St. Petersburg, Russia, is a city so far north that it spends much of the year in darkness. Winters are long and cold. Even the rivers freeze. The sun seems distant. It rises late and shines for only a few hours. Then, almost miraculously, warm weather returns. As if to make up for its own absence, sunshine lingers nearly 24 hours a day. Long after midnight, it’s still bright enough to see. It is the season of the white nights.
For a while when he was 14, Aleksey Kulikov was a man without a country.
Though his mother was from St. Petersburg, she had taken work in Nuremberg, Germany. While there, she and Aleksey met the missionaries, studied the gospel, were baptized, and became active Latter-day Saints.
Now they had to leave Germany. The government said noncitizens on work visas must return to their homelands. To make matters worse, Aleksey and his mother were told their papers were no longer valid in Russia.
“Officially,” Aleksey explains, “we had no citizenship anywhere.”
Things seemed pretty dark, but Aleksey and his mother knew about faith.
“I remembered what the missionaries taught me,” Aleksey says. “If you have problems, then pray about them. So we asked Heavenly Father to bless us.”
From then on, the trip became easier. “We found out we did have Russian citizenship. When officials found out we were carrying all we owned, they waived the luggage restriction. At the Lithuanian border, some kind soldiers took pity on us and kept us from being forced off the train. They even called ahead to the next border and asked them to let us pass. So we came without trouble to St. Petersburg.”
After six years, they were home. But what would the city be like, now that the Soviet Union was gone? What would the Church be like, compared with their wonderful friends in Nuremberg?
“We were delighted with what we found,” Aleksey remembers. “The city had a happier feeling. Some beautiful buildings were being renovated. But best of all, we found there is a new dawn of the Church in St. Petersburg. We knew the gospel had been restored, but now we know it’s been restored here too.”
Aleksey is now 17, a member of the Nevsky Branch. His greatest desire is to serve a full-time mission, “perhaps in Germany.” But it doesn’t matter where he’s called. “I know there’s gospel light to share wherever you go,” he says.
Sasha Strachova tells a story of her own about finding the light. When she was 13 years old, she began to feel a yearning to know God. She prayed for months. Then one day two LDS missionaries spoke in her school class. They quoted 2 Nephi 2:25 [2 Ne. 2:25]: “Men are, that they might have joy.”
“I felt they knew how we could be happy,” she remembers. Her mother granted Sasha permission to attend a Church meeting.
“I felt love there,” Sasha says. “I felt life in the people. I wanted to feel what they were feeling.”
To convince her mother to let the missionaries teach them a lesson, Sasha washed the floors every day for a month. And when the missionaries arrived, they were surprised to find the apartment crowded with teenagers. Sasha had invited her entire school class! Three months later, with parental approval, she and two of her friends were baptized.
But there was a time of darkness, a time when her light was in danger of being extinguished. Sasha had trained from an early age to become a professional dancer. Several months after her baptism, she was accepted in a modern-dance company. Most of the other dancers were adults. None were LDS and none lived Church standards.
The company started preparing for a tour in Switzerland. “Every day I danced for about eight hours,” she says. It was the chance of a lifetime, but her devotion to dancing was taking her dangerously far from her mother, her schoolwork, and the Church.
Fortunately, the mother of an LDS friend said, “Sasha, stop! Do you think you can remain clean in that environment? Those people don’t keep the Word of Wisdom or the law of chastity. Do you think the Holy Ghost can remain with you?”
“I suddenly realized I was surrounded by a spiritual darkness,” Sasha says. She and her friend fell to their knees. “After our prayer, there seemed to be a light around us. I knew I must leave the dance group.”
And she did, even though it was hard.
Today, Sasha is 20 years old, a member of the Kupchino Branch. She has served in Young Women and been a branch Relief Society president. She has brought many people into the Church. But she still remembers her choice between darkness and light, and the joy she felt when she turned to the gospel.
The center of St. Petersburg, crisscrossed by canals, is full of palaces, monuments, statues, churches, gardens, and museums. For seminary students from the Obukhovskii Branch, it seemed a perfect place to talk about their love of seminary, their love for the scriptures, and their love for their city.
Julia Shaikhulina reminisces about returning from a trip to the Stockholm (Sweden) Temple. “I wondered how I’d feel coming home, since going to the temple is such a wonderful experience. But it was autumn, and as our bus drove across the city, the trees and the buildings were bathed in a golden light. It made all of the buildings look beautiful. And I said to myself, I know that I love my city. It made me feel like I wanted to share the gospel with everyone.”
Sarkis Oganesjan says that one way to prepare for such sharing is to attend seminary. “In seminary we receive a lot of answers to our questions about this life,” he says. His sister, Kristina, talks about examples in the Book of Mormon. Alexandra (Sasha) Shevchuk joins in, saying that obedience brings blessings. She uses the story of Alma the Younger to make her point. Katia Maksimova talks about how trials can make a person stronger. But it is Julia who sums up what it means to be a young Latter-day Saint in St. Petersburg.
“We believe in Jesus Christ, and we know that Heavenly Father hears us every time we pray,” she says. “We should share our testimony with everyone, so they can feel Christ in their hearts, too.”
That’s what happened with Joseph Smith. He prayed to Heavenly Father, and the Father and the Son appeared to him in a pillar of light. That brought a light to the world that was stronger than the noonday sun, a light that will keep growing and spreading until it fills all the earth.
Here in St. Petersburg, far to the north, when the white nights are over, that light will still burn bright.