how prayer has helped me to change my study habits and do better in school. I’d say that I feel perfected by reading the scriptures. I would invite them to join the Church, because we have to have faith in somebody, and Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ are the ones to rely on. We can trust in Them completely, and They will give us more than we ever need.”
Unfortunately, such an “O-that-I-were-an-angel” attitude (see Alma 29:1) has not yet convinced his non-LDS friends. “They just don’t pay much attention,” Vetaley says. Perhaps that will change, particularly as they watch his example. “That’s the best hope,” he says. “One day the Church will be well established here, and when it is it will be because of us. We are laying the foundation.”
The power of the priesthood is in the lives of these young men from Ukraine. They know that if they remain worthy, they can count on that power. They know they can trust their Heavenly Father, their Savior Jesus Christ, the promptings of the Holy Spirit, the guidance of Church leaders, and the principle of prayer.
Because they know these things and live by them, you can count on these young men to strengthen the Church in their homeland. And that means you can count on Ukraine to be a source of hope and promise for Latter-day Saints for years and years to come.